Prague, April 10 (RFE/RL) - Presidents Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and Boris Yeltsin of Russia have affirmed their intentions to improve relations, but their meeting yesterday failed to provide tangible agreements on any important issue.
The main stumbling bloc was the continuing difference of views on NATO's plans to expand eastward. Kwasniewski appears to have made clear that Poland intends to join NATO despite Moscow's opposition to the enlargement of the Western political and military alliance.
"Russia and Poland stuck to their positions on the possible expansion of NATO," said Yeltsin at a joint press conference after the talks. He added that "perhaps we will find a new path, an accord between NATO and Russia" to resolve the difference.
Kwasniewski said that Polish membership in NATO would be an "extension of pan-European integration measures begun in 1991." He was quick to emphasize that "Poland does not want to be in NATO against Russia," but showed no inclination to compromise.
No apparent signs of broader rapprochement between the two countries emerged from the meeting. Both presidents were reported to have exchanged polite greetings. Yeltsin expressed preference for dealing with Kwasniewski rather than former President Lech Walesa and Kwasniewski wished Yeltsin success in the forthcoming presidential elections. But no agreements were reached, other than an accord on youth exchanges.
The chairman of the Polish parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission, Bronislaw Geremek, who sat at the meeting, told Polish reporters that "one should n-o-t exaggerate the importance of this visit" and that it has not provided any "breakthroughs" in the Polish-Russian relations. Other members of the Polish delegation were said to have also been "disappointed" by this apparent lack of progress.
Kwasniewski's talks with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on trade were said to have been more successful. Both parties agreed to further expand economic relations after last year's major increases in commercial contacts.
During 1995, Russia emerged as Poland's third largest trading partner - after Germany and Italy - taking about 6 percent share of the Polish foreign trade. The turnover exceeded 3,000 million dollars, with Poland recording a trade deficit due to massive imports of Russian oil (42 percent of all imports from Russia) and natural gas (31 percent). But this time no new economic agreements were reached.
The apparent lack of progress in this week's talks reflected political uncertainty prevailing in each country. Russia is in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Poland remains preoccupied with internal divisiveness, made particularly acute by the emergence of the post-communists as a dominant force in the country. In this situation, any decisive departure in bilateral relations could seriously affect immediate conditions.
But these specific and seemingly momentary problems aside, the Polish-Russian political relations are increasingly determined by the issue of NATO enlargement.
For Poland, a drive to join NATO, as well as other Western institutions, has been the guiding principle of its foreign policy. It has become linked in the minds of the Polish political establishment, and the public as a whole, with the images of the national independence and cultural identification with Europe and the West.
For Russia, a specter of the successful eastward enlargement of the Western alliance has inspired fears about security and, above all, concern over a possible loss of prestige and influence in Central Europe.
During recent years, Moscow's diplomacy has focused on preventing the expansion. The main thrust has been directed at persuading the West that NATO enlargement would be both ineffective and counterproductive.
But considerable pressure has also been put on Central European countries. And there has been some degree of success. Belarus has declared itself opposed to the enlargement. Ukraine has called for caution in making any decision on the issue. There have been recent reports that government officials in Bulgaria and Romania could become receptive to Moscow's concerns.
But other countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states have stuck to their plans to join the West. This seems to determine their relations with Moscow.