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Leaders arrive for Helsinki summit

Talks to focus on NATO expansion

March 20, 1997
Web posted at: 8:03 a.m. EST (1303 GMT)

HELSINKI, Finland (CNN) -- U.S. President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrived in Helsinki Thursday for the start of a two-day summit, in which they are expected to focus on NATO expansion plans.

Yeltsin arriving Clinton

"I think they have to understand that we have a schedule that is going to go forward," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Helsinki, referring to the alliances' plans to expand eastward.

Clinton is recovering from knee surgery. Upon arrival in Helsinki, a catering vehicle lowered his wheelchair to the tarmac.

The Clinton administration has insisted it will not back down from its plans even in the face of stiff Russian opposition. But the summit is not expected to result in agreement on the proposed expansion.

Map of current NATO countries and those invited to join

Russian officials, including Yeltsin, have warned that NATO expansion would be a major mistake. Heading into the summit, both sides appeared to be lowering expectations about the outcome of the discussions.

"I don't expect them to change their views, and they shouldn't expect us to change our views," Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, said. "The issue is how we work together in spite of that."

Berger's comments came a day after a Kremlin spokesman blasted NATO expansion plan, hinting that it could jeopardize relations between the East and West.

"President Yeltsin and the Russian leadership are convinced that NATO's plans to expand to the east, if realized, could be the West's biggest strategic mistake since the end of the Cold War," Sergei Yastrzhembsky told reporters Wednesday.

Expanding NATO could create lines of division in Europe and shatter the hard-won mutual trust between Russia and the United States, Yastrzhembsky said.

Although Moscow's objection to the U.S.-promoted expansion toward Russia's borders is causing anxiety, tensions and uncertainty also linger about arms control, Yeltsin's health, the path of economic reform and a months-long vacuum in the top ranks in the Russian government.

Clinton wants strong NATO-Russia ties

Clinton, in remarks shortly before leaving, said enlarging NATO was a top priority, but he also wants Russia to be a strong partner.

"We are adapting NATO to take on new missions, enlarging NATO to take in new members, strengthening NATO's partnership with non-members and seeking to build a robust partnership between NATO and Russia," Clinton said.

He said he and Yeltsin would discuss the outline of a NATO-Russia charter to establish the basis of their future relationship.

"I believe NATO and Russia should consult regularly and act jointly whenever possible," he said.

At a Madrid summit in July, the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization will invite some former Soviet bloc nations -- probably to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- to initiate membership talks with the aim of joining in 1999.

NATO is offering Russia a new relationship through a special charter, which would give Moscow the right to consult on security issues but no veto power over the alliance's plans.

Russia wants legally binding commitments in the NATO relationship, including guarantees that allied troops and nuclear arms will not be deployed in new member states.

Arms control, Russian economy also top agenda

Clinton and Yeltsin also will discuss arms control and Russia's troubled transition to a market economy.

"We will focus on three important areas," Clinton said. "First, on moving forward with our work to build a Europe that is undivided, democratic and at peace for the first time of the history of the continent."

"Second, on continuing to reduce the danger of weapons of mass destruction, and third, on expanding the economic partnership that is good for Americans and Russians alike."

In their first meeting in 11 months, the two leaders will greet each other Thursday night at a dinner hosted by Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari at the Presidential Palace. That will be followed Friday by two rounds of meetings followed by a joint news conference and a private dinner.

Correspondent Jill Dougherty and Reuters contributed to this report.


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