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Eastern Europe: NATO Accelerates Moves To Reassure Russia

By Malgorzata Alterman

Brussels, 9 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- NATO is speeding up the process of developing closer ties with Moscow in order to pave the way for enlargement of the alliance to countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

After a flurry of high-level meetings between German and Russian leaders, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana meets Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov later this month and Defense Minister Igor Rodionov will have an unprecedented meeting with his 16 NATO counterparts in the Norwegian city of Bergen.

The alliance has high hopes that those meetings will lead to a breakthrough that would persuade Moscow to drop its objections to NATO's eastward enlargement.

NATO officials in Brussels say work on a special charter formalizing the relationship between the North Atlantic alliance and Russia is well under way. The idea of such a charter was first publicly endorsed by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel last month.

On Friday, in a major foreign policy speech delivered in Stuttgart, Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed enthusiastic U.S. approval of the idea, promising that Russia would be NATO's "full partner in building a new, post-Cold War Europe free of tyranny, division and war."

NATO experts worked through the summer to come up with some proposals that would satisfy both sides. Last week NATO ambassadors spent their first working session after the holidays discussing how to enhance the existing "16 plus one" mechanism for special consultations with Russia without it becoming a member of the alliance.

"The Russians have been indicating for a long time that they are not satisfied with the 16 plus one formula. They say that in this arrangement, Russia is not treated as a partner but as an invited outsider," said a spokesman.

It is also mainly the Russians who insist on a formal pact or charter taking into account Moscow's weight in world affairs and distinguishing it from eventual NATO partners from Central and Eastern Europe that are now waiting to join. Moscow apparently also wants to have some kind of "hot line" to NATO headquarters in Brussels. NATO has already given a Russian military mission office space at its Brussels headquarters, and is seeking a similar NATO presence in Moscow.

Moscow has also urged that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which operates by consensus and in which Russia like all other member countries has the ability to block action, be beefed up. Moscow has even suggested subordinating NATO to the OSCE, which holds a summit meeting in Lisbon at the end of this year. But it is clear that all present and future NATO members -- who are also members of the OSCE -- would never seriously consider such an idea.

Most NATO members have preferred to offer an enhanced dialogue with Russia, worried that the process of ratification of a formal treaty by national parliaments of the member states and the Russian Duma could only delay the process. Germany, for example, has suggested that NATO set up a special committee on Russia that would take into account Moscow's desire for a strong role in alliance affairs. One NATO official who spoke with RFE/RL but wished to remain anonymous, said that Bonn had been urging its NATO partners to abandon the 16 plus one formula and start referring to "17," in deference to Russia's sensitivity on the matter.

Enthusiasts of the concept of a "harder commitment" have clearly won because in his Friday speech, Christopher formally announced that a special summit of NATO leaders -- due to be held some time in the first half of next year to deal with enlargement -- will approve an alliance charter with Russia.

NATO officials working on the project admit that the alliance wants to clarify long-term arrangements with Moscow before it moves ahead with enlargement. They say that the two processes should coincide in time eventually. As a result, the mood in Brussels is rather optimistic, with officials now believing that Russia has slightly softened its stand on enlarging the alliance -- if only for the moment, they add, in regard to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Their optimism was reinforced on Saturday when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told reporters, after meeting with President Boris Yeltsin outside Moscow, that both were of the opinion that the question of enlargement "can and must be settled during 1997." Kohl said that he had briefed Yeltsin on recent NATO discussions of the issue. The German position, he stressed, remained that "nobody should have a veto right over (the enlargement) question."

A lot is expected from the NATO meetings with Primakov and Rodionov because NATO foreign ministers are to consider the enlargement issue at their annual meeting in Brussels in December -- a sort of dress rehearsal for the 1997 summit due to be held in late spring or early summer. The ministers will not be taking any final decisions in their two-day meeting on December 10 and 11, but will want to be sure that the road ahead is clear.

The Czechs, Poles and Hungarians may feel disappointed that more attention is being paid to Moscow than to them at the moment -- until recently they thought that NATO would name the first candidates for negotiations this year. However, the consolation is that the extra few months may mean that a new security map in Europe has Russia's blessing.