Prague, August 9 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov says he is firmly opposed to the eastward expansion of NATO and that he has a firm hand on the helm of Russia's foreign policy.
Primakov made the remarks in an interview with Izvestia reporter Stanislav Kondrashov. It was published in today's edition of the Moscow-based newspaper.
In the interview, the foreign minister seems to rebut interpretations by the French newspaper Le Figaro and the U.S. newspaper The New York Times that Russia, and Primakov himself, are backing away from hard opposition to NATO enlargement.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a 16-member military alliance comprising the United States and nations of Western Europe. It formed in 1949 to counter what its members perceived as the Cold War threat to Europe posed by the Soviet Union.
Since the collapse of communism, NATO has sought to recast itself as a peaceful force for stability in Europe. It created the Partnership for Peace Program to involve Eastern and Central European nations in peacekeeping and other non-combatant military missions and exercises. It has declared an intent to consider countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for full membership.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin has taken a number of occasions, especially during the recent presidential election campaign, to declare his hostility to NATO enlargement.
But in July, Security Minister Aleksander Lebed said in an interview with the British newspaper Financial Times that he held no objections to NATO expansion.
"This mighty NATO fist is being developed to do battle with the air," he said.
Subsequently, Le Figaro (July 31) published an interview with Primakov.
"What is unacceptable (about NATO enlargement) is if a new military infrastructure sets up on our borders," he said in the interview.
His comments were interpreted in some Western news agency reports as signaling softened opposition to NATO growth eastward. Columnist Thomas Friedman then submitted written questions to Primakov and reported in The New York Times that he, too, heard a new openness in the minister's answers.
In today's Izvestia interview, Primakov appears to be trying to lay such speculation to rest. Here's what he says:
"Many people suppose that our hostility to NATO's expansion will now become softer, since electoral pressure in favor of this position has disappeared. . . . But I don't agree that our position will become softer. It has never ruled out compromise, but it will not become softer, because NATO expansion is seen by us unequivocally as a minus."
Assurances that NATO intends no threat to Russia are irrelevant, he said. Suppose Russia were to conclude a military alliance with Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba, he said. Wouldn't that provoke a negative reaction in the United States?
As Yeltsin was inaugurated today for his second term, Foreign Minister Primakov seemed to speak for the administration with self-assurance. He said that the Yeltsin government's foreign policy is firmly unified. He said Lebed and other senior ministers understand that "the Foreign Ministry is the interdepartmental coordinator of Russia's foreign policy court."
All the key ministers accept that the Foreign Ministry is the country's main foreign policy organ, he said. Primakov said that the Yeltsin administration is creating a Foreign Policy Council with the president as its chair and the foreign minister as its Number Two.
Evidently referring to the U.S. leadership of the West, Primakov told the Izvestia correspondent that Russia is committed "to try to balance the negative trends that could arise from the striving for a unipolar world."
Russia is in a weakened world position, he said. Russia cannot, and would not if it could, exercise the old Soviet leadership among third world countries.
"Everywhere there is a sense of commitment that Russia should be present as an active participant in advance," said Primakov.
The defense minister expressed satisfaction with a recent declaration in Moscow by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hennadiy Udovenko that Ukraine has no interest in joining NATO. He said that Russia must strengthen its relations with Ukraine, accepting Ukraine's relations with other countries and recognizing always that Ukraine is a sovereign, independent state.