Russia Wants Special Status In NATO `Partnership'

Yeltsin clears up confusion; but some in parliament still view the Western alliance as a potential adversary

SEEKING to assert Russia's position as a military and nuclear superpower, President Boris Yeltsin said in an interview published yesterday that Russia will insist on special status in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

President Yeltsin told the Interfax news agency that ``the time has come'' for Russia to sign a framework agreement of the program, which gives members of the former Warsaw Pact limited membership in the 16-member Western military alliance.

His comments clear up confusion over Russia's joining the program. Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov last week said Russia would not join for six months or more, but Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin said Tuesday that Russia would probably sign the agreement in Brussels on April 21.

Mr. Churkin, who is also Yeltsin's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, said that Russia will present NATO with a list of special conditions before joining the program, but did not give details. Russia is the only country from Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union to insist on a distinct status, Churkin told a Moscow news conference.

``We have in mind a special agreement with NATO that takes account of Russia's role and place in the world and European affairs, its military might, and the nuclear status of our country,'' Yeltsin told Interfax.

Russia ``in its scale and depth must have a different character than other countries,'' if it is to join, he said. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had already stressed that Russia's membership in Partnership must be kept distinct from other members, but last month Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Russia would not seek special terms.

Concern in parliament

Yeltsin, who plans to visit Spain next week on an official visit, may have made the comments to dispel apprehension about the program in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. Both reformist and conservative deputies have voiced concern that Russia's membership would dilute Russia's role as a superpower and diminish its perceived status as preeminent mediator among its neighboring states in the former Soviet Union, or ``near abroad.'' The deputies, many of whom still view NATO as a potential adversary, have expressed concern that joining Partnership would jeopardize national security by forcing Russia to standardize its weapon systems.

Sergei Shakhrai, a Duma deputy who is also Russia's minister for nationalities and regional policy, on Tuesday said that parliament should have a say in whether to join, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Mr. Shakhrai also said Russia should have thought of drafting a new national security program after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Shakhrai was also concerned Russia might lose arms sales if it joins.

Russia's conception

But Yeltsin said that Russia has its ``own conception of European cooperation,'' based on links with the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and North Atlantic Cooperation Council, set up in 1991.

``Its central element is that the CSCE, the prime regional political forum, and the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, as the main mechanism for military-political partnership, will coordinate the activities of other structures, including NATO,'' he said.

He added that the decision to sign was well-deliberated. ``In general, we are not acting with haste,'' he told Interfax. ``We have had consultations with other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Now the time has come to sign the framework document.''

Membership in Partnership for Peace was conceived to postpone admitting the alliance's former foes completely into NATO. It provides for joint military operations and peacekeeping missions.

Fourteen states from the former Soviet bloc have already joined.

Russia suffered a blow earlier this week when visiting United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said Russian peacekeeping operations in the former Soviet Union would not be given UN status.

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