A NEW age in relations between Russia and the European Union began awkwardly.
After signing a declaration here on partnership and cooperation, Russian President Boris Yeltsin stood up with the document in hand, then hesitated: ``So, how are we going to do this,'' he asked his hosts - European Commission President Jacques Delors and EU Council President Jean Luc Dehaene - referring to the customary, photo-op exchange of documents and handshakes. The three officials with three documents appeared to pose protocol and logistical problems for Yeltsin.
A Three-Stooges-like moment of fumbling followed before the diplomatic trio started exchanging and shaking.
Last Thursday's signing ceremony may not be the last awkward moment for the EU and Russia as they try to ensure a peaceful and profitable coexistence in a new era. Both sides have differing views on the European continent's future look.
Mr. Yeltsin's first visit to EU headquarters in Brussels was intended to mark the signing of a treaty on economic and political cooperation. But the two sides could not conclude the pact, due in large part to Russian reluctance to lift protections on its banking industry. The partnership declaration served as a substitute for the treaty, as European leaders wanted to give Yeltsin something for his domestic audience on the eve of Russia's pivotal parliamentary elections yesterday. The document commits both sides to continuing ``the process of deepening and expanding their mutual relations.''
Where the declaration leads, however, is open to interpretation. In the eyes of EU officials, the declaration is a recognition that Russia plays a vital role in European security, and thus deserves special trading privileges with the highly protectionist European Union. But EU officials stressed they did not envisage granting Russia eventual membership in the organization.
Mr. Yeltsin appeared to see things differently. In his statement at the signing ceremony, he made it clear that Russia sought full integration into the European economic system.
``We want to overcome discrimination against Russia. Russia seeks equal rights,'' Yeltsin said. He also compared the signing of declaration to the fall ``of a second Berlin Wall.''
The other contentious issue between Western Europe and Russia concerns the fate of the former Soviet-allied nations of Eastern Europe. Many Eastern European nations are pushing for closer membership in the EU and NATO, saying their hard-fought independence is threatened by Russian political instability.
During a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner Thursday, Yeltsin repeated Russia's opposition to allowing Eastern European nations full membership in NATO, saying Moscow would view such a move as a threat to Russian security. Mr. Woerner replied that Russia did not have a right to veto NATO membership decisions.
The extent of the differing attitudes was most apparent at a dinner Thursday night attended by Yeltsin and European leaders. During what some EU officials described as a ``rather tense discussion,'' Yeltsin harshly criticized EU aid efforts to Russia, and said that if Eastern European nations were admitted to NATO, then Russia also must become a member.
EU officials said overcoming the differences depends on Russia. ``We are of the best will, and a lot depends on Russia's capacity to implement the declaration,'' a EU spokesman said. ``If there have been delays or problems in the past, they haven't come from the Community [EU] side.''