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NATO: Croatia Joins Partnership, Russia Apologizes

The two-day (May 24-25) NATO foreign ministers' meeting in the Italian city of Florence has yielded two results with which the 19-nation military alliance can be pleased. One was expected -- the entry of Croatia into NATO's Partnership for Peace program. The other was an unexpected apology from Russia for having invited a suspected Yugoslav war criminal to Moscow. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reviews the meeting.

Prague, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- NATO yesterday officially added another, important pillar to its post-communist European security architecture with the admission of Croatia into its Partnership for Peace, or PFP, program.

The PFP program maps out broad political and military cooperation among its members. It falls short of full entry into the alliance, but is considered a vital first step toward eventual membership. Croatia's inclusion in the program is something that NATO has long sought.

The former Yugoslavia has proved to be NATO's most severe and prolonged test since the creation of the military alliance more than 50 years ago. Croatia was needed as a partner not only for operational military purposes but as a trusted political partner in moves to bring stability to the Balkans.

But for nearly a decade under its late president, Franjo Tudjman, Croatia was regarded as too authoritarian to match NATO's democratic criteria. For that reason, it was kept at arm's length, not only by NATO but by the European Union.

Croatia's isolation from Western Europe began to change rapidly after Tudjman's death last year. The right-wing nationalist party that he helped to create lost power in national and local elections in January. A new Croatian president and prime minister proclaimed their readiness to fall in line with NATO and EU standards on democracy and human rights. Most important, perhaps, the new Croatian leadership renounced any desire to annex ethnic-Croatian areas of Bosnia, whose integrity is a keystone of NATO and UN policy.

At the Florence meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly praised Croatia for having moved, in her words, "toward a democratic society." She said the country "has demonstrated a renewed commitment to the [Bosnia peace] process, and has taken steps to promote stability and security in southeastern Europe."

In signing the PFP agreement on Wednesday, Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula made it clear his country viewed the event as a further sign that it was leaving behind its earlier semi-pariah status:

"This [PFP] document means that Croatia is taking its share of responsibility for developing new kinds of relations in its region of Europe. Croatia is able to do that because it has started to develop new democratic processes in the country itself. Today, it's very pleasant being a citizen of Croatia in Italy, in Florence, at a gathering of authoritative figures who will discuss very important issues facing the world."

Welcoming Croatia's entry into the PFP program, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson went out of his way to say the move was not aimed at harming the Serbian people. The behavior of the Belgrade regime, led by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, is the chief reason for NATO's involvement in the region. Robertson said:

"Croatia's entry into the Euro-Atlantic family is a message to the Serb people that there is a place for them too, if they reject Milosevic and his terrible legacy."

Another satisfying development for NATO at the conference was the public resumption of closer relations with Russia. Russia had withdrawn from cooperation talks since last spring's NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia, a traditional ally of Moscow.

Addressing the Florence meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said mutual trust between Russia and NATO would take more time to rebuild. For his part, Robertson said he was pleased the NATO-Russia relationship was getting back on track. But Robertson warned that the two sides will still face what he called "tough talking" and will likely not agree on many things in the future.

NATO had feared that its relationship with Russia was sinking into deeper trouble when Russia recently invited Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic to Moscow. General Ojdanic has been indicted by the UN tribunal in The Hague on charges of war crimes during the conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. UN Security Council resolutions require Russia -- or any other UN member -- to arrest indicted war criminals who enter its territory.

NATO members -- and several countries which are not alliance members -- had publicly condemned Ojdanic's visit as undermining international efforts to resolve problems in the Balkans and conferring legitimacy on the Milosevic regime. Secretary Albright said:

"We think it's inappropriate for an indicted war criminal to be hosted in Moscow."

But yesterday in Florence, in a surprising, conciliatory -- and, for the Kremlin, uncharacteristic -- gesture, Ivanov blamed Moscow's failure to arrest Ojdanic on what he called "an internal, technical hitch." Ivanov said the mistake would not be repeated.