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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Will Leave Many Odd Men Out

Five months from now, NATO foreign ministers are supposed to decide which new democracies in Eastern Europe are ready to join the Atlantic alliance. The approach of the deadline is making some governments in the region nervous, as it dawns on them that they are unlikely to be among the favored few.

For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the situation is particularly uncomfortable. They know they have no chance of joining the alliance in its first wave of enlargement, but they also know that even a cautious NATO expansion into Central Europe is likely to bring a Russian response in the form of more muscle-flexing in the former Soviet area.

This could leave the Baltic states trapped in the middle as a new, bipolar security system emerges in Europe. Twentieth-century history suggests that fate is rarely kind to small European nations caught up in the quarrels of more powerful states.

For some governments, failure to enter NATO at the earliest available opportunity will turn into a stick for opposition parties to beat them with. In Bulgaria and Romania, which seem unlikely to be invited to join NATO anytime soon, the opposition will argue that the lack of an invitation demonstrates the West's doubts about the democratic qualities of their post-communist systems.

The NATO issue could be most explosive in Slovakia, which in many ways ought to be as natural a candidate for early entry as the Czech Republic, from which it separated in 1993. Slovak President Michal Kovac is already hinting that, if his country fails to receive the coveted invitation, the blame should fall on his mortal rival, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.

Meciar has offended Western countries with his remorseless bullying of his political opponents and his government's efforts to influence or obstruct a proper investigation into the mysterious kidnapping last year of Kovac's son. As long as he remains in power, it is hard to see how Slovakia can throw off its image as "the odd man out" in Eastern Europe.

The most likely candidates for early entry are usually seen as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and, increasingly, Slovenia. Of these four, the Czechs are perhaps the least controversial, as they are geographically easier to accommodate and their troops have won high marks for their performance as members of the NATO-led force keeping the peace in Bosnia. Poland is a tough one, mainly because it shares a border with Russia at Kaliningrad and because its sheer size means its incorporation into NATO will be very expensive. However, the whole business of enlarging NATO will be pretty meaningless if Poland is excluded (especially from a German point of view), and so it is likely that the Poles will get that invitation.

Hungary ought to be in, but some in NATO worry about the inability of the authorities in Budapest to solve their disputes with Romania, Serbia and Slovakia over the ethnic Hungarian minorities in those countries.

The joker in the pack is Slovenia, which seems to satisfy NATO's requirements for membership as well as anyone else in Eastern Europe. It also benefits from being small and, by regional standards, rich. Taking in Slovenia would not cost NATO a lot -- except, perhaps, in terms of U.S. relations with Croatia.

But that is another story.