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Seven nations hope to find a niche in NATO

The Alliance will issue invitations at a summit that begins Thursday in Prague.

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Peter Malik can't wait for his country to join NATO. One of thousands of Slovak youth drafted each year, he sees NATO as his best hope for avoiding compulsory military service - because the Alliance wants Slovakia to professionalize its army and stop using conscripts.

"I like NATO for that," says Malik, a budding computer specialist. "I would be ashamed to be a soldier. Our military is useless and incompetent. Every time our country has been threatened in history, our army capitulated."

A strong umbrella of defense is what this tiny Central European nation expects to find in NATO. Membership would also mean taking part in NATO military actions abroad and completing political and military reform at home.

Slovakia and six other Central and Eastern European countries are expected to receive invitations to join NATO at a summit that begins Thursday in Prague, making it the largest NATO expansion in history. The new NATO will stretch deeper than ever into the former Soviet bloc, drawing in countries eager to join the Western "club" and ending some of the remaining divisions of Europe.

NATO will gain additional outlets on the Black Sea in Bulgaria and Romania, and "niche" contributions from the newcomer countries, such as the Baltics' radar surveillance capabilities and Romania's mountain fighting skills.

NATO's expansion was given an extra push by Sept. 11 and rising concern about terrorism. As one US official put it, "We need all the allies we can get."

The timing is good for Slovakia because public support for NATO membership is relatively high. The government will need every ounce of that support to push through the costly military reforms that NATO requires.

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