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Eastern Europe: Analysis From Washington--Bridging The Gap In Eastern Europe

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Building on the improved ties between their two countries, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania have organized a regional summit to promote reconciliation among other countries with long histories of mutual animosity.

To be held in Vilnius this Friday and Saturday, this gathering is scheduled to attract the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and the prime minister of the Russian Federation.

In addition, the meeting and an international conference of regional specialists associated with it is also slated to attract representatives of other governments, including the United States and many West European countries.

According to its Polish and Lithuanian organizers, the "main purpose" of the meeting is to share experiences in overcoming hostility among neighboring states and the development of "good neighbourly relations" in its place.

More specifically, the organizers have announced, the meeting will focus on the examples of historical reconciliation "between France and Germany, Germany and Poland as well as the Lithuanian-Polish experience."

Most media attention to this meeting up to now has focused on speculation about what Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is likely to say.

Many commentators have suggested that he will reiterate his suggestion that Moscow rather than NATO should serve as the guarantor of the security interests of the Baltic States and other East European countries.

But however important Chernomyrdin's remarks may prove to be, they are unlikely to overshadow the significance of this session organized by Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and then of the Soviet Union, there reappeared on the map of Europe between Berlin and Moscow and the Baltic and Black Seas a group of states whose longstanding clashes often have been the spark for larger conflicts.

Many analysts, diplomats, and political leaders have suggested that these long-simmering antagonisms could easily reignite unless the international community takes the steps necessary to prevent that from happening.

Many of those advocating NATO expansion argue that only membership or the chance of membership in that alliance will dissuade the countries of this region from once again getting involved in conflicts that may draw in other larger powers.

And such analysts have pointed to the remarkable rapprochement between Hungary and Romania and between Poland and Lithuania as support for their views.

But such a focus on the role of outside actors distracts outside attention from what the countries of the region can do and are doing for themselves. And it may even encourage some in these countries to conclude that their fate depends not on themselves but on outsiders.

The Vilnius meeting thus represents a useful corrective to such ideas in at least three ways.

First, it serves notice to the world that these countries are prepared to act both individually and jointly to overcome regional squabbles on their own.

To this end, the various leaders will not only conduct a joint summit meeting but they each have scheduled bilateral sessions, frequently with leaders of countries with which their own have been at odds.

Second, the meeting highlights the willingness of these countries to involve both Russia and the West.

Chernomyrdin will be there with a 90-member strong delegation including two deputy foreign ministers, and the United States has dispatched a senior delegation that is carrying a personal message of greeting from U.S. President Bill Clinton.

And third, the meeting also represents a clarion call to the peoples of the region to take responsibility for their fate rather than assuming that it will always be in the hands of others.

Among those invited to speak to the conference is Czeslaw Milosz, a native of Vilnius, a distinguished Polish writer now living in the United States, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

In his now classic essay "The Captive Mind," Milosz warned about the dangers of an ideology imposed from outside Eastern Europe and about just how deeply that ideological system had penetrated into the minds of the people there.

But he also suggested that the people in that region, like people everywhere, have the internal resources to overcome that ideology and to make their own way in the world, free from the ideological constraints of the past.

The summit in Vilnius suggests that the peoples of this region are now prepared to do just that.