Eastern Europeans Wary Of Neighborhood Conflicts

Czechoslovakia, others see NATO link as stabilizing influence, but West allies approach idea cautiously

EASTERN Europe now seems a secure neighborhood. The bloc's old bogyman hardly looks fearsome anymore: When the last Red Army soldier leaves Germany in 1994, 40-plus years of Soviet occupation will end with a whimper.But the newly free nations of the old Warsaw Pact can still see shadows that might hide threats to their security. Yugoslavia's chaos could spill over its borders, and who knows what disputes quarrelsome ex-Soviet republics could cause? So Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland want to be on much better terms with the only real policeman left in the region - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Their overtures are raising difficult questions for less-than-enthusiastic NATO nations. In a visit to Washington this week, Czech President Vaclav Havel told Congress his country wants "the fullest possible cooperation with the North American alliance." He made clear that meant some sort of institutional link or associate membership. The White House, in response, said President Havel was asking for more than NATO was willing to provide. "NATO extends its security guarantees to members," said one administration official at a briefing for reporters. "It doesn't extend them to non-members." The issue will not go away when Havel returns to Czechoslovakia. The Czech leader met with his Polish and Hungarian counterparts in Cracow earlier this month and agreed to continue to press for greater participation in all Western institutions - security pacts included. Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall has explicitly called for NATO's defense umbrella to be stretched over Central Europe. Perhaps, Mr. Antall has said, new, full-scale NATO members should be allowed.

Leaders to meet When NATO heads of state meet in Rome early next month, they are sure to discuss what to do about this knocking on their door. The United States and Germany have already put forward one joint proposal. On Oct. 2, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and US Secretary of State James Baker III suggested establishment of a "North Atlantic Cooperation Council," a sort of NATO non-defense auxiliary. This council would entail "an enhancement of the existing liaison relationship," said US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Thomas Niles at a briefing. In other words, East European nations, and maybe even what's left of the Soviet Union, could chat with NATO from time to time about its nondefense activities. Since military preparedness is the core reason for NATO's existence, it is hard to see how much consulting would actually take place. But Havel and his fellow Eastern Europeans seem to regard this proposal as at least a step in the right direction. The Czech president told President Bush as much while continuing to press for a greater role, long-term. According to the White House, Havel said that while the rationale has changed for US involvement in Europe, it's still as important as ever for the US to be there. "I think he feels that there is a certain insecurity in his neighborhood, bordering as Czechoslovakia does on the Ukraine-Ruthenian area," said Assistant Secretary Niles.

Situation termed grave In a speech before the National Press Club, Havel also described the situation in Yugoslavia as "graver and deeper than the international community has recognized." He said he would favor international intervention of some sort as a last resort to stop the fighting. If the Yugoslav civil war isn't stopped, "it might set off destabilization in other regions," said Havel. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council is far from a sure thing. France, for one, has expressed reservations. French officials feel the new organization isn't much different in purpose from the broad Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and would simply give the world another mind-numbing acronym to remember. It is also widely assumed that the French see any increase in NATO's role as an increase in US influence in Europe, since NATO relies heavily on US might. This, in turn, could make developing ties between France and Germany less important. If the new council comes about, it means "we're developing a two-tier system in the alliance," says Stan Sloan, a Congressional Research Service specialist in alliance relations. Inevitably, NATO would then become the security arm of the CSCE, according to Sloan. Its defense guarantee would then cover a number of nations it doesn't now, despite current hesitation. "It may be a slow process. It may not look like a security umbrella in the near term," says Sloan. "But," he adds, "the process of regular consultations extends implicitly the security relationship."

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