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NATO: Robertson Says Talks With Russia Are On Schedule

Prague, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson says talks on giving Russia a greater say in NATO affairs are on schedule, and that Moscow is not pushing for too much influence in the alliance.

Robertson made the comments during a visit to Prague to check the status of the Czech capital's preparations for the NATO summit to be held there in November.

NATO and Russia have been holding talks on creating a new forum at which Russia will sit as a partner with the alliance's other 19 members and have a say on a range of issues.

The plan is to give Russia a seat on a joint council that would make decisions on a number of subjects, such as peacekeeping, search-and-rescue operations, and weapons proliferation.

Robertson, speaking at Prague's Charles University, said this would mark a significant break from past practice, when decisions were "precooked" by alliance members before Russia was consulted.

Recent reports say Russia has been pushing for too much say in the new forum, but Robertson said neither side is "asking for too much."

"I don't take the view that Moscow is asking too much, nor do I believe that NATO is asking too much. The project is important because there is a moment here, a moment in history where the West and Russia have got a common enemy [and] a series of common challenges, and we must rise to the opportunities given to us at this time."

Later, at a press conference with Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, Robertson said the details of the new NATO-Russia council are still being worked out. But he said the talks are on track to meet the alliance's deadline of its foreign ministers' meeting in Reykjavik in May.

"The next two or three months will be difficult as we get the modalities and the agendas worked out, and I don't underestimate the problems that will be involved in doing that. But I'm optimistic that we will meet the timetable we established in December and we'll have an agreement by the meeting that will take place in Iceland in mid-May."

Robertson was asked at each of his public appearances in Prague about Slovakia's prospects for NATO membership if former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar returns to power in September. Slovakia under Meciar came under criticism for backsliding on democratic reforms.

Robertson reiterated his position that he does not comment on any candidate country's domestic politics. But he added, "Only countries that are committed, dedicated to democracy, and where 19 presidents and prime ministers believe there is a commitment to democracy, will [join] an alliance of free and democratic nations. So I simply say to people that if they want to be members of NATO, then vote for parties that will take them into membership of NATO and vote with their eyes open, because everyone will be watching."

Slovakia is one of nine Central and Eastern European countries hoping to receive an invitation to join NATO at the November summit. Robertson said all have an equal chance of entering and still have a lot of work to do before November. His message to Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia is: "Modernize or miss out."