WASHINGTON — Nobody wants to be a wallflower.
So like high-schoolers awaiting prom dates, some Eastern European states are growing increasingly concerned that they will be excluded when the 16-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) opens its doors in 1997 to its first members from the former communist bloc.
Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are widely considered shoo-ins for invitations that will be issued at a summit in Washington next spring or summer. Countries like Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia say they should be included too, and are stepping up political offensives to persuade the United States and its allies to accept them in the opening round.
Such are their concerns at being left behind that they have begun going to bat for each other, with age-old rivals like Hungary and Romania signing agreements pledging to support the other's application to join history's most powerful military alliance.
"Everyone was previously running in their own lane," says Mircea Dan Geoana, Romanian ambassador to the US. "But now that the list of candidates is becoming clearer, there is growing mutual support."
The intensive lobbying by the perceived second-tier states reflects deep concerns that unless they get into NATO in the first round, they might never get another chance to gain the protection of the US-led alliance. They worry that Russian anger or internal bureaucratic turmoil created by the first round will compel the alliance to delay or even cancel further enlargement.
'Gray zone of insecurity'
Such prospects have raised in some second-tier nations apprehensions of being relegated to a "gray zone of insecurity" in which authoritarianism or centuries-old ethnic and territorial feuds could flourish anew. Others worry they will be left defenseless should they confront a resurgence of Russia's historic appetite for territorial expansion.
"Were the international situation one in which we were not being threatened, this need to join NATO would not nearly be as strong," says Estonian Ambassador to the US Toomas Hendrik Ilve, whose country most observers assume won't make the first cut.
Citing what he says are Russian designs on the newly independent Baltic states, Mr. Ilve asserts: "We are nervous."
Mr. Geoana says the Romanian public would consider it "a betrayal by the West" should Romania be excluded and Hungary included in the first round of NATO expansion. Such a development could help re-ignite in Romania the historic animosities with Hungary that a landmark friendship treaty signed in September is designed to extinguish, he warns.
The US has not ignored such concerns. President Clinton insisted in an Oct. 22 speech in Detroit that "NATO's doors will not be closed" after the first-round invitations.
"NATO should remain open to all of Europe's emerging democracies who are ready to shoulder the responsibilities of membership," he asserted.
But US officials concede that more than verbal assurances are required to mollify the former communist states excluded from the first round. Incentives must be offered, these officials say, to ensure that these states remain committed to the difficult Western-style political and economic reforms that the prospect of joining the alliance has encouraged them to pursue.
Unless they are convinced that NATO membership remains open, US officials agree, second-tier countries could step backward into authoritarianism or the kind of irredentist nationalism that set former Yugoslavia ablaze.
These are precisely the trends that NATO enlargement is intended to avert.
Administration officials are refining a number of ideas aimed at keeping second-tier states "engaged" and oriented toward the West. The measures are expected to be considered at NATO's annual summit this December. Chief among them is an expansion of the Partnership for Peace, a military-cooperation initiative created in 1994 as a prerequisite for NATO membership.
US officials also hope to soothe the concerns of states excluded from the first round of expansion by concluding charters embodying special security relationships with Russia and Ukraine. Such agreements, these officials say, should ease concerns that enlargement will drive Russia and Ukraine into a tension-fueling anti-Western alignment.
Prospective second-tier applicants say such steps will help ease their anxieties about missing the opening round of expansion. Still, they remain determined to pursue first-round invitations, their hopes whetted by perceptions that Slovakia, once expected to be among the initial invitees, has lost its place because of back-sliding on democratic reforms.
Some experts say that with Slovakia's bid looking bleaker, Romania and Slovenia appear to have improved prospects.
Both countries have taken massive strides toward democratization and market economies.
In addition, Slovenia, once the smallest republic in former Yugoslavia, argues that its location makes it indispensable as a "bridge" between NATO member Italy and prospective member Hungary. Romania argues that it is ideally positioned as a bridge to NATO's southern flank of Turkey and Greece.
US officials acknowledge that Romania has made considerable progress toward meeting the NATO membership criteria. But some questions persist about Romania's commitment to democratic reforms. Thus US officials say they will be closely monitoring the conduct of national elections due to be held in Romania this weekend.