U.S. efforts to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have raised fresh doubts about the mission of a new multilateral export control group, the first to join Western allies and ex-communist nations since the Cold War.

In a swing through Eastern Europe last week to promote NATO expansion, Defense Secretary William Perry praised the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia for progress toward democracy, saying they were meeting a key condition for joining the alliance.However, Mr. Perry offered no such praise for Slovakia. In unusually blunt criticism, Mr. Perry said the country has fallen short in its tolerance of diverse opinions and support for constitutional rights.

But the rebuff on NATO was at odds with the warm welcome given to Slovakia only days before at The Hague in the Netherlands, where 28 nations met to cement terms for a new group to control trade in technology, dual-use goods and conventional arms throughout the world.

While the security net for trade has been widened, democracy has been dumped as a requisite, U.S. officials said afterward.

Slovakia joined Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary as a founding member of the "arrangement," alternately dubbed the "new forum." The group replaces the 17-nation Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (Cocom), which curbed high-tech sales to the East bloc for over 40 years.

Paris-based Cocom essentially was the trade arm of NATO, with a roster of all the allies except Iceland plus Australia and Japan. The new forum is a very different animal, with broader membership but far weaker controls.

The democracy issue highlights one key difference. While democratic institutions are a criterion for NATO, and consequently Cocom, they have nothing to do with the new forum, which requires only that members abide by its rules, a U.S. official said.

Six months ago, Slovakia's membership was in doubt because of longstanding trade links between its military-industrial complex and nations seen as security risks. The country has since tightened export procedures, qualifying for the new forum despite concerns about its authoritarian prime minister, Vladimir Meciar.

Russian membership also underscores the sudden split with NATO goals in the area of trade security. While Moscow has railed against NATO expansion, it has quietly joined the post-Cocom group.

The new standards make it possible for nations to remain members even if they undergo changes in governments. Although democracy remains distant in China, membership is possible if it curbs arms sales and high-tech transfers to dangerous states, an official said.

The dropping of democracy has made greater cooperation possible on trade security.

"It's not a double-standard. It's a separate standard," said Paul Freedenberg, a former Commerce Department official, now trade consultant at the Washington law firm Baker & Botts.

But Mr. Freedenberg and others agree that cooperation has been bought at the expense of many other standards considered essential during the Cold War.

The forum is seen as little more than a gentlemen's agreement. Each nation will have discretion over its own export licensing. Under Cocom, high-tech sales to Russia required unanimous consent of the allies.

Although the United States fought for over two years to retain a requirement for pre-notification of troublesome exports, it is not certain that member nations will compromise their sovereignty by providing any notice at all.

Even the list of "target" countries, those considered security risks, is a matter for national discretion. Germany, for example, is said to see Somalia and Burma as countries of special concern.

Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis insisted again last week that member nations would not sell sophisticated weapons to the four "rogue states" identified by U.S. policy - Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. But a joint statement asserts that the forum will "not be directed against any state or group of states," making its mission more theoretical than real.

A U.S. official said the loose wording will allow future membership for nations now considered risks if they change their behavior, without requiring rewriting of forum agreements. But the vagueness is more likely to be seen as a loss of control within the new regime.