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    LAVROV TO TAKE PART IN INFORMAL RUSSIA-NATO COUNCIL SESSION

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    BRUSSELS, April 2, 2004 (RIA Novosti) - On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will take part in an informal session of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels. This will be the first meeting where 27 foreign ministers, instead of the previous 20 (seven new countries just entered NATO), will gather at the negotiating table.

    One of the central themes on the session's agenda will be NATO's expansion. Russia has stressed several times that the alliance's expansion affects its political, military and economic interests.

    "The main difficulty lies in the fact that four out of seven new alliance's members [Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia] are not parties to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty," explained Alexander Yakovenko, an official spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, in an interview with RIA Novosti.

    "There is a 'gray' zone on Russia's northwestern borders that is not covered by tough controls on weapons," the diplomat stressed.

    Mr. Lavrov stated that Russia has reason to believe that this issue will be settled at the Russia-NATO Council session. According to him, Russia's Western partners recognize the expediency of extending the obligations the CFE treaty to new members of the alliance. It is not clear yet how this step will be formalized; it may be done either in the form of the joint statement or by exchanging letters. This issue will be decided in Brussels.

    The situation in Kosovo will be another major topic that will be discussed at the session. Both Russia and its NATO counterparts admit that decisive and effective steps are needed for a settlement in the province.

    Such steps are thought to be the disarmament of the illegal armed groups in Kosovo and persuading Albanian leaders to more actively fight extremists.

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