East Europe a step nearer joining Nato

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The Independent Online
Despite growing Russian fears about Nato expansionism, the Western alliance yesterday took an important step towards accepting East European countries as members.

The 16 Nato ambassadors adopted a long-awaited report setting out why enlargement of Nato to the East makes sense, and how the would-be partners can prepare to join.

To ease Russian concerns,heightened by Nato's aggressive posture in Bosnia, the alliance also agreed yesterday to relax the terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty previously agreed with Moscow.

Under the original terms of the CFE, Russia should have completed the reduction in its forces by 17 November. After a meeting in Brussels yesterday between the Nato council and Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy, a compromise was agreed whereby Russia gainsmore time to meet treaty limits, particularly for weapons on its southern and northern flanks. Russia had insisted on the right to maintain a strong military presence in Chechnya.

Although the enlargement report, which has not been made public, is being presented as a landmark for Nato, it is understood to side-step the thorny issue of which countries can join up first. That will remain the focus of intense political debate.

According to sources who have seen the document, the Nato planners have tried not to alienate Russia. On the highly sensitive, if unrealistic, issue of whether Russia could join, the document is ambiguous. "The idea is not excluded for ever," said one source.

Nato has also dealt gently with Moscow in the demands it makes upon its new Eastern European members.

The criteria for joining are set in general terms. The political criteria are predictable: stable democracies must be in place, along with market economies and democratically accountable military forces. The new members must be ready to accept Nato policies.

But while the Nato planners talk of the need for a general commitment to military "burden-sharing", the report does not make the specific demand upon new members that they agree to the stationing of foreign forces or Nato nuclear weapons on their soil.

Despite the softly-softly tone, the enlargement report will still elicit a fierce reaction from Moscow. The report is understood to stress the need for new member-states to be ready to contribute to future Nato peace- keeping efforts.

Russia has watched with deepening anxiety as Nato's peace-keeping operation in Bosnia has developed a peace-enforcing role. Nato is now preparing for the next phase of its mission in the former Yugoslavia as it plans to send up to 50,000 troops to police the new peace plan.

Moscow's fear is that in future its old East European allies will be joining Nato's peace-enforcing in new areas of turmoil which could lie closer to Russia's borders.