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Baltic Security Tops Agenda of Swedish Prime Minister

Washington, August 6 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the three Baltic states will be an invisible presence at talks today between Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson and President Bill Clinton.

Baltic security, say Swedish officials, is the main item on Persson's agenda.

Before leaving for Washington, Persson consulted with the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All have been outspoken about fears of renewed Russian claims on the Baltics and have expressed concern they will be left out of planned NATO expansion, largely because of western acquiescence to Russian objections.

Nevertheless, Persson is not expected to press for Baltic membership in NATO. A spokesman for Sweden's Washington embassy told RFE/RL that Sweden cannot advocate expansion when it is not itself a NATO member.

Persson is expected to ask Clinton for U.S. support in prodding the European Union to stop dragging out the process and quickly accept the Baltic states as new members in the EU.

This approach is in line with long-standing U.S. policy encouraging the newly democratizing countries to integrate with Western institutions, particularly when NATO membership is not an early option, say Washington analysts.

Although the United States and NATO allies continue to insist that all nations participating in NATO's intermediate Partnership for Peace program will be eligible for full NATO membership, it is generally acknowledged that the Baltic countries will not be among the first to be allowed to join NATO.

But neither the Americans nor the Scandinavians want the Baltics to become an unstable, security "grey zone" that could encourage Russia to reassert control.

After a meeting with Persson, Estonian President Lennart Meri said in a press statement Monday that Sweden and Estonia recognize they have common security interests that require "a trans-Atlantic partnership."

"Only in mutual, as well as trans-Atlantic partnership will it be possible to defend common interests specific to the Baltic Sea region," said Meri.

His statement suggests European Union membership would be a welcome start but not the final answer to the Baltic region's search for security.

According to Meri, Persson will convey this message to Clinton and report back to Estonia on the outcome.

But it's unlikely Persson will be able to tell Meri or the presidents of Latvia and Lithuania, what they really want to hear--an explicit commitment to guarantee their security.

U.S. policymakers have been pondering the Baltic problem for months, seeking a way to strengthen regional security without contributing to Russian insecurity.

U.S. officials say a report for the White House on U.S. Baltic strategy is nearing completion, but they give little hint of its recommendations.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials reiterate at every opportunity that Baltic sovereignty, territorial integrity and security are very important to the United States. That is likely to continue to be the tenor of public statements today.