Not too many eyes seemed glued on the doings in Madrid this week. But the opening there of the conference on European cooperation and security should not go unnoticed. For a while it looked as if the Russians would not let the East-West meeting beging because, despite weeks of wrangling, no agenda was agreed upon. But fortunately the West Europeans, the United States, and the neutral nations hung together in a united front and the Soviet Union finally backed down. It seems clear that Moscow, although it will have to listen to many condemnations of its brutal intervention in Afghanistan and violations of human rights, does not want to destroy the so-called Helsinki process.
Whether the conference can prove more productive than its predecessor in Belgrade two years ago remains open to question, however. The agenda has yet to be worked out and the procedural squabbling could go on indefinitely. The task will be to achieve a compromise which will enable the conference to fulfill its purpose not only of adequately reviewing human rights records but, equally important, of seeking ways of improving East-West Europeans, for instance, are interested in pursuing a follow-up European arms control conference.
If the Russians are unhappy about the state of detente, they of course have only themselves to blame. They can hardly expect the Western and neutral nations to gloss over such a fundamental breach of international law as their invasion and continuing occupation of Afghanistan. Or to ignore their imprisonment of dozens of members of the committees set up in the USSR to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki accords. These deserve full examination in Madrid.
Yet it is a question whether the Soviets can be pushed to the hilt without undermining a process that has helped promote human rights in Eastern Europe generally and has also led to East-West progress in economic and political fields. The diplomatic dilemma always lies in gauging the point of tolerance beyond which the Russians simply dig in their heels and become even more repressive. Andrei Amalrik, the Soviet dissident writer and emigre who met with a fatal accident on his way to the Madrid meeting, once noted how difficult it is to foster human rights in a country without any tradition of freedom. "Neither the regime nor the society at large understands what human rights are," he said.
There are, in short, no clear-cut formulas for East-West dialogue on so sensitive a subject, a subject that strikes at the very heart of Soviet state power. Madrid provides an opportunity at least to keep the dialogue going. But it will take wisdom and skill to prevent the conference from dissolving in acrimony -- which would neither advance the cause of freedom nor improve East-West relations.