MANAGING the ongoing transition in Central and Eastern Europe will be a long-term task. Many of these nations, newly free from Soviet/Russian domination, want to reestablish their ties to the rest of the continent. The trick will be to manage their accession to NATO and the European Union in a way that takes Russian fears into account.
Russia should not have a veto over NATO and EU expansion. But it is possible - and wiser - to include Russia in the process rather than locking it out, which would only feed Russia's traditionally anti-Western Slavophiles.
The Germans believe that NATO and EU expansion should proceed in tandem. Yet they also point out that NATO expansion will go faster, since it's basically a political, not an economic, issue. The many economic adjustments countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia must make to join the EU will take more time.
Poland's inflation rate still runs at 20 percent a year. Its per capita gross national product, factoring in the cost of living, is about $5,000 to $6,000; the EU's poorest members, Portugal and Greece, have a GNP at least twice that. Even with a growth rate of 5 or 6 percent, Poland would need 20 years to catch up. The Poles hope for earlier membership with an adjustment period. EU agricultural policy is also a problem; Poland's farm sector still includes 30 percent of the population.
The Czech Republic is in a better position. But EU expansion won't begin until after the next intergovernmental conference in mid-1997. The Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - won a big victory during the EU's Madrid meeting Dec. 15 and 16, when EU leaders decided to treat Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Baltic states on an equal basis. Germany and some other members had wanted to start with a "first tier" of the three Central European states, with the Balts to come later, but the Nordic countries lobbied hard for their three small neighbors.
The Central European situation is complicated by difficulties in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus. In Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma has done a remarkable job of staving off collapse and turning the economy around. Belarus, which unlike Ukraine has no history of independence, is another story. Its economy is in shambles while President Alexander Lukashenko does all he can to thwart parliament and impose personal rule. His neighbors see him as an opportunist who will do anything to stay in power, including merging with Russia if it serves his personal purposes. Mr. Lukashenko has blown hot and cold on that idea. So have the Russians, who've got plenty of their own economic problems, and may not want the added burden of Minsk's.
NATO expansion need not be a problem if it occurs along with a pact between NATO and Russia in the interim, until Russian membership becomes feasible. Russia does not want to be left out of European decisionmaking; such a pact should include a place for Moscow at the table. Much depends on the course of Russian politics and policy following June's presidential elections there.
The Central European and Baltic states should concentrate on improving relations with each other and not falling into the trap of pre-World-War-II rivalries. If the war taught these countries anything, it should have taught them that if they don't hang together, they will hang separately. They have been given another chance, with the advantage this time of a democratic Germany and a developing democracy in Russia on their flanks.
The Baltic states should continue their tentative steps on military cooperation and increase their trade ties. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic should strengthen joint economic efforts. Poland should do all it can to assist the Baltic states and foster cooperation. Individual NATO and EU members, especially the Scandinavians, can do much to help.