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NATO/Russia: Joint Council Meets For First Time Today

New York, 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO and Russian foreign ministers meet in New York for the first high-level session of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council today with very different hopes and goals.

The West is looking to gain Russia's trust and cooperation, while Moscow seeks power and influence over NATO operations.

As soon as the NATO-Russia Foundation Act setting up the council was signed in Paris in May, President Boris Yeltsin boasted that Russia now has a say in NATO decisions. And U.S. Secretary Madeleine Albright was compelled to explain repeatedly to western critics that "Russia has a voice, not a veto" in NATO affairs.

But in today's carefully staged event, the emphasis will be on the start of a new constructive relationship between Russia and NATO.

There will be plenty of celebratory smiles and warm handshakes as the 17 ministers pose for their inaugural photograph.

They are meeting on neutral ground -- in the high-ceilinged chamber of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The session will be chaired jointly by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and NATO Secretary General Javier Solana.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Thursday that peacekeeping in Bosnia will be a major item on the agenda.

NATO officials say they want a common united front on the main challenges in Bosnia concerning war criminals, stopping inflammatory propaganda and other misuse of the media, and implementing results of the recent municipal elections.

A NATO official told reporters Thursday that "at this delicate moment, NATO-Russia cohesion is crucial -- we need similar clarity in our objectives and to send the message that NATO and Russia share common aims."

That would mean no more complaints in Moscow about NATO's new assertiveness in Bosnia and failure to consult its actions with Russian officials.

The official said NATO has been trying to improve communciations with Russia.

"We can't guarantee the consultations will produce an agreement but we are consulting to make sure our Bosnian policy does not produce any surprises," he said.

After top level talks with Primakov earlier this week, U.S. officials emphasized agreement on Bosnia policies. But there still appear to be major gaps in the perceptions of the two sides.

Three days ago, after the meetings with president Bill Clinton and Albright, Primakov said in an address to the UN General Assembly that Russia does not approve of force in peacekeeping operations unless approved and supervised by the UN. That seemed to be a clear criticism of NATO's recent toughness in dealing with Bosnian Serbs.

Primakov also said the Founding Act was a painful compromise that has not changed Russia's negative view of NATO expansion plans, which he said ignores current realities.

Russian officials say today's meeting will be a test of how sincere NATO is about creating a new relationship of equal partners.

Primakov is expected to express Russia's interest in having an equal voice in decisions on future peacekeeping operation. The NATO official did not rule out such a possibility.

He said some operations might be limited to only NATO's command and in others Russia or Ukraine might be offered a role as a partner.

Other important items on today's agenda are a discussion of military cooperation and consultation, and developing a work program and agendas for future meetings of the Council.

Like NATO, The Russia-NATO Council is to meet twice a year at a senior level with ministers and once a month at the ambassadorial level.

U.S. officals say that a good part of today's discussion will be devoted to planning the mechanisms and content of future meetings of the Council.

More military contqcts are also on the horizon. Early next month, senior NATO and Russian defence officials plan to meet in Maastricht in the Netherlands and Russia is opening a permanent military mission in the Belgian capital Brussels, the site of NATO headquarters, where all NATO members have national representations.