- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Russia's growing relationship with NATO can only work if it is restricted to a "limited number of issues" such as counterterrorism, Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said yesterday.

"Theoretically, it will be a challenge to NATO to operate in a military or political framework with Russia," Mr. Berzins said in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times. "We want to join a strong NATO, not a place where people just talk and talk."

The foreign minister, in town this week with his Baltic counterparts from Lithuania and Estonia for meetings with top U.S. officials, stressed his country is not yet a member of the 19-nation alliance, and that it is up to NATO to set its own institutional links with Russia.

"Of course we want to see Russia have cooperative relations with NATO, but to our mind it can practically only be done if it is based on a limited number of issues," said Mr. Berzins.

The three Baltic states are anxiously awaiting a November 2002 NATO decision on their applications to join the alliance. The drive to join NATO comes just a decade after the three countries earned their independence from Moscow with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

But the sharply warmer relations between Russia and the West in the months since the September 11 attacks have caused distinct unease across Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO ministers last week adopted a British-backed plan to increase Moscow's weight in alliance decisions in such areas as peacekeeping and weapons proliferation. U.S. officials in recent days have even felt compelled to deny Moscow will be given a "veto" over NATO's enlargement deliberations.

Despite the recent turn to the West, many of Russian President Vladimir Putin's top military and diplomatic advisers remain deeply hostile to the idea of expanding NATO, an alliance that came into being specifically to contain the Soviet Union. The inclusion of the three Baltic states is a particularly sore spot.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Interfax news service yesterday: "Russia has opposed plans to enlarge NATO in the past and is opposing them now. Even if relations between Russia and NATO expand in terms of this format, this will hardly contribute to settling these contradictions."

The clash over Russia's role comes as Latvia and its neighbors had been making strong progress in their NATO bids, Mr. Berzins said. "A year ago, nobody would have believed the Baltic states would be as close to NATO as we are now," he said.

The foreign minister attributed the recent progress to efforts at home to revamp the country's military force and to economic reforms that have also made Latvia a strong candidate to join the European Union within the next three years.

Also critical was President Bush's forceful speech in Warsaw in June in support of an ambitious NATO enlargement round next year, a commitment that was echoed yesterday by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage after talks with the Baltic foreign ministers.

"That sent a very clear message to the Europeans about where Washington stood on the question," said Mr. Berzins.

In addition to the Baltic states, the NATO candidate countries are Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Macedonia.

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