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Central Europeans, Christopher Discuss Europe's Security

Prague, March 20 (nca/) - Foreign ministers of 12 Central European nations are meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher today to discuss Europe's security structure amid growing anxieties about political developments in Russia.

Christopher has said he wants to reassure the Central Europeans of continuing strong U.S. support for their independence and integrity.

He plans to make a major policy speech (at noon Prague time) laying out America's strategy for Europe.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity, says it will be a comprehensive presentation and that Christopher plans to speak about America's view of Russia's role in Europe, as well as that of NATO, Ukraine and the individual Central European states. "It's important that we be clear about our strategy and view of Russia's role," the official said.

The ministers present in the hall of Cernin Palac, the Czech Foreign Ministry, will represent the three Baltic states, Bulgaria and Albania, as well as Slovenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Romania, and Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Many of them would like to hear that the ominous rhetoric in Russia, and the apparently growing popularity of communist and nationalist forces there, may prompt the U.S. to extend Nato security guarantees to Central Europe and move more quickly to expand the Nato alliance.

However, although Christopher is expected to reaffirm a strong U.S. commitment to Nato expansion, he is unlikely to announce any policy changes. U.S. officials say there will be no acceleration of Nato's "prudent and deliberate course" on expansion.

That will come as a disappointment to many in the audience, especially to the Polish and Czech governments which have been outspoken in urging the U.S. and NATO allies to speed up the process of expansion for their countries.

Welcoming Christopher at Prague airport Tuesday, Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec spoke of the importance of today's conference, saying that at least this time, Czechs were a full partner in the discussion of Europe's future security, and it was not a case of "talks about us, without us."

His reference to the 1938 Munich conference which took place without then Czechoslovakia's participation and allowed Hitler to annex two-thirds of the country, reflects a growing nervousness in Central Europe that America is caving in to Russian objections to NATO expansion.

Christopher's speech is intended in large part to allay those fears. The unnamed U.S. official says Christopher will express concern about the resolution passed in the Russian Duma last week, which called for a reconstitution of the old Soviet Union.

In talks with Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma yesterday, before traveling to Prague, Christopher denounced the resolution as "reckless and irresponsible" and said "it was designed to give a sense of intimidation." He said "the resolution should be rejected by the entire international community."

He is expected to use similar language in today's speech, expressing clearly what kind of Russian activity is not acceptable to the United States.

U.S. officials strongly deny claims they are "soft" on Russia and give two major reasons for proceeding slowly with NATO expansion. They say that while Russia does not dictate the terms of NATO enlargement, it is necessary to give that country time to understand that expanding the alliance is not a threat and that strengthening European stability will enhance Russia's own position.

The U.S. official says Christopher will have "a very positive message that as Russia pursues democracy, it will become more integrated into the European community."

The second reason, say U.S. officials, is that longstanding NATO members are uneasy about changing NATO's scope and concept without a clear vision of all that will be involved, and also need time to explore fully the ramifications and criteria of expansion.

Christopher's speech will include a review of the progress made by Central Europeans since the collapse of communism and also of the obligations and responsibilities they take on as they mature into the western community, the official said.

He said Christopher will also review the situation in Bosnia and inform the ministers of his talks on Monday with the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, as well as reflect on the impact of the Bosnian war on European security.

The official says "Bosnia has posed the greatest danger to Europe but also shows Europe's ability to come together and deal with the crisis in cooperative ways." He says Russia and the U.S. have worked extremely well together in Bosnia.

After the speech, the Central Europeans will get a chance to express their own opinions and exchange views at a working lunch with Christopher.