Nato chief tours states fighting to join alliance

Nato's Secretary General, Javier Solana, sets off today on a 12-nation tour of central and eastern Europe in which he will experience at first hand the intense rivalry in the region over the race to join the alliance.

From Estonia on the Baltic to Romania on the Black Sea, Mr Solana will be feted as the man holding the key to his hosts' wildest desires and, like a judge at a beauty contest, will be asked to reflect on their respective merits and charms.

To general delight, Mr Solana will declare that despite fierce objections from Russia, Nato enlargement will go ahead. To the consternation of some, however, he will also point out that not all Nato applicants will be joining the alliance at the same time - if at all - and that, in effect, there are likely to be several waves of new entrants.

"The secretary general will be making it clear that no decisions have been taken yet and that each applicant will be judged on individual merit," said a Nato official. "But it is clear that some countries are more ready to join than others and, obviously, they will be the first to join."

Although Nato has not yet specified formal criteria for admitting members from the former Warsaw Pact, it is no secret that countries judged to have made the most progress in democratic and economic reforms will be favoured, as will those who have been keen participants in Nato's Partnership for Peace programme and contributed to the 60,000 Nato-led peace-keeping force in Bosnia.

Nato member states are also keen that future members have established clear civilian control over their armed forces and have no serious disputes with neighbours. Of the 11 former communist countries that have so far signalled an interest to join, the central European trio of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, the economic leaders of the region, are considered the clear frontrunners.

While not ruled out of the first wave, the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia is considered the next strongest candidate, with Slovakia, Romania and maybe even Albania seen as fellow contenders for second and third waves of expansion.

The picture in Bulgaria is muddied by the fact the country, traditionally one of Moscow's staunchest allies, cannot decide if it wants to join.

In the Baltic states, moreover, geography (common borders with Russia), history (forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union) and ethnic make up (large ethnic Russian populations in Latvia and Estonia), make it unlikely that Nato would wish to take them on board for the foreseeable future. As one western diplomat in central Europe put it: "There is an in-tray, a pending-tray and a `too difficult to handle' tray. The Baltic states are in the latter."

According to Nato officials, the phased expansion of the alliance should spread stability and prod countries seen to be lagging behind in democratic and economic reforms into a faster pace of change.

In the case of Hungary, which at one point seemed to be slipping behind Poland and the Czech Republic, the fear of being left behind in the race for Nato and the European Union prompted a dramatic acceleration of the reform process last year and a stepping up of attempts to conclude bilateral treaties with neighbouring Slovakia and Romania.

In other countries of the region, however, the prospect of seeing regional rivals leaping ahead has aroused a mixture of dread and envy. In a chilling statement last week, Gheorghe Tinca, the Romanian defence minister, warned that if Hungary was admitted to Nato ahead of Romania it would be "detrimental to the region's balance and could even lead to an arms race".

Most European and western diplomats joined Hungary in dismissing the substance of Mr Tinca's remarks, putting them down to a case of sour grapes.But they were an alarming signal, and Mr Solana will undoubtedly be seeking further clarification during his stop-overs in Hungary and Romania.

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