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The East: Leaders To Meet In Vilnius

Prague, 8 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Seven Central and East European presidents, Russia's Prime Minister and scores of representatives of international organizations as well as regional political groups and cultural associations are to meet next month in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to discuss how to expand cooperation.

The two-day meeting (September 5-6) is being prepared under the auspices of presidents Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland. They will play host to presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Lennart Meri of Estonia, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, Guntis Ulmanis of Latvia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Representatives of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as various non-governmental groups are also expected to attend.

The meeting is designed to strengthen ties between the neighboring Central and Eastern European countries. It is intended to promote friendly relations between them and the West. And it is certain to demonstrate again the strength and the sweep of economic and cultural movements in Central and Eastern countries toward Western-oriented European unity.

The gathering is to be a two-pronged affair. Its first part, largely ceremonial, is to feature a series of brief speeches by the top leaders outlining their policies and principal concerns. The second, divided into three separate sessions, is to deal with the role of governments, international organizations and citizen groups in shaping relations between the countries of the region. There will also be a series of bi-lateral talks between leaders. The focus of the meeting is on finding and expanding ways toward reconciliation after decades of strained and difficult coexistence.

Six countries represented at the meeting in Vilnius -- the three Baltic states, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine -- formed until recently part of the Soviet Union. Poland belonged to an international Soviet-centered and dominated communist community. Even Finland, while not governed by the communists, was influenced in its foreign policies by its powerful Soviet neighbor.

The Vilnius meeting is to discuss what could be done to eliminate the remaining vestiges of that past, while expanding new ties. It is not expected to decide new departures but will rather provide a forum for signaling the still existing concerns and problems.

But Alfa Hermanska, an official in Kwasniewski's Warsaw office, told RFE/RL today such exchanges of views are very important in themselves, serving to ease latent tension, eliminate potential misunderstandings and facilitate future contacts.

The Vilnius meeting follows a series of other gatherings involving Central European leaders. Most of those earlier encounters were organized by the Central European Initiative, a loose group of states wishing to facilitate mutual cultural and economic ties.

The last such meeting took place a year ago (June) in the Polish historical town of Lancut, bringing together presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine as well as those of Austria, Germany and Italy. It dealt with the twin issues of European unity and integration.

The Vilnius meeting is more East-oriented. But its goals appear similar.

Last month, Poland was formally invited to open negotiations toward NATO membership. So were two other Central European states -- the Czech Republic and Hungary. Several other countries from the region are awaiting their turn.

Also last month, the European Commission recommended that Estonia and Poland, alongside four other Central European countries, be invited to start entry talks with the European Union. Lithuania and Latvia are actively seeking membership in the European institutions, while Russia and Ukraine are interested in expanding cooperative contacts with Europe as a whole.

As for Belarus, this geographically eastern European country is the only one bucking that trend under the increasingly authoritarian rule of its President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But he appears to be more and more politically isolated in the region, and the Lithuanian summit may further strengthen that isolation.