March 5, 2000Putin criticized for Nato statement
MOSCOW (AP) -- Acting President Vladimir Putin set off a wave of criticism Sunday from his rivals in the presidential race by telling a British television network that Russia could join NATO.
Some critics called Putin's comments a betrayal of Russia's interests. Others called them a bid for votes from Western-minded Russians in the March 26 election, or an effort to soften his hard-line image abroad.
Asked whether Russia could join NATO, Putin told British Broadcasting Corp. interviewer Sir David Frost: "I don't see why not. I wouldn't rule out such a possibility. But I repeat -- if and when Russia's views are taken into account as an equal partner." The interview was broadcast Sunday and picked up by Russia's main networks.
NATO has been keen to cooperate with the Kremlin since the 1991 Soviet collapse, but has not shown any sign it is inviting Russia to join. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said NATO could expand to include Russia, but other U.S. politicians strongly resist the idea.
Despite cooperation on some projects, relations between Russia and NATO -- formed during the Cold War to deter Soviet troops from moving westward -- remain shaky. Most Russians see NATO expansion into Eastern Europe as a threat.
Moscow virtually severed all ties with NATO last year in response to the alliance's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. NATO, meanwhile, condemned Russia for using excessive force in Chechnya. But an agreement to restore ties was announced last month when NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson visited Moscow.
Still, it appeared unlikely that Putin would press soon for membership in the U.S.-led alliance. Putin has made restoring Russia's global clout a key campaign slogan, and has brushed off months of Western criticism of the war in Chechnya.
Russian television commentators Sunday pointed out that Putin usually tailors his remarks to his audience, and keeps many promises vague.
Reformist lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky dismissed the comments on NATO, saying Putin was unlikely to follow through with action.
"His actions absolutely don't correspond to his statements," Yavlinsky said on the Itogi television program. Yavlinsky is also running for president.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who polls at a distant second behind Putin in the presidential race, said Sunday that joining NATO would further weaken Russia.
Putin's "statement is naive and unpardonable for a politician of his level," Zyuganov told Interfax. "He should at least hire knowledgeable foreign policy advisers."
Konstantin Titov, a presidential candidate and the reformist governor of the Russian region of Samara, welcomed the idea of joining NATO. But Titov said Putin's statement was little more than a campaign stunt for attracting reformist voters, according to Interfax.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Vladimir Lukin said Sunday that Russia could join NATO if it was transformed from a military to a political alliance and Russia was offered equal terms.