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NATO: Solidarity With Russia, Cold Shoulder To Kuchma

The second and final day of the NATO summit in Prague was devoted to meetings between the 19 alliance members and the 27 Partnership for Peace countries. NATO leaders confirmed their intention to further deepen ties with Russia while tensions in relations with Ukraine remain all too obvious.

Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO leaders took every opportunity on the second and final day of their summit in Prague today to reiterate that the alliance's decision to extend to Russia's borders should be seen as good news by Moscow.

Yesterday, NATO's 19 current members invited seven more Central and Eastern European states to join the alliance. The new members include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which regained their independence only a decade ago after five decades of Soviet annexation.

Russia, which has consistently opposed NATO expansion, will share an extensive border with the alliance. But U.S. President George W. Bush, who met today with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, repeated that in his view, "NATO's expansion is in Russia's best interest." Bush said an expanded NATO will bring a guarantee of stability right up to Russia's border.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov attended the summit today for talks with NATO within the framework of the six-month-old NATO-Russia Council. The council was set up as a forum for discussion and cooperation on issues ranging from emergency disaster relief to the fight against terrorism.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, in comments today, paid tribute to improving relations with Moscow. He said NATO and Moscow had significantly boosted their cooperation in crisis management, defense reforms, and the struggle against terrorism.

Robertson also expressed strong support for the Kremlin on behalf of NATO in the wake of last month's hostage crisis in Moscow. More than 120 people died after Russian special forces, in a rescue mission, gassed the theater where hundreds of audience members had been taken hostage by Chechen militants. Robertson, speaking at a news conference, echoed the Kremlin view that the Chechen hostage takers bore ultimate responsibility for the deaths. "I can tell you that the most-often-quoted subject at this morning's meeting was the hostage situation in Moscow, where all of the ministers around the table expressed their disgust and their horror that civilians, innocent civilians, should have been swept up in that criminal activity, and there is a great sense of solidarity with Russia over that form of terrorism, because many of the other states in the room have got pretty bitter experience of domestic terrorism as well," Robertson said.

Robertson said he would travel to Moscow on 9 December to attend a Russian-sponsored conference titled "The Role of the Military in Combating Terrorism."

Ivanov, for his part, welcomed the growing partnership between Moscow and NATO members. He said the NATO-Russian Council had already yielded practical results, with agreements on coordinating future peacekeeping missions and the rescue of submarine crews being worked out. Ivanov said the global fight against terrorism should become Russia's and NATO's main priority. He expressed satisfaction that this appeared to be the direction the alliance was now heading.

Ivanov refused to comment on NATO's decision to continue its eastward enlargement, saying Moscow would analyze documents issued by the alliance and comments made by individual NATO and invitee leaders before issuing a formal statement.

He did say that if NATO followed through on its stated intention to reorganize its structures and weapons systems away from its Cold War mission, to meet new threats, Russia would only welcome the move. The Russian foreign minister added that the Baltic states' induction into NATO should not change the character of Russia's relations with them. "We have always emphasized that we are interested, Moscow and Russia are interested, in the development of neighborly, mutually advantageous relations with Latvia and other Baltic countries, relations that are based on respect for international law and respect for each other's interests," Ivanov said.

The contrast between the reception accorded to Russia and that given to Ukraine at the summit could not have been starker.

In the run-up to the summit, NATO leaders repeatedly tried to discourage Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from attending, saying his presence would not be welcome. The United States has accused Kuchma of personally approving the sale of an early-warning radar system to Iraq in breach of United Nations sanctions, a charge Kuchma has repeatedly denied.

The alliance emphasized its message by downgrading a scheduled meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission to the foreign-minister level. Kuchma came anyway.

In proof that French can still be the most effective language of diplomacy, NATO officials decided to switch the seating arrangements, using the French spelling of countries, rather than the English version, so that Kuchma ended up seated at the end of the table, with Turkey on one side and nobody on the other, during a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.

Under alphabetical seating arrangements in English, Kuchma would have been put next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the United Kingdom and close to President George W. Bush of the United States.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko, speaking at a news conference at which no journalists' questions were allowed, reiterated Kyiv's position that allegations Ukraine sold sensitive radar equipment to Iraq are groundless.

Zlenko, speaking after meeting his counterparts, acknowledged that Ukraine sold the high-tech Kolchuga radars to other countries. But he said Kyiv must not reveal more details due its obligation to honor bilateral commercial agreements.

Zlenko said Ukraine had been as forthcoming as possible with its NATO counterparts. He said Kyiv is annoyed at statements made by British and U.S. experts who recently visited Ukraine to investigate the allegations. Those investigators said the Ukrainian authorities did not provide them with full assistance. "Ukraine did everything possible to ensure the U.S. and British teams access to information and all necessary documents of the Kolchuga specifications, productions, and sales. They are open to our American counterparts, except for the information as for the Kolchuga transfer to some countries. You must understand, we're obliged to protect this information under the bilateral agreements," Zlenko said.

Zlenko said Ukraine was now seeking integration into the alliance but, judging from today's reception of the Ukrainian leader, that time appears to still be far off.

The summit ended on a note of drama, with Secretary-General Robertson having to dodge tomatoes thrown by two Russian extremists from the National Bolshevik Party at the final news conference. The two suddenly stood up, shouting, "NATO is worse than the Gestapo! NATO is worse than the Gestapo! NATO is worse than the Gestapo! NATO is worse than the Gestapo! No to NATO enlargement! You have the blood of Serbian children on your hands! NATO is worse than the Gestapo!"

No one was hurt in the incident, and Robertson concluded what he termed a historic summit with a smile.