Eastern Europeans Wary of Neighborhood Conflicts Czechoslovakia, Others See NATO Link as Stabilizing Influence, but West Allies Approach Idea Cautiously

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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. …