Polish PM calms Russia over Nato

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland completed a difficult three- day visit to Moscow yesterday, acknowledging he had failed to allay Russian suspicions about Poland's desire to join Nato.

"Only a blind person could expect Russia and Poland to agree on the question of Nato. The important thing is that we were able to talk about it," Mr Kwasniewski said.

Russia has long opposed the admission into the western alliance of its former Warsaw Pact satellites, proposing instead a joint western-Russian security guarantee of central and eastern Europe. Recently, however, the Kremlin has indicated that it may not object to the inclusion of Poland and a couple of other countries in Nato, provided they are not fully integrated into its military structures and security arrangements.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have rejected both proposals, insisting they are sovereign states with the right to choose which alliances they want to join and on what terms. At the same time, Mr Kwasniewski and Czech and Hungarian leaders have emphasised they do not view Nato membership as a mechanism for isolating Russia.

"Poland does not want to be in Nato against Russia. It does not want to be a frontline country in a new Europe," the Polish president said. "If there are good ties between Russia and Poland, this is good for Europe. The path we are going down towards democracy and a market economy is very wide, and there is room for Russia, Poland and all of Europe there."

Mr Kwasniewski's trip to Moscow was his first since he defeated Lech Walesa in presidential elections last November. He held talks with President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday, but the only concrete agreement signed during his visit was an accord on Polish-Russian youth exchanges.

Other proposed agreements on visa-free travel and the repatriation of people who illegally cross the Polish-Russian border failed to materialise. There was some discussion of economic issues, including a proposal to create a free-trade zone in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, bordering Poland, but no formal accords.

The lack of more substantial results underlined the recent strains in Polish-Russian relations. These were highlighted last January by the resignation of Poland's former prime minister, Jozef Oleksy, over allegations that he had been a Soviet and Russian agent.

On Tuesday, Mr Yeltsin blamed Mr Walesa for the poor atmosphere, saying: "Recently we hadn't got on well with Walesa." The former Polish president retorted that relations had cooled because "Russia was testing its hegemonistic tendencies, while I was resolutely defending Poland's interests".

Mr Kwasniewski, a former Communist turned left-of-centre democrat, made a point during his visit of holding talks with Gennady Zyuganov, the Russian Communist leader who says he would like to restore the Soviet Union. Mr Kwasniewski wanted a close-up look at the man who is favourite to defeat Mr Yeltsin in next June's presidential elections and whose policies could greatly affect Poland's destiny.