WARSAW -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin said Wednesday his nation must respect Poland's desire to join NATO because both nations are sovereign and the old 'big brother' relationship is over.
Yeltsin and Polish President Lech Walesa also announced that the last Russian troops -- some 2,500 unarmed soldiers guarding former Soviet garrisons in Poland that once held 60,000 troops -- will be pulled out by Oct. 1, three months ahead of schedule.
Yeltsin was in Warsaw to sign a series of cooperation agreements with Poland, including one setting the groundwork for a $10 billion natural gas pipeline from Russia and Ukraine through Poland to Germany.
'The ice of distrust has melted between our countries,' Yeltsin said in comparing his Warsaw visit with that of Walesa to Moscow in May 1992 to sign the first of what are now 20 cooperation agreements with Russia.
Although many issues still separate the two countries, which have been historically distrustful of each other, the wording of a joint declaration signed by the two presidents indicated a change in Russia's outright opposition to NATO membership for any of its former satellites.
The agreement says the decision by a sovereign Poland to attain European integration by eventually joining NATO 'is not contrary with the interests of other countries, Russia included.'
'Times have changed and now there exists two sovereign countries,' Yeltsin said following the brief signing ceremony. 'One has to respect their positions.'
A government source who participated in bilateral talks leading up to the Yeltsin visit said there was a visibly negative reaction on the part of Russian military officials when the NATO issue was first broached, but that they later seemed to accept the idea.
The official added that once they accepted it, the Russian officials indicated they would be seeking even closer ways to cooperate with Poland.
Russian officials are concerned that Poland's bid for membership in the western military bloc -- possibly along with that of other Central and East European states -- could place a 'sanitary cordon' around Russia and isolate it.
Both Yeltsin and Walesa referred to the distinct warming of bilateral contacts between the two countries, partly because of their personal relationship.
'In thenew Polish-Russian relations, there is no reason for hegemony and dictating,' Yeltsin said. 'There's no room for the psychology and politics of a younger and older brother.'
The sudden trip, which caught Polish officials by surprise and forced them to recall Foreign Ministry staffers from their August holidays, was seen as an effort to boost Yeltsin's international image at a time of deeping internal problems at home.
But Yeltsin's trip also is expected to put new impetus into the Polish-Russian relationship, which had progressed little since Walesa's 1992 trip to Moscow.