Nato forges historic deal with Moscow

Alliance to expand eastward in partnership pact with its old foe

Nato and Russia reached agreement yesterday on a pact which aims to establish a close partnership between the former Cold War enemies while permitting the Western alliance to expand into eastern Europe.

Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, clinched the deal in Moscow after months of negotiations often characterised by Russian criticism of Nato's enlargement plans.

The pact, whose precise terms were not made public, is expected to be formally signed at a ceremony in Paris on 27 May. "It is a big victory for reason, it is a big victory for the world community, and it is a big victory for Russia and all governments in the world that are interested in peace and co-operation," Mr Primakov said.

It remained unclear whether Russia had achieved one of its main objectives - a firm guarantee from Nato that it will not place nuclear weapons, foreign troops and significant amounts of military infrastructure in new member states. Nato has been reluctant to put such commitments in writing, but on the nuclear question it points out that it has no intention of making new deployments of the kind feared by Russia.

Mr Solana, who described the negotiations as "very tough", said the agreement would strengthen European stability and open a new age in Western-Russian relations. The French government, which has been keen to promote a Nato- Russian relationship, described the pact as "an essential event in the definition of the new architecture of European security".

The agreement does not mean that Russia has dropped its objections to Nato's expansion, or its belief that the Western alliance should transform itself by developing its political identity and placing more emphasis on peacekeeping. "So far, there has been no serious progress in this direction," said Russia's Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, underlining the widespread view in Moscow that Nato still represents a potential threat to Russian security.

However, President Boris Yeltsin made clear at his summit with President Bill Clinton in Helsinki in March that Russia, lacking the means to prevent Nato's expansion, would, for now, settle for a pact that defined a special relationship with the alliance. The pact is expected to guarantee Russia a significant voice in Nato's deliberations, without allowing it to block particular decisions.

Once approved by Nato's 16 governments, and by Mr Yeltsin, the pact will clear the way for several ex-Communist countries in central and eastern Europe to be invited to join the alliance at its Madrid summit in July. The leading candidates are the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, but some states also favour the early inclusion of Romania and Slovenia.

Nato insists that its doors will remain open to new members after the initial wave of enlargement, due to be completed by 1999. However, some defence experts think that Russia will draw a line in the sand if Nato tries to absorb other countries, notably the Baltic states.

In remarks likely to increase the Kremlin's hostility to Baltic entry into Nato, Estonia's President, Lennart Meri, said in Budapest yesterday that his country wanted to join others in presenting "an uncompromising challenge to the empire of evil, or, more accurately, to the shadow of its former self". The term "evil empire", made famous by President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, has been little used recently.

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