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Clinton to Etch US Role in Europe

July 5-12 trip to Latvia, Poland, Germany, and G-7 summit pushes economic priorities

PRESIDENT Clinton will swing through Europe next week on a trip intended to reassure friends and allies that have grown increasingly nervous about both the nature of US leadership and Europe's own security concerns.

Visits in Latvia, Poland, and Germany, sandwiched around the economic summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations in Naples, Italy, will likely convey a dual message, US officials and analysts say:

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* The United States remains firmly committed to freedom of action for the Baltic countries and other new nations still struggling to emerge from Russia's shadow.

* US policy toward Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central Europe is not subsidiary to its relations with Moscow. At the same time, NATO is not going to be extending its security umbrella eastward via explicit guarantees anytime soon.

Buoyed by successful D-Day festivities, White House officials undoubtedly hope further European appearances can help quiet grumbling at home and abroad about the seriousness of Mr. Clinton's approach to foreign affairs.

``It is very important for an American president to be seen in Eastern Europe in this context,'' says Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political science professor.

The Clinton administration has long been criticized at home and abroad for a post-cold- war approach to Europe that put most of its energy into establishing the bounds of a new relationship with Russia. The fate of Eastern and Central Europe at times seemed an afterthought; US interest in maintaining NATO appeared to flag as the main military threat to the alliance disappeared.

But the White House is no longer focused only on the Kremlin, US officials claim. Not only will Clinton speak in Latvia and Poland, but the G-7 economic meetings also have aid to Ukraine listed as a major item on their agenda.

Such aid would likely take the form of money to help render Chernobyl and other dangerous ex-Soviet nuclear-power plants safe, through closure or safety methods. The rich G-7 economic powers will also urge Ukraine to continue privatization of state industry and other reforms, which have stalled as the Ukrainian economy deteriorates.

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``You will see a shift this year from a lot of talk about Russia ... to more emphasis on Ukraine and the other'' former Soviet republics, said Joan Spero, undersecretary of state for economic affairs, at a June 29 briefing for reporters.

At the same time, the July 9-10 G-7 discussions in Naples will represent something of a first for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has long pushed to be part of an expanded G-8. After economic discussions are finished, Mr. Yeltsin will be admitted to the group for a discussion of major political issues ranging from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Middle East. ``That's a major change,'' Ms. Spero said.

CLINTON'S stops in Riga and Warsaw will come before the Naples meetings. There, on the edge of the old Soviet empire, the US president will find the economic crises of the post-cold- war collapse largely ended. The beginnings of working economic infrastructures are now in place, though neo-left parties are making a comeback.

Still, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and a number of other nations in the region remain more worried about future safety than living standards.

``It's true. Security concerns are now paramount,'' says George Zarycky, a Central Europe specialist at Freedom House.

After centuries of shifting borders, the nations of Central Europe are all home to many overlapping ethnic groups. Slovakia, for example, has a large Hungarian minority. The war in Bosnia has been a terrible reminder of what ethnic tensions can lead to, and Central Europe wants more Western involvement to help head off any future Bosnia-like conflicts.

One reason Bosnia blew up was that no Western security organization was involved from the start. ``What Central and Eastern Europe want are some sort of assurances that international organizations such as the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe are aware of their problems,'' Mr. Zarycky says.

Then there is Russia, looming just over its former satellites' shoulders. Poland and its neighbors know that US expressions of interest in its fate could help fend off any rash Russian saber-rattling.

That is why many in the region clamor for NATO membership. Clinton's visit is unlikely to resolve this issue, notes former Carter security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi in a recent opinion article. But it will give Clinton the opportunity to stress that NATO expansion is a natural process already started via the junior-member Partnership for Peace program, he says.

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