THE formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe are worried that their efforts to maintain regional peace and fulfill their economic potential may be threatened by the indecision of NATO.
Leaders of the NATO member-states, including President Clinton, begin a crucial two-day summit in Brussels on Monday. Their objective will be to formulate a post-cold-war security strategy for Europe, as the continent grapples with the growing danger of nationalism.
The summit boils down essentially to solving one question: Can NATO integrate the emerging Eastern European market democracies into the Western security system - thus greatly reducing chances of the transition from communism going awry - without sparking an angry reaction from Russia?
Western leaders hope a US-sponsored program, called Partnership for Peace, will assuage Eastern European fears of Russian neo-imperialism while soothing Moscow's security concerns. The plan, to be formally endorsed at the summit, will boost defense-related contacts between NATO and all members of the former Warsaw Pact, including Russia, without offering specific security guarantees.
But even though the Brussels meeting is only a weekend away, NATO apparently has not worked out all the program's details. Politicians and generals are agonizing over how far integration efforts should go.
NATO's goals for Partnership for Peace may still be unclear, but Eastern European leaders have very precise expectations. At a minimum, said Polish Foreign Minister Andrzej Olechowski, the program should contain a clear formula that would enable participants to eventually obtain NATO membership.
``We understand that Partnership for Peace is to make you look and walk and quack like a duck,'' Mr. Olechowski told journalists during a Jan. 3 visit to Bonn. ``Once you've done this, and eventually arrived at the situation where you do walk and quack like a duck, and look like a duck, then other ducks should say `Yes, you are a duck, so we accept you.' ''
So far, however, Western leaders have not given their Eastern European counterparts a clear signal that Partnership for Peace will contain such a membership blueprint. As it pondered the program's final details, the United States decided to dispatch Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the United Nations, on an Eastern European tour designed to reassure jittery leaders in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel pledged to push Poland's cause at the NATO summit. ``We have a particular understanding of the nations of Eastern Europe in terms of security needs,'' he said after a meeting with Olechowski.
But no matter what happens in Brussels, Eastern European leaders are likely to feel less than content. Many insist the best way to preserve regional stability is with the rapid integration of Eastern European nations into NATO.
``A strong and democratic Russia will be the strongest guarantee of peace and stability in Europe,'' Polish Foreign Minister Olechowski wrote in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau. ``We aren't afraid of Russia, but of the objective situations that could provoke her to behave in a way threatening to Poland. Such a situation is the security vacuum that now exists in Central Europe.''
Western leaders already have ruled out a quick expansion, saying such a move could antagonize Russia at a time when Moscow is struggling to sort out its commitment to democratic and market reforms. Russian leaders have said they would view NATO expansion as a security threat that could spark an arms buildup.
The recent neo-imperialist rumblings coming out of Moscow, Eastern Europe's former colonial master, have complicated the situation, prompting Eastern European states to intensify their NATO lobbying efforts. The main weapon in their argument for NATO membership has become Russian ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who advocates the restoration of the Russian empire.
Bulgaria, Romania, and the former Soviet Baltic republic of Lithuania have reacted to Mr. Zhirinovsky's bombast by asking for NATO membership. US officials have already rejected the application of Lithuania, the first former Soviet republic to apply for NATO membership.
Given NATO's inability to intervene in the Yugoslav war, many Eastern European states are wary of relying entirely on the alliance. Today the defense ministers of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were scheduled to meet to discuss strengthening security relations among the four nations.
Eastern Europe nonetheless sees NATO as the organization with the most potential for containing and preventing potential regional clashes caused by nationalist passion or economic problems.
If NATO is unable to meet the current challenges, the consequences could be disastrous, some Eastern European leaders warn. Polish President Lech Walesa, who says the West is in the process of abandoning Eastern Europe, raises concerns of a spread of Yugoslav-style ethnic conflicts if NATO fails to create a precise membership plan quickly.
The kindling for such conflicts exists across Eastern Europe. In Slovakia, for example, a 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority is increasingly vocal in calling for greater rights. In response to such calls, Slovak nationalists are rising with equal determination to resist the granting of privileges to ethnic minorities.