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Analysis From Washington -- East Europe's New Geography

Washington, July 9 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes a meeting is important because of the agreements it produces. Sometimes it is important because of what its participants say. But sometimes it is important just because it takes place.

The three-day session of the Central and East European Economic Summit which concludes today in Salzburg falls into the third category.

Sponsored by the World Economic Forum, an organization best known for its annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, this meeting attracted chiefs of state, heads of government and other senior officials from a variety of countries seldom grouped together as one.

Among those in attendance were the presidents of Bulgaria, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine, and the prime ministers of Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, and Poland, as well as senior officials from Albania and Austria, and businessmen and bankers from throughout the world.

Not unexpectedly, those in attendance said they sought closer ties and ultimate membership in the European Union and even NATO, even as many went out of their way to say how significant Boris Yeltsin's election victory was and how important it is for Russia to be integrated into Europe along with themselves.

And many expressed impatience with the current members of the EU and NATO for taking so long to reach out to those who want to join. Arguing that "Europe is destined for cooperation," Slovenian President Milan Kucan pointedly told the meeting that "this happy world of cooperation will not come by itself."

Slovakian President Michal Kovac added that "economic integration should not be stopped, otherwise a new Berlin Wall will appear." And Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma spoke for many others when he said that both the EU and NATO must keep their doors open for those countries not admitted in the first round.

These remarks, and those of the other leaders, undoubtedly will be examined by analysts around the world for what they tell about the current and future plans of these countries. But in looking at these individual "trees," it is important not to miss the new "forest" that this meeting represents.

Although the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many people in Europe continue to discuss the continent in terms of the old divisions: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union. And such people continue to organize meetings and discussions on that basis.

But such a division of the continent, itself a product of World War II and Soviet expansionism at that time, is no longer relevant either for these countries or for the broader map of the world.

This meeting, which includes leaders from a former Soviet republic, the Baltic states, the "old" Eastern Europe, and several countries which emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia, represents a useful effort to break out of the old geography and help create a new one.

When the leaders of these countries with a unanimity rare to that part of the world spoke in favor of an economically and politically united European continent, their words carry more than the usual weight, precisely because their gathering represents such a direct challenge to the political and intellectual divisions earlier imposed by outsiders and a first step into a post-post-Cold War world.

As these leaders know better than anyone else, entering that world will not be easy for their countries. Too many in both the East and the West are frightened by it and will try to block its emergence. But as these leaders have indicated in their remarks in Salzburg, a failure to move into that new geography will be fateful not only for themselves but for their larger neighbors as well.