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Russia/NATO: Progress Expected In Talks On Relations

Prague, 5 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov meet tomorrow in Luxembourg, amid expectations that substantial progress can be achieved in completing an agreement on future relations.

The two met four times before, and, while many aspects of the accord have already been settled, they remained far apart on several key political and military issues. The situation appears to have changed following last week talks in Moscow between Primakov and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

According to Western press reports, Russia signaled during these talks that it may be dropping or softening its position on two important military issues.

First, Moscow was said to have abandoned its insistence on imposing overall limits on numbers of conventional arms and troops that NATO could deploy on the territory of its members, accepting instead that separate limits be set for each NATO country.

Second, Russia was reported to have moved away from a demand that NATO formally agree to ban stationing of foreign troops on the territory of new members of the Alliance. NATO has said that it has no current plans permanently to station substantial numbers of troops there. Russia is said to appear interested in finding out what is meant by "substantial numbers of troops," instead of opposing stationing of foreign forces, as such.

These changes seem to have resulted from Moscow's acceptance that NATO could not make any major concessions without relegating prospective members to second-rank membership in the Alliance. And NATO has firmly and repeatedly ruled out such a move.

More importantly, Russia appears willing to shift controversial issues from talks on the agreement with NATO to other negotiating forums, particularly the continuing negotiations on amending the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). It is said that Moscow proposed that if a country accepted a deployment of NATO weapons or troops on its soil, it would be obliged to reduce its own quota by the same numbers.

This confirms Moscow's interest in concluding an accord with NATO on future relations before the Alliance's summit in Madrid at the beginning of July. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin has recently suggested the accord be signed May 27 in Paris. Moscow's recent moves makes it possible that the target date will be reached.

The Madrid summit is certain to issue invitation to "one or more" Central European countries to open membership negotiations. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are regarded as leading candidates at this time. All three used to belong to the Moscow-dominated Warsaw Pact, a military alliance. Russia is clearly determined to settle its relations with NATO before these invitations are extended.

But it also provides Russia with considerable advantage of diplomatic maneuver in the CFE negotiations, insisting on changes in arms limits for separate countries and zones, as well as playing individual NATO countries against each other. It is known, for example, that such countries as Turkey or Norway have different views on CFE changes than the U.S. or Germany.

In this situation, while prospects for completing the NATO-Russia agreement in time for May 27 are improving, much remains to be settled in relations between Moscow and the Western Alliance. And it seems that many problems will remain for a long time to come.