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Baltics step from Russia's shadow into Western club

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But experts warn of considerable risk as NATO launches into a "big bang" expansion that could see seven countries - the trio of ex-Soviet Baltic states plus Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia - integrated into the Alliance within a couple of years. Even the staunchest Latvian backers of the idea admit that while the country's spirit may be ready, its military forces, physical infrastructure, and perhaps even political culture are not. Indeed, news agencies, citing unnamed Pentagon sources, reported last week that the US may be having second thoughts about admitting Latvia into NATO's inner circles due to high levels of corruption in its government and security forces.

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"We could have done much better in fighting corruption," says Grigory Krupnikov, general secretary of the New Era Party, which won the most votes in last month's general elections. He agrees that Latvia's post-Soviet black market, which smuggles oil, gas, and vodka from Russia, and consumer goods from Western Europe, has spawned high levels of official graft. "The new government is committed to cleaning this up," Mr. Krupnikov says. "After the invitation to join NATO, we will have to prove ourselves."

Latvia's conscript Army, built from scratch after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, remains ill-trained and badly equipped by NATO standards.

The new government is committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defense for much of the next decade, but some worry that may not be enough.

"Of course we are in a transitional stage," Graube says. "The question is, are we ready to change? The answer is yes."

Most in Latvia's educated elite see joining NATO, followed by possible admission to the European Union, as the only conceivable way for the country to go.

Lingering doubts

But opinion polls show that the public has some reservations about NATO membership. An October survey conducted by the independent Marketing and Public Opinion Research Center in Riga found just 51 per cent of the population favor quick accession to the Alliance.

"One reason for this is economic; people fear NATO membership will be just too expensive for a poor country like Latvia," says Arnis Kaktins, the center's director. About 80 percent of Latvia's population earns less than $150 monthly. "People wonder, 'Why are we going to spend all this money on military hardware when pensions are so low and public services so bad?' "

The Russians among them

A breakdown of the same survey points to an enduring divide within Latvian society, and one that could spell trouble in future.

More than two-thirds of ethnic Latvians unambiguously back NATO membership. But 40 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people are Russian-speaking, Soviet-era immigrants, of whom over half a million have not yet been granted Latvian citizenship. Among them, opposition to NATO remains high, at least partly due to fear that links with Russia - where many have families and even businesses - may be ruptured if Latvia becomes the fault line between East and West.

"We are hopeful that NATO membership will pressure Latvia to become more open and democratic, and thereby help us to solve our internal problems," says Artis Pabriks, an expert with Latvian Transatlantic Organization, a pro-NATO think tank. "Once we join NATO, Latvians will know that we are no longer threatened, and Russians will understand that this state is here to stay."

But critics fear NATO's new front line could become as solid as the Iron Curtain of the cold war, trapping populations on either side.

"Putin is pragmatic, but it is not easy to get his people to accept that the Baltics will join NATO," says Nikolajs Neilands, a former Soviet diplomat and a leader of the left-wing Harmony Party in Latvia.

"We might have played a more constructive role, rather than antagonizing Russia by hurrying into NATO, and worked with Putin to build stable, peaceful, and democratic relations in this region," he reflects, "because if Putin's reforms fail, everything can change in Russia, and that would be disastrous for us all."