Deal's a start, Central Europeans say CLINTON OVERSEAS

January 13, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Hungarians waited in vain for them in 1956, when Soviet troops smashed democratic dreams in Budapest.

Czechs and Slovaks hoped they might come in 1968, when Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the flowering of Prague Spring.

Now, in 1994, North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops may finally be bound for Eastern Europe -- on missions of cooperation and partnership, not confrontation.

NATO troops appear likely to participate in exercises in the region later this year now that the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are on board for Partnership for Peace -- President Clinton's initiative to increase the alliance's military and economic ties to Eastern Europe without giving the region a true security guarantee.

Officials have mentioned Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as possible sites for maneuvers that would include NATO units and soldiers from Central Europe. The operations could begin as early as this summer, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.

"Concrete steps will be made, and military cooperation will take place," Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Boross said of the Partnership initiative yesterday.

Although the East European leaders clearly would have liked to get more out of their summit meeting with Mr. Clinton, all at least grudgingly accepted it was the best deal they could hope for at this time -- and all indicated they would participate.

"Partnership for Peace is a step in the right direction," said Polish Foreign Minister Andrzej Olechowski. "But the step isn't big enough."

"I do not want to say the arrangement is perfect, but it's a good start," Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky said. "We have to move quickly forward and fill it with substance."

In the wake of last month's elections in Russia, in which the nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky made a strong showing, East Europeans are anxious to see a greater commitment to their security from NATO.

Those same election results, though, have made the West reluctant to extend a hand to Central Europe and exclude Russia. By admitting Central Europe, Western leaders feared they might boost the popularity of Mr. Zhirinovsky, who makes no secret of his desire to re-establish a Russian empire that would stretch far beyond the country's current borders.

While the Partnership initiative falls short of what the Central Europeans said they wanted, in many ways they are likely to be pleased with the outcome of the Prague summit. Before the meeting, the four nations in attendance -- collectively known as the Visegrad Four, named after the Hungarian city where the group was formed -- made it clear that one thing they would be looking for from Mr. Clinton's visit was recognition that they are different from their neighbors to the east.

Partnership will be offered to other former Warsaw Pact countries, including the states of the former Soviet Union, but the proposal leaves the door open to varying degrees of cooperation with different partners. Although the West still would rather deal with the region as a whole, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the Visegrad countries are culturally, politically and economically closer to NATO's current members than their neighbors are.

"Partnership is a recognition that the specific interests of the countries should be taken into account," Mr. Jeszenszky said. "Regionalism and the recognition of differences between the various countries do not exclude each other."

And in fact, although Partnership in no way includes a security guarantee for the Central Europeans, Mr. Clinton even left open the possibility of defending them. When asked whether NATO would fail to aid the Visegrad countries if they were invaded, the president said: "I think it is doubtful."

The proposal also takes the Central Europeans closer to a key goal: an anchor in the West rather than the East. While the joint exercises will likely be of little military significance, they will unquestionably carry huge symbolic value for the region.

The plan will give the Visegrad group economic benefits as well, something all four are seeking via membership in the European Union, formerly called the European Community, to which they have been admitted as associate members. And although NATO is unlikely to accept them any sooner than the EU will -- probably sometime after the turn of the century -- the two half-steps may pay off.

At his meetings here yesterday, Mr. Clinton announced plans to expand economic aid to the Visegrad countries. He would do this by stepping up the activities of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in the region, through a conference on trade and development to be held in Washington later this year, and by pushing for early admittance of the Visegrad countries into the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of industrialized nations.

The Central Europeans, though, made it clear that they will continue to push for full membership in NATO at every opportunity. They appeared frustrated that the alliance still has yet to articulate what exactly countries must do to gain admittance, but they indicated that they were pleased that Mr. Clinton had finally stated that NATO is open to new members and needs only to decide "when and how."

"We want to do everything in our power in order that our partnership results in our full membership" in NATO, Czech President Vaclav Havel said. "We do not regard Partnership for Peace as a substitute for that, but rather as a first step."

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