Confusion blights Helsinki talks: Consensus is causing trouble at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, a process in need of a mission. Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor, reports from Helsinki

THE WORLD'S richest democracies started the week by talking to each other at a summit which seemed to have outgrown its usefulness. They ended it by talking to the world's newest democracies at a summit which seemed to have outlived its purpose.

The verdict among seasoned observers of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) last night was that the Helsinki process, which started in 1975, had some difficulty in finding a useful role in the post- Communist world. 'It was a jolly useful thing as a bridge during the Cold War,' said one observer. 'Now, it just seems to be a duplication of what the UN does but without the clout.'

Take, for instance, the original plan to send observers to Nagorny Karabakh. Having announced on Thursday that agreement had been reached in principle to send 100 such observers, this fell through yesterday because of differences among the parties involved.

The Baltic states failed to secure a deadline from President Boris Yeltsin on the withdrawal of Russian troops from their soil. Considering the ructions within the largely unoccupied ex- Soviet military establishment, it did not look as if they would get one in a hurry.

The summit agreed to appoint a high commissioner for national minorities but failed to name one and could not say when one would be appointed. It is to be a 'person of international standing', so we can expect a long fight to ensue over what member states take that to mean.

The 76-page blueprint for a safer world failed to include a mention of the Yugoslav crisis, because, since the parties could not agree on Nagorny Karabakh, what used to be Yugoslavia could not be included either.

The root cause of all these failures, world leaders now admit, is one of the very principles upon which the CSCE is founded: the rule of consensus. John Major, the Prime Minister, yesterday outlined the CSCE's new role as 'fire- fighter': this included early warning of conflict, protection of minorities, and peace-keeping. He went on: 'I wouldn't wish to make exaggerated claims.'

The CSCE's new role was similar to that of the United Nations but 'lacks the sharp edge which the Security Council gives to the UN'. It relied upon consensus, which meant it 'depends on peer pressure', Mr Major said. President Francois Mitterrand went one further and called for the abolition of the consensus rule. 'This conference must adapt,' he declared.

At any summit, self-interest overshadows the agenda. Consider, for example, President Yeltsin's comments yesterday: 'Russia acutely recognises the danger of aggressive nationalism which is now replacing the ideological confrontation of the past. An epidemic of this disease could spin out of control and quickly grip an enormous number of people and entire states.'

Much of this disease is now gripping the Commonwealth of Independent States. Mr Yeltsin's recipe to keep it in check, it emerges, is to let his own unemployed army do the 'peace-keeping'. Yesterday Andrei Kozyrev, Mr Yeltsin's Foreign Minister, held private talks with his Swedish counterpart, Margaretha af Ugglas. Ms Ugglas revealed that Mr Kozyrev had expressed an interest in Russia benefiting from Sweden's longstanding experience of peace-keeping, and in its UN training facility, where, Ms Ugglas also revealed, Japanese would-be peace-keepers were being trained.

'All this is about Russian units, which are already in place but which have nothing to do, being able to call themselves peace-keepers,' said a European delegate. Another official added: 'It has the added advantage of Mr Yeltsin getting outside help in getting his army's wages paid.'

And if you have trouble distinguishing between the concepts of 'peace- keeping' and 'peace-making', take comfort from the fact that world leaders do not seem to be able to do so half the time either. What did not come out in the transcripts of President George Bush's speech on Thursday, but which can be heard loud and clear if you listen to the tape carefully, is that he called for a 'Euro-Atlantic peace-making, er, peace-keeping capability'.