Washington, 21 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The first organizational meeting of the NATO-Russia council suggests that Moscow is likely to have more than a voice but less than a veto in future decisions by the Western alliance.
And Friday's session seems certain to exacerbate rather than end the debate between those like U.S. President Bill Clinton who insist that the council gives Russia a voice but not a veto in NATO affairs and others, like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who argue that Moscow has gained an effective if not explicit veto.
On the one hand, the body's inaugural session had to be delayed from Thursday to Friday because the Western alliance refused to give in to a Russian demand for a modification of the May 27 founding act that established the council.
That accord calls for body to have three co-chairmen -- the NATO secretary general, a representative of Russia, and a representative of NATO member countries, selected on a rotating basis.
Russian ambassador Vitaliy Churkin argued that there should be only two co-chairmen, one representing the alliance and another representing Russia. NATO members refused to agree. And their insistence on this point appears to support the claim that Russia will not have a veto in this body.
But on the other hand, the alliance did concede that the chairmanship would rotate among the three session by session.
On Friday, that concession to Moscow meant that NATO Secretary General Javier Solana chaired one part of the meeting, the NATO member representative -- in this case, the Belgian ambassador -- another, and the Russian ambassador the third.
Critics who argue that the NATO-Russia founding act gives Moscow a veto over NATO's actions are likely to see this diplomatic arrangement as a confirmation of their position.
But in fact, the outcome of Friday's meeting fails to provide a complete vindication for the position of either side in this debate. Rather it suggests that the new council will give Russia more than simply a voice but is unlikely to give it a genuine veto if NATO leaders are prepared to stand their ground.
There are three reasons for drawing this intermediate conclusion. First, the NATO countries are very publicly committed to making this forum work. And their very commitment to this dictates that Russia will seek to expand its influence by making demands confident that NATO countries will not want to be blamed for any breakdown in the talks.
Second, the likelihood that NATO will seek to adapt its position so as to avoid antagonizing Russia will extend not only to those issues that NATO agrees to include on the agenda of the council but also to those NATO leaders may feel should not be discussed there.
At the next session of the council on September 11, NATO and Russia are scheduled to discuss Bosnia. When talking about that issue with Moscow, NATO countries will find it hard to segregate out military issues that they have said will not be discussed by the joint council. As a result, Russia will gain influence over matters that the founding act says it has no role.
Moreover, Moscow will be able to extend its voice on issues NATO might refuse to discuss in the joint council by linking agreement on something discussed there to a NATO concession on matters that the council had never had before it.
And the expectation that the Russian government will do that is likely to become an implicit part of the calculations of NATO planners. That too will mean that Russia's voice will only grow with time.
And third, as the procedural debate makes clear, NATO can block or simply ignore Russian demands if the alliance is united and if its most important members indicate that they are prepared to stand up to Moscow on any point large or small.
That possibility means that Russia does not have the simple veto that President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov have claimed.
But the certainty that Russia will exploit both divisions within the alliance and the desire of many of its members to reach agreement almost certainly means that this council will give Russia a much larger and more influential voice than the text of the May 27 founding act suggested.