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EAST-WEST: Historic Tea Party in Helsinki

6 minute read

ON a windswept Baltic inlet only a few miles from Helsinki sits a starkly modern building, an angular Finnish masterpiece in white pine and fieldstone, which houses the student union of Helsinki’s Technical University. There, around a hollow six-sided table, the representatives of 32 European countries plus the U.S. and Canada took their places last week to begin talks that may lead to the most significant conference in Europe’s postwar history.

At best, the Helsinki negotiations could lead to an overcoming of the old hostilities and suspicions and the establishment of a new era of accommodation and mutual benefit between the two blocs in Europe. At worst, the talks could merely mask the fact that differences between East and West remain irreconcilable. The one sure thing is that for the first time since the alliance of the Western powers and the Soviet Union fell apart after World War II the nations of Europe are making a concerted effort to bring an end to the schism.

At the invitation of the Finnish government, which offered to provide a “salon de thé,” or congenial meeting place, the ambassadors and heads of missions in Helsinki are seeking to determine whether enough mutual interest exists to justify the convening, probably next spring, of the Conference on European Security and Cooperation (or C.E.S.C., as the diplomats call it).

The opening of the preparatory meetings, which are expected to last until February or March, could hardly have occurred at a more appropriate moment in East-West relations. The surprisingly strong electoral victory of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, architect of East-West détente, cleared the way for the signing and ratification of a treaty establishing normal relations between East and West Germany (see following story). In Geneva the second phase of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks got under way last week, with the U.S. and Soviet Union working toward a permanent and sweeping agreement to limit strategic nuclear weapons. Seven key NATO powers (excluding France) have invited five Warsaw Pact members to meet with them in January, probably in Lausanne, to start talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR). The Soviets, in part because they are anxious to free their troops for Chinese-border duty, may be willing to pull back some of their 20 divisions now based in East Germany, while the U.S. is already preparing for a possible 10% reduction in its force of 320,000 troops in West Germany.

Participants have greatly varying notions of what is to be accomplished in Helsinki. The lineup:

THE WESTERN POWERS, in general, hope that in return for greater trade and economic cooperation, the Communist leaders can be induced to allow increased contact and a freer flow of information between East and West. Accepting Brandt’s thesis of Wandel durch Annädherung (change through drawing nearer), most Western diplomats believe that Communist regimes in Eastern Europe will ultimately be influenced toward greater liberalism through closer contacts with the West.

THE SOVIETS, who first proposed the security conference, and tend to bill it as a triumph of Soviet diplomacy, want it to ratify the present borders in Central and Eastern Europe, thereby solidifying their hegemony over the region. In the event of a conflict with China, the Russians want to be certain that no Western power could seize upon an unresolved territorial issue as the pretext for an attack. In addition, the Soviets would welcome a more relaxed atmosphere in Europe for two reasons. They could avail themselves of badly needed Western technological and economic cooperation, and would be able to place pressure on the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Europe, thus leaving the Soviet Union as the dominant military power in the area.

EASTERN EUROPEANS, most notably the Rumanians and Hungarians, hope that the conference will produce an eased political climate, thereby reassuring the Soviet Union sufficiently that Moscow may allow them greater freedom and closer trade ties with the West. The Yugoslavs would like to see the conference produce an agreement recognizing their status of nonalignment and prohibiting the big powers—namely the Soviets—from interfering in the internal affairs of small states.

FINLAND is anxious to advance its role as an active neutral. At present the Finns badly need to sign a trade treaty with the nine-nation Common Market. But Soviet Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev has warned Finnish President Urho Kekkonen that the time is not right for Finland to make trade deals with the European Economic Community. Kekkonen, who places top foreign policy priority on maintaining friendly relations with the Kremlin, might be less reluctant to press ahead with an EEC trade treaty if Finland at the same time is the site of the security conference.

THE OTHER NEUTRALS—including Sweden, Switzerland, Austria—are publicly enthusiastic about détente, but in private they are extremely cautious. They realize that their neutrality would be endangered in a Europe that did not have U.S. power to offset Soviet military strength. “Do you know what MBFR stands for?” a Scandinavian diplomat asked TIME Correspondent David Tinnin in Helsinki last week. Before Tinnin could answer, the diplomat replied, “It means more benefits for the Russians.”

For the security conference, the East has proposed a simple three-point agenda: 1) a declaration of principles endorsing, among other things, present borders and a renunciation of force; 2) increased technological, economic and cultural cooperation between East and West; and 3) establishment of a permanent organization to deal with European security problems. The NATO powers will accept this framework, but are determined to concentrate on specific details that will have practical effects, such as an agreement to refrain from sudden troop movements or unannounced military maneuvers near borders, and the possibility of allowing each bloc to station observers in the countries of the other.

Many Communist leaders are openly nervous about overextending their countries’ contacts with the West. A Czechoslovak government spokesman told TIME Correspondent Strobe Talbott: “In the aftermath of the security conference, we will have to take extra steps to prevent ideological diversion. It will be a great menace to us, and we must counteract it vigorously and vigilantly.” In East Germany, even as the government was negotiating the inter-German treaty with Bonn last month, its police were installing deadly new electronic devices along the East-West barrier that would fire automatically at would-be escapees.

Such signs are not encouraging, but it is still an open question whether a Communist regime can control the forces of liberalization at home once those forces have been allowed to grow. If nothing else, the Helsinki negotiations will test the most basic issues in European affairs today: Are the Soviet Union and its satellites ready for a true relaxation of tensions? Or do they still depend upon the existence of outside enemies to enlist the support of their own people? In short, is Europe ready for an outbreak of peace? The answer should emerge at Helsinki and in the historic conference that lies beyond.

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