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NATO: Analysis From Washington -- Toward a New Yalta?

Washington, 30 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A French proposal explicitly intended to prevent the establishment of new spheres of influence in Europe is certain to raise the specter of just such a possibility in the minds of many East Europeans.

Speaking to French ambassadors on Thursday, French President Jacques Chirac suggested that next year's NATO summit should be expanded to include not only all the East European countries who hope to join NATO but Russia as well. And he argued that such a meeting, currently scheduled to decide on the admission of new members, should focus instead on the reform of the alliance.

For many East Europeans, such a suggestion, which appears to echo Moscow's call for a "16 plus 1" accord between the current members of the alliance and Moscow prior to any NATO expansion eastward, seems certain to be extremely disturbing to many in Eastern Europe.

And Chirac only added to such worries by making a specific reference to an earlier East-West summit at which their fate was decided for 40 years: Yalta, the 1945 meeting of World War II allies that defined spheres of influence in Europe.

While Chirac said that his proposed meeting could eliminate "the remaining vestiges" of that earlier conference, his suggestion that NATO should invite the president of Russia to a meeting where the alliance would be discussing its expansion will only feed new concerns that the West is again prepared to make some kind of deal with Moscow concerning their future.

Such fears in turn are likely to be further exacerbated by three other comments that Chirac made:

Chirac suggested that he was "opposed to a limited enlargement of NATO" because it could split Europe by leaving some states outside of the alliance and thus at risk to unspecified pressures. But since no one is contemplating anything but a "limited" expansion of the alliance, Chirac's words appear to suggest that he may now be ready to oppose admission of any East European country to the alliance.

For Moscow, which continues to oppose NATO expansion eastward, that would be a major victory. But it is hardly one that will reassure many East Europeans.

In apparent contrast to his first point, Chirac said that France continued to have "the most positive attitude" to the admission of East European countries to NATO. Given his argument against limited enlargement, this notion would seem to imply that NATO should simultaneously reform itself and include everyone in Eastern Europe as a member -- including the Russians.

To the extent that such an arrangement would mean anything, most East European statesmen are likely to conclude, it would drain the alliance of any meaning and thus do nothing to prevent the emergence of regional powers dominating their smaller neighbors, precisely the situation that Chirac says he wants to avoid.

Third, the French president argued that Russia should be invited because it had chosen the path of democracy and reforms and thus no longer posed a threat to Europe of the kind that NATO had been created to contain.

While that may be true on one level, few of Russia's immediate neighbors in Eastern Europe, peoples who have had some experience with Moscow's behavior in pre-Soviet as well as Soviet times, are likely to be comfortable relying on Russia's supposed transformation as the basis of their security.

Chirac's proposal has not yet been accepted by anyone else in the alliance and may ultimately reflect nothing more than the French president's personal effort to deal with the complicated problems of NATO expansion and of Russia's role in Europe.

But by suggesting more directly than any other Western leader so far that Russia should be present when the question of NATO expansion to the East is to be discussed, Chirac has raised the specter of a new Yalta regardless of what he intended.