Russia Debates (Gulp!) NATO Membership

THE Russian government defended its decision before the parliament on Friday to join NATO's Partership for Peace, a program of cooperation between the Western alliance and the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who returned to Moscow yesterday from a two-week vacation at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, has strongly backed the NATO association despite considerable resistance from within the Russian military and from political parties.

Russian Defense and Foreign Ministry officials told the State Duma, the more powerful lower house of Russia's parliament, that participation in the NATO program was only one part of a broader Russian effort to assure itself a place in determining Europe's future security system.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin said Partnership would lead to ``an energetic and bold role for Russia in European affairs and building an all-European system of security.'' He warned deputies, many of whom oppose the move, that ``a refusal will signify self-isolation for Russia.``

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin, responding to concerns raised by many deputies, told the Duma that Russian association with NATO would not mean standardizing weapons systems, or bring any other harm to Russia's massive arms industries. He also said this step would not undermine Russian interests in the former Soviet Union.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev announced on March 17, during the visit of United States Defense Secretary William Perry, that Russia would sign the Partnership for Peace document shortly.

But he stressed that Russia's role in the program should be distinct from those of other Eastern European countries, reflecting its status as a nuclear superpower.

This view of Russia's special status is supported by a wide range of Russian politicians. ``Russia is not an ordinary participant in international affairs,'' Duma chairman Ivan Rybkin told the Army daily Red Star on March 26. ``Consequently, this circumstance should be reflected in the conditions of offered partnership.''

``There is a desire to have a direct relationship to us as a superpower,'' says a senior US defense official who accompanied Mr. Perry.

``We said to them, `You are, by virtue of who you are, special, by virtue of your size, your technological sophistication, and your resources, and therefore you will have a unique relationship to the 16,''' referring to the members of NATO.

Strong opposition to the Partnership program has already surfaced in the Duma. The centrist Party of Russian Unity and Concord, several of whose leaders are members of the Russian government, insisted in a statement issued on Friday that the membership issue has to be decided by the parliament.

Russian extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party categorically opposed joining the NATO program, warning it would lead to a collapse of Russia's influence on the former Soviet states and would mean becoming a ``US satellite.''

Despite these voices, Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the Duma's committee on defense and a member of the reformist Russia's Choice bloc, believes the parliament will eventually approve the program. He argues that the move carries ``an unexpected plus'' for the parliament itself.

``While, under the Constitution, the parliament does not have a control function over the executive in general and the military in particular, Partnership for Peace provides for an openness of the [defense] budget that will allow deputies to more efficiently control the armed forces,'' he notes.

Once Russia signs on to the program, Russian officials will have to present a document that states what specific NATO programs they want to participate in, as well as a detailed presentation of their military resources. Under the NATO procedure, Russia will also have to indicate how they plan to bring the Russian military in line with NATO standards on civilian control.

A bilateral US-Russian defense meeting to focus on the Partnership program is scheduled here for in mid-April, the US official says. The Duma will resume its debate on April 14.

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