When NATO leaders meet later this week in the Czech capital of Prague, three countries on the Baltic Sea that used to be part of the Soviet Union will be among the candidate countries vying for an invitation to join the organization. Many experts predict that when NATO officials announce the list of countries invited to join the security organization, Estonia and its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania will be at the top of the list.
Estonian officials getting ready for the summit won't say the invitation is in the bag, but they will say how important NATO membership is for their small country of less than two-million people. "First and foremost Estonia wants to re-establish its place in Europe and securitywise in [the] current world, NATO is the only hard security guarantee we could have," says Harry Tiido, deputy undersecretary of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For Estonia and the Baltics, security has always been an important consideration and they're looking to NATO to provide it. The three countries were forcibly included into the Soviet Union during World War II. During the Soviet years in Estonia thousands of people either fled the country, were sent to gulags in Siberia or were executed.
The Baltics only became independent in 1991 and after that, they made joining NATO an important foreign policy goal. If Estonia and the Baltics join NATO they will become the first former Soviet republics to do so. But the term "former Soviet republic" often grates on people in Estonia and in other Baltic countries who question why their countries must be constantly referred to as part of the former Soviet Union.
Ainar Russar is the editor-in-chief of the Baltic News Service in Estonia. He says for many people in Estonia, joining NATO is as much about psychology as it is about security. "I think for Estonians to join NATO, to be a member of NATO is very important, because NATO is like Europe," he says. "If you are in NATO, you are in Europe."
Many in Estonia and the Baltics say joining an organization like NATO is about establishing Estonia once and for all as a European country with European values and principles, leaving behind its Soviet past for good.