Clinton pleases Poles with cash and Nato carrot

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday sought to allay Polish security fears by declaring that Nato would be expanding eastwards and that, when it does, Poland would be a prime candidate for membership.

Addressing a packed parliament in Warsaw, Mr Clinton said he had no intention of allowing the Iron Curtain to be replaced with 'a veil of indifference', or for eastern Europe to remain 'a grey area or a buffer zone' between the West and the former Soviet Union. In a pointed reference to the main object of Polish apprehension, Russia, Mr Clinton said that 'no country should have the right to veto . . . any other democracy's integration into Western institutions, including those ensuring security.' In the past Moscow has made it clear it would not welcome Nato's expansion eastwards.

On expansion itself, the President said there was 'no longer a question of whether, but when and how'.

Mr Clinton's audience was delighted to hear it. But it had rather hoped the President would say more about the 'when and the how': to utter what one observer described as the 'magic words' detailing the precise path to Nato membership.

The Polish President, Lech Walesa, who has consistently pressed for a binding commitment on membership from Nato, said he had 'not been dissatisfied' by the speech. Earlier on, however, he said he would like to see Poland taken on board within President Clinton's term of office - or the next two years. He also accused the West of showing a 'lack of vision' towards Eastern Europe and said the time was now ripe for a 'leap forward'.

Polish anxieties over Russian intentions are grounded in historical fact and alarm at the popular support enjoyed by the extreme right-wing Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

When President Clinton earlier this year announced his Partnership for Peace programme aimed at establishing ties between Nato and former Warsaw Pact countries, Poland condemned it as totally inadequate. It was one of the first to sign up, however.

According to diplomatic sources in Warsaw, for all the long faces and occasional growls, the Poles do feel that participation in the PFP will lead to full membership of Nato. Together with their other former allies in eastern Europe, they have also taken heart from the fact that Russia itself recently joined the PFP and that Andrei Koz yrev, the Russian foreign minister, indicated that, as long as there is no mad rush, Nato might eventually accept new members.

'The Poles now believe that we really do want them in, but that it cannot happen overnight,' said a Western diplomat. 'President Clinton's visit has again underlined that commitment. But at the end of the day, they still want it in writing.'

Short of giving them that, President Clinton did announce that he would be asking Congress for dollars 100m to spend on military co-operation with east European countries, dollars 25m of which would go to Poland.

He also promised US economic aid totalling more than dollars 100m for a variety of schemes aimed at creating more jobs, providing loans to small businesses and promoting the construction of more housing.

Mr Clinton, who last night left Poland for Naples to attend the G7 summit of leading industrialised nations, said that the US wanted to help Poland with the difficult transition to a free market economy which, in addition to winners, has also hurt large sections of the population. 'Do not give up or turn back,' Mr Clinton declared. 'You will not be alone.'