Washington, 18 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - East Europeans are increasingly worried that a possible compromise between Moscow and Washington concerning NATO enlargement may undermine their security by drawing a new line in Europe.
And despite repeated reassurances by American officials that such a line will never be drawn, these concerns have grown in recent days as the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin approaches.
While such worries can be found in every East European country, the Poles have been particularly outspoken in this regard.
Over the weekend, Polish foreign minister Dariusz Rosati spoke for many when he said that "we fully understand the sensitivity of the West not to humiliate a wounded and defeated Russia."
"But what we do not understand," he continued, "is this curious willingness to accommodate unjustified desires" by the Russians.
Polish deputy defense minister Andrezj Karkoszka put the point more sharply: "The smell of Yalta is always with us" -- a reference to the 1945 conference that divided post-World War II Europe into the spheres of influence.
The fact that the Poles are speaking out is striking because Poland is generally assumed to be a shoo-in for NATO membership in the first round.
And consequently, Warsaw might reasonably have been expected to be more comfortable with the current situation than other East European countries -- such as the Baltic states -- that are not likely to get in any time soon.
Polish concerns therefore appear to reflect three conclusions that no amount of Western reassurance about what NATO will or won't do in conversations with Moscow appears to be able to shake.
First, despite all the hints that Poland will get into the alliance in the first round, many Polish officials appear to have concluded that the process of enlargement may take longer than they had hoped.
And some may even fear that Moscow, which remains totally opposed to any expansion, may be able to delay the process still further or even block it altogether, something that could leave Poland more not less exposed.
Second, the Poles appear to have concluded that the West is very serious when it says that no East European country is going to be invited to join the old NATO but rather a "new" NATO that will closely cooperate with Russia.
But it was precisely the old NATO and its guarantees against possible Russian revisionism in the future that Poland and the other East European countries wanted to join.
Some in Warsaw and elsewhere as well thus fear that future compromises between NATO and Russia, compromises that have already led the West to announce in advance what it won't do in Eastern Europe, could fatally compromise East European security.
And third, the Poles appear to have concluded that promises such as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's last week that the major powers will never do anything "about them without them" are hollow.
Once again, they see their fate being decided not openly with their full participation but rather behind closed doors by major outside powers. And thus the references to Yalta and other meetings in the past where their future was decided by others.
Many in the West have already dismissed these fears as either wrong or excessive, and some in Eastern Europe have kept their concerns quiet lest they offend the Western powers.
But the existence of such fears, an existence highlighted by the Polish willingness to go public, are likely to play a key role in the future. They will serve as the lens through which the governments and peoples of this region will view any agreement.
And they could also serve as the basis for action by at least some political figures in the region. To the extent that these leaders believe that a new "Yalta" has occurred, some may retreat into nationalism and others into making the best deal with powerful neighbors.
Such developments would divide these countries and contribute to instability throughout the region.
That fact puts an especial burden on all involved in the talks with Moscow not only to avoid doing anything that looks like redrawing lines in Europe but also to ensure that this alliance principle is more successfully explained in Eastern Europe.