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Denmark's Defense Minister Supports NATO Expansion

Copenhagen, March 27 (RFE/RL) - Denmark's Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup says NATO expansion plans will go forward regardless of the results of the pending Russian presidential election.

Haekkerup told RFE/RL in a wide-ranging interview in Copenhagen yesterday that the worst case scenario for both the West and Russia itself would be a new Kremlin leadership dominated by nationalists or hard-line Communists. The best, he said, would be a genuine democratic government. But, he added, neither scenario is likely.

He said he expects the new Moscow leadership to be a regime with mixture of democratic and authoritarian trends. Regardless of whether incumbent President Boris Yeltsin or communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov wins, he said, Russia cannot modernize itself unless it works with the West, first and foremost in the economy, but also in the sphere of foreign policy.

Hans Haekkerup, a Social Democrat, has been the defense minister of Denmark since 1993. In the interview, he dismissed concerns that the recent treaty of union between Russia and Belarus jeopardizes prospective NATO membership for Poland, which shares a border with Belarus. He said that Poland has chosen to integrate with Western structures, a decision that is its right as a sovereign nation. Poland probably will be among the first Eastern countries to be accepted in NATO, Haekkerup said.

He said he favors gradual enlargement of NATO. He said that the alliance should avoid taking in a group of countries, while leaving others out. That would create an impression that new dividing lines are being drawn in Europe, the defense minister said.

Haekkerup said that the issue of stationing nuclear arms in Eastern Europe is an artificial question. The West has removed short-range nuclear missiles from Europe and has no intention of putting them back there, he said. Denmark is a founding member of NATO and during the Cold War was considered a front-line state. It has never had nuclear weapons or foreign troops in its territory. But it has agreed it would consider both in case of war.

He said that it is essential for the NATO peace-making operation in Bosnia to succeed in order to build greater understanding that NATO is a functioning body with purely defensive goals. In the Balkans, where NATO and Russian forces are participating side by side, the West is showing it does more than pay lip service to Russian concerns, Haekkerup said.