Leading Article: Nato's dangerous psychological block

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MANY an East European leader would doubtless like to be a fly on the wall (or have a bug in the wall) at today's breakfast meeting in Brussels between Boris Yeltsin, and Nato's Secretary General, Manfred Worner. The main topic of conversation is likely to be Nato's future intentions towards East European countries anxious to join the Western alliance, notably Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the three Baltic states.

Although Mr Yeltsin told the Poles in August that he did not object to Poland joining Nato - and mentioned the possibility of Russia itself joining as far back as December 1991 - it soon became clear that many of those in Moscow on whose support he depends did not share his tolerance. Last month the head of his country's foreign intelligence service, Yevgeny Primakov, warned that 'fundamental countermeasures' would be taken if Nato expanded eastwards.

So far Nato has shown itself to be much more anxious to propitiate the Russians than to extend the prospect of membership in the near future to the East Europeans. The 'partnership for peace' plan tabled by the Americans in October involves a modest level of co-operation and consultation, available to all former Eastern bloc countries. But it does nothing to fill the security vacuum left by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. With Russia intervening militarily in several ex- republics of the former Soviet Union, it is hardly surprising that the East Europeans feel the need for some form of guarantee.

Among the many reasons advanced for Nato's extreme caution are that enlargement eastwards would weaken Mr Yeltsin, rekindle Russian paranoia, alienate would- be members who were excluded (criteria would be required), and involve guaranteeing the security of countries in a historically volatile region. Yet history also suggests that failure to secure peace in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is much the more dangerous option.

The most powerful argument for admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in short order is that it would stabilise the area and so benefit Russia and all other neighbouring states. What grounds are there for excluding such countries? In essence, only that they are in some way not fully European. When Nato leaders address the topic at their summit on 10 January, well after Russia's elections this weekend, they should provide convincing proof that they have overcome this dangerous psychological block.