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Eastern Europe: France Goes On Diplomatic Offensive

Prague, 6 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Today's meeting in Paris between Foreign Minister Herve de Charette and the leaders of Serbia's Zajedno (Together) democratic opposition movement is the latest of a series of recent French Government moves designed to strengthen its influence in Eastern Europe.

Almost certainly, there are more such moves to come in a diplomatic offensive initiated by France's independent-minded President, Jacques Chirac.

France's invitation to the Zajedno triumvirate of Zoran Djindjic, Vuk Draskovic and Vesna Pesic was the first of its kind from any Western nation. It was matched yesterday by de Charette's British counterpart, Malcolm Rifkind, who said he will receive the three leaders in London later this month.

Announcing the Paris meeting Monday, de Charette said it to amounted to official "recognition" of the opposition movement. The Minister underlined that, in their protracted confrontation with President Slobodan Milosevic, the three leaders had "demonstrated their maturity." Analysts said that France was seeking to demonstrate something as well --that it intended to play a larger role in evolving democratic change in Serbia, its historic Balkan ally.

The same is true of other recent French actions and rhetoric in Eastern Europe. Yesterday, after receiving Romania's new President Emil Constantinescu in Paris, Chirac said France would "plead strongly with its allies for Romania to be among the first four or five countries to join NATO." In Brussels, NATO officials confirm that France has been pushing Romania's candidacy since November, when Constantinescu was elected and a new government without ties to the old Communist regime was installed in Bucharest. Romania also has a historic close relation with France.

Chirac is due to make an official visit to Romania in two weeks, the first Western leader to visit the country since the November elections. In recent months, he has made similar visits to Poland and Hungary, proclaiming in both nations his assurance they would become members of the European Union by the year 2000. Chirac is scheduled also to visit the Czech Republic in early April.

Last but far from least, Chirac has been seeking to position France as a close ally and supporter of Russia -- another historic French relation the President seems set on resuscitating.

On Sunday Chirac, who speaks some Russian, spent three hours with President Boris Yeltsin outside of Moscow. He emerged to tell the world, unconvincingly, that his "friend Boris Nicolayevitch" had surprised Chirac by his quick recovery from heart surgery and pneumonia. He added, somewhat mysteriously, that an agreement between Moscow and NATO on the Alliance's expansion and its future relations with Russia "could come even before (NATO's scheduled) Madrid summit" in July.

Yesterday, the mystery was solved. A flurry of press agency reports revealed that France had for some time been promoting the idea of a five-power April summit in Paris that would discuss not only NATO's enlargement but elements of a future European security system.

With apparent support from Bonn, Chirac wants the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain and France first to establish the broad lines of an agreement with Moscow on NATO expansion. The summit he envisions, however, would deal not only with the Alliance's future relations with Russia. It would also discuss a new treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe that would take greater account of Russia's security needs -- particularly in the Caucuses -- and possible increased economic assistance for Moscow through the Group of Seven industrialized nations..

But no sooner was Chirac's idea publicly floated than it was shot down by both the United States and some of NATO's small member states, which don't like the notion of being excluded from Alliance decision-making. In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns chose to use their feelings to pour cold water on France's initiative. Burns said that "the views of all NATO members, large or small, must be considered." He added that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had conveyed the U.S. position to Belgian Foreign Minister Erik Dericke, with whom she had met yesterday, and that the two agreed "NATO must remain unified" on this issue.

With the notion of a Paris April summit now efffectively dead, where does that leave Chirac's East European diplomatic offensive? French analysts say that Chirac will continue to speak out and, to the extent possible, take initiatives that reinforce Paris' position in the area. Commentator Alain Bescanson explained this morning that Chirac wants to re-establish French political influence in Eastern Europe to offset Germany's economic predominance in the area.

Others, more critical, say that the April Paris summit idea was just another example of the French President's tendency "to act before thinking things through." But all agree that the episode is not likely to change Chirac's mind about enhancing France's ties with Eastern Europe and Russia.