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NATO Nations Bond With Partner States

November 23, 2002|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — NATO leaders closed a two-day summit Friday by meeting with the heads of partner nations to discuss deeper cooperation, particularly in the Western alliance's newly declared mission of combating global terrorism.

The gathering was marred by diplomatic rows linked to Western pressure on two partner nations. Belarussian President Alexander G. Lukashenko was blocked from coming because of human rights issues. Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma, caught up in a dispute over weapons sales, arrived as an unwelcome guest.

Still, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson described the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council as "a transatlantic family working together for peace" and said its leaders Friday "reaffirmed the resolve of their states to fight the scourge of terrorism." The council matches the 19 North Atlantic Treaty Organization member nations with 27 countries stretching from Ireland to many of the economically and politically troubled states of the former Soviet Union.

"I see the partnership becoming ever more relevant, especially as you go further east and into ... Central Asia, where these countries are not going to join NATO in the immediate future but where their needs are great and where the potential for trouble is enormous," Robertson said at a summit-closing news conference.

"The purpose of the partnership, as we see it, is to promote freedom and democracy and to strengthen the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area," President Bush said before leaving to meet with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in St. Petersburg.

The NATO-Russia Council, a consultative body set up in May, met Friday at the foreign minister level. After those talks, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov welcomed NATO's assurances that its expansion -- marked by membership invitations issued Thursday to seven states formerly part of the communist East -- is not aimed against his country.

Russia and NATO will increasingly work together, as long as the alliance focuses on "opposing new threats and challenges of this contemporary world -- the same challenges Russia is trying to counter today," Ivanov said.

The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia received invitations Thursday to join the alliance in 2004.

Czech Republic authorities, in line with broader Western policy designed to pressure Belarus' Lukashenko to adopt a more democratic stance in his nation, refused to grant a visa for him to attend the partnership meeting.

That prompted a blistering speech here Friday by the Belarussian ambassador to NATO, Sergei Martynov. He blasted the Czech decision as an "ignominious act" and attacked the alliance for "hypocrisy, double standards, explicit arbitrariness and primitive blackmail."

Robertson, at his news conference, noted that Martynov's speech "was a pretty angry message," then deftly sought to turn it back against Lukashenko as a lesson in democracy.

"I told the ambassador that we listened to him," Robertson said, "and people had done so with respect, and that he should report back to his president that the message was given, and a lengthy statement was distributed, because we believe in free speech and in the right of contrary views to be heard, however uncomfortable they may be. That is what we stand for."

The very end of the news conference was disrupted when two young men threw tomatoes at Robertson -- which he calmly dodged -- and shouted in Russian that "NATO is worse than the Gestapo." As security officers took the men away, they said they were from the National Bolshevik Party of Russia.

Ukrainian President Kuchma was asked not to come to Prague because of accusations he had approved sale of an advanced radar system to Iraq in defiance of U.N. resolutions. He showed up anyway but got a cold shoulder from nearly all the other leaders.

Kuchma has strongly denied the allegations, but U.S. officials said in September that they had authenticated a tape in which the Ukrainian leader allegedly is heard approving the sale. Western officials fear that the radar system could enable the Iraqis to target U.S. and British warplanes in any conflict or as they enforce the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq.

At NATO summits, heads of state and government usually are seated alphabetically according to the English names of their countries. But to spare Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair the diplomatic discomfort of sitting near Kuchma, seating Friday was arranged alphabetically in French, the alliance's second official language.

A meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission was held at the foreign minister level so that heads of state and government would not need to interact with Kuchma.

After that meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko told reporters that his country would continue to pursue NATO membership. "Our partnership, despite all the problems, has good" prospects, he said.

Zlenko said his government wanted to cooperate with Britain and the United States to disprove their "groundless accusations" of Kuchma's involvement in the sale. However, Ukraine cannot provide a full accounting on all bilateral arms sales because in some cases they involve privileged information, he said.

The tensions with Belarus and Ukraine failed to disrupt the overall mood of partner nations seeking closer ties with NATO.

Robertson said he felt "very heartened by how virtually all of the Caucasus and Central Asia presidents were here with us today."

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