Vilnius, LITHUANIA - In what NATO officials have described as a "milestone" in relations with Moscow, the alliance is to sign a "Status of Forces
Agreement" with Moscow on Thursday which will pave the way for joint exercises and training, and will allow for greater freedom of movement of NATO
troops through Russian territory. The NATO meeting where the signing will take place is to be held in Lithuania, one of three ex-Soviet republics
which joined NATO last year. The meeting, held against a backdrop of some sensitive diplomatic issues, also involves discussion on NATO's future role
in the Middle East.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with his NATO counteparts including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for talks in Vilnius,
capital of one of three ex-Soviet republics which joined the alliance last year.
A spokesman said the accord, which will have to be ratified by the Russian Duma before entering into force, could for example be used to cover NATO
troops heading for Afghanistan, where the alliance heads a peacekeeping force
The issue touches on sensitive diplomatic areas: France has already made it clear it would oppose any significant NATO role in the Middle East, saying
the alliance has "no vocation" in the peace process.
The US secretary of state arrived in Vilnius direct from the Russian capital, where she criticized Russia's democratic record but called Moscow a
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As much of a milestone as the signing of the agreement is, the meeting itself hasn't been all smiles and pats on the back. A shadow still hangs over
NATO's solidarity, left over from differences of opinion between member states over the Iraq war. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also made
some disparaging statements regarding Russia's democratic record, a subject which has increasingly been in the media spotlight since President
Putin's apparent back-peddling on reforms in the former Communist state.
Another Russia-sensitive issue related to the meeting is the Ukraine's ambitions for NATO membership, a commission of which Secretary of State Rice
will attend, as well as her comment that it was "time for change" in the former Soviet republic, Belarus.
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[edit on 2005/4/26 by wecomeinpeace]