Prague, 18 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Presidents Bill Clinton of the United States and Boris Yeltsin of Russia meet this Thursday in the Finish capital of Helsinki to discuss their countries' relationship for years to come. The stakes are high, but no breakthroughs are expected.
The meeting may touch on a broad range of cooperation areas extending from economic relations to scientific and cultural exchanges. But the talks are likely to focus on the issue of the European security system and NATO's plan to expand eastward, in particular.
The positions of each side are well established. Both admit and recognize continuing differences. But each professes willingness to find ways to cooperate. The meeting in Helsinki is another attempt to progress.
The United States proposes that NATO invite several Central European countries -- most likely Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- to begin accession talks. The invitation is to be issued by the NATO summit to be held in July in Madrid. Subsequently, other Central and East European states may be also invited to join the Western security Alliance.
Washington also proposes that NATO enter into a new close cooperative relationship with Russia, bringing Moscow into a security partnership with the Alliance, supporting democratic reforms in Russia and expanding effort to ensure progress in comprehensive arms control.
The United States insists that the issue of the cooperative partnership be kept separate from that of NATO's expansion. "This partnership is not something we do to compensate Russia for NATO's enlargement," Samuel Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor, wrote recently. Washington also says that the evolving NATO-Russia relationship should be set in terms of a political commitment rather than a formal treaty.
Russia remains opposed to any plans for NATO's eastward expansion. It has held this view for a long time. But Moscow appears to have recognized the inevitability of the move and has shifted its attention to gain the best possible terms in continuing negotiations with Alliance officials.
These terms seem to include demands for binding, formal NATO guarantees that nuclear weapons and Western troops will not be moved into the territory of new Eastern members. Moreover, Russia wants Western concessions in limiting deployment of conventional weapons in Central Europe. Moscow also wants acceptance into the select group of the most economically developed countries to gain a voice in influencing global economic trends.
Most of all, Moscow wants the West to recognize Russia as a global superpower. That much has been openly admitted by Russian leaders and ranking officials, and has provided the basis for their opposition to any NATO plans for eastward expansion. In the eyes of many Russians, both in the political establishment and in the public as a whole, Central and Eastern Europe was in the past and should remain their "sphere of influence." Any encroachment on this "sphere" is seen as a direct challenge to Russia's power status.
The Central and East Europeans have objected to this view. Polish, Czech and Hungarian officials have repeatedly refuted Moscow's arguments. They have expressed concern that Russia may simply want to restrict their independence.
Only yesterday, Czech Foreign Minister Jozef Zieleniec publicly criticized Russian threats of economic reprisals if Prague joined NATO. Also yesterday, Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma complained in a televised interview that Russia's aggressive policy toward his country is "pushing Ukraine in the direction of NATO." The Czech Republic was for decades, as Czechoslovakia, a member of the Moscow-dominated political and military alliance. Ukraine was a republic in the Moscow-centered Soviet Union.
The situation is different today, and Russia is certainly not in a position of the former Soviet Union. The Central and Eastern Europeans want to make certain that there will be no return to the past. The meeting in Helsinki should provide a further assurance that this will not happen.