AFTER months of appeasing Russia's rising nationalist political forces, the Russian government is now tilting its foreign policy to the West.
Ignoring hard-line pressure at home, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev yesterday took a key step toward easing security relations with the West by signing NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP) agreement at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
Moscow's Western-oriented shift is reflected in a series of other maneuvers by Moscow to increase cooperation with its former cold-war foes.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin flew to Washington on Tuesday for a four-day visit to sign deals on joint space efforts, and oil and gas development. Today, President Boris Yeltsin is scheduled to fly to the Greek island of Corfu to sign a cooperation agreement with the European Union at a two-day summit. And on July 8-10, the Russian president for the first time will formally attend political consultations at a Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Naples, Italy.
``Let me state with full certainty ... there are no insurmountable obstacles on the way to shaping a working relationship between Russia and its Western partners,'' Mr. Kozyrev said yesterday in Brussels.
The signing of the PFP agreement, a scheme for closer military cooperation between NATO and former Warsaw Pact members, came only after months of negotiations that highlighted deeply ingrained disagreements between the 16-member body and Russia. In particular, Moscow had complained that the West had ignored its superpower role by not consulting it on key issues such as allied airstrikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, arms control, and the North Korean nuclear controversy.
Moscow agreed to sign the NATO plan only after Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev traveled to Brussels earlier this month and negotiated a joint protocol, setting out broader principles of cooperation. The protocol, which was signed separately yesterday and could be used to impress Russian hard-liners that the West takes it seriously, stipulates that NATO will recognize Russia's special status and pledges that Moscow be consulted on all European security issues.
Earlier Wednesday, Russia's State Duma, or lower house of parliament, rejected a proposal by Communist lawmakers to declare PFP ``null and void.'' The plan is ``US expansionism aimed against Russia,'' Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told lawmakers, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The protocol also mandates that NATO and Russia will share information on political and security issues, and cooperate in fields such as peacekeeping. But NATO pointedly did not give Moscow any veto over its decisions, nor did it accept the Russian proposal to subordinate NATO to the broader but looser Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
NATO officials have fought to reassure former East European satellites of the Soviet Union that Moscow's special status would not allow it to bar them from eventual full membership, and the protocol promises that NATO's relationship with Russia will not be kept secret from other countries or go against their interests. Changing his previous stance, Kozyrev told NATO officials yesterday he would accept East European countries' entrance into NATO, but that they should not join soon.
``I think the general idea of Moscow's claims for special status from NATO is to be included in the European and global system of security that has been built up over the years,'' says Alexander Golts, a commentator for the military daily Red Star. ``It seems to me the protocol gives the opportunity to fill the relationship with the real content that Russia needs. It gives some light for the future.''
Kozyrev also discussed concerns over Bosnia and North Korea with United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Brussels. The Soviet Union was a military supplier and ally of North Korea. But Moscow has expressed concerns about the North's nuclear-weapons programs, although it insists that sanctions be imposed only as a last resort, following the convention of an international conference to discuss the issue.
When asked whether former US President Jimmy Carter's recent visit to Pyongyang had weakened the threat of sanctions, Mr. Kozyrev told reporters before departing for Brussels that he still needed ``official clarification'' about the visit. ``We cannot be content with only American assessments. It is not a purely American problem, it is also a problem for Russian national interests,'' he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
In Corfu, Mr. Yeltsin is expected to sign a 10-year Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU that will facilitate political, economic, and trade relations. Yeltsin yesterday accepted President Clinton's invitation to a summit in the US, and the two leaders are expected to set a fall date at the G-7 meeting in Naples. Russia has pushed for entrance into the G-7 club of leading industrialized nations, but most members say Moscow's economic difficulties will prevent it from becoming a full-fledged member for some time.
During his Washington visit, Mr. Chernomyrdin is expected to hold talks with International Monetary Fund officials on reform policies and Russia's huge foreign debts. He will also sign a long-negotiated deal for an international consortium to develop massive oil and gas deposits off the Far Eastern island of Sakhalin.
But joint military exercises between Russia and the US, scheduled for next month in southern Russia, have been postponed after objections from Russian nationalists. Washington officials had proposed holding them in the US.