Moscow alarmed as Vilnius turns to Nato: Yeltsin 'worried about effect on Russian public opinion'

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The Independent Online
THE Kremlin, which has for some time been expressing concern about the possible expansion of Nato, warned yesterday that Europe could be destabilised if Nato tried to reach to the very borders of Russia. The warning was in response to Lithuania's application to join the Western defence alliance. Lithuania had said the electoral success of Russian hardliners dreaming of restoring the Soviet empire made its appeal to Nato all the more urgent.

Lithuania, the first former Soviet republic to seek Nato membership, announced on Tuesday that it had sent its application to the Secretary- General, Manfred Worner. Yesterday, President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, was ready with a toughly worded statement which said Lithuania's 'hasty' move could not but provoke Russia's 'watchfulness'.

'The President is worried,' he said, 'that expanding Nato with new members from countries in direct proximity to Russian borders will prompt a negative public opinion reaction in Russia.

'It will foster the development of undesirable attitudes in civilian and military circles and, in the final analysis, may lead to military and political destabilisation in a key region for the fate of the world.'

Povilas Gylys, Lithuania's Foreign Minister, had written to the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, saying that although former Soviet troops had left his republic, putting it in a more comfortable position than neighbouring Latvia and Estonia, where Moscow's soldiers remain, Vilnius still felt it was in a 'security vacuum. We are also concerned that after the Russian parliamentary elections, Russia's foreign policy might become more nationalist and aggressive towards the Baltic states.'

Mr Kostikov said this argument was 'unconvincing' because Russia was now a democratic country with a military doctrine barring aggressive behaviour towards other states.

This may be true but the new doctrine, published last year, has dropped pledges about Moscow never being the first to use nuclear weapons and about the inviolability of borders - to the concern not only of the Baltic states but also of Eastern European countries once forcibly bound in the now-defunct Warsaw Pact. The Balts, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, who say they share Western values and so deserve protection from the Russian bear, are likely to be disappointed, however, as a Nato summit next week will probably promise them no more than vague co-operation, for fear of offending Moscow.

In Warsaw last September, Mr Yeltsin said he had no objections to Poland and other former Eastern bloc members joining Nato but he has since reversed this, apparently under pressure from the Russian military to whom he is in debt after they helped him crush the uprising in October. Pavel Podlesny, from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe, attempted an academic explanation of Moscow's new stance, arguing that expanding Nato would deprive neutral countries of a role in European security, that it would complicate Russia's relations with its neighbours and that it would dash hopes of a future Europe without any military blocs.

Another factor is simply Russia's hurt pride, on which the ultra- nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was able to play profitably in December's elections. Many Russian officers have not accepted the loss of Eastern Europe: they have come home from cushy postings to poor living conditions. A report this week said that the few remaining Russian soldiers in east Germany were bribing their superiors to stay on as long as possible before the final pull-out on 31 August. The Berlin public prosecutor, Ulf Hagemann, said the troops were cheating the German state out of billions of marks through smuggling and tax fraud, which was why they were so reluctant to go home.

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