HELSINKI is getting ready for a giant birthday party. Foreign ministers of 35 states will gather in the capital of Finland Aug. 1 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The act was signed in Helsinki in 1975 by the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and all the nations of Eastern and Western Europe except Albania.
The Helsinki event calls attention to one of the most unusual forums for East-West dialogue. Under the ``Helsinki accords,'' as the Final Act is commonly called, the 35 member states, including neutral and nonaligned nations like Finland and Yugoslavia, gather periodically to review progress toward the goal of easing East-West tensions and promoting cooperation.
Public interest tends to focus on one aspect of the accords: human rights. This is because dissidents in the Soviet Union and East European countries invoke the accords when pressing for greater freedom -- and because the West holds Moscow's feet to the fire on human rights violations.
But the Final Act is not only a declaration on human rights. It is a carefully balanced package of principles designed to provide a framework for improving cooperation in many areas, including military security, trade, science, technology, environment, culture, and education.
Although set out like an international agreement, the Final Act does not have legal status and there is no mechanism to enforce it. It is in fact a political rather than a legal undertaking.
A brief history explains why.
The idea was first broached by the Soviet Union in 1954. Because no peace conference followed the end of World War II, the Soviets saw a security conference as a kind of substitute peace treaty to seal the division of Europe and legitimize their wartime gains, including absorption of the Baltic states and the communization of Eastern Europe. The West European nations initially rejected the proposal as an effort to endorse Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe and exclude the US from European affairs.
But a decade and a half later the European scene had appreciably changed. West Germany had concluded a series of treaties with its eastern neighbors enshrining the postwar borders. An era of d'etente began to emerge in East-West relations.
The Western nations agreed to explore the possibilities for a European security conference on three conditions: that the status of Berlin is regularized and separate talks to reduce conventional forces in Europe held simultaneously; that the US and Canada also take part; and that ``European security'' is broadened to include humanitarian concerns.
After three years of negotiation, the Western concept largely prevailed. Moscow had yielded in order to get the conference.
When the Final Act was finally signed, critics cried that the West had sold out to the Soviets. Many scorned it as a collection of wordy declarations. The Americans were ambivalent. Only idealists suggested it marked the beginning of a new era in East-West relations.
Today the optimists are disappointed. But many who criticized it now see its value as a political vehicle to pressure the Soviet-bloc countries to reform human-rights practices and liberalize authoritarian systems. The US in particular has become an enthusiastic participant.
From Moscow's standpoint, the Helsinki accords provide tacit European and American acceptance of its wartime territorial acquisitions. But, while the document recognizes the ``inviolability'' of frontiers, it also says that the frontiers can be changed peacefully by mutual consent. In the Western view, therefore, the document does not freeze the borders of Europe.
Moreover, the term ``inviolability'' applies to East European frontiers as well. It thus challenges the so-called ``Brezhnev doctrine'' of limited sovereignty under which Moscow claims the right to intervene in bloc countries to preserve socialism (as it did in Czechoslovakia in 1968).
Helsinki has also provided the Soviets with a forum to press for European disarmament and the end of restrictions on trade with the West. But it has not realized the expected gains from the accords.
A major result of the Helsinki agreement has been the proliferation of informal groups in Eastern Europe to monitor compliance with the human rights provisions. Dozens of groups representing minorities and other dissidents have sprung up to gather evidence and write reports.
The most famous of these has been the ``Moscow group'' of intellectuals led by Yuri Orlov, Andrei Sakharov, and Anatoly Shcharansky, a group now brutally disbanded. Helsinki also inspired such activity in Eastern Europe as Charter 77, a human rights manifesto and civil rights movement in Czechoslovakia.
In the West, too, there is monitoring activity. A special CSCE commission composed of representatives of Congress and the administration -- the ``Helsinki Commission'' -- functions in the US. Britain has a similar body. Many ethnic and private human rights groups also keep up pressure on signatory governments to hold the Soviet-bloc countries accountable for human rights violations.
THE Helsinki Final Act has three basic sections or ``baskets,'' as they came to be known when participants threw in proposals during the negotiations. Basket I contains the principles guiding relations between states that are defined in the United Nations Charter: respect for sovereignty, nonuse of force, inviolability of frontiers, nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, self-determination, and fulfillment of obligations under international law.
This basket also contains military ``confidence building'' measures, including the prior notification and the exchange of observers during major military exercises.
Basket II calls for cooperation in economics, science, technology, and the environment.
Basket III deals with cooperation in humanitarian and other fields, including freer movement of people and information, cross-border marriages and family reunification, and educational and cultural exchanges.
The Final Act also calls for periodic review conferences to evaluate implementation of the accord and take up new proposals. It designated that the first conference be held in Belgrade in 1977.