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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.