Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The year 1996 is likely to be remembered as marking the start of a long-term program of shaping a new, comprehensive European security system.
The events of the year confirmed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the linchpin of the new system. Other international bodies, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), may also have important roles to play, but the Western Alliance is generally recognized as pivotal for the success of the program.
Initially, outlined at the 1994 NATO summit, the program envisages two simultaneous but separate processes. The first one is the enlargement of the Alliance through acceptance of new members. The second is the establishment of a cooperative security partnership between NATO and Russia, as well as Ukraine.
The program was formally accepted at the NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting at Brussels in December. It was partially approved by Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and fully endorsed by Central and East European officials.
NATO's international recognition as the leading security organization was significantly enhanced by its successful peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and the "Partnership for Peace" program.
In late 1995, NATO acted to end the four-year long war in Bosnia. The Alliance assembled an international coalition, uniting 16 member states and 13 other countries in a common peace-keeping cause. More than 60,000 troops served in the Intervention Forces (IFOR) under NATO command. Their presence was crucial for ending the bloody conflict. IFOR was successful in separating the warring sides, and it ensured and supervised the transfer of territory.
IFOR ended its operations December 20. But, NATO has set up a new numerically smaller, but more representative international force -- 17 non-NATO countries are to take part -- with a mission to stabilize the situation in Bosnia. All the non-NATO countries participating in IFOR agreed to remain in the Stabilization Force (SFOR). It commenced its work immediately after IFOR's dissolution.
The "Partnership for Peace" ("PfP") also proved successful. Set up in 1994, it held 16 major, international military exercises in 1996. In December, NATO Foreign Ministers approved a plan to involve all "PfP" members in the planning of the missions they join, as well as in the regular peace-time work of NATO's military authorities.
During 1997, NATO is planning to open a series of liaison offices in the "Partnership" countries. One of the earlier ones is planned to be opened in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
NATO's plans for eastward expansion, regarded as fundamentally important for creating a new security system in Europe, were more controversial.
Through a series of statements, NATO leaders and officials made it clear this year that the expansion was inevitable, and that it reflected a policy of opening the Alliance to all willing countries. This policy is to be gradually implemented, with the acceptance of new members staggered over time.
These plans were formulated in response to urgent pleas by numerous Central and East European countries. They have been vigorously and continually opposed by Russia.
For the Central and East Europeans, a drive to join NATO has been the guiding principle of their foreign and security policies. It has become linked in the minds of their political establishments, and large sectors of the populace, with the images of national independence and cultural identification with Europe and the West.
For Russia, a specter of the successful eastward enlargement of the Western Alliance has inspired fears about security and, above all, concern over a possible loss of prestige and influence in Central Europe.
During 1996, Moscow's diplomacy focused on preventing the expansion. The main thrust was directed at persuading the West the NATO enlargement would be both ineffective and counterproductive.
Seeking to attenuate Russia's fears of a sweeping and forceful enlargement, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry said in September that the alliance was unlikely to accept the Baltic states among the first entrants.
In December, NATO declared that it had "no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." But it also said that new members "will be full members of the Alliance in all respects, will be expected to support the concept of deterrence and the essential role nuclear weapons play in the Alliance's strategy."
And most importantly, NATO Foreign Ministers in December formally "decided to recommend" that next year's summit meeting, to be held in Madrid July 8-9, invites "one or more countries" to start entry negotiations. The ministers said that the new members are likely to be fully accepted by April 1999, NATO's 50th anniversary.
This entry schedule had been proposed by U.S. President Bill Clinton in October, and had been endorsed by several West European leaders.
Russia still remains opposed. Primakov told the NATO ministers in December that the enlargement would create "a new division in Europe." But he also said that Russia, "while being against enlargement," was ready to enter into negotiations with NATO about setting up some form of a cooperative relationship.
"NATO is an important organization and plays an important role in Europe," Primakov said, emphasizing that this recognition would provide the basis for Moscow's position.
Throughout 1996, NATO repeatedly declared its willingness to establish a forum for dialogue with Russia. It is still not clear what form this could take. Some officials talked about a "charter," others about "a political committee" that would provide Moscow with a direct access to some of the Alliance's decisions.
Early next year, probably in January, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana is to meet Primakov to open talks on the relationship. Both sides expect to conclude negotiations by the time of NATO's July summit.
Next year, NATO also intends to develop a close cooperative relationship with Ukraine in a way dependent on, and following the pattern to be established in the negotiations with Russia.
But NATO made clear, in a series of official statements by its leaders, that the process of the enlargement and its drive to seek rapprochement with Russia are not linked and are being developed separately. This was also acknowledged by Primakov.
All these activities form a part of a general effort to establish a lasting and comprehensive European security system. Its objective is to create, in the words of departing U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, "a stable, peaceful and unified Europe in the 21st century."