Vilnius, 9 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Vilnius conference on "good neighborly relations" between East and Central European states ended last week without any final statement or communique.
Presidents Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, the organizers of the two-day meeting on September 5-6, said at a concluding joint press conference that its goal was to demonstrate that the region's leaders can peacefully engage in dialogue -- even while they may differ politically, rather than to produce a joint but necessarily vague document.
The gathering brought together eleven presidents -- from Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland (as an observer), Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Ukraine -- and the prime minister of the Russian Federation. And indeed, there are currently considerable differences between them.
These differences were particularly apparent on such specific issues as ways to ensure national security or methods of government.
On the issue of security, the tone was set by contrasting statements by Lithuania's Brazauskas and Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Brazauskas, whose country aspires to membership in NATO and the European Union, was firm in insisting that each country has the right to choose its own security arrangements. He was strongly supported by presidents of the two other Baltic states and Romania, all of which also aspire to membership in those western organizations. (Poland and Hungary have already been invited to open negotiations with NATO and are likely to commence talks about entry into the European Union.)
Chernomyrdin told the conference that his government continues to oppose NATO membership for the Baltic states. He reiterated the established Russian view that the problem of security for separate European nations can only be resolved through the adoption of a pan-European Security Charter under the auspices of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
With respect to the Baltic states, Chernomyrdin proposed the extension of Russian security guarantees for them in exchange of their pledge to be neutral. And he added ominously that "any attempts to ensure security for the countries in this region by circumventing or even opposing the interests of Russia do not hold a promising future."
Chernomyrdin was seconded by Belarus' Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who, while professing to "respect the sovereign right of each state to align itself with any coalition," declared NATO's plans for eastern expansion to be "the notorious steps which can split the continent once more."
Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma, whose country has signed a cooperative agreement with NATO and recently played host to military maneuver involving U.S. and other NATO troops, said that he was "pleased that Ukraine has made an essential contribution to the establishment of the new security atmosphere in Europe." But he had earlier said that Ukraine did not aspire to NATO membership itself.
Differences between participating national leaders were also apparent when they discussed methods of government. While all supported democracy and pledged respect for human and civic rights, it was clear that they did not see those issues in the same light.
The Baltic presidents as well as those of Poland and Hungary made pointed remarks about methods used by Belarus' Lukashenka. They strongly implied that those methods were undemocratic and unlawful.
But Ukraine's Kuchma and Russia's Chernomyrdin were silent on this point, with Chernomyrdin actually blaming the Baltic countries rather than the Belarusian president for having failed to respect human rights.
Lukashenka himself decried what he called "double standards" in treatment of his country by other, un-named Europeans.
"Belarus," he said, "is one of the few states in the former Soviet Union free of inter-ethnic or inter-confessional conflicts, where all the citizens, regardless of their nationality and convictions, are enjoying equal rights, where blood is not being shed, and where crime is kept at a relatively low level."
During recent years, Lukashenka has developed an increasingly authoritarian style of government, arresting opponents, suppressing independent media and public organizations, dissolving elected bodies and imposing control over all aspects of public life. These methods have prompted widespread international criticism from both governments and non-governmental groups.
At the conference itself, Lukashenka gave a display of self-importance and even smugness, combined with considerable degree of outward boorishness -- particularly when he responded to questioning by journalists. Lukashenka was easily the most "popular" leader in town, surrounded by ever-present bodyguards and officials, but there is some question as to whether he was seriously listened to. One of the presidents was heard to say off the record that "no one pays any attention to what Lukashenka is shouting about."
Noting the discrepancy between Lukashenka's view of his own performance and that of his critics, Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski said publicly at the concluding press conference that, while the gathering "will not affect Lukashenka's policies, it will send a message that in a democratic state human rights must be respected." Lithuania's Brazauskas added that the gathering featured a "good will effort to change the situation in Belarus."
Such "good will" appeared to have been an underlying element for most of the meeting as a whole. It was apparent in the leaders repeated assurances of their willingness, even a desire, to cooperate economically, politically and culturally. It was also apparent in contributions made by numerous eastern and western scholars participating in the conference as well as in declarations by representatives of various international organizations such as OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union.
The general theme was on finding ways to ensure the maintenance of good neighborly relations. This, in turn, was seen as the indispensable element to promote political stability and security for all.
Every leader and most other participants proclaimed the conference a success. They said that the meeting provided them with a much needed opportunity to talk to each other. And the very fact of talking might have amounted to a move decreasing the possibility of conflicts.
All those countries share a history of turbulent relations. The Vilnius conference testified to the will to move from the difficult past and towards a safer future.