Western diplomats are still hoping that talks on cutting conventional weapons in Europe will get rolling this fall. This optimistic view received a boost last week - when the Soviet Union accepted a Western formula for dealing with weapons capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional armaments. Such so-called dual-capable weapons had been a major stumbling block in negotiations to set up the ground rules, or mandate, for the new talks.
But the diplomats caution that much work remains to be done.
``Soviet commitments have to be translated into action in Vienna,'' says Ambassador Stephen Ledogar, the top United States negotiator working on the mandate.
The new negotiations - tentatively dubbed ``conventional stability talks'' - are to be conducted within the framework of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The latest set of meetings in this ongoing conference are now nearing conclusion in Vienna - and it's here that the mandate should be finalized.
The East bloc wants to get the new conventional talks under way, as does the Western alliance. But there's a catch: The West is using the prospect of the new talks as a lever to get East-bloc concessions on human rights - one of the three broad topics dealt with under the CSCE. (See descriptions, Page 8.)
This linking of the new talks to the successful completion of the CSCE meeting is creating a stand-off. The Romanians are often cited as the most obstinate on human-rights issues, but they're hardly alone. Last week, East Germany openly rejected a Western demand that it do away with compulsory daily currency exchange requirements for foreign visitors. Critics say this inhibits travel to that country.
Some observers say conventional talks should not be linked to a politically explosive topic such as human rights. But so far, the West has refused to budge. ``We're prepared to sit here until we get a good result,'' says one Western diplomat involved in the CSCE negotiations.
Meanwhile, the mandate talks have been caught up over which weapons systems will be included and whether a portion of Turkey can be excluded from the negotiations.
The Soviets have long sought to include dual-capable weapons - aircraft and artillery which can carry nuclear and chemical as well as conventional bombs. But the Western allies resisted.
``We don't want to find out that in undertaking a conventional negotiation, we have inadvertently backed into a nuclear one,'' Mr. Ledogar says.
The compromise - which was announced in New York last week after a meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and his West German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher - would allow the two sides to discuss dual-capable systems. But such systems could not be singled out for special attention.
As for Turkey, no compromise is seen yet.
When the idea of a new forum for conventional arms reductions was first discussed, it was assumed it would include all forces between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union.
But Turkey, which is a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is insisting that part of its territory be excluded. The forces in this area are needed to protect the country's borders with Syria and Iran, Turkey says.
The Soviets counter that if Turkey can exclude some forces, they should be able to do the same.
The negotiations on the mandate have also created problems within the Western alliance - as well as between the alliance and the neutral and nonaligned nations that participate in the CSCE.
The US has insists the new talks be conducted between the two alliances: the 16 members of NATO and seven Warsaw Pact states. That was the approach used in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks (see left). The new talks would replace this forum, which is widely seen as a failure.
Several countries, particularly France, want to avoid the appearance of alliance-to-alliance negotiations, since this smacks of limitations on the freedom of individual countries.
The compromise is to have the talks between the 23 members of both alliances - but ``within the framework'' of the larger CSCE.
What this will mean in terms of everyday negotiations is unclear. The neutral and nonaligned nations which belong to the CSCE want to play a direct role in the talks.
But the US has said that the talks must maintain their autonomy from the larger group.
Some form of regular consultation seems to be the most likely solution.
What they're talking about in Vienna arms talks
Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe: The CSCE is a 35-nation forum dedicated to advancing a wide range of human-rights, economic, and arms control issues. It was launched by the East-West meeting held in Helsinki in 1975, and has since had regular follow-up meetings.
Conventional Stability Talks: Proposed title for talks aimed at reducing conventional armaments in Europe between the Atlantic and the Urals. Would include the 23 members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but conducted within the framework of the CSCE.
Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction: These talks have been going for 15 years, and are aimed at reducing non-nuclear arms in a small zone of Central Europe. These talks would be supplanted by the Conventional Stability Talks.