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NATO: Analysis From Washington -- A Big Bang Outside A Closely Guarded Door

Washington, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several East European countries are calling on NATO to admit all nine applicant states in 2002, an appeal that reflects both their concerns about developments in Moscow and their fears that the alliance may put off any further expansion well into the future.

Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas has labeled this the "big bang" approach. He is expected to present it at a meeting of applicant states in Vilnius today.

According to Usackas, this idea is designed to re-energize discussions about European security by highlighting the anxieties of the countries located between NATO and the Russian Federation.

After admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999, the alliance pledged that the door to alliance membership would remain open to all other countries interested in joining. But as Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung pointed out on Wednesday, this door has turned out to be "a very closely guarded" one.

On the one hand, NATO's current members are experiencing some difficulties in fully integrating the three newest members and also in defining what role the alliance should play relative to other defensive organizations such as the West European Union and the European Union security initiative.

Moreover, several NATO countries, including the United States, are now involved with elections or recent changes in government that have effectively stalled foreign policy initiatives, such as NATO expansion.

And on the other hand, many NATO countries appear reluctant to move the borders of the alliance further east out of concern about a Russian backlash. Moscow has made it very clear that it would view any further expansion of the alliance as a hostile act, and as a result, the alliance has devoted a great deal of work to restoring ties with Russia.

This week, for example, the Russia-NATO Joint Permanent Council met in Brussels at the ambassadorial level. That meeting set the stage for Russian participation at the ministerial level in the NATO council meeting in Florence on May 24 -- the first time since NATO's Kosovo operation that the Russian government will have been represented at that level.

The nine countries which seek to join the alliance -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, and Albania -- have drawn various conclusions from this.

Some have expressed doubt that NATO will ever take in any new members. Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar, for example, said recently that "the big question is less a matter of who will be admitted in the next NATO expansion than whether there will be another round of expansion at all."

Others have counted on being among the chosen few, an approach that has sometimes put these countries at odds. Slovakia, for example, is counting on Hungarian backing. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pointedly said that "without Slovakia, there won't be a second expansion round."

Usackas' call for a "big bang" approach to expansion is clearly intended to overcome both these competing assessments and what many of these countries see as a certain Western complacency about developments in Russia.

Many of these countries are extremely worried by the newly assertive Russian foreign policy of President Vladimir Putin and by the West's obvious desire to find a common language with the new Russian leader.

Some of them fear that in the absence of NATO expansion anytime soon, they will fall into a dangerous gray area of insecurity where their politics will be about national survival rather than about domestic development. And many are concerned that the inclusion of some rather than all will provoke Russia to put new pressure on those not taken in.

Those fears are not new, but the call from Vilnius suggests that they are growing. That may not prompt the alliance to move more quickly on some or all of the applicant states. But the introduction of the term "big bang" may have the effect of leading to a renewed discussion of just how open the door to NATO membership really is.