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Christopher To Travel To Moscow Today

Prague, March 21 (RFE/RL) - U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is scheduled today to fly to Moscow for two days of wide-ranging talks with top Russian officials on nuclear issues, ties with NATO, and the situation in Bosnia, as well as arms control.

On his way to Prague airport, Christopher is to visit the headquarters of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which have just completed their first year of broadcasting from Prague. The Radios moved there from Munich last March.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns says that when he arrives in Moscow, Christopher and Russia's foreign minister Yevgeniy Primakov plan to have a private dinner tonight to prepare for full-scale talks and a meeting with president Boris Yeltsin tomorrow.

Christopher has said one of the topics he will raise will be "the positive contribution Russia can make to European security."

At a meeting with foreign ministers from Central Europe yesterday, Christopher delivered a keynote policy address urging Russia to develop closer ties with Europe and NATO. "It is critical that Russia take its rightful place in the new Europe," Christopher said.

He praised Yeltsin for rejecting a Duma vote to restore the Soviet Union and for understanding in Christopher's words that "Russia's interests lie in treating all its neighbors as equal, sovereign partners in an integrated Europe."

Earlier yesterday, Czech foreign minister Josef Zieleniec suggested that Russia's opposition to NATO expansion is lessening and that the Russian government is now seeking "new ways to approach NATO expansion in a more open fashion."

However, the U.S. would reject any attempts by the Russian government to place restrictions on NATO membership for Russia's neighbors.

Christopher said firmly that "this is no time to talk about deals or qualified membership." U.S. officials say all potential new NATO members, including the Baltic states, would have full NATO responsibilities and receive full guarantees.

In Moscow today, Christopher also hopes to meet NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, who is visiting there for the first time, on a mission to ease Russian concerns about NATO expansion.

Reports from Moscow said Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev has told Solana that Russia is interested in finding closer forms of cooperation with the western alliance.

The U.S. has long urged Russia to develop more fully a special relationship with NATO, established in documents Russia signed on joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program in June 1994.

Christopher sees the Partnership as the main vehicle for expanding military cooperation and reducing the level of distrust and suspicion on both sides.

Burns said that all the Central European foreign ministers recognize the importance of NATO ties with Russia and expressed support yesterday for the U.S. approach.

Christopher said in his address that Russian and U.S. troops are working well with one another on peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and that their cooperation can be a model for similar joint activities in the future.

He visited Nato headquarters in Brussels last week and told the foreign ministers that Russian officers now work alongside NATO members in a building where the allied western powers once planned to defend Berlin against Soviet attack.

Christopher says that in addition to NATO expansion and European security, he plans to discuss with the Russian side preparations for next month's summit of the G-7 group of wealthy democracies on nuclear safety. Russia is hosting the meeting in Moscow

The U.S. has requested that Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma be invited to the summit to speak about plans to close the Chernobyl nuclear reactor complex by the year 2000.

U.S. officials said Russia was initially reluctant but gave in to U.S. pressure and that Kuchma will address a special luncheon meeting of the G-7.

Christopher hopes to meet also with people outside the government during the two days he will be in Moscow. U.S. officials said he may have talks with several candidates running in the June presidential elections.

Before leaving Moscow on Saturday, Christopher will attend a meeting of the five-nation Contact Group with Balkan foreign ministers, being held for the first time in Moscow.

He is scheduled to end a ten-day tour of Europe on Saturday and return to Washington.