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Is Russia Changing Tactics On NATO Expansion?

Prague, Mar 15 (RFE/RL) - Russia has recently hinted that it might be willing to attenuate its opposition to expanding NATO eastward. But it is unclear whether this heralds a new departure in Moscow's policy, or merely a twist in negotiating strategy.

Russia's position was unveiled four days ago (Mar 11) during talks in Moscow between Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and his Hungarian counterpart Laszlo Kovacs.

Primakov was reported by the Russian media as having told Kovacs that "a possible compromise" between Russia's concern over NATO expansion and geopolitical interests of Central European countries might be found, if all sides made an effort to come to terms on the issue.

Primakov stopped short of providing any details, but suggested that one criterion of the compromise could be the Central Europeans' entry into the political rather than military structures of the western alliance. That they accept NATO's and Russia's security guarantees rather than seek full membership in the alliance. Another would be a decision by NATO n-o-t to advance the allied troops and weaponry to Russia's borders.

Kovacs subsequently told reporters in Budapest that Primakov hinted during the talks that Moscow notes a distinction between Central European aspirants to NATO membership which share a border with Russia (Poland) and those which do not (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia).

Primakov's remarks were followed in similar vein by lesser Russian figures. Deputy Chairman of Russia's Federation Council Vassily Likhachev told Kovacs that Russia would be willing to "coordinate" its geopolitical interests with Central European partners. And Mikhail Demurin, a senior spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday in Moscow that Russia "hoped" that a compromise on the issue of NATO expansion could be found. He went on to emphasize that this would open prospects for cooperation between Russia and Central European countries.

This apparently coordinated and highly publicized campaign suggests Moscow's growing interest in Central Europe. That much was confirmed by Primakov himself, who told the Polish television audience on March 13, the eve of his arrival for a visit to Poland, that Russia was "activating" its foreign policy toward Central Europe. He added that the area has become now a priority in Russia's foreign operations.

Central Europe has, during recent years, been relatively neglected by Moscow, which concentrated its attention on dealings with the West.

This apparently is to change now. Within the last two weeks Primakov has met foreign ministers of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Today he is in Poland.

At each occasion, Primakov emphasized the need to improve contacts, expand cooperation and smooth differences.

But there has been no indication that Primakov was willing to drop opposition to NATO expansion. He told each Central European minister that Moscow remains opposed to NATO military eastward enlargement. And he emphasized that Russia would use all diplomatic means at its disposal to prevent it from happening.

Conversely, each of the four Central European foreign ministers told Primakov that their governments remained committed to seek full membership in the western alliance. This would imply participation in b-o-t-h political and military structures of NATO, and the acceptance of all responsibilities - stationing of troops and weaponry - resulting from such membership.

This has been the long-standing position of all four Central European countries for some time. And there is no apparent likelihood that it would change in the foreseeable future.

Russia is certainly aware of that. And in this situation, Primakov's hints at a "compromise" appears as a possible attempt to drive a wedge between individual Central European countries, particularly between Poland, which borders on Russia, and the rest, which do not. If successful, this would complicate efforts by Central European countries to jointly enter western security institutions.

Russia could be particularly concerned about Poland's joining the western alliance because of the history of animosity between Moscow and Warsaw, as well as Poland's strategically important location between the East and the West. Poland is also the largest country in Central Europe.

But it is also possible that the hints of "a possible compromise" are really addressed to the Western members of the alliance, rather than to the Central Europeans themselves.

Moscow has long maintained that the decisions on entry will be taken in Washington and Brussels and not in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest or Bratislava.

The Russian diplomats are certainly aware that the issue of NATO enlargement is controversial in the West and there are almost as many opponents of the move as its proponents. To appear potentially flexible and accommodating, makes Russia look reasonable and well- intentioned. And this could be politically important in influencing the western debates on the issue.

Next week, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana visits Moscow (Mar 19-21). U.S. Secretary of States Warren Christopher is to arrive in the Russian capital March 21. The issue of NATO expansion is certain to be at a center of both Solana's and Christopher's conversations with the Russian officials.

This issue is also to provide a focus for a meeting between Christopher and twelve Central European foreign minister to be held in Prague next week (Mar 20-21).

Speaking yesterday in Prague, Czech Deputy Defense Minister Petr Necas said that the current year will be "very fundamental" in the process of further rapprochement between Central Europe and NATO. Not many people are likely to quarrel with that opinion.