Rifkind boosts Polish hopes of joining Nato

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Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, yesterday tried to reassure Poland that, in spite of Russian reservations, it is among the leading candidates for admission to an expanded Nato.

On the first day of a tour of Central Europe, Mr Rifkind praised Polish participation in Nato's Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme and predicted the country would make an "important contribution" to European security.

Mr Rifkind said it was "extremely probable" negotiations on Poland entry into Nato would succeed. But he was unable to give a timetable for joining or a set of conditions to be met.

"We are impatient. We would like the whole process to move faster," Jerzy Milewski, Poland's acting Defence Minister, said. "We would like to be in within the next couple of years or at the very least by the end of the decade."

As the largest of the "Visegrad four," Poland is deemed more important than the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Having attacked the PFP programme when it was launched last year, Warsaw has become an enthusiastic participant. Poland last September hosted a joint military exercise involving six Nato countries and seven former Warsaw Pact states.

In addition to hosting further joint exercises this year, Poland seeks to cut its armed forces from more than 280,000 to 200,000 and bring its command structures in line with Nato countries. Military chiefs want to modernise their equipment. Two months ago the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, told a Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe summit in Budapest that the expansion of Nato to the east could precipitate a "Cold Peace." Mr Rifkind said there was no intention of erecting new barriers in Europe and countries that did not become full Nato members would be able to forge partnership links with the organisation "on an equal basis".