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NATO Enlargement Remains A Distant Goal

Brussels, Jan. 30 (RFE/RL) - Following yesterday's gathering of representatives from the 27 countries in NATO's "Parnership For Peace" program, a high-ranking NATO official told RFE/RL that "there is no blueprint" for NATO enlargement.

Nevertheless, NATO's chief spokesman Jamie Shey says the alliance will hold separate discussions with each of the countries that have expressed a desire to join. Shey says no decisions will be made this year, but that the discussions are designed to determine which states will be able to join before the end of the century.

Shey also says that the NATO-led peace-implementation force in Bosnia will be a laboratory for future cooperation.

Not everyone in the alliance seems so optimistic. Another high-ranking NATO official told RFE/RL: "The real test for NATO's credibility is not Bosnia - but the relationship with Russia." The official asserts that NATO is in disarray over its goals for eastern europe, and that it might have missed some opportunities.

Only two years ago, a poll conducted among Russian officers by the European Press Agency suggested most members of Russia's military had a favorable view of NATO. The poll found that less than a third of Russian officers regarded NATO with suspicion, while the other 70 percent thought membership in NATO would bring benefits to central and eastern Europe or to Russia. A majority of Russian officers, and especially young officers, thought NATO could bring Russia into global peace-keeping operations, and could help counter Islamic fundamentalism on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

In retrospect, some NATO officials now say they were overly cautious about eastward expansion.

Two years ago, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, General John Shalikashvili, rejected pressure from eastern and central European states for immediate NATO membership. Shalikashvili said that such requests were "premature." Instead, NATO founded the Partnership For Peace program.

Some eastern European leaders have said the program was a method of keeping their countries waiting - while NATO persuaded Russia that Moscow would have a future role in European security.

NATO officials say Russia has used the interim time wisely, with Moscow sharpening its opposition to NATO enlargement.

It was only last week that NATO's deputy secretary-general for political affairs, Gebhardt von Moltke, felt the need again to counter Russia's harch rhetoric. Von Moltke said Russian threats of forming a new military alliance, should NATO enlarge, "would revive antagonism, and throw Europe back to the past."

Some NATO officials say the West's view of the future was naive: an enlarged NATO with most of eastern europe as members, cooperating with a friendly Russia against a shrinking range of external threats.

But some observers now question whether a genuine concept of enlargement has survived the last two years.

NATO officials say that planning and discussions will continue in the absence of any real concensus among members on enlargement. They say they hope a clear policy will eventually emerge that will not be obsolete when the time comes to admit new members.