• 2002-02-28
NATO insists it has not yet made a decision about which countries from Central and Eastern Europe will be admitted in the next wave of expansion. This will happen, it says, only in November at the alliance's summit in Prague.

But what the alliance is saying to the Baltic states is simple, despite George Robertson's strong wording on his visit to Vilnius and particularly Riga this week: you're in. Just tie up a few loose ends first.

As NATO goes from being a military to a political structure, it's understandable that the democratic credentials of the nations that want to get in are coming under more scrutiny than ever.

At first sight, it would seem NATO has taken a risky gamble. It has virtually made election law changes a condition of membership for Latvia. But with the stakes so high, it's unlikely Latvia's Parliament will stubbornly refuse to make those changes.

The last thing NATO wants on its hands is yet another security hotspot. Not to admit the Baltics as a block would immediately create one. Russia, which wants to keep as much influence over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as it can, has long regarded Latvia as the weak link in the Baltic chain.

To bring Lithuania in is now widely seen as inevitable. To leave Latvia out would destabilize the region.

For NATO to split the Baltic states is highly unlikely. An article in The Times this week even suggests that all three countries "are U.S. favorites in the race to join NATO." Other candidate countries are complaining, it says; far from struggling to be heard in the clamor to get in to the alliance, the Baltic countries are in fact getting preferential treatment because the hawks in power in Washington want to send a strong signal to Moscow that it no longer has a hold over the region's future.

When Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are invited to NATO later this year it will be a truly historic event, the final drawing of the Iron Curtain.