Seven nations hope to find a niche in NATO

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

Peter Malik can't wait for his country to join NATO. One of thousands of Slovak youth drafted each year, he sees NATO as his best hope for avoiding compulsory military service - because the Alliance wants Slovakia to professionalize its army and stop using conscripts.

"I like NATO for that," says Malik, a budding computer specialist. "I would be ashamed to be a soldier. Our military is useless and incompetent. Every time our country has been threatened in history, our army capitulated."

A strong umbrella of defense is what this tiny Central European nation expects to find in NATO. Membership would also mean taking part in NATO military actions abroad and completing political and military reform at home.

Slovakia and six other Central and Eastern European countries are expected to receive invitations to join NATO at a summit that begins Thursday in Prague, making it the largest NATO expansion in history. The new NATO will stretch deeper than ever into the former Soviet bloc, drawing in countries eager to join the Western "club" and ending some of the remaining divisions of Europe.

NATO will gain additional outlets on the Black Sea in Bulgaria and Romania, and "niche" contributions from the newcomer countries, such as the Baltics' radar surveillance capabilities and Romania's mountain fighting skills.

NATO's expansion was given an extra push by Sept. 11 and rising concern about terrorism. As one US official put it, "We need all the allies we can get."

The timing is good for Slovakia because public support for NATO membership is relatively high. The government will need every ounce of that support to push through the costly military reforms that NATO requires.

"We are trying to convince our public that NATO membership is actually the cheaper option," says Peter Misik, Director of the Euro-Atlantic Security Department of the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "If we are in NATO, we can share defense costs and we will gain more than just security, we will gain the status of being in the good club."

When the Alliance took in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999, Slovakia was rejected because western officials were suspicious of its populist political establishment. Since then, NATO has set guidelines for aspirant countries in military, political, and economic reforms. These include stabilizing pro-western governments, boosting public support for NATO, and professionalizing the national army. NATO officials also want increased protection of classified information and an increase in military spending to at least 2 percent of GDP.

NATO officials stress that these are only guidelines, and that candidates are evaluated as well on their ability to boost the alliance's military advantage. Indeed, those countries most highly valued by NATO are not necessarily the most reformed. It was once taken for granted that Romania and Bulgaria would be left out of this round of expansion. They don't have functioning market economies, and they suffer from massive corruption and poverty. But recently, American officials have shown interest in their Black Sea locations, which offer access to the Middle East and Central Asia. Eager for acceptance, Romania was the first country to sign a controversial treaty this year with the US, protecting American personnel from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. Now, according to Robert Hunter, US ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, "people are going to hold their noses and swallow hard" to accept the two.

In the final days before the summit, Bulgarian officials publicly fretted that an arms sales scandal could weaken its chances of joining NATO. Hoping to dispel any lingering doubts about their country's fitness for membership, authorities are investigating a Bulgarian firm which allegedly exported military spare parts illegally to Syria, possibly for reexport to Iraq.

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.

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.

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