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Baltic States: Analysis From Washington--'The Spirit Of Vilnius'

Prague, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of Central Europe for the first time have found a common voice, one that will help them to integrate into the West even as it smooths their relationships with each other and with Moscow.

At a meeting in Vilnius on Friday and Saturday, the presidents of ten countries in the region between the Baltic and the Black seas sharply criticized the retreat from democratic reforms in Belarus, said that they wanted to work with both Russia and the West, and committed themselves to broader regional cooperation.

As a result, a summit originally convened to help overcome bilateral conflicts among these states was transformed into something much bigger, a development that would appear to justify the claims of some of these leaders that they will be guided by the "spirit of Vilnius" in the future.

The meeting, organized by the leaders of Poland and Lithuania, attracted the presidents of Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, as well as the prime minister of the Russian Federation.

But the outcome of this meeting was defined less by the individual positions that each of these leaders took than by the collective spirit they displayed on three key issues.

First, virtually all the presidents were openly and even sharply critical of the increasingly anti-democratic behavior of one of their numbers, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Their outspokenness on Lukashenka was striking on two grounds. On the one hand, it violated the usual diplomatic niceties of such sessions, an indication that the countries of this region at least are prepared to take a hard line against those who retreat from democracy and a free market economy.

And on the other, it largely dispelled the fears of those who had thought Lukashenka might be able to exploit the Vilnius summit to escape his regime's current isolation on the international scene.

Instead, the Vilnius meeting had the effect of underlining Lukashenka's isolation from his own people, from neighboring states, and from both Moscow and the West. Not only did the leaders of the other countries speak out, but representatives of Belarusian society in attendance directly challenged Lukashenka's claims.

Second, the ten presidents indicated they want to cooperate with both East and West rather than being forced to choose between one or the other.

Part of the reasoning behind this was clearly tactical. Several leaders explicitly said they were interested in improved relations with Russia in order to improve their standing with Western governments that have made good relations with Moscow a virtual requirement for inclusion in Western institutions.

But the Vilnius meeting suggests that far more is involved. To take but one example, the Baltic presidents did not react as sharply in Vilnius as they have in the past to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's latest elaboration of Russian suggestions that the three should rely on Moscow rather than NATO.

Each calmly reiterated the desire of their countries to join the western alliance, but each equally calmly said that they did not want their involvement with the West to preclude good relations with Moscow.

This approach led to a remarkable breakthrough. Following a set of bilateral sessions with the Russian premier, each of them was able to announce that he would soon be signing a border agreement with the Russian Federation, thus laying to rest something that has long been a sore point in their relations with Moscow.

And third, the presidents asserted that they want to work together precisely so that they can take responsibility for themselves rather than waiting for one or another outside power to decide their fate, as has happened so often in the past.

Two countries -- Poland and Ukraine -- offered to host a follow-up regional summit in 1999. And the representatives of several other presidents indicated that they were interested in developing much closer continuing consultations across the region.

In the past, efforts to promote such cooperation have foundered on tensions among these countries and on the fears in both Moscow and the West that such arrangements might become a barrier to the inclusion of Russia into European institutions.

But precisely because the Vilnius summit committed itself to avoiding that, this latest Central European drive toward cooperation may be more successful than its predecessors before World War Two and in the early 1990s.

It has already attracted less opposition and more support from outside. Not only did Moscow not denounce it, but U.S. President Bill Clinton said it could play a useful role in "erasing the old dividing lines in Europe."

To the extent that the countries of the region continue to act as they did in the Lithuanian capital, the "spirit of Vilnius" may thus prove to be a turning point not only for them but for Europe as a whole.