Brussels, 9 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - NATO is ready to take the final steps in establishing a new stabilization force for Bosnia (SFOR) and setting the date for a summit to announce the first Eastern countries to be admitted to the alliance.
A senior NATO official today told a press briefing that those are the main issues to be discussed at tomorrow's meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
The official said that operational plans for the establishment of the stabilization force had already been approved by all 16 NATO member states as well as those countries willing to take part in the Bosnia peacekeeping program. Some 17 non-NATO countries are likely to participate.
The official said that the 18-month long mission is to help consolidating and stabilizing peace conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The mission will become operational following approval by the United Nations.
Tomorrow's meeting is also expected to set the date for the alliance's summit. The NATO official said that the gathering will be held "toward the middle of 1997," but other senior diplomats have put the date at the first part of July.
The tentative agenda for the summit is said to include internal reorganization of the alliance's command structure and a decision admitting new members.
Other subjects likely to be discussed at the summit are a discussion of the expansion and streamlining of the Alliance's Partnership for Peace program and the consolidation of the Russia-NATO as well as the Ukraine-NATO relationships. NATO is planning to open an information office in Kyiv.
No specific decisions on any of these topics are likely to be taken at the foreign ministers' meeting. But the ministers are certain tomorrow to discuss and analyze the relevant factors, particularly the political as well as military and financial aspects of the prospective enlargement.
NATO officials are still reluctant to name potential Eastern candidates for membership in the alliance. But it is widely assumed that the Czech Republic and Poland are among the leading candidates. There are also reportedly discussions about Hungary and Slovenia. France is said to favor the acceptance of Romania as well.
There is speculation that once a selection of candidates is announced, the process of enlargement will speed up, leading to a formal signing of entry into the alliance within a relatively short time (perhaps even months). President Bill Clinton said during the electoral campaign that he expected several countries to become full members by 1999.
Recently, there have been several reports in the Western media that NATO is preparing a formal agreement, or a charter, on its relations with Russia. Only yesterday German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel was quoted by a newspaper as saying that Russia should be given a major permanent role in some political NATO councils.
Similar reports have appeared in the British media. "The Guardian" newspaper claimed that the alliance is likely to propose that Russia be given a "joint chairmanship" of a new political forum within NATO. The newspaper speculated that this would provide Russia with a right to veto some aspects of NATO political operations, including decisions on peacekeeping forces and non-proliferation of weapons.
The senior NATO official dismissed those speculations. He told the press briefing today that while various proposals had been made by officials of NATO countries, the alliance has not yet received any formal reaction to them from Moscow. The foreign ministers' meeting is not likely to act, he said, in the absence of Russia's clearly stated positions. But they may discuss general principles of cooperation and consultation with Russia.
The ministers are to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov on Wednesday, a day after their own meeting ends.
Diplomats have been saying that Russia may prefer to stay out of formal NATO agencies. They say that any agreement on membership in such bodies would make it difficult for Moscow to criticize the alliance's policies if these policies diverged from what Moscow considers as its political interests.
Diplomats say that Russia may instead insist on a strictly defined, formal agreement with NATO that would precisely define mutual rights and obligations.
But, the diplomats say, the alliance is unlikely to accept that position.