Washington, 19 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Germany sent strong signals this week that there will not be a second round of NATO expansion anytime soon.
And their statements have led some East Europeans and others to ask whether their fears will be realized and that the first round of NATO expansion, to be announced at Madrid next month, will in fact prove to be the last.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Washington currently opposes any designation of candidates for a second round of NATO expansion.
Albright's remarks came prior to her meeting with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova, who sought assurances that NATO will continue to expand "in the near future" and that Bulgaria will be "specifically named" at Madrid as a candidate for membership.
Albright said that a second round would come but argued that "it is very important that NATO remains cohesive and strong," language that appeared to many to indicate that the U.S. would oppose any rapid expansion beyond the first round.
Then on Wednesday, a senior German diplomat explicitly said that NATO should call a halt to its expansion after the first round lest it further antagonize a "hurt and wounded" Russia.
Speaking to journalists in Moscow, German junior foreign minister Helmut Schaefer said that the strong opposition of Russian officials to any growth in the alliance had been both "unexpected" and "frightening."
"After the first round," Schaefer continued, "we should think about a security system for the whole of Europe before more harm is done." And he added: "I warn all those in Germany who, out of jingoism, want to take all sorts of countries into the Alliance."
These two statements appear likely to have three serious consequences in Eastern Europe in both the run-up to the Madrid NATO summit and afterwards.
First, to the extent that the words of Albright and Schaefer appear to suggest that there will not be any second round in the immediate future, those East European countries not now on the list for the first round are likely to press their cases even harder.
They are likely to do so precisely because of the fears that they have already expressed: namely, that the inclusion of only a few East European countries into the Western alliance will leave the other countries of this region even more exposed.
And these countries may also press their case because NATO is clearly divided on how to proceed. Despite U.S. President Bill Clinton's statement last week that the alliance should take in only three new members, many European countries would like to include five.
Second, many East European countries and indeed some Western ones are likely to see these two statements as a reflection of two grand bargains over their heads, an American-Russian agreement and a German-Russian one.
Many Europeans have been unhappy with what they see as a continuing American and Russian pattern of negotiating about the continent's future without the continent's full participation.
And everyone in Eastern Europe can remember that their region has suffered almost as much from German-Russian agreement as from German-Russian discord.
Those reflections too will raise the political temperature in many of these countries and are likely to undermine the credibility of American and NATO declarations about the future.
And third, and perhaps most ominously, these declarations are likely to lead at least some in the region to conclude that they are in fact going to be left in a gray area of permanent insecurity.
Many of the governments and peoples in this region have behaved better than they might have otherwise in the expectation that good behaviour toward minorities and on other issues was the price of admission to Western institutions.
If sizeable groups in any of these countries conclude that they are not going to get in, at least some political leaders are likely to try to exploit that feeling and may prompt governments there to retreat from the remarkable progress they have made.
These consequences for the countries of Eastern Europe are at the same time challenges for the current members of the alliance and for the future of NATO after its first round of expansion.