ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia and Macedonia expect an invitation to join NATO together with Albania in late 2006 which should pave the way for other Balkan countries to follow, their prime ministers said on Tuesday.
"I expect that toward the end of 2006 we should get an invitation for full-fledged NATO membership," Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader told reporters after meeting his Macedonian counterpart Vlado Buckovski.
Although NATO officials say there needs to be more cooperation from Croatia on finding war criminals, the two former Yugoslav republics have made NATO and European Union entry their strategic goals.
Together with Balkan neighbor Albania they formed "the Adriatic Charter" to boost their chances of joining.
They missed NATO's largest eastward expansion in 2004 when seven other former communist countries were admitted, boosting the number of members to 26.
"Regional cooperation is very important and we rightly expect the invitation in late 2006. That will make things easier for NATO's southern flank and for other countries in the region to eventually join," said Buckovski.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said the key to Croatia's membership chances would be cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague.
"Full cooperation, in particular on the Gotovina case, would seem to be politically important before an invitation can be issued," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said of the fugitive General Ante Gotovina, indicted in 2001 for crimes against humanity during a 1995 offensive against Croatian Serbs.
Croatia insists it has done all it can to find Gotovina but U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte accuses it of not having tried seriously to arrest him.
Alliance sources said Macedonia's case for membership was not helped by reports of irregularities in local polls on Sunday, where monitors cited stolen ballot papers and intimidation.
The former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro have yet to join NATO's Partnership for Peace, the first stage toward possible entry into the alliance.
NATO still has peacekeepers in the U.N.-run province of Kosovo, which formally remains part of Serbia and Montenegro.
Croatia hopes to start EU membership talks in the next few months, depending on its cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, while Macedonia awaits an EU ruling on its application to start membership talks.
Serbia and Bosnia have yet to establish formal links with the 25-nation EU.
Reuters News Service