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Split Over NATO Expansion Surfaces at Weekend Conferences

Prague, Feb 5 (RFE/RL) - Russia and the West continue to disagree on the issue of NATO enlargement to the east. Moscow strongly opposes the move while Western countries present expansion as an inevitable necessity.

These contending views were again made public during the weekend "Wehrkunde," an international conference of foreign and security experts held annually in the German city of Munich.

Representing Russia's government, Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin told the meeting that Moscow remains "unambiguously" opposed to NATO's enlargement plans. He went on to say that this feeling is shared by both the Moscow political establishment and ordinary Russians to whom these plans "represent a historical injustice." Russia had "withdrawn to the east," Kokoshin said, recalling the collapse of the Soviet Union, "but now NATO wants to push us even further." He then added that the prospect of NATO approaching Russian borders "aggravates in Russia the feeling of vulnerability with unpredictable political implications" that could spark a popular backlash against reforms.

Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement was expressed in even more stringent terms in an official position paper that Kokoshin distributed to the delegates before his speech. The paper denounced the enlargement plans as designed to deliver "a final blow to the Cold-War enemy." It claimed that these plans breach commitments that NATO would not expand eastward, allegedly made by the West in 1990 when the former Soviet Union agreed to German reunification. And Kokoshin's paper threatened that the implementation of these plans would trigger a new era of "dangerous confrontation" between Russia and the West.

In response, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry said at the conference that the West remains determined to press ahead with the enlargement plans. "NATO enlargement is inevitable," Perry said, adding that Russia should "come to understand that (the move) means enlarging a zone of security and stability" in Europe. Perry said that "this is very much in Russia's interest and not a threat to Russia." But he also added that the process of enlargement will have to be "gradual and deliberate."

Perry's remarks were endorsed by Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He emphasized that the desire of Eastern Europeans to join NATO "is legitimate," but the West must also "consider Russia's security interests. This view was echoed by France's Defense Minister Charles Millon, who said that "it will be difficult for NATO to survive without opening up for other countries to join, and concluding a security agreement with Russia."

There was no indication at the Munich conference that the West was close to placating Moscow's hostility to the NATO enlargement plans. Indeed, at almost the same time, Russian politicians were busy pressing their arguments at other forums.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos, Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov warned that any move to expand NATO in the east would have "disastrous consequences for world security." Zyuganov specifically mentioned that this could jeopardize Russia's ratification of the START-II nuclear arms reduction treaty, and could endanger other disarmament agreements as well.

Meanwhile, in Poland's capital Warsaw, Russian delegates at a round-table conference on Poland-Russia relations told their Polish hosts two days ago that Moscow "will do everything to block the NATO expansion." One of the Russian participants in the conference, Sergei Karaganov, who serves as an advisor to Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, told the Poles that Moscow "has embarked on a diplomatic offensive" to persuade the West to drop the NATO plans.

Warsaw was reported by Polish media to have rejected the Russian position.And so, there is no prospect for change in the protracted dispute. At least not for the time being.

The NATO position is that the alliance will be enlarged, but the cooperation with Russia must also be developed. A decision about when to enlarge, and where, has been put off until next year. That was determined by NATO foreign ministers at their meeting two months ago at their Brussels headquarters.

Eastern and Central European countries continue to press for speedy acceptance into the alliance. But Russia remains opposed to any moves in that direction. It is unlikely that these positions will change any time soon.