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A Russian Bear Dons New NATO Clothing

AFTER months of coaxing and cajoling, the Western powers have finally gotten a grudging Russia to endorse NATO's blueprint for stabilizing Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev formally entered Russia in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Partnership for Peace Program (PFP) on Wednesday, during a ceremony in the Dutch resort town of Noordwijk. The program aims to export stability from West to East, primarily through military exchanges and joint exercises. Russia also agreed to a special arrangement to expand cooperation and consultations on a range of military-related issues.

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Despite Moscow's latest moves, however, ensuring security in Europe still has deep problems. And many observers remain unsure whether Russia will try to play a constructive or destructive role in the effort to build up stability and prosperity in the formerly Communist nations of East and Central Europe.

In all, 26 European nations, mostly former Soviet bloc nations, have signed up for PFP. The Central European nations most eager to rejoin the Western mainstream after 50 years of Soviet subjugation -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- are perhaps the most suspicious of Moscow's intentions. Their fears have been fanned by Moscow's ruthless suppression of separatists in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya.

''It may turn out that the West is allowing the wolf to guard the chicken house,'' said Zdzislaw Najder, a political scientist in Warsaw. ''They [Russia] are entering PFP to prevent other PFP participants from joining NATO.''

Many Central European states want full NATO membership, and the 16-member alliance has pledged to admit new members from the East. But it has provided no time frame for expansion. A study is scheduled to be ready this autumn detailing NATO membership requirements for aspiring Central European nations. PFP is intended as a transit-stop for NATO aspirants.

Moscow, meanwhile, regards NATO enlargement as a forbidden fruit, saying it would menace Russia's national security and plunge the continent back into an atmosphere of confrontation. Making Eastern European states part of NATO would bar Russia from reasserting a sphere of influence in the east, which it enjoyed during the Soviet empire. Russian leaders have been increasingly vitriolic in opposing expansion plans.

President Boris Yeltsin, for example, suggested expansion could unleash ''a cold peace.'' The Russian foreign minister also hinted that Russia could withdraw from PFP: NATO Expansion ''would create for Russia the need for a corresponding correction of its attitude to Partnership for Peace,'' Mr. Kozyrev said Tuesday.

Relations between the West and Russia touched their lowest point since the end of the cold war in December, when Mr. Kozyrev confounded NATO officials by reneging at the last minute on a former Russian pledge to sign up for PFP.

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The West has painstakingly sought to reassure Russia that NATO, a defense organization, is not a security threat. Earlier this month, during a summit with President Clinton, Yeltsin finally signaled that Russia was again ready to sign up for PFP.

NATO officials say they are fully aware of the complexities of Russian PFP participation, but add the potential benefits to European security still outweigh the risks. They feel the more tightly Russia is bound to the West, the more amenable Moscow will be to a broadened NATO. Alliance leaders vow that Russia will never attain veto-power over enlargement.

But Central European experts say Russian rhetoric about security concerns is designed to mask Moscow's desire to reestablish its hegemony over the former Soviet bloc.

''The reconstruction of their empire is the only item on their agenda,'' Mr. Najder said. ''They have been much more skillful in manipulating the situation than the West.''

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