Don't let Helsinki sink

It is not surprising that the meeting under way in Madrid to prepare for the coming 35-nation European conference on security and cooperation is beset by wrangling. The Russians and their East European allies want to limit the time devoted at the conference to such embarrassing questions as Afghanistan and human rights. The Americans and their West European partners are equally determined to make sure these topics do not get shortchanged. Indeed they should not be. The challenge at the Madrid conference will be to bring strong moral pressure to bear on the Soviet Union for failures to observe the "Helsinki accords" -- without, however, going so far as to endanger the whole Helsinki process.

That process has turned out to be valuable for the long-term goal of fostering cooperation between East and West. This is in fact a rather remarkable outcome given the cries in the West of "sellout" and "disaster" which greeted the signing of the so-called Helsinki Final Act in 1975. That act, it will be recalled, was the culmination of the European security conference which the Russians had so ardently pushed as a substitute European peace conference. What they won was de facto acceptance of their post-World War II territorial and political gains in Eastern Europe. What they were forced to pay, however, was acquiescence to a document calling for respect for fundamental rights and liberties.

The Helsinki accord has haunted the Russians ever since because of its provisions on human rights. One sometimes wonders if they would ever have launched the exercise if they could have foreseen its consequences. In any case , it is too late to turn back. If the Russians abandoned the Helsinki process now, they would dismantle the framework within which East-West relations have evolved and reopen all the sensitive political questions which they sought to put behind them. They could endanger detente altogether, losing the West European financial help so crucial now to flagging Soviet-bloc economies.

The noncommunist nations would lose as well. Not only has the Helsinki process made possible progress in the economic and political fields -- the latter including such "confidence-building measures" as prior notification of military maneuvers. It has helped promote human rights. Groups have sprung up almost everywhere, including the USSR, to monitor observance of the Helsinki agreement and demand an accounting from governments. Most significant, the Helsinki accord has given every East European government leverage in its bilateral relations with Moscow, with the result that many communist countries have been able to expand Soviet tolerance of national experiments and win an easing of restrictions in such areas as exchange of information, free movement of citizens, and access by journalists.

This is why it is worth preserving the Helsinki forum and not letting it degenerate into acrimony over human rights issues. These must be forthrightly reviewed by East, West, and the neutral and nonaligned (rights violations do occur in all the participating countries). But there may be wisdom in not pushing the Russians to the extreme -- and even, for instance, in recognizing that their restraint in Poland, assuming it continues, is in keeping with the Helsinki principle of non-interference in others' internal affairs. Too strident a Western posture risks frightening Soviet leaders into even more repressive policies. It can become counterproductive. There are, moreover, other items to be pursued in Madrid -- new proposals to broaden confidence-building measures, for example -- which in the long run are no less important for stabilizing peace in Europe.

There is no question that the Russians themselves have frayed detente by their brutal grab of Afghanistan. The task now, however, is to explore ways to encourage them to get out of that country and to return to a pursuit of East-West cooperation which serves the interests of everyone. The Madrid review conference should be planned with that goal kept firmly in mind.

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