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Crans-Montana Forum To Discuss Russia, Middle East

Crans-Montana, June 19 (RFE/RL) - Leading politicians from all over Europe will meet in the Swiss mountain resort of Crans-Montana for the next four days to discuss the situation in Russia, relations between eastern Europe and the European Union and other topical issues.

Among them is the possible effect of the Israeli elections on the Middle East peace process. Even before the conference begins tomorrow afternoon there will be a private meeting between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was defeated in the recent elections.

The Crans-Montana Forum, as it is officially called, will hold a special memorial session tomorrow evening to honor the assassinated former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The Crans-Montana Forum is an annual event. The participants include both current political leaders and those who were prominent in the past. But Swiss foreign minister Flavio Cotti emphasised today that the Forum rarely seeks concrete decisions on any issue.

"It is an opportunity for people to talk things over," he said. Sometimes it leads to concrete action but more often it helps improve the atmosphere and create conditions which lead to action sometime later."

Conference officials declined to say who would represent Russia following Sunday's elections but said a number of Government participants from both East and West Europe wanted private talks with Moscow's representatives.

A Swiss official said that "Everyone wants to know where Russia will go if Yeltsin wins the second round but has Alexander Lebed as a powerful partner".

The turmoil over Albania's recent elections is not on the official agenda but is expected to be discussed. Albanian president Sali Berisha has told the conference organisers he will attend but it was still uncertain today when he would arrive.

The Forum agenda includes several formal sessions each day but leaves plenty of time for delegates to talk in private rooms or to go for walks in the pine woods which cover the mountain above the town. There is even an elegant golf course across the road from the conference centre for those who want to discuss problems over a golf game.

Not all the formal discussions are political. One of them is titled: "Central Europe - a partner for the 21st century" and is expected to focus on economic issues. The listed speakers include a specialist from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as well as experts from Poland and Croatia.

Another topic on the formal agenda is titled "Central Europe and Democracy". Both government and opposition politicians from most East and Central European countries are expected to join the debate. Germany, France and the European Union have said they will participate strongly in the discussions on relations between Eastern Europe and the European Union.

There is a special debate on Friday morning on co-operation in the Baltic region with contributions from Sweden, Poland and Estonia to start the discussions.

But many issues not mentioned in the formal agenda will be discussed. The Swiss foreign minister, who is also the current chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), hopes to arrange another round of private bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Senior politicians from both nations are expected at the conference.

The OSCE sponsors the peace negotiations which have made little concrete progress since they began in 1992. The United States negotiator on Nagorno-Karabakh, Joseph Presel, is also expected to attend the conference and will almost certainly hold his own talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Earlier this year Presel and other U.S. negotiators unsuccessfully tried to persuade Armenia and Azerbaijan to accept the broad outlines of a peace plan.

The Crans-Montana Forum ends on Sunday afternoon with an address by former French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur looking forward to what may be expected in the new century which begins in four years.