Summit Wins May Hide Russia's NATO Retreat

The Bill and Boris show is still on the road after last week's summit of the United States and Russian presidents in Helsinki. But the applause in Moscow is likely to be muted once the results of the meeting sink in.

President Boris Yeltsin shored up his personal friendship with President Clinton during the two-day meeting. And he scored an international public-relations success by looking firm and focused after months of illness.

But when it came to the most contentious issue on the agenda - NATO's plans to expand eastward to include countries that were once Soviet allies in Eastern Europe - Mr. Yeltsin effectively gave up the fight.

Though he continued to insist that expansion would be a mistake, Yeltsin seems to have accepted that Moscow can do nothing to stop it.

"Once should not forget that the decision [of NATO members] about NATO expansion to the East remains in force," Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said. "So one definitely cannot speak of a full success for Russian diplomacy."

Instead, Yeltsin has pinned his hopes on a NATO-Russia charter that will define the two sides' relations and give Moscow a consultative voice in NATO councils. In this, Russian officials say, they were successful in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov even spoke of having won "breakthroughs."

Critics at home, however, were less enthusiastic. "Russia has been admitted no further than the NATO cloakroom and is not taken seriously," says Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov. He accuses Yeltsin of "completely betraying the country's national interests."

Independent analysts also wonder about the real weight of Moscow's diplomatic achievements. "The concessions they won seem to be either illusory or conditional," says a European diplomat. "I think that when the details are studied, criticism is going to increase."

At his post-summit press conference, Yeltsin trumpeted as a victory the fact that the planned charter - which he will sign along with NATO-member leaders - is to be "binding." In fact, he had backed off Moscow's previous insistence that the agreement should have legal force and accepted Washington's proposal that it be "politically" binding.

Russian officials are also claiming that NATO will pledge in the charter never to place nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states - expected to be Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the first wave - nor to permanently station foreign troops there.

So far, however, Western leaders, including Mr. Clinton in Helsinki, have gone no further than to say that they foresee no reason to take such steps.

That does not impress opposition figures here. "They will abrogate and forget everything if they need to do so," scoffs Viktor Ilyukhin, the Communist head of the Duma (parliament) Security Committee. "If they need to deploy weapons, they will deploy them."

Nor is another "sweetener," designed to boost Yeltsin's prestige, likely to sway many minds when it is examined more closely. Clinton invited Yeltsin to be a full participant at the Group of Seven summit in Denver next summer, dubbing it the "Summit of Eight."

But this invitation to a meeting falls short of a proposal to join the group.

Meanwhile, the two presidents' decision to cut their nuclear arsenals to 20 percent of cold war levels, in an accord to be called START III, hangs on the Russian Duma's ratification of START II.

The Duma has resisted Kremlin pressure to ratify that treaty for several years, arguing that it damages Russian interests.

Few observers here share the confidence Yeltsin expressed at his press conference that "the Duma will make a decision based on my advice."

Nonetheless, the summit reassured the West about Russian intentions, says the European diplomat. "It showed that Yeltsin has taken the key decision to continue political and strategic dialogue with the West despite NATO's expansion. That was not unexpected, but it is good to hear."

Though acknowledging that "not everything went smoothly" at the meeting, Yeltsin said that "our partnership should develop and be made a priority." And he reinforced this by saying later that Russia "is aiming to be recognized finally as a full European state, and we are also prepared to join the European Union."

Badly in need of foreign investment and economic aid to help smooth Russia's painful and uncertain transition from a Communist to a free-market economy, Moscow has little choice but to cultivate its relations with the wealthy developed countries.

[Yeltsin faces a battle on two fronts this week, completing an overhaul of his government and tackling protest strikes across the sprawling federation, the Reuters news agency reported yesterday.

[Trade unions, exasperated by government failure to pay wages, have called strikes for March 27. The action, which must ring alarm bells in the Kremlin at a time when it is seeking to rein in spending, is backed by Yeltsin's chief foe, the Communist Party.

[But the two new leading lights in the government, first deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, made clear over the weekend that, like Yeltsin, they were fighting fit and ready to press on with the next stage of reform.

["We know what has to be done. We know that a big part of this job is far from being attractive," Mr. Chubais told Public Russian Television Saturday night.]

Summit Summary

Key results of the March 20-21 meeting of Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in Helsinki:

* NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe will go ahead as planned at a NATO summit in July when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are expected to be invited to join.

* Russia disagrees with NATO expansion but promised along with the US to "minimize the consequences of this disagreement."

* Agreed to extend the deadline for destroying missiles and silos set out in the START II treaty from 2003 to Dec. 31, 2007.

* Agreed to cut nuclear arsenals to 20 percent of cold-war levels, in an accord to be called START III, once the Russian Duma (parliament) ratifies START II.

* Set 1998 as a target for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. The US will also sponsor Russia as a member of the Paris Club, which deals with government debt.

* Agreed Russia will be an active participant in the Group of Seven most industrialized nations summit in Denver in June, but stopped short of full G7 membership for Russia.

* Reaffirmed intentions to take steps to speed ratification of the convention on the prohibition and destruction of chemical weapons.

* Russia dropped a demand that a new charter being negotiated between NATO and Russia be legally binding, accepting instead that it would be signed by NATO leaders and therefore be "politically" binding.

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