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Bonn Minister Says NATO Enlargement On Schedule

Munich, Feb 22 (RFE/RL) - Germany's defence minister Volker Ruehe says the expansion of NATO will go ahead, despite the opposition of Russia. In Ruehe's view, concrete negotiations with some of the applicants could begin next year.

In an interview published today by the Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung," Ruehe says: "our eastern neighbours can rest assured that the NATO alliance remains on a stable course in regard to the expansion process. One can expect the first negotiations on new members in 1997."

Ruehe said NATO's determination to expand its membership was not open to question. "The opening process has begun and is irreversible," he told the newspaper.

Ruehe's comments were published today to coincide with his visit to Poland, where he is expected to be questioned about Germany's position on the expansion of NATO, following comments by Russian President Boris Yeltsin after talks in Moscow with Germany's chancellor Helmut Kohl.

After meeting Kohl, Yeltsin said: "Russia opposes the eastward expansion of nato to the Russian borders. The Russians know exactly what NATO is."

Ruehe responded to this today by saying not everyone realised that Nato had changed, and was continuing to change. Ruehe said the new NATO put the emphasis on cooperation, and the eastward transfer of stability. The Defence Minister said an example could be found in the cooperation between Russian and NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia, which, he said, was working well.

"I hope that as many Russians as possible learn as much as possible about the partnership between NATO and Russia there," he said. Ruehe said good Russian cooperation with NATO would improve the stability of the situation on Russia's borders.

He said the same applied to Ukraine and Belarus. "In general, the more intensive the partnership, then the more the defence element slips into the background."

Germany's Defence Minister noted Yeltsin's comment that NATO expansion should be postponed for a long time. He said that in any case, NATO would take no new decisions until December this year, when the NATO council will announce the next steps.

Ruehe said the eastward expansion of NATO would take place in close cooperation with the eastward expansion of the European Union. As for the date of actual entry into NATO, he referred to a speech made by Kohl in Warsaw in summer last year.

He quoted Kohl as saying: "We Germans support with the deepest conviction the Polish desire to be accepted into the European Union and NATO. With that I mean entry in this the end of the century."