US security pledge to East Europe: Clinton's 'Partnership for Peace' opens door to a new relationship with Nato

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THE UNITED STATES sought yesterday to defuse a growing crisis over East European states joining Nato by emphasising its commitment to their security while repeating its opposition to them joining immediately.

Vice-President Al Gore - standing in for President Bill Clinton, whose mother has died - said: 'The security of these states affects the security of America.'

In a carefully worded speech on the eve of Mr Clinton's visit to Europe, Mr Gore said that ex-Communist states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union 'are naturally concerned about whether they will again be rendered pieces of a buffer zone, prizes to be argued over by others'.

Earlier Mr Clinton, sensitive to a Russian appeal not to expand Nato, said: 'The signal that (President Boris) Yeltsin sent me is he did not want to feel that Russia was being isolated, was being sort of moved back into a potential enemy status.' The US does not want to give the security guarantees implied by membership of Nato, which might provoke a nationalist backlash in Russia.

The decision by the US not to offer early full membership of Nato to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic and Lithuania - all of whom have asked for it - should bring an end, for the moment, to the growing confrontation between Russia and Nato.

In Brussels a senior Nato official - contradicting Mr Clinton's more conciliatory line - had said earlier yesterday that the summit of the heads of government on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels would give a clear sign that membership of the alliance would be granted to some countries. He stressed Russia could not prevent enlargement. 'Nobody, I repeat nobody, has a veto,' he said.

In Moscow Boris Yeltsin's chief spokesman said that any enlargement of Nato would damage reform and stimulate nationalism. Vyacheslav Kostikov said: 'If Nato is expanded by incorporating East European and Baltic states, the Russian population would be bitter and feel that its national dignity has been offended. This could provoke very negative nationalist tendencies.'

Nato and Russia appeared set on a course for confrontation after Moscow said it opposed membership in the organisation for Eastern Europe, but the alliance gave a clear signal that that was on the agenda.

In offering more limited partnership with Nato to states such as Hungary and Poland Mr Gore, speaking in Milwaukee, said Mr Clinton's plan for a Partnership for Peace 'does not divide East and West in a way that could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of future confrontation'. Instead it provided an open door for former Communist states 'to forge a new relationship with Nato'. The initiative would draw central and eastern European states into closer bilateral relationships, but these countries want firmer guarantees.

Mr Clinton said earlier he did not rule out ultimate Nato membership for East European states - after tension had been reduced - but for them to join now would create a new division in Europe which would 'make the very people we're trying to support, in effect, more insecure'.

The stresses on the administration in trying to forge an effective policy in Eastern Europe were underlined yesterday by the resignation, in protest at Mr Clinton's policy in Bosnia, of Warren Zimmerman, a senior State Department official in charge of refugee affairs and former ambassador to Yugoslavia. Inability to aid the Bosnian Muslims last year has made the US wary of offering security guarantees to other East European countries which it cannot fulfil.

Going by Mr Gore's speech, the US has decided that it has little alternative but to continue existing policies towards Russia and the states over which it once had hegemony.

Mr Clinton, who starts his nine-day trip to Europe tomorrow, will first attend the funeral of his mother, Virginia Kelley, who died yesterday in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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