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Press Review: NATO, Chechnya

Prague, Mach 22 (RFE/RL) -- Newspaper comment today focuses on the visit of American Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Moscow and tensions between Russia and NATO over NATO's plans to expand eastwards. The papers also look at the continuing war in Chechnya.

The Wall Street Journal says in an editorial that Christopher should "probably not expect the warmest reception in Moscow today -- and that's not such a bad thing." The editorial observes that Christopher is coming to Moscow after spending this week "doing something the U.S. should have done a long time ago: (providing) resolute support for NATO expansion and (condemning) those in Russia who want the resurrect the Cold War."

A news analysis in Britain's Financial Times observes that Christopher's visit to Moscow comes as Russian President Yeltsin has significantly hardened his line against NATO's expansion in the run-up to the June Russian Presidential elections. But Correspondent Chrysta Freeland predicts that Christopher will continue to stress in Moscow that NATO cannot indefinitely postpone admitting Central and Eastern European democracies as new members. Freeland concludes: "Western leaders, who have been effusive in their political and economic support for Mr. Yeltsin...have decided to draw the line when it comes to security issues."

NATO has decided "not to change course" on plans to expand the Alliance, says London Times. A news analysis by Richard Beenton observes that "less than three months to go before presidential elections and with the Communists leading the polls, Mr. Yeltsin must be seen to be taking a firm line with NATO, which is regarded with great suspicion by most Russians." But Beenton concludes: "despite the West's solid support for Mr. Yeltsin's re-election campaign, Washington and its allies have made clear that they are not willing to compromise on NATO."

Britain's Guardian observes that NATO may be wrong to have worried that pushing too hard for expansion before the Russian presidential elections could damage Boris Yeltsin's chances for re-election. Correspondent James Meek writes in a news analysis that "despite the efforts of Russia's Communists and nationalists to pin the blame for NATO's plans on Mr. Yeltsin, who five years ago suggested Russia should be a member, the issue remains a minor one in the presidential campaign compared to domestic miseries and relations with Russia's near-abroad."

Britain's Daily Telegraph warns that despite renewed US emphasis on expanding NATO, Moscow still may be able to force the Alliance to shelve the issue indefinitely "leaving the Central Europeans in a strategic limbo." Correspondent Alan Philips writes that "the Russians are plainly getting the best of the argument so far, partly due to the presence of a small Russian contingent in the NATO-led Bosnian peace force." Philips continues: "NATO knows that as soon as it...embraces the former satellites, the Russians will withdaw thier troops from Bosnia, thus freeing the Kremlin from duty to support the Dayton peace agreement."

France's Le Monde says that Christopher has made it clear before coming to Moscow that "the U.S. is determined to advance" with plans to enlarge NATO. The newspaper says Christopher told an audience in Prague this week that "no nation in Europe will ever again have to serve as a buffer zone between great powers, or be relegated to the sphere of influence of one country or another."

Turning to Chechnya, several papers today comment on fighting which continues in the breakaway republic despite Russian President Boris Yeltsin's recent announcement of plans to settle the conflict with a peace plan.

"Is there any logic left at the Kremlin?" asks France's Le Figaro. News analyst Laure Mandeville writes that "a month ago Boris Yeltsin stated with surprising frankness that pursuing the war in Chechnya would cost him the presidential election...and announced the imminent implementation of a peace plan." But she says, the plan has yet to be seen as the "president's advisors endlessly consider seven mysterious "variations" of the Chechen question, and all the time the war on the ground is growing in scale and savagery." Mandeville asks: "Should we conclude that the president has changed his mind...or that he has resolved to lose the elections?"

An article in France Le Monde expresses shock at the ferocity of recent Russian army attacks on villages in Chechnya. Correspondent Sophie Shihab writes that "for the last seven days, Russia has ceaselessly hammered several villages in southwest Chechnya with heavy weapons while humanitarian organizations and the press are kept away." Meanwhile, she says, Moscow has successfully kept the world's attention off what is happening in the republic. Shihab writes: "in Moscow, the focus is on diplomatic ballets, with a succession of (foreign) visitors this week, during which the war in Chechnya is not publicly mentioned." `Britain's Independent also expresses alarm at Moscow's policies in Chechnya. Correspondent Phil Reeves writes that Russian forces are trying to eliminate separatist activity by presenting Chechen villagers with the choice between handing over weapons or being shelled. He says that the "point of forcing villages to sign (such) agreements appears to be to isolate the rebels and to allow the Kremlin to tell Russian voters that peace has been restored." But Reeves warns, "the effect is the opposite, anti-Russian opinion is growing stronger (as is support among Chechens) for outright independence."

Hopes of a 'grand bargain' to settle all the conflicts in the Caucasus attract the attention of today's Financial Times. Correspondents John Thornhill and Bruce Clark note that this week Yeltsin "unequivocally endorsed" a proposal by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to try to settle the interlocking conflicts of the Caucasus simultaneously. The writers say that to many observers the idea of simultaneously settling disputes in Chechnya, Georgia, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia "sounds far too good to be true." But, they continue, "the disputes are intertwined and Mr. Shevardnadze's proposal is part of a careful strategy that involves strengthening ties between all the sovereign governments in the region so as to neutralize local enclaves and warlords."