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Clinton And Yeltsin Agree To Disagree

Two recuperating Presidents agree to disagree and insist they are making progress.We'll see.

By Bruce W. Nelan

(TIME, March 31) -- Bill Clinton didn't expect to convince Boris Yeltsin that expanding NATO eastward, toward Russia, is a great idea. The newly chipper Russian President arrived at last week's Helsinki summit trailing a string of sound-bite warnings that he would not budge. Clinton did hope, though, that a friendly reunion, with both Presidents dropping jovial one-liners about ailments and recuperation, could establish a mood for compromise. On the night before the meeting, Clinton, recovering from knee surgery, had trouble sleeping--he heard a loud banging above the ceiling of his room. The next day he joked with Yeltsin that the Russians had hired a Finn to jump up and down on the roof.

Clinton and Yeltsin

After a Friday session that was both congenial and contentious, the two Presidents emerged with their good humor intact. At the wrap-up news conference, Clinton perched in his wheelchair next to Yeltsin, watching warily to see how the Russian would spin the summit. Yeltsin chose to be unsmiling but soothing. He said he still thought expanding NATO "is a mistake, and a serious one at that." Even so, he was sure he and "Bill," as he chummily called Clinton, would be able to resolve all the outstanding issues. He announced that the two sides would negotiate an agreement that would "minimize the negative consequences for Russia" and would be signed by the leaders of all NATO states.

In fact, Yeltsin's aides say, he did not assent to NATO expansion. Russians of every political stripe hate the idea that next July their former Warsaw Pact allies, most likely Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, will be invited to join NATO by 1999. But Yeltsin can see that it is inevitable and is determined to squeeze the best possible deal out of the West in return for grudging tolerance. Russia hopes to make the whole process so difficult that the first three new members of the Atlantic alliance might turn out to be the last.

Washington insists that NATO "enlargement" (not expansion, which sounds pushy) will "remain on track" no matter how much it upsets Moscow. Still, Clinton offered Yeltsin a menu of sweeteners called the "three nos." NATO has "no intention, no plan and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states. The same goes for combat troops. And Russia will be invited to sit in a joint council at NATO headquarters to talk about whatever the alliance is up to.

Both sides agreed to speed up cutbacks in strategic nuclear weapons if the Russian parliament finally ratifies START II, the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed in 1993. Washington also pledges to support Russia's increased participation in major international economic organizations like the World Trade Organization and the Group of Seven industrialized nations. Russia will take part in the G-7 conference in Denver this June, now to be called "the Summit of Eight."

Economic opportunities of that sort may turn out to be as important to Moscow as security issues. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says she is encouraged by the assertive government shakeup last week, in which Yeltsin seemed to put economic and administrative reforms back atop his agenda. Reform is to be driven by two new First Deputy Prime Ministers, Anatoli Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, both dynamic and market-oriented politicians.

That's forward thinking, but Moscow has an oversupply of yesterday's men who are concerned about Russia's security above all. If NATO expands, says Sergei Yushenkov, one of parliament's leading defense experts, START II, "is dead. There is no chance it will be ratified by the Duma."

Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov had been touring NATO capitals demanding a formal treaty between the alliance and Moscow. Yeltsin is looking for ironclad promises that the West will never move nuclear weapons and reinforcements into, say, Poland. Clinton has said no--that would give Moscow a veto over NATO decisions. Washington hopes Moscow will settle for a handsomely bound set of assurances, solemnly signed at a summit this spring.

Taking Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance will, however, require a new NATO treaty that will have to be ratified by all member states. It will include the present Article Five, which declares that an attack on any member will be an attack on all and in effect commits their armed forces to the defense of the endangered country. The treaty comes with a price tag. Various estimates put the total cost of bringing three new members into the fold at anywhere from $35 billion over 13 years (the Clinton Administration estimate) up to a high of $125 billion (the Congressional Budget Office's). Expect a fight when the time comes to split up this burden among the present and future members of NATO.

In spite of the sputtering from Moscow, the prospect of increasing military commitments in Central Europe, and the considerable dollar cost attached, the plan to expand NATO has generated surprisingly little discussion in the West. Though many Europeans have doubts, they look at enlargement resignedly, as an American show. Most of the European partners figure there is no point in opposing the U.S. now that the push has gone this far and Clinton seems unyielding on it. The alliance's future could be at stake. "More than anything else," says a senior NATO diplomat in Brussels, "enlargement is about an American commitment." In other words, it's the price to be paid to keep the U.S. in Europe.

If the Russians refuse to accept the phraseology NATO offers them before July 8, when the alliance is to gather in Madrid to issue invitations, some Europeans could get cold feet. NATO planners think that is a real risk. While the invitations would probably still be issued, the process of negotiation and ratification could be stalled.

The U.S. Senate has not focused on the issue yet, but everyone expects a real fight for 67 votes, the two-thirds necessary to give the Senate's advice and consent. There is already a group of opposed or concerned Senators from both parties, including Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

One of the strongest supporters of expansion is Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He expects "considerable problems" with ratification. Some Senators, he says, will be worried about how much it will cost, and some will say the U.S. has conceded too much to the Russians to get a deal. Others will complain that Clinton is alienating Moscow. If those groups add up to 34 Senators, they could block the treaty. Some Senators want to make sure the Europeans will pay their bills and live up to their new commitments. "I can think of a number of ways people can get hung up in this debate," Lugar says.

That's exactly what the European governments are afraid of. If the U.S. Senate plunges ahead and ratifies the new treaty, then the other allies are likely to do the same without much fuss. But if the Senate hesitates and asks to see proof of the European commitment, that could stymie the process in several capitals. "The essential thing is for the U.S. to go first," says a NATO official. So far it has, but that could change as swiftly as the political winds in Washington.

--Reported by Andrew Meier/Moscow, Karen Tumulty with Clinton and Douglas Waller/Washington

For more, see our Web report at time.com


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