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East, West To Meet Amid Uncertainty Over Policies

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, April 17 (RFE/RL) - Leaders of the world's seven most developed countries meet with presidents of Russia and Ukraine in Moscow this week (April 19-20) for a summit on nuclear safety. But the gathering's underlying issue appears to be the growing uncertainty about the post-cold war character of East-West relations.

The initial optimistic assumptions that the ending of the cold war - almost uniformly associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union - would pave a way toward close and harmonious relations between the democratic West and post-communist East seem now to have been exaggerated.

It is clear that countries on each side of the "great divide" have maintained separate interests and preferences, and these are more than often contradictory and mutually exclusive.

Recurrent summits during recent years have focused at patching up those differences. The current one is not an exception.

The gathering follows a certain pattern. It consists of two general sessions April 20. These are to provide forums for discussions about various problems of nuclear safety, including these related to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and its consequences,

The summit also features a series of bi-lateral meetings between separate western leaders and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin. U.S. President Bill Clinton is to meet Yeltsin April 21, after the conclusion of plenary discussions.

These bi-lateral meetings are certain to focus on aspects of Russia's relations with specific Western countries rather than broad problems of nuclear safety. There is reason to believe that much of the discussion at these meetings may be taken up by security issues, particularly the ones concerned with NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

The long-standing dispute between Russia and Japan about the Kurile Islands appears to be a strictly bi-lateral matter, and is unlikely to feature in Yeltsin's discussions with other western leaders.

The issue of European security has been at the heart of Russia's foreign policies during recent years, with Moscow's main efforts focused on preventing the West from expanding its political and military influence eastward. There is every reason to assume that Yeltsin will use the meetings to press this stance again.

Other likely topics include Russia's ratification of the START II accords and compliance with ABM and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) treaties. They center on military problems, but also call for a major adjustment in political relations between Russia and the West by making them cooperative and subject to international scrutiny.

Full settlement of those issues and problems would mark a major step in eliminating the vestiges of the cold war. But this is not likely to happen for at least two reasons.

First, the West has never been able to develop a common comprehensive strategy for dealing with post-Soviet Russia, leaving the impression that it is either unable or unwilling to make an effort in developing such a strategy any time soon.

In relations with Moscow, each Western state has repeatedly put forward distinct interests of its own, trying to gain specific advantages and favors. All too frequently, these tactics clouded rather than clarified Western positions on major broad issues.

Russia has skillfully used that confusion to advance its own interests. Many of these focus on preserving as much of the old Soviet power and influence as possible. This is particularly noticeable in Moscow's current policy toward former Soviet republics, but in time this attitude could affect other, broader, aspects of Russia's behavior toward other countries.

Second, Western long-term policy plans have repeatedly been held hostage to immediate political considerations, particularly electoral politics. This is true with respect to domestic politics as well as to Western preferences for political developments in Russia itself.

During recent years, most major Western countries have either gone through important elections. Others, such as the United States and Italy, are facing such contests in the coming weeks or months.

Moscow's policies have also been affected by internal electoral politics. All major candidates in the forthcoming presidential contest, both Yeltsin and post-communist Gennady Zyuganov as well as nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have competed in making far-reaching promises to enhance Russia's might and international influence to the electorate still nostalgic for old Soviet power and prestige.

There are grounds for concern that these electoral slogans and promises may develop into permanent policy planks.