Eastern Europe Presses Its Case for Speedy NATO Membership Leaders Cite Russian Neo-Imperialism and Potential Ethnic Wars

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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. Great expectations

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. …