Prague, 27 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- NATO leaders and Russian President Boris Yeltsin today signed in Paris an accord on relations billed as a starting point of a new era of cooperation.
Opening the signing ceremony, French President Jacques Chirac said that the cooperative Founding Act, as the accord is known, puts an end to "divisions created in Yalta." He referred to a conference held in 1945 in which Europe had been divided into Soviet and Western spheres of influence.
President Yeltsin called the occasion "an historic agreement and our mutual achievement."
U.S. President Bill Clinton said that the accord could pave the way towards "a new century with a new Russia and a new NATO," adding that "the veil of hostility between East and West is lifted."
Other leaders concurred.
But whether the accord sets the stage for a dramatic change in Europe's political map is still uncertain.
The Founding Act undoubtedly offers opportunities for such a development. It reflects political commitment of both sides "to build a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security." It sets up a Joint NATO-Russia Council to act as a forum for regular consultations on political and security issues. And it contains assurances that Russia security will not be affected by NATO's planned expansion in the East.
But the accord carries a basically political statement of intentions. It is not a formally binding treaty to be ratified by respective national institutions. It could be changed or even ignored by each side if and when their vital interests are affected.
There is no clear definition of the Joint Council's competence. It could emerge as a powerful institution, affecting operations of both sides. But it could also turn into a mere forum for debate and discussion.
The accord makes it very clear that NATO and Russia maintain complete freedom to act independently. Disagreements within the Council will not affect NATO and the North Atlantic Council -- the decision-making body within the Alliance -- freedom of decision. NATO's plans and operations will continue to be determined by the existing bodies within the Alliance. So will Russia's policies and activities be determined by the Kremlin.
Accordingly, Russia will not be able to block NATO action that it may oppose. The accord says plainly that NATO will expand, although the Alliance promises that this move is not designed or meant to endanger Russia. Moreover, there is not so much as even a hint that the process of expansion can be limited either in time or space.
The expansion is to produce a new, peaceful NATO. This point was subtly but clearly emphasized by President Clinton, who told the meeting that the "new NATO," inclusive of "new members," provides a guarantee to peace and stability in Europe.
The Alliance says that it "has no plans, no intention and no reason" to put nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members. It also promises restraint in putting conventional forces there. But these are promises, not formal obligations.
Russia has already said that the discussions about a new security order in Europe will continue after the signing in Paris. It hinted that the Founding Act itself is open to various, differing interpretations.
But the accent in Paris was on cooperation. Kisses, smiles, reassuring pats on arms were the order of the day. President Yeltsin surprised everyone by declaring, apparently at the spur of the moment, that Russia would disarm all nuclear missiles targeted at NATO countries.
The announcement caught the Russian military by surprise, with spokesmen for Defense Ministry and the Strategic Rocket Command telling reporters that they had neither heard about Yeltsin's declaration, nor knew what it meant.
The U.S. and Russia already agreed in 1993 no longer to target each other's cities. The State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns said today that Washington will asks Moscow for more details on Yeltsin's announcement.
In six weeks, July 8-9, NATO leaders will meet in Madrid to issue invitations to several Central European countries -- most probably the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- to open membership negotiations. The outcome will be formally binding. And is certain to introduce major and permanent changes to Russia's relations with Europe and the West.