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Russia/US: Mixed Feelings Before Helsinki Summit

Moscow, 14 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Less than a week from a Russia-U.S. summit, diplomats in Washington and other Western capitals share growing optimism that Russia and NATO have progressed toward a new partnership. But in Moscow, there are conflicting signals about the government1s readiness to sign an agreement on relations under terms proposed by NATO and the United States.

U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin will meet in Helsinki for two days of talks next week. The topic of NATO expansion is high on the agenda. In fact, the issue is expected to dominate the talks.

Following intense diplomatic consultations among Russia, the United States and NATO in recent weeks, Western diplomats close to the negotiations told RFE/RL that Moscow seems to be softening its objections to NATO expansion. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov travels to Washington this weekend for further talks with Clinton and other U.S. officials.

But in Moscow yesterday, Russian leaders strongly repeated their opposition to the expansion plan. NATO has said new members will be issued invitations to join at a July summit in Madrid. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are the most likely candidates for early membership.

Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky called the expansion plan "the greatest strategic error of the West" in the post-Cold War period. Also yesterday, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Europe may face difficult times following NATO's eastward expansion. However, Chernomyrdin told a meeting of Russia1s advisory Defense Council that Moscow is ready to discuss "constructive initiatives" put forward recently by NATO. He did not elaborate on their nature.

Western diplomats involved in the negotiations have said a charter between Moscow and the alliance could be signed at a European summit in the Netherlands in May. The agreement would give Russia a voice in European security affairs, and a stronger role in peace-keeping operations, under a permanent monthly consultative forum. But Moscow would not be able to block NATO military actions.

More progress was reported in the political chapter of the proposed charter. Western diplomats said problems with military aspects of the accord are proving to be more difficult, as Moscow says NATO expansion will threaten Russian security.

For Moscow, however, the economic aspects of negotiations appear particularly important. Russian negotiators recently demanded a legally-binding treaty that would have to be ratified by all parliaments. NATO diplomats said Russia has given strong signals in the last two weeks that it might accept NATO's proposal for a political document endorsed by the governments of NATO countries.

The apparent new position comes amidst calls by Russian negotiators for a separate ceremony to mark the conclusion of their agreement with NATO when leaders of the world's leading industrial nations gather for their annual Group-of-Seven (G-7) summit in Denver, Colorado in June.

Russia has attended G-7 meetings as an observer for the last few years and it is anxious to join the exclusive club despite the fact that the difficult state of its economy does not qualify it for membership. Members of the G-7 include the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, Italy, France and Britain.

Yesterday, Yastrzhembsky said Russia needs U.S. assistance to gain admission to international economic organizations. He specified membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as the possible transformation of the G-7 into a "G-8."

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign and Defense Policy Council, a private, centrist group that includes influential politicians, businessmen and journalists, told a news conference in Moscow that NATO expansion could boost anti-Western feelings in the country.

Sergei Karaganov, a top council official and member of Yeltsin's advisory board, said U.S. and Russian leaders have failed to start a new system of international relations. He said an old Cold-War structure is being adopted instead.

Igor Malashenko, a top manager at Russia's private NTV channel who was one of the main organizers of Yeltsin1s successful presidential campaign, added that Russians fear economic and political isolation as an outcome of NATO expansion. He said that being excluded from international economic and political forums would certainly encourage Russia1s authoritarian tendencies. Malashenko says that in this context, military-security issues are not considered of paramount importance during negotiations.

Council members conclude that Russia will need real guarantees of international economic and political integration during the Helsinki summit and "not simply declarations of intentions.

They say the Helsinki summit will be an historic opportunity that Clinton and Yeltsin cannot afford to miss.