Washington, 15 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO alliance relations with Russia have been sealed in an agreement that U.S. President Bill Clinton calls historic.
He said the accord reached in Moscow on Wednesday is a step toward "a peaceful, undivided, democratic Europe for the first time in history."
Clinton, accompanied by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Vice president Al Gore, and Defense Secretary William Cohen hailed the pact as a document that will strengthen Russia, the United States and Europe.
He said it will clear the way for NATO to add new members from among the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and Clinton said the agreement makes clear that no nation that wants to join NATO in the future will be automatically excluded.
"Just eight weeks from now in Madrid, NATO will invite the first new members to join our alliance," Clinton said. "Its doors will remain open to all those ready to shoulder the burdens of membership."
The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are expected to be the first states invited to join. However, the list of members-in-waiting is long: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia are eager to become members. Russia has been opposed to alliance expansion in general but to Baltic membership in NATO in particular.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Russia will not have a veto over who may become a NATO member.
The agreement, says Clinton, "sets out a sustained cooperative relationship between NATO and Russia."
"NATO and Russia will consult and coordinate regularly," Clinton said. "Where they all agree, they will act jointly, as they are doing today in Bosnia. Russia will work closely with NATO, but not within NATO -- giving Russia a voice in, but not a veto over, NATO's business."
The hardest bargaining between NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was reportedly over NATO's refusal to guarantee that it will not put nuclear weapons on the territories of new members. NATO said it has no plans to do so, but won't rule out such a move in the future.
Clinton did not give precise details of the agreement. But, spokesman McCurry said NATO made no concessions to Russia on what he called the fundamental principles of the alliance.
Moscow and NATO also differed on possible limits on the number of combat troops that NATO can move to territories of new members. The two sides agreed that the alliance will not station "significant" numbers of troops in new member states, but they disagreed until the end on what qualifies as "significant."
NATO also had refused to promise that it won't build military bases on the territory of new members, including airfields, communications and air defense installations.
Clinton did say that NATO is not planning on reactivating old Warsaw Pact military bases built when the former communist countries were military allies of the Soviet Union. However, he did say that the existing military infrastructure in potential new member states would have to be employed.
The president said the important aspect of the agreement for Russia was an assurance from NATO that the alliance was not moving a line dividing Europe to the Russian border.
Clinton said the pact "will strengthen Russia's security" and said clarifications negotiated in recent days should convince Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian people that NATO's "mission is not to threaten or undermine Russia."
NATO's relationship with Russia, Clinton said, "is a part of a larger process to adapt NATO to new circumstances and new challenges in the 21st century. "
U.S. officials were telling reporters Wednesday that the agreement is a political document, called the "Founding Act," and will not require approval of the U.S. Congress or the parliaments of the 15 other countries in NATO. One official said the agreement is not binding.
Yeltsin, however, said the pact would be binding on NATO and that it would give Moscow the means to block any decision by NATO it did not approve of.
Yeltsin wants the agreement signed at a ceremony in Paris on May 27. Clinton said he looked forward to attending.