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Analysis From Washington - Fearing The Gray Zone

Washington, May 21 (RFE/RL) -- If NATO expands as many in Europe now assume it will, hitherto non-aligned countries like Finland, Sweden and Austria may be forced to seek membership in the alliance or risk being left in an indefinite gray zone between NATO and a revived Russia.

That is the judgment of Finland's leading foreign policy expert Max Jakobson. He told a conference in Helsinki earlier this month that "remaining outside NATO would mean exclusion from European decision-making on security policy and from security cooperation between NATO and Russia and ending up in an indefinite grey zone."

Jakobson's remarks have sparked a debate in Finland between those who agree with him that Finland should join the alliance and those who believe that Finnish security can be achieved by "remaining alone" or even by opposing any NATO enlargement.

But Jakobson's suggestion and the debate it has caused are important not only because they come from an unexpected source. Indeed, few countries in Europe have been as consistent and non-aligned as Finland since World War II. Rather they are important because they underscore several aspects of the NATO expansion debate that have received relatively little attention up to now.

First, they demonstrate that none of the measures some in the West have proposed as substitutes for NATO membership are likely to be acceptable to countries in this zone: not Partnership for Peace, not West European Union status, and not any general declaration about security in Europe.

Second, they show that the countries of the region are seeking ways to cast the argument as Jakobson has done -- not in terms of opposing Russia but rather as a means of insuring that they will be full participants in any discussions between the West and Russia. The biggest fear in the region seems to be that Russia and the U.S. will make policy about them without them.

And third, they show that these concerns will soon dominate the public debate in all the countries of the region, including those like Finland which have received little attention in Western discussions up to now. And that broader debate will put enormous pressure on the alliance, on Russia, and on relations among the countries of the region.

For NATO, these concerns mean that both the timing and the content of the first announcement of new members are critical. If, as now seems likely, NATO identifies only a few new members at the end of this year, what it says about the future of expansion will be especially critical.

Some, led by Lithuanians, have argued that NATO must quickly specify the "who" before the "when" in order to prevent insecurity in the region. Jakobson's arguments will add weight to that position. And as a result, any decision to expand will generate new demands for further expansion, something few now in the alliance want.

For Russia, the challenge is even greater. The Finnish discussion shows just how much the countries of this region continue to be worried about Moscow and how much they believe that only a military arrangement involving the United States can serve as a counterweight.

In the current election season, no Russian leader is going to back away from total opposition to NATO enlargement. But such blanket opposition has the effect of producing blanket demands for membership by Russia's neighbors, something these same Russian leaders certainly oppose.

And for the countries of the region, the challenges are perhaps the greatest of all. Faced with the difficulties of maintaining internal cohesion and external security, they must also deal with the near certainty that they are going to be forced to compete among themselves for the first membership slots. And in that event, the pursuit of security could lead to more insecurity.

Jakobson and the Finns have not shown a way out, but they have nonetheless performed a useful function by highlighting the paradoxes of the NATO expansion process, paradoxes that both supporters and opponents of enlargement have preferred to ignore.