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NATO/Russia: U.S. Still Cautious, Still Hopeful

Washington, 9 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States and Russia continue to sound the same notes of insistent optimism on a Russia-NATO charter although they give little indication of having harmonized their positions. In Moscow and in Washington, statements by top officials Thursday were consistently confusing.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns warned of the difficult issues still remaining to be settled and in the same breath expressed hope and satisfaction with the state of negotiations between NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

"The United States is very pleased by the very constructive discussions they had in Luxembourg" earlier this week, adding that the United States has "a lot of hope that more progress can be made" at Solana and Primakov's next meeting set for next Tuesday in Moscow, said Burns.

But he cautioned that negotiations are at a stage which is "very difficult, very tough, and sensitive," and that "sometimes the last few percentage points are the most difficult to negotiate."

Burns was responding to a statement by Russia's President Boris Yeltsin that 98 percent of the document on Russia's relations with an expanded NATO is ready.

Yeltsin also told reporters in Moscow that the talks were tough, even drawing a startling Cold War parallel to the U.S.-Soviet confrontation over Soviet missiles on Cuba. He said "there probably has not been such an acute issue between Russia and the United States since the Cuban crisis."

Burns declined to comment on this remark and went on to emphasize positive things about Russia's approach to the negotiations.

He praised Primakov as "negotiating in a cooperative, good-faith, instructive way," reiterating that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had "excellent discussions" with Primakov in Moscow last week, and that "the cooperation between them is about as good as can be."

Officially, Solana is the lead negotiator on the charter, with Albright in a supporting position. Burns said she is keeping a close watch on the negotiations and is in contact with Solana and the Russians.

He said the United States has no doubt that "the Russians are negotiating in good faith, that this is a very difficult issue for them, given Russian history in this century and Russia's own conception of its national interests."

Burns did acknowledge that Primakov and Albright could not narrow their major differences on the charter, saying "they didn't agree on all issues but the tone was very good."

In Moscow, Yeltsin staked out the same position on the two principal issues of disagreement, saying "the main thing now is to ensure Russia's part in NATO's decision-making process," and "we also want them not to move their forces into the new territories."

Albright and NATO allies have been adamant that, as she put it "Russia can have a voice but no veto over NATO affairs."

She has also stood firm on equal rights and responsibilities for new NATO members, meaning that NATO cannot accept any limits or conditions on their membership.

NATO has said it has no intention or plans to deploy forces on the new territories but will not formalize this in treaty form."

At the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki in March, the two sides agreed that NATO's intentions could be articulated in a statement that would be signed by heads of NATO states.

Yeltsin has said repeatedly that negotiations on the charter can be completed in time for a signing ceremony in Paris on May 27.

The United States has said there is no deadline for the charter although it would be nice to work out an early agreement.

Burns summed it up again Thursday, saying:

"We remain positive that a deal is desirable, and it is possible, although we are not there yet. It is absolutely true that very difficult, very tough work needs to be done to complete these negotiations."