Expansion of Nato is no joke to survivors of iron curtain era


ON APRIL 1st the official Russian news agency Itar-Tass played a little joke on its subscribers, as it traditionally does on the occasion of All Fools Day. In a short bulletin, quoting an unnamed spokesman, it announced Russia was planning to reinstate the Warsaw Pact to counterbalance Nato's proposed eastward expansion.

In countries such as Hungary and the Czech republic the report engendered a level of consternation that proved to be no laughing matter. The Bulgarians were not happy either. The news agency eventually issued a statement apologising for the joke.

This incident served to illustrate how sensitive the issues of Nato's expansion and Russia's response are in the former Soviet empire and its one time satellites. The Berlin wall may have crumbled, but an "Iron Curtain of the mind" still exists.

Many observers, with some justification, pin much of the blame on Nato itself which, they argue is determined to find a role for itself in the new geopolitical situation created by the collapse of Soviet power.

But Russia too has contributed to the feeling of insecurity which has become endemic in the chancelleries to the east of the enlarged EU. Moves to reintegrate former soviet republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are of an overtly economic nature but leading members of the military establishment here openly express the view that a military alliance will ensue.

Even the name of the new grouping of four republics, with Russia as its undisputed leader, has given cause for concern. The "Community of Sovereign States" or "CSS" sounds harmless enough but in Russian the "Sodruzhevstvo Suverennykh Respublik" bears the initials "SSR" a title which is too close for comfort to the old USSR.

The most dramatic reaction to developments followed a throwaway remark by President Yeltsin that Bulgaria be welcome as a member of a new Russian led alliance. Within hours there were demonstrations on the streets of Sofia and the beleaguered former communist government in that country was forced by the opposition to state that it wanted no part in the new grouping.

In the context of the Russian presidential elections on June 6th the issue has not created waves between the two leading contenders, both of whom are virulently opposed to the alliance's plans to expand towards the borders of the Russian Federation. If anything President Yeltsin has made stronger anti Nato statements than Mr Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader particularly for domestic consumption.

But while on a state visit to Norway Mr Yeltsin appeared to soften his line saying that Russia would be prepared to accept a situation in which former eastern bloc countries were linked to the alliance in a manner similar to that of France, a member of Nato's political structure but not its military alliance.

In the background, moves towards military as well as political integration of former Soviet republics are being made. Gen Viktor Samsonov, in charge of military co-ordination within the CIS, says that he has secured agreement with other countries within the commonwealth on opposing Nato enlargement and that military reintegration would be the main subject of the next summit of CIS defence ministers.

Integration of armed forces would appear likely among some of the former republics, notably the four members of the SSR, but Ukraine is insistent that it has become a neutral state which will Join neither Nato nor any anti Nato alliance.

Fears about the development of a new eastern alliance are at their strongest in the Baltic countries and especially in Estonia which has an unratified border with Russia and, more dangerously in the long term, a large ethnic Russian population most of which qualifies to vote in the Russian presidential election but cannot vote in Estonia.

Tallinn, the Estonian capital, has a Russian majority, if only a slight one, but the city of Narva close by the Russian border is more than 90 per cent Russian and should tensions rise could be an easy military target for any future ultra nationalistic Russian government.

Yet the Baltics, apparently due to Russian pressure, do not appear to be a priority in Nato's expansion plans, much to the dismay of local politicians. The Baltic countries, due to understandable fears, are pushing strongly for Nato expansion.

Paradoxically the Balls and the Russians have one important commitment in common. They are all members of the Nato led Partnership for Peace.