Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday endorsed the NATO membership aspirations of Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, and said they and other countries like them can "help us rededicate ourselves to the basic and fundamental values of freedom and democracy."
"The Adriatic Charter countries have expressed a desire to fully join the trans-Atlantic community, and we support that," the vice president said as he sat down for talks with leaders of the three nations.
Seated at a diamond-shaped table with Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, Cheney thanked all three for their help in the War on Terror.
"We deeply appreciate the fact that all of you are already engaged alongside NATO and U.S. forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. Albania and Macedonia have small contingents in Iraq.
Cheney spoke as he neared the end of a three-nation trip that placed heavy emphasis on democratic reform in areas that either were part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War or lay in the Kremlin's long shadow.
The vice president and his wife were to fly back to Washington during the day after deciding to return home ahead of schedule. Aides attributed the change in plans to purely personal reasons.
The United States has long encouraged NATO aspirations for Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled two years ago to Tirana for the signing of the Adriatic Charter.
"It's very important both for NATO and the EU to take in new members," Cheney said. "You who aspire to these organizations help rejuvenate it and rededicate ourselves to the basic and fundamental values of freedom and democracy and are a very important part of our collective security."
In his public remarks, Cheney made no mention of any of the controversies on the path toward full membership by later this decade.
Albania and Macedonia have both agreed to demands from the Bush administration to exempt U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the United Nations' International Criminal Court. Croatia, however, has not.
The three leaders with whom Cheney met said they were eager to join NATO and the European Union, international organizations that stand as symbols of democratic strength and stability.
Berisha said Albania stands ready to "pay any price" to achieve membership, which he said was necessary to "leave behind the difficult recent past" in his formerly Communist country.
Cheney's meeting capped a trip in which he met with leaders of more than a dozen countries, most of them in Europe.
He sparked controversy at his first stop, when he said at a conference in Lithuania that Russia had recently cracked down on democratic rights and had used its energy reserves as a former of blackmail over other countries in Europe.
That drew sharply negative reaction, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday also said it won't derail Russia's cooperation with the West.
"We have heard comments like this from the mouths of politicians of a lower rank, but the vice president of the United States probably should have information that in the last 40 years our country has not once — neither the Soviet Union nor Russia — violated a single contract for the supply of oil and gas abroad," Lavrov said in an acerbic statement on the ministry's Web site.
"Obviously this information somehow hasn't been brought to the vice president's attention."
Even so, he said the criticism won't undermine Russia's intention to cooperate with the United States in solving global crises.
Cheney also visited Kazakhstan, an oil rich former Soviet republic, and met privately for far longer than expected with President Nursultan Nazarbayev.