Leaders of 10 former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which want to join NATO, have gathered in Bucharest to discuss how they can boost their prospects for membership. The two-day meeting comes eight months before NATO decides which of the 10 will be invited to join the alliance.

The Romanian hosts of the meeting are billing the conference as "the spring of new allies."

Officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels acknowledge that political considerations will override concerns about all of the candidate countries' military capabilities when the alliance holds a summit in Prague in November to decide who should join.

The scenario most frequently heard at NATO headquarters is that Slovenia and the three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - will be invited to join even though they can do little to bolster the alliance's defense posture.

Russia, which has fiercely opposed Baltic membership in NATO, has officially tempered its criticism of what one Russian diplomat calls an "inevitable expansion" into his country's front yard. But the Russian military is still grumbling about the Baltic states' falling under NATO's protective wing.

Many NATO officials say Slovakia's chances of joining the alliance will depend on whether the country returns populist leader Vladimir Meciar to power in September's parliamentary elections. Though he now says he supports NATO membership for Slovakia, Mr. Meciar is not well regarded at NATO headquarters.

Recently, momentum has been building in some NATO capitals for Romania and Bulgaria to be admitted to the alliance. Bucharest and Sofia have lobbied hard for extending the alliance into the Balkans, citing President Bush's call last year to extend NATO from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

A Romanian diplomat in Brussels says inclusion of the two countries would make the Balkans a safer place.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who attended the Bucharest meeting, says Washington wants the widest possible expansion of the alliance.

The other three countries present at the conference are Albania, Macedonia and Croatia. NATO officials consider Albania and Macedonia politically unstable and thus not yet ready to join the alliance. Croatia is not yet a formal candidate for membership.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which became members of NATO in 1999, were the first former communist countries to join the alliance.