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NATO: Defense Ministers Discuss Bosnia and Russia

Bergen, Norway; 25 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- There appears to be general agreement among NATO leaders that some form of an international peacekeeping force should continue to operate in Bosnia next year. But there is also an agreement that the current IFOR force should conclude its activities by the end of the year.

The defense ministers of all 16 NATO countries met in the Norwegian city of Bergen today to discuss the issue. They will not make a decision whether to send a new force. But Jaime Shea, NATO spokesman, said today in Bergen that the ministers had agreed that sending some form of a new international peacekeeping should be "seriously considered."

Shea also said that the ministers had emphasized that such a force should have a limited and clearly defined mandate, if one is accepted.

The issue is complicated by the uncertainty of the U.S. participation in the venture. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry told a congressional committee last week that "sending an American unit back to Bosnia next year will pose a very substantial problem." But the European NATO allies have said repeatedly that they would not participate in the new force if the Americans are not there as well.

NATO relations with Russia were touched on only briefly today. They are to be discussed at length when Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov joins the meeting in Bregen tomorrow.

NATO has been reportedly preparing a "NATO and Russia Charter," an organization with a separate office and a mandate of providing Russia with a role in shaping future political and security decision in Europe. In return, Russia would be expected to accept a limited expansion of the alliance in the East.

The proposal is a subject of considerable negotiations within the alliance and between the alliance and Russia. It may be ready for a decision at a next year NATO summit meeting. The alliance is reportedly planning to invite Russian President Boris Yeltsin to that meeting.

The issue of the NATO-Russia charter was raised during the Bergen discussions. Several ministers, reportedly including Perry, were said to emphasize that the proposal should not be seen as suggesting even a potential wavering from the alliance's commitment to the eastern expansion.

During his recent trop to Sweden, Finland and Denmark, Perry repeatedly stressed that the alliance is and will remain an open organization and that it will accept new members from the East. He stopped short of saying who and when those new members will be accepted, but, in an obvious effort to allay the fears of the Baltic states that they would be left in the cold, he strongly asserted that an early acceptance of a few would not imply the end of the enlargement process.

Russia remains opposed to NATO enlargement, and is adamant in refusing even to consider the possibility that the Baltic states could become NATO members at some time in the future.

Two days ago, Russia's Secretary of National Security Council Aleksandr Lebed was quoted by an English newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) as saying Russia would consider economic sanctions against selected NATO countries if the enlargement takes place. He singled out U.S. and Germany as the principal potential targets of such sanctions. The Russian government subsequently denied that such sanctions have been considered. And Lebed has denied giving the interview.

But there is no doubt that Russia is opposed. Its leaders have repeatedly said so. This week alone Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov made the opposition public twice, in Vienna and New York.

The defense ministers indicated in Bergen that the alliance remains unswayed by those pronouncements.

In fact, both the eastward expansion and the NATO-Russia charter form part of NATO's broader strategic design which aims at reorganizing the alliance's internal operations and its external relations.

It focuses on the expansion of European participation in decision- and policy-making. Europeans are likely to assume important leadership roles in the alliance. France and Spain are to take full responsibilities in NATO military operations.

At the same time, the open-ended process of expanding in the East as well as the establishment of the NATO-Russia charter may provide a framework for a new European security system.

Speaking a few days ago with a western reporter (Guardian, Sept. 17) an unnamed NATO diplomat suggested that this may signal the emergence of a new NATO strategy of offering "something " for both to the Central and Eastern European countries and Russia. Some of the Central Europeans would get in, others would have a promise of a greater and closer involvement with the alliance but no security guarantees that come with full membership, and the Russians will get a voice in security policies.

But considering the sharply differing interests and aspirations of those countries, it is not clear whether this strategy will ever succeed.