NATO foreign ministers are set to give a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- an essential stepping stone on the road toward alliance membership -- to Montenegro and put off a decision on Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Speaking on December 3 before the opening of a two-day meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decisions on Montenegro and Bosnia would be based on the countries' "own merits."
Behind the scenes, however, NATO sources say the picture is murkier than Rasmussen is indicating.
Montenegro is seen as a shoo-in and should get its MAP without major hiccups.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, is the subject of lively controversy within NATO, and is likely to miss out on its bid for now.
A federal state conspicuously struggling to contain ethnic divisions between its two constituent parts, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, Bosnia is seen by Germany, France -- and, to a lesser degree, Britain -- as unprepared for a MAP.
Turkey leads Bosnia's supporters, whose ranks include the other Balkan nations, Southeast European allies, and Spain. Ankara has called a separate meeting on Bosnia's MAP ambitions for this morning, ahead of the scheduled NATO deliberations.
Bosnia's detractors argue that as it remains under the supervision of the international community -- via the Office of the High Representative, currently held by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko -- the country does not yet qualify as a fully sovereign state.
There are also longer-term fears that Bosnia's internal divisions could carry over into NATO -- where, as a member state, it would enjoy the right of veto over alliance decisions.
Bosnia's supporters say its quick accession to NATO would contribute to the stability of the country and the region. Seeking NATO membership is, in fact, one of the few goals Bosnia's three ethnic communities share. Bosnia's backers also point out that the country was this year made a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council.
NATO officials say that the stance of the United States is likely to prove decisive. So far, Washington has sided with the skeptics. If this remains the case today, Bosnia's MAP will have to wait until NATO foreign ministers meet again in Tallinn, Estonia, in April 2010 -- if not longer.
Also on December 3, the alliance and Russia reached an agreement to strengthen cooperation.
The compromise was reached on the eve of the highest-level meeting between the two sides since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.
A NATO diplomat who requested anonymity said the two sides had agreed on three documents, including the reform of the NATO-Russia Council.
The diplomat said they also agreed on a joint work plan for next year and mutual review of threats and challenges in the 21st century.
All three documents are to be ratified today by foreign ministers attending the NATO-Russia Council forum in Brussels. It is the first formal ministerial meeting between the two sides since ties were frozen after Russia's brief war with Georgia last year.
The diplomat said the documents won't necessarily resolve all lingering issues between Russia and the Western alliance, but it probably will lead to improved cooperation and dialogue.
Ukraine And Georgia
As expected, NATO ministers meeting in Brussels have told Ukraine and Georgia that while they are making progress toward joining the alliance, each country has work that remains to be done.
NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said both countries would be told that the pledge on their eventual inclusion, made by NATO at its 2008 Bucharest summit, remains in force.
"They will become NATO members, when they meet the standards, and if they so desire. We will be discussing progress in reform, which NATO will continue to support," Rasmussen said.
At a meeting December 3 with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko, Rasmussen said Ukraine has indeed made progress on its path toward NATO membership, but the government must insure that next month's elections meet international standards of fairness.
He said that the alliance expects "very high standards from Ukraine in every aspect of public life, the upcoming presidential elections being no exception."
NATO members have expressed concern at political infighting which has all but deadlocked reform in the country ahead of the election, seeing it as a sign of instability in a key partner and potential member.
Ukraine's last presidential poll five years ago led to massive street protests, the overturning of the vote and the eventual election of the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the so-called "Orange Revolution."
Poroshenko assured NATO ministers that he was "[confident] that this election will be free and fair."
NATO ministers advised Georgia to improve its ties with its neighbors to boost its own security, and called on Russia to withdraw its support for the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia fought a brief but bitter war with Russia in August 2008, losing control over two breakaway regions in the process and inflaming tensions across Europe.
Rasmussen told Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze that the alliance understood the country has suffered in recent years, but said "reforms and modernization and a determination to improve neighborly relations offer the best prospects of a better future for the Georgian people."
NATO ministers also reaffirmed their strict policy of non-recognition of the "independence" of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, and called once again on Russia to reverse its decision to declare the two regions independent and post soldiers there.
In the foreseeable future, MAPs will continue to be ruled out for both Georgia and Ukraine, given the overwhelming opposition of most Western European allies. Patching up relations with Russia, which vehemently opposes either country's NATO membership, is currently one of NATO's most important stated strategic goals, one now shared by U.S. President Barack Obama.