Russia often warns about its hardliners back home. It is moral blackmail

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The two Presidential crocks who run the world, crutch-borne Clinton and bypass Boris, chose Helsinki as the place to meet. If Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin had reached full agreement last week, they would have designed a safer Europe and, by new missile cuts, a safer globe. In one way, Helsinki was the right city: Finland, with its neutral tradition, provided the site for many East-West compromises in the Cold War times. But in another way, it was an odd choice.

There was a time, 20 years ago, when "Helsinki" was a slogan. But it meant exactly the opposite of what went on at Helsinki last week. It meant that Europe's problems should be settled by a parliament of nations, not by two men on a sofa.

In the 1970s, the Conferences for Security and Co-operation in Europe - the "Helsinki Process" - began here.

Speaking for myself, reporting the Process at its Finnish beginnings and then all over Europe was a delight. It was not just the smoked reindeer, the cloudberry vodka and the company of Finnish magnates drinking themselves senseless in the birch-woods. It was the wild hope that a new and better way had been found to settle East-West differences.

The old way had been round a small table, with locked doors and immense ashtrays. There the "Great Powers", essentially the Soviet Union and the United States with or without France and Britain, carved up the map of Europe between them while the lesser nations waited outside in the snow to learn their fate. So it had been at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. But now, at Helsinki, it would be done quite differently.

The Security Conferences (CSCE) had two innovations. One was the agenda, divided into three "baskets". The first basket held matters of disarmament, disputed borders, conflict resolution and "confidence-building measures". The second held economic contacts and trade, while the third basket (accepted only very reluctantly by the Soviet Union) contained rules for human rights and contacts. But the innovation which seemed to matter most was the CSCE structure itself: who took part in the Process, and how.

For the first time, all the states of Europe (plus north America) had an equal voice. A big one, like France, had no more formal clout than a small one like Hungary or even the Vatican. And proceedings were on the basis of unanimity. One recalcitrant little country could bring everything to a halt. I once saw the Soviet representative - a huge Ukrainian built like a wardrobe - bellowing into the face of a Romanian who was threatening to veto the final document of one CSCE conference. But the Romanian stood firm. He pressed the delete-key, and the labours of several hundred diplomats over many months vanished into thin air.

The Warsaw Pact and Nato were realities, of course, and set limits to what their member-nations could do. All the same, the smaller states of each pact were able to league up with the European neutrals and feel, for the first time, that they could make their own contacts and get their voices heard. The Poles conspired with the Norwegians and the Irish found common ground with the Swiss. Suddenly the wall which partitioned the world was full of little holes.

This 1997 Helsinki was different. It had a distinct whiff of Potsdam. President Clinton and President Yeltsin were not just talking about ratifying the Start-2 agreement on reducing long-range missiles, which is arguably their own business. They were in effect deciding the future of Europe. They were seeking a deal which might persuade Russia to accept Polish, Czech and Hungarian membership of Nato. The Poles used to have a saying, Nic o nas bez nas - "nothing about us without us". But where were those Europeans last week? They were not at the table in Helsinki, while two men haggled over how many foreign troops could be stationed in Poland or whether tactical nuclear weapons could be deployed in Hungary without Moscow's permission. Where did that open Helsinki spirit go, or that "parliament of nations"?

It's not as bad as it looks, admittedly. There were long consultations within Nato before this summit on enlargement, and talks at many levels with the governments in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest- and others. The summit in Finland was not a Yalta or a Munich which bargained away the integrity and independence of small nations. America, although not acting as a mandated delegate for the new Nato applicants, strongly asserted the general principle that they should join the Pact. As for the old Security Conference structure, it still exists as the "Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe" (OSCE), although stripped of much of its glamour since the end of the Cold War.

Yet it is an uncomfortable fact that, once again, the United States and Russia want to usurp the final decisions about European alliances. The European Nato partners were still in two minds about eastward enlargement, hesitating to risk offending the Russians, when President Clinton lost patience last October. It was he, in his "Detroit Speech", who announced that by 1999 the pact would have fully fledged new members from the ex- Communist states of Europe.

Russians visiting the West resort to a venerable argument against Nato enlargement: that "liberal reformers" in Moscow - Khrushchev, then Gorbachev, now Yeltsin - are an endangered species, and that the West should do nothing provocative which would play into the hands of their more despotic and aggressive rivals. Nato enlargement is just the latest of such "provocations".

The other day in Prague, the same ploy was used by the democratic Russian politician Gregori Yavlinsky. He insisted that it did not alarm him personally that Poland or the Czech Republic should join Nato, although he thought it was an example of mindless bureaucratic expansion rather than a rational response to any possible threat. But the Russian people were alarmed, and the nationalist demagogues and the military would exploit their fears in order to undermine President Yeltsin.

"For simple people in some Siberian village," said Yavlinsky, "it's as if they are sitting in their orchard and they hear a tank approaching. Somebody says: 'It's not really a tank. It's a pink thing with flowers and girls dancing on it; it's a very peaceful machine, not a fighting tank but a peaceful one." But the Russians say: 'All the same, it's a tank ...'"

For all its charm, Yavlinsky's argument is moral blackmail. He went on to say that if Nato expanded eastwards, Russia would incorporate Belarus and Ukraine into a single military bloc. That cannot be excluded, no matter what Nato does or doesn't do. But where is the evidence that Western restraint has ever influenced Kremlin power struggles in any way, let alone for the better?.

The most fatal of all courses for Western statesmen is to design a Europe to suit the Russians. Conversely, the best service we can do to Russian stability is to design a solid European security system, including eastern Europe, in which everyone knows where they stand. The Russians will not like this at first, but they will come to rely on it.

Meanwhile, it is no bad thing that last week's Helsinki summit has been a partial failure. President Yeltsin still disapproves of Nato enlargement, but he accepted that it will go ahead and that Russia will have no formal right to interfere. In short, Russia's attempt to settle Europe's affairs over the heads of the Europeans has not worked. The Poles, for instance, intensely worried that Russia would be allowed to decide what quality of Nato membership they were allowed, now feel some relief.

The next round in this fateful argument, at the Madrid Nato meeting this July, will at least see European nations negotiating about their own safety and defence. And that is more like the real Helsinki spirit.

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