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NATO Ministers Get Down to Issue of New Members

Alliance: Only three or four nations are likely to be invited to join, despite some backing for greater expansion.


SINTRA, Portugal — Three and a half years after President Clinton first proposed enlarging the Atlantic alliance, NATO on Thursday finally got down to the gut question: Who gets in first?

Although U.S. and alliance officials stressed that a final decision on the sensitive question is still weeks away, the first formal discussion among the foreign ministers pointed strongly toward offering NATO membership to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, with Slovenia having an outside chance.

"The alliance should admit only those new democracies that have both cleared the highest hurdles of reform and demonstrated they can meet the full obligations of membership," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told her 15 colleagues during the opening session of a two-day meeting in this hill town near Lisbon. "NATO enlargement is not a scholarship program."

Discussions conducted later over a working lunch also made it clear that of the eight other countries that have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only one--Romania--was given more than token consideration for immediate entry. Piecing together confidential information from several sources at Thursday's meeting, it appeared that Romania would most likely not be among the first countries invited and that Slovenia's chances were less than certain.

President Clinton and the other 15 NATO leaders are scheduled to gather in Madrid on July 8 and 9 to formally issue the first invitations.

Further discussions on the invitation list are expected to dominate the next few weeks, and alliance officials said NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana plans to visit several alliance capitals in an effort to build a consensus over the coming days.

"We hope to complete the process by the end of the third week of June," one source said. He said the decision, once reached, would be made binding to prevent an unraveling of a consensus under any frantic, last-minute lobbying pressure before the summit.

Lobbying by applicant countries, already strong, is expected to become even more intense as the summit nears. One U.S. official noted reports that Romania's former King Michael was telephoning royal friends around Europe to drum up support for his country's candidacy.

A large majority of European allies at Thursday's meeting reportedly said either that they would favor a five-nation initial enlargement or proclaimed themselves undecided. One source claimed that only Iceland spoke forcefully for limiting expansion to three countries. However, other signs indicated that three, or possibly four, invitations would be issued at Madrid.

Both in tone and content, Albright's public comments Thursday suggested that the U.S. wanted to limit the first stage. In her prepared comments at the meeting's opening session and at a news conference later, she repeatedly stressed that tough entry standards needed to be coupled with a credible open door for those who fail in Madrid.

U.S. officials reinforced this message in private comments.

While Romania has implemented a series of impressive free market and democratic reforms since Emil Constantinescu was elected president in November, the country's democratic development has been brief and untested, U.S. officials believe.

Slovenia's democratic credentials are for the most part unchallenged, although questions about the quality of its military have been raised.

Because the United States is NATO's largest power, its biggest financial contributor and the prime mover of enlargement, its position will be difficult to overturn.

Also, several European nations who declared themselves undecided Thursday did so in part because they did not want to be seen to be excluding any continental neighbor during the first discussion. In fact, many of these current member countries, said to include Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, advocate a small expansion because they will have to pay a considerable share of enlargement costs.

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