When heads of state and government from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meet in Bucharest, Romania next week, one of the key issues will be expanding the alliance to bring in new members. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the controversy surrounding some of the countries vying for membership.

Analysts say two countries will be invited to join: Albania and Croatia. But the status of a third country - Macedonia, officially know as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - is unclear.

Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration, says Greece has threatened to veto Macedonia's membership.

"The Greeks are worried, because they have a province called Macedonia, and they are worried that maybe somebody is going to grab for that," he said.  "I think, this is something where the Greeks really need to recede and accept that a country can call itself what it wants, and better to have them in NATO than not. That should be resolved."

The debate over Macedonia's name began when it sought independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Patrick Jackson, a NATO expert at American University says a compromise will be difficult to reach.

"Compromise, when it comes to issues that have been culturally constructed as indivisible or essential to people's identity are always very, very difficult to broker," he said.  "I don't know.  See, if it were an ordinary economic or political issue, then there's always the possibility of side-payments and 'we give you consideration in something else.' It's kind of difficult to imagine what kind of cultural side-payment, if you will, could be made to Greece to give them an incentive to swallow this."

Another issue facing NATO leaders is what to do about the request from Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics, to begin the process of full membership.

The United States favors such a first step. But Russia - a non-NATO member and wary of NATO encroaching on its borders - is strongly opposed to the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance. So are some NATO countries, such as Germany and France.

During a recent meeting in Washington with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, President Bush repeated the U.S. view.

"I believe that NATO benefits with a Georgian membership," he said.  "I believe Georgia benefits from being a part of NATO. And I told the president that's the message I'll be taking to Bucharest soon."

Before attending the NATO summit, Mr. Bush will travel to Ukraine. Charles Kupchan, with the Council on Foreign Relations, says that visit is a provocation to Russia.

"It is - and it is consistent with most of Bush's trips to Europe," he explained.  "He almost always tries to stop in somewhere that's part of the former eastern bloc. It's part of his freedom agenda - let's make a visit to the Baltics, let's stop in Georgia, let's go to Ukraine.  And it's a way of sort of giving a shot in the arm, but it does kind of put the thumb in the eye of the Russians."

While Russia is not a member of NATO, it has contacts with the military alliance through the NATO-Russia Council established in 2002. That gives Russian officials and NATO members a forum in which to discuss important issues. It is in that context that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to the Bucharest summit.

Many experts, including Aslé Tojé from the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, say there are several reasons why NATO members might not invite Georgia and Ukraine to begin the membership process.

"One is the question of Kosovo, where a lot of European countries are eager for the Russians to play a constructive role in this process and they feel that issuing invitations to Ukraine and Georgia would further alienate the Russians," he noted.  "Second, there is the case of very strong internal divisions on the question of membership in Ukraine. And, in the case of Georgia, they have the dual question of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two parts of the country that have broken off from Georgia. So effectively, the country has unresolved territorial disputes which is something that, traditionally, NATO has been very skeptical of bringing into the fold."

As NATO focuses its attention on new members and other issues - such as its role in Afghanistan - experts say the outcome of the summit will help shape the future and cohesion of an alliance that is still redefining itself 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.