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Hostile neighbors find common ground in fighting pollution. East-West progress on environment is better than on most issues

When East German leader Erich Honecker recently traveled to Bonn, he rebuffed most West German demands, saying, ``socialism and capitalism are like fire and water.'' But he agreed to increase cooperation on the environment. The story's moral is clear: While East and West Europe talk a different, hostile language on most issues, they understand each other's concern about environment.

Bilateral environmental pacts are becoming common. After signing its agreement with East Germany, Bonn initialed a pollution pact in October with Czechoslovakia, while under another treaty, Austria and Hungary share information on ecological problems.

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Multilateral East-West negotiations also have led to progress. Witness the worldwide agreement signed this September in Montreal to reduce chloroflourocarbons, the propellants in aerosol sprays.

Inside Europe, 32 countries from both East and West signed a path-breaking treaty in 1984 to reduce sulfur emissions by 30 percent. According to Finnish officials chairing the negotiations, the same East-West group is close to reaching a new agreement to reduce nitrogen oxide.

``Ecology is a `safe' issue,'' explains Aira Kalela, director of the International Affairs Division of the Finnish Ministry of Environment. ``It doesn't provoke East-West conflicts like human rights.''

``Pollution knows no boundaries,'' adds a Hungarian diplomat. ``Against it, there are no effective fences, Checkpoint Charlies.''

Scandinavia illustrates the problem. Officials in both Finland and Sweden say about two-thirds of acid rain comes from abroad, much of it from Eastern Europe. The pollution threatens their forests, a major industry in both countries.

``For the Nordic countries, what happens in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia isn't an abstract issue,'' says Markku Wallin, an environmental specialist at the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions. ``It directly affects our health - personal and economic.''

Despite the economic logic, it took a long time to force these ecological concerns across the ideological divide. In 1972, Sweden presented to the UN a case study on sulfur's negative impact on the forests. Further scientific study proved the Swedish case, but practical progress only came in 1979 in the follow-up talks to the Helsinki security accord.

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``[Former Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev asked himself, `In what area could we all cooperate?,''' recalls Ms. Kalela. ``Environment was the answer.''

The Soviet timing was prescient. The state of the environment was becoming a topical issue in Western Europe, particularly in pivotal West Germany. The sulfur talks quickly moved to completion, though serious obstacles hinder further progress. But Washington's attitude worries the Scandinavians. The Reagan administration refused to sign the sulfur agreement. It claimed it would compromise sensitive bilateral negotiations on the issue with Canada, and remains hesitant about the proposed nitrogen oxide agreement.

``On the one hand, the US has done a lot to reduce pollution on car emissions,'' says Lars Bjorblum of the Swedish Ministry of Environment. ``On the other hand, the administration always is scared of making multilateral commitments.''

One of the most pressing problems for Soviet-bloc countries is funding cleanup. Poland says it cannot afford to meet the sulfur accord, and other communists governments that are investing large sums to fight sulfur complain about the cost of reducing nitrogen emissions.

One solution would be for the richer Western countries to pay. It would be cheaper and more effective for Finland or Sweden to help finance the fight against pollution in Poland and East Germany than at home.

``Since we have a lot less pollution than in Poland, we must spend a lot more than they to lower pollution levels,'' explains Kalela, the Finnish diplomat. ``But politically it's difficult to justify paying for projects abroad.''

Another problem is technology transfer. Though Western filters for coal-power plants guarantee a 40 percent to 50 percent cut in nitrogen-oxide emissions, East European equipment only produces a 10 to 15 percent reduction. Before they sign an accord, the East Europeans want the West to donate its antinitrogen technology, a request the West refuses out of financial and security considerations.

``At a certain stage in the negotiations, we always find ourselves in front of the COCOM restrictions,'' says a Hungarian diplomat, referring to the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls, a Western organization that restricts transfer of high-technology materials to the Soviet bloc. ``But the main question is, as usual, who pays?''

Good will and self-interest eventually should overcome these obstacles, diplomats say. Under its new treaty with Czechoslovakia, West Germany agreed to pay for some sulfur dioxide ``scrubbers'' in power stations and jointly to develop equipment to fight water pollution.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also could help. Western diplomats specializing in the environment have found a new candor in their communist colleagues since he came to power. If environmental talks could succeed in the Brezhnev era, then the diplomats hope they can thrive and multiply in the new atmosphere.

``Everyone focuses on security issues and human rights,'' says Kalela. ``But when we met in 1985 on the 10th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords, the diplomats agreed that environment was the area in which there had been the most progress over the past 10 years.'' The first two articles in this series ran Nov. 16 and 17.