Prague, June 24 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin took his re-election campaign to Belarus and Kaliningrad this weekend to woo nationalistic and military voters.
Speaking two days ago (June 22) in the west-Belarus town of Brest, Yeltsin restated his opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO.
"The extension of the NATO bloc," Yeltsin said, "its approach to the borders of the community of Russia and Belarus, alarms our peoples."
Both the location and the theme appear to have been carefully chosen. As was the timing. Brest is the site of a battle between Soviet and Nazi German troops that took place shortly after Hitler's attack against the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was speaking at exactly the 55th anniversary of the attack.
Yeltsin linked the NATO enlargement plans with the memory of the Nazi invasion. "Our peoples want no more confrontation," he said, "no more dividing lines through the continent." And he added that both Russia and Belarus "are for a unified and pacific Europe." Three months ago (April 2) the two countries reached an agreement on integrating their policies and setting up joint institutions.
Both Yeltsin and Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have frequently expressed their common opposition to NATO enlargement to the East, although they might have differed on various aspects of domestic Russian and Belarus politics. Only four days ago (June 20) Lukashenka told Russian reporters that he would call a nationwide referendum on NATO expansion. He failed to say what effect such a referendum could have on NATO decisions.
Yeltsin's criticism of NATO plans provided just one of a very few occasions that a foreign policy issue has been mentioned in the election campaign. Until now the contest has been dominated by domestic problems.
As the Russian president spoke in Brest, near the Polish-Belarus border, in Poland's capital city, Warsaw, NATO leaders and political as well as military representatives of some 30 countries were winding down a major alliance conference.
The conference provided an occasion for Central European leaders, including presidents Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, to restate their determination to join NATO. It also brought assurances from top NATO officials, including Secretary General Javier Solana and Supreme Allied Commander General George Joulwan, that no third country would be allowed to influence the alliance's decisions on enlargement.
The holding of the conference in Poland, a country bordering on both Belarus and Russia (with the Kaliningrad region) might have played a role in Yeltsin's choice of venue for his remarks. But a more important factor, it seems, was the president's intent to use the occasion to emphasize nationalist tenets in his campaign.
This impression was reinforced by Yeltsin's remarks during the visits to Kaliningrad and the Baltiysk naval base. Yeltsin told the crowds in Kaliningrad that the city, which used to be German, is and will remain a part of Russia. And he assured the sailors in Baltiysk that "it was here in the Baltic region that Russia reinstated itself as a great maritime and naval power, and it will continue this role in the future."
Similar arguments and appeals have been used by nationalistic candidates in the election campaign before the first round of the balloting. Yeltsin seemed intent fully to appropriate that theme now.
Yeltsin reinforced his nationalist credentials by complaining about of Russian nationals by the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Both countries have large ethnic Russian minorities. These minorities mostly were denied citizenship rights after the Baltic states regained independence in 1991. "Guaranteeing the basic rights and freedoms of our compatriots there is a priority for me," said Yeltsin. He stopped short of providing details.