Prague, 31 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov are to meet next month (February 23) in Brussels to negotiate the future NATO-Russia relationship.
This will be the second round of negotiations, following the one held last week (January 20) in Mescherino near Moscow during which the two sides presented their "different approaches" to the issue.
NATO was then reported to have proposed to Russia a sort of a cooperative charter that would provide Moscow with privileges of consultation on specific moves by the alliance, but not a veto right. NATO was also said to have indicated its willingness to engage in revising a treaty on conventional forces in Europe and in negotiations on nuclear weapons to take into account Russia's security needs.
Russia's position was reported to have been rooted in demands that NATO should offer a binding agreement to provide Moscow with influence equal to any NATO member on anything affecting Russia's vital interest. That would include, above all, any expansion of NATO in the East.
The first round brought no tangible results, largely because of differences about the expansion issue. Russia, of course, was never expected to welcome NATO's enlargement plans. But it is still unclear what Moscow proposes to do about it.
This situation has not changed. Yesterday, Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin criticized the NATO plans in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos. "Any movement of NATO infrastructure to the Russian boundary would do no good," he said, adding that "there is no reason for any East European country, such as Bulgaria for instance, to join NATO on the mantra of enhancing its security."
But Chernomyrdin stopped short of even a hint of what would be Russia's response to such a move. "We understand that we have no veto and that we cannot tell people what to do," he said.
For his part, Solana told the Forum that NATO "does not want to isolate or marginalize Russia." And he said that "the countries that want to join NATO have the very same reasons that existing members have for n-o-t wanting to leave it."
This, above all, is the sense of security shared by all alliance members. But there is more. The membership in the alliance appears to many countries as a tangible proof of belonging in the family of democratic and politically stable nations. For the Easterners, in particular, it is also a gateway to the West, its institutions and its political and cultural environment.
Within last week alone, such Eastern government officials as Bulgaria's President Petar Stoyanov, Poland's Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Romania's Foreign Minister Adrian Severin reiterated during visits to Western Europe their countries desire and determination to join the Western alliance.
Earlier this month Ukrainian Security Council chief Volodymyr Horbulin said during a visit to Brussels that Kyiv hoped to join NATO at the beginning of the next century (2010). And within last week Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma said during separate visits to Poland and France that his country would "actively seek integration" with Central and Western Europe. This appears to mark a major political turnaround for Kyiv, which, until recently saw Russia as what Kuchma called its "natural ally."
And then, there are other, equally striking developments. Two days ago a Finnish newspaper ("Helsingin Sanomat") published an interview with the country's Defense Minister Anneli Taine in which she said that Finland may have to "re-consider" its non-alignment policy in favor of possible NATO membership.
Taine said that if Sweden, also a neutral state, were to enter the alliance then Finland would have to think about joining as well. Last month (December) former Swedish Prime Minister and current EU representative in Bosnia Carl Bildt said in a newspaper article that Sweden should look at possible entry into NATO for both security and political reasons.
None of those developments is imminent. But it is increasingly clear that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been the bedrock of European security for more than four decades, is now and will likely remain the central axis of both transatlantic and pan-European cooperation for many years to come.