March 17, 2011 / 11:34 AM / 9 years ago

NATO head views eastern Europe as model for N.Africa

* Rasmussen ‘optimistic’ about North Africa future

* NATO stands ready to assist in Libya

By Gabriela Baczynska

WARSAW, March 17 (Reuters) - The ex-communist states of central Europe can be a role model for nations in North Africa and the Middle East in their fight for democracy and freedom of expression, NATO’s secretary-general said on Thursday.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen also repeated that NATO would intervene militarily in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi’s forces are fast advancing against rebels, only on the basis of a U.N. mandate and strong local support for Western involvement.

“When I look at central and eastern Europe I’m extremely optimistic about the future we can achieve in North Africa,” Rasmussen told a seminar in the Polish capital Warsaw also attended by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and defence ministers from many of NATO’s ex-communist member states.

“Some 20 years ago you managed to change the regime, change borders, move to democracy,” he said, referring to the demise of the region’s Soviet-backed communist regimes in 1989. Poland and other ex-communist states joined NATO in 1999.

On developments in Libya, Rasmussen said: “We stand ready to assist if there is a need and a legal perspective. In the longer term, we also must think of how NATO can assist North African countries in their transition to democracy.”

Divisions in the U.N. Security Council have slowed the international community’s response to the fighting in Libya, though the United States, initially cool on the idea of foreign military intervention, has now raised the possibility of air strikes to halt Gaddafi’s forces.

Poland’s Komorowski drew parallels between the current international uncertainty over how to respond to events in North Africa with the West’s reaction to the 1989 protests.

“At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Poland and other countries won their freedom, there was a surprise, sometimes a difficult surprise for many who did not know how to react,” he said.

Some Western leaders at the time were cool about the prospect of German reunification and also worried about the destabilising impact of the changes sweeping eastern Europe on reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Today we have to think of that first period of transformation we had and to see what could be helpful in solving the situation in North Africa with full respect to all the differences,” Komorowski said. (Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Robert Woodward)

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