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Crisis in Yugoslavia

NATO Partner Nations Hope a Little Networking Pays a Lot of Dividends

April 25, 1999|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Starship NATO has been parked in downtown Washington for the last few days, but the people of the capital, even some high-profile ones, can't--or don't really care to--find it.

The meeting area for the summit of 19 NATO countries and 23 partner nations is cut off from Washington, much as Vatican City is from Rome. The streets are barricaded; only vehicles and pedestrians with the right papers can enter.

Even the proper neck gear, such as a press pass worn like a dog tag, doesn't get you very far. Only a few observers penetrate the meeting rooms at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, where the hot topics are how to crush Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and "whither NATO?"

Press attaches offer "briefings" about communiques; chatty delegates whisper about heartfelt discussions between leaders. But it's all hearsay. You don't hear the leaders bonding or witness any outbursts.

Mostly what is seen in snippets on television are the important men of NATO--whose 50th anniversary brought the free world to Washington in the first place--shaking hands at meetings, meals and ceremonies. Lined up on a stage or seated around a table, they appear like members of a kind of diplomatic chorus line despite the underlying tension over the chaos in the Balkans.

But if these familiar world leaders are being oh-so-proper at the same time that they are quietly worrying if their alliance will hold up for another 50 years, the lesser lights of NATO, the partner countries, are thrilled to be even on the periphery. They're just itching to become members of the alliance.

Many of the delegates of the partner countries kept themselves very busy this weekend, even though they were barred from most of the best meetings.

The presidents of countries such as the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan--known as "the stans" in diplomatic circles--scheduled back-to-back meetings with U.S. business leaders and politicians and with each other in between attending a White House dinner and photo sessions with NATO's big shots.

To these countries, all the crowing about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's importance as a force of stability in light of the Kosovo crisis seems irrelevant. They are hungry for Western friends and financial allies to protect them from dictators or Muslim extremists in countries bordering theirs.

And so the president of oil-rich Kazakhstan had breakfast Saturday with the chairman of Mobil Oil Corp. and lunch with the governor of oil-rich Texas, George W. Bush, on a boat on the Potomac.

Uzbekistan's president, accompanied by a relatively tiny delegation of five, invited the leaders of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova--also former Soviet republics--to his embassy for a modest lunch Saturday to discuss their common need for Black Sea ports.

"It's important for us to come here to find friends," said Timur Saidov, a member of the Uzbek delegation. "We need to make friends to protect against people like Milosevic. Kosovo is far away from us, but we understand why he must be stopped."

Kosovo seemed to affect the summit the way a child is plagued by a low-grade fever: No matter how far off the subject the leaders got, they always came back to Kosovo. Whenever the leaders met, even for ceremonial occasions, the conflict loomed, a subtext to every text, a parallel for every historical reference.

It seemed that only the chic crowd at the British Embassy did not bring up Milosevic unless urged by a pestering reporter.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cherie Booth, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were able to break away from NATO summitry briefly to launch the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a project of Catherine Meyer, the wife of Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to the U.S.

Despite the simple fare of iced tea and crustless sandwiches, the reception at the British Embassy was fun and relaxing compared with the other summit social events.

In fact, Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov confided that the official meals are so fraught with official business that "the last thing you get to do at these dinners is relax. I have a word of advice for anyone invited to these affairs: 'Eat before you go.' "

Yet the very sociable Meyers, popular here on the dinner-party circuit, were able to fight this by attracting an A-list to the British Embassy. Few of their 300 guests were there for the summit.

"This is the only thing I'm attending related to the summit," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). He had refused invitations to White House and State Department dinners--"I didn't want to be part of a mob scene."

Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony Corp. of America, mingled with ABC News President David Westin. In from Moscow, former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, now a parliament member, chatted with Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.

Meanwhile, this capital was so quiet during Friday's rush hour that a Spanish diplomat familiar with the bustle of a normal Washington workday said, "It feels like a Sunday morning in your sweaty summers."

At that moment, a 10-car motorcade containing the Turkish president and his ministers whizzed by, sirens blaring.

"Wait," the Spaniard added, "It feels like summer in an occupied state. There is nothing but your police and the constant sirens on your streets."

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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