Brussels, May 14 (RFE/RL) - Nobody will yet admit it, but the process of segregating the would-be members of NATO from Central and Eastern Europe has quietly begun.
Discreetly and unofficially, three groups are beginning to form: those who will join the alliance in the first round, those who will have to wait, and those who don't have a chance.
The opening round of the selection process has taken the form of an "individual dialogue" with the Alliance involving top officials just below the rank of minister.
An ambassador from a NATO member has recently pointed out that the dialogues are a great opportunity to get to know the countries involved, as they differ significantly in their economic development, the status of political reform, and the compatibility of their armed forces with those of NATO. "We created that program because we need more clarification about the issues involved, about what is at stake," the ambassador said.
Out of 28, mostly former Warsaw Pact countries, that enrolled for the NATO military cooperation program called Partnership for Peace, only half accepted last December's invitation to sign up for an individual dialogue.
So far, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and, last week, Bulgaria and Poland, have begun the process. The Czech Republic starts next week and Ukraine recently declared its desire to join in. According to a high-ranking NATO official, the countries involved even vary in their commitment to membership. They can be divided into three categories: those who clearly, without hesitation, want to join the Alliance, those who are not so sure but do not want to lose anything in the process, and those who principally want to get closer to the Alliance because of their involvement in peace-keeping operations.
The last group covers countries such as neutral Finland, although even there some have recently been making noises in favor of membership.
The middle group includes Bulgaria and Ukraine. Bulgaria was apparently the greatest disappointment for NATO Secretary General Javier Solana during his recent trip through Central and Eastern Europe. Only the opposition seemed to be set on membership. The government, a source close to Solana pointed out, seemed to have three positions: for, against and neutral. The same source confirmed that Ukraine removed itself for the time being from the race, stressing however the need for strong links with the Alliance.
The first group, which is knocking hardest on NATO's door, includes Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Albania and the Baltic States.
During their individual dialogues, candidates are being questioned about their preparations for membership and they get the chance to find out what is really involved.
One of the main topics of the first round of talks with the candidates has been the question of democratic control over the armed forces, which according to NATO sources seems to be one of the main stumbling blocks.
Members of one delegation admitted that a lot of time during the three-hour meeting was also spent on discussing ways of keeping the process going for the countries that do not get in, whether for the time being or for the indefinite future. That is becoming the key issue now, as statements by some NATO politicians and diplomats show that the first round of enlargement is likely to involve only Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Most difficult of all, say NATO diplomats and security experts, will be the Baltic states. Russia, which for now remains opposed in principle to any expansion of the alliance towards its borders, can probably not prevent Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic from joining. But by mobilizing the Russian minorities in Estonia or Latvia, Moscow could create such a threatening climate that talk of extending NATO security guarantees to those countries would be dead for 10 years, one expert suggested.
But even the strongest candidates have not yet received a clear timetable for membership. There is, however, talk of a possible plan. Once the presidential elections in Russia and the United States are out of the way later this year, NATO foreign ministers will look at the "who and when". A summit next year could ratify such decisions and 1999, the 50th anniversary of the Alliance, might be a suitable year for new members to join.
All sides are aware that plans cannot become clearer until after the Russian presidential election in June. There are still many influential politicians in the West who believe that it is too risky to damage relationship with Russia.
It is almost certain that new members will not have foreign NATO troops or nuclear weapons stationed on their territory, even though they will, like existing members, have to agree in principle to do so. Such a move may help soften Russian opposition and would help to keep down the costs of enlargement.