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Seven nations hope to find a niche in NATO

The Alliance will issue invitations at a summit that begins Thursday in Prague.

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Bulgaria, whose communist-era defense industry accounted for 9 percent of its GDP at its height in the 1980s, became an illicit arms bazaar after the cold war's end. Attempting to clean up its image in hopes of Western integration, Sofia has enacted a new arms export law to stem the trade in black-market weapons.

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A side effect of such reform is, for many, unemployment. In Kazanluk, home to the 25-square-mile Arsenal factory complex where Kalashnikov assault rifles are made, many are out of work. "It doesn't matter whether we are in NATO if we are poor and hungry," says Maria Krusheva, who used to work on a bullet production line at Arsenal.

Besides Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, the countries most likely to join in this next round are the three Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which are eager to finally emerge from Russia's shadow.

Slovenia, the westernmost republic of the former Yugoslavia, is perhaps the best prepared candidate, but low public support for the alliance in that country may mean it will be the only country to reject the offer of membership. After receiving an invitation, the countries accept or reject it either through a parliamentary vote or in a public referendum.

In Slovakia, just over 50 percent of the population supports NATO membership, which officials still consider too low. One reason for Slovak tepidness is NATO's insistence that populist politician Vladimir Meciar, whom the West sees as corrupt and overly friendly with Moscow, not be returned to power. Some criticized NATO officials for "bullying the electorate" in a recent vote. Mr. Meciar's comeback bid failed.

Another reason is the strain NATO's military requests put on the government budget. Slovakia sent 40 military engineers to assist US troops in Afghanistan this year, which cost $2.5 million.

Military analysts predict that professionalizing the Slovak army will cost about $2 billion more than the government has budgeted for defense. That is likely to cause cutbacks in social services, public infrastructure, and education spending in the country, which is already struggling to maintain public systems.

Despite the difficulties, political elites in the candidate nations laud the benefits of joining NATO.

By its own assessment, the Slovak army is unprepared to defend the country alone. The almost nonexistent Slovak Air Force, for example, has eight functional planes, two of which collided in mid-air last week.

Looking toward NATO membership, the Slovak military is laying off a third of its personnel, while raising salaries, which now start at $200 per month. The goal is to create a smaller, better-trained army that could offer niche capabilities needed by NATO.

Military commanders say that, in this way, even weak candidate countries can transform themselves into military assets. Slovak peacekeeping forces and de-mining units have already gained international recognition for successful work in Croatia, Cyprus, East Timor, Ethiopia, and the Golan Heights. Romania, which already spends 2.5 percent of its GDP on defense, sent an entire battalion to Afghanistan to guard the perimeter of US bases this year, something many current NATO members cannot do.

"As a small country, we can- not hope to compete with supersonic jets and laser-guided munitions," says Rastislav Kacer, State Secretary for the Slovak Ministry of Defense. "What we can do is maximize areas where we have some natural ability or advantage. That way, even the smallest country can help NATO face the new threats of today."

Matthew Brunwasser in Sofia contributed to this report.