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NATO must leave the door open for Russia

The meeting between President Boris Yeltsin and President Clinton in Helsinki, Finland, marks a turning point in the relationship between Russia and the West. The plan to expand NATO eastward has met a sharp and practically unanimous rejection in Moscow, but the West continues to press on. The decisions reached on the subject by the two presidents will determine whether the Helsinki summit will launch a new era of European stability and prosperity or will go down in history as a symbol of lost opportunities after the fall of communism.

Russian objections against expansion of NATO have nothing to do with a fear of military threat. We are concerned about the long-term political consequences of this step, which we believe will separate Russia from Europe and in effect will put it in geopolitical opposition to the family of Western democracies. We understand the desire of Central Europeans to reaffirm their European identity. But the other side of the coin, as it is seen from Moscow, is the perpetuation of the division of Europe with the demarcation line simply shifting to the east.

The centerpiece of Yeltsin's policies of market reforms, democracy, individual rights and civil society has been the understanding that Russia constitutes a part of Europe. The unwillingness of the West to allot Russia an equal status in the future system of European security undermines these policies in principle, since it underscores in people's minds the existence of a barrier between Russia and Europe, and squeezes Russia out of the common European space.

The renewed search of national identity currently under way in Russia will determine the way for the Russian state and society for decades to come. This choice of direction also depends on signals coming from the West. Unfortunately, the plan to expand NATO in its current form is perceived in Russia as a hostile signal. It reinforces the opponents of getting closer with the West. It invalidates the argument that those in the West who call for the isolation and containment of Russia do not reflect the consensus. It undermines the reformist camp in Russia.

In 2000, when Yeltsin's successor will be elected, the nationalist, anti-Western tradition of xenophobia will attempt to reclaim Russia. It is about that time that the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO willbecome a reality, and the admission of other new members will be on the agenda. Thus the decision to expand NATO today will define a theme of political debate in Russia tomorrow and may well determine its outcome. The West should pay attention to the wise warnings of George Kennan: NATO expansion is a fateful mistake that will have catastrophic consequences for both Russia and the West.

However, there is a way out that will take the anti-Russian essence out of the plan to enlarge NATO. The expansion will become quite acceptable to us if the open-door policy declared by NATO leads to an invitation to Russia to join the alliance as a full member in the foreseeable future.

We were encouraged by the recent statement by President Clinton that he does not exclude Russian membership in a common security alliance together with Europe, the United States and Canada. This statement was a step in the right direction. Now we need an agreement that the next round of NATO expansion must include Russia, with a clear understanding that no new states will be invited before Russia joins the alliance. A specific target date for Russia's admission should be set, say in 10 years, and a process of consultations leading to this objective could start right away.

The declaration of intent to integrate Russia with the West in the context of NATO expansion would have historic significance, since it would mark the end of the division of Europe. It would set the psychological framework for the whole range of Russian-Western interaction in military, economic and political spheres. It would become the first step on the way to a united, free and democratic Europe, a dream that we share with President Clinton.

Within Russia, the agreement to create a joint security alliance would have a substantial public effect, especially in the context of recent consolidation of the reformist camp. It would revive in the memory of the Russians our cooperation during World War II. It would ensure public support for the whole spectrum of our bilateral and multilateral undertakings. Such an agreement could mark the beginning of the new national consensus with regard to our attitude toward the West.

Boris Berezovsky is deputy secretary of the Russian National Security Council and an associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Special to the Los Angeles Times