Russia's foreign minister signaled acceptance of NATO's planned eastward expansion - as long as it doesn't mean a big military buildup on Russian borders, alliance officials said after meeting with him Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was less direct in comments to reporters after the session with his counterparts from the 16 NATO nations."Our discussions were very constructive and useful," he said. "Russia seeks to develop its relations with NATO."
Primakov also said NATO expansion "should be discussed in the process of our negotiations." NATO ministers have ruled out any Russian veto and again made this clear to Primakov on Tuesday.
German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and other alliance officials quoted Primakov as saying that Russia is not against NATO taking in Eastern European members, but that such steps as establishing new bases close to Russia would be unacceptable.
"We would have difficulties when the military infrastructure is extended to our borders," Kinkel quoted Primakov as saying, adding that Primakov said Russia was willing to discuss possible compromises.
Officials generally characterized Primakov's tone as cooperative and cordial. Most did not see the Russian position as a breakthrough, but an acceptance by Russia that NATO was committed to expansion.
Moscow has bitterly opposed the NATO expansion plan, saying it seeks to isolate Russia. Tuesay was the second day of NATO's annual spring meeting.
"The desire of our eastern neighbors to accede to the alliance is legitimate," German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said. "This policy is not directed against anyone, but neither does anyone have the right to veto it."
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana called Tuesday's talks "very constructive, very positive and very cordial."
"We are on a steady, gradual and deliberate path for NATO enlargement . . . 1996 being the year of rather intensive consultations," said Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Later, the NATO ministers met their Eastern European counterparts, though the prime concern of the guests - who will get to join the Western alliance and when - was not on the table.
Poland, a prime NATO candidate, dismissed Primakov's suggestion, saying anything less than full membership was unacceptable.
"Poland is not interested in this type of compromise," Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati told Germany's ZDF television. "History has shown that this type of guarantee cannot be effective."
Sen. Bob Dole, President Clinton's likely Republican opponent, said Monday that "unfortunately the process of NATO enlargement appears stalled." He promised former Polish President Lech Walesa last week to introduce legislation urging Clinton to speed NATO expansion.