DESPITE uncertainties and much hesitation, the former communist states of East and Central Europe are beginning to cooperate among themselves in ways denied under Soviet tutelage.
The so-called fraternal alliance that tied them in the postwar period had always been on the Kremlin's terms. Soon after World War II, for example, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria debated Balkan federation. But when Bulgaria became too enthusiastic, Joseph Stalin saw a threat to Soviet control of the region and killed the idea. He did the same when Czechoslovakia accepted the initial invitation to join the Marshall Plan without consulting Moscow.
Now, one of the more hopeful developments in the postcommunist 1990s is the way in which erstwhile satellites have begun to pursue cooperation among themselves. In some notable instances, hoary ethnic and nationalist disputes have been laid aside for mutual economic gain.
The most substantial accord thus far achieved is the Visegrad Four agreement be-tween Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. The agreement, reached two years ago, calls for more-open borders, environmental and economic collaboration, and joint investment.
For its part, the West has not matched the East's desire for cooperation. East Europeans gave a cool reception to NATO's ``Partnership for Peace'' program, which they regarded, at best, as a first step toward recognition of common security interests. Eastern leaders have also voiced disappointment with Western ``protectionism'' and continued trade barriers implicit in limiting the East Europeans to ``associate'' status with the European Union. Disappointment has encouraged these new, shaky democracies to ``look out for themselves,'' and spurred cross-border and regional accords despite old bilateral antagonisms.
* In 1991, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany established a ``Neisse Euro-region'' in the area where their borders meet.
* That same year, Croatia and Slovenia tried to preserve Yugoslavia in a new confederation, but those efforts fell apart when the ``Greater Serbia'' war began. Now Croatia and Slovenia are normalizing relations, with a trade agreement on the way.
* Last year, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine set up a ``Carpathian Euro-region'' with a wide program of cooperation.
Old feuds remain paramount in the Balkans. Macedonia and Bulgaria have put aside an ancient spat about whether Macedonians are a ``nation.'' A pity that Greece has yet to follow suit. By persisting with the old issue of what Macedonia should call itself, Athens makes itself the Balkans' odd man out. Athens invited isolation by defying the European Union's ruling that Greece's threatened trade blockade of the new republic was illegal.
But international opinion, as well as moderate, pragmatic leaderships in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania should soon convince Greece on this point: Balkan stability and cooperation are in its interests, and the only way to secure them is through the close economic cooperation in the region.