Eastern European ethnic groups celebrate NATO invitations

By LAURA JOHNSTON, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Flags of the 19 NATO nations hung in a Roman Catholic church gymnasium where several hundred Eastern European immigrants and descendants celebrated the decision to open the alliance to seven additional countries.

Ethnic group leaders carried flags of the Eastern European countries at Thursday's gathering, where immigrants wore clothing of their native countries and people ate traditional food of the seven countries.

NATO issued invitations earlier in the day to the small, ex-communist countries -- Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- during its summit in Prague, the Czech capital. All are expected to join as full members in 2004.

Cleveland resident Florence Unetici, whose parents moved to the United States from Slovenia, lauded the expansion as an assurance of Slovenia's independence.

"Slovenia is a small country. For centuries and centuries and centuries, it was only independent once," she said. "Without NATO, who knows? Someone could come and garbage it up again."

U.S. Senator George Voinovich, R-Ohio, attended the two-day Prague summit and spoke to the Cleveland crowd by phone.

"Historic events took place today. I wish all of you could have been in my pocket. It was absolutely spectacular," Voinovich said.

The additional countries will make NATO a stronger alliance that shares common values of democratic government and market economy, Voinovich said.

David Trachtenberg, a deputy assistant in the U.S. Defense Department, attended the celebration, calling NATO "the world's most successful military defense alliance." The seven countries' joining will help build "a Europe that is whole, free and secure," he said.

Mary and Dusan Marsic, who came to the United States from Slovenia in 1956, wore traditional clothing of their ancestors and carried red carnations, one of the country's symbols. The Marsics, of suburban Eastlake, said joining NATO will give Slovenia international recognition.

"For their future, in my opinion, it is a must," Dusan Marsic said.

Eleven-year-old twins Ramune and Ernesta Burtuskaite, who moved to Cleveland from Lithuania two years ago, said they understand what NATO is and how important the invitation is for the country where many of their friends and relatives still live.

"We were born in Lithuania," Ernesta said.

"And we appreciate Lithuania," Ramune added.

Their mother, Leta Burtuskaite, said she hopes the quality of life for Lithuanians will improve when the country joins NATO.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)