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NATO keeps a wary eye on Russia

Watching Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin wrap up their summit meeting in Helsinki on Friday, you would think it was one of those "boys' night out" deals and that everybody had himself a good time.

There was a lot of smiling back-and-forth about "my friend Boris" and "my friend Bill," plus some good-natured ribbing about one guy having a gimpy leg and the other a weak ticker. And on the more serious side, there was a real effort to concentrate, at least publicly, on diplomatic issues the American and Russian leaders agreed on instead of ones they didn't.

But make no mistake about it. Something important happened in Helsinki, something that could make life interesting for all of us over the next few years.

To understand what, it's useful to consider something the foreign minister of Poland said recently and what happened in Europe 15 years ago.

Dariusz Rosati, the Polish foreign minister, was asked why it is that his country is so hot to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since there is no longer a Soviet Union or Cold War.

Rosati, whose country will likely be accepted as a candidate-member of NATO this summer, looked slightly perplexed _ not because the question was tough but because its answer seemed so plainly obvious.

"There is no guarantee that the democratic system (in Russia) will prevail," he finally replied, stating the plainly obvious as economically as possible.

This, of course, is what enlarging NATO is all about. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other former East bloc nations desperately want to join the alliance because they aren't at all convinced that Russia's currently democratic and benign behavior will last forever. They fear Moscow will turn once again to totalitarianism and maybe even try to rebuild the old Soviet empire.

And if that happens, Poland and its neighbors want the kind of protection only NATO can provide. Joining the European Union would be nice, of course _ a recognition of political maturity and economic achievement. But if things go sour in Moscow and the neighborhood gets rough again, there is simply no substitute for belonging to a powerful military alliance.

You won't hear any of this from Clinton or his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. They're too busy accentuating the positive _ plugging the ideal of international harmony and cooperation _ to talk openly about something so negative as the possibility that democracy might collapse in Russia.

The closest Albright got to such negativity came the other day when she told a reporter it was important to expand NATO in order to "deal with what is the enemy of the future _ and that is instability." Clinton, under pointed questioning during his news conference at Helsinki, wouldn't go even that modest distance.

Getting back to our original question: What happened in Helsinki is that the United States and its NATO allies committed themselves to being safe instead of optimistically trusting.

Russia might proceed along the road of democracy and partnership with the West that Yeltsin has charted, and then again it might not.

In either case, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe _ nations that suffered through more than four decades of Soviet domination _ would be offered protection within NATO and at the same time strengthen the alliance by their very membership.

This wasn't an easy call for Washington and its 15 NATO partners. Yeltsin and virtually the entire Russian political establishment had thundered right up to the opening of the Helsinki summit that NATO would pay a heavy price if it expanded. Sometimes, the threats weren't so veiled.

The furor recalled an even sharper confrontation with Moscow 15 years ago when Washington and its European partners defied Soviet warnings by deploying so-called "Euromissiles." The Kremlin's reaction to these weapons _ medium-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that could reach Soviet targets in a few minutes _ was so ominously threatening there were genuine fears NATO would fall apart.

But the alliance, with firm leadership from Washington that helped the Europeans overcome their own misgivings as well as the hot blast of Soviet propaganda, held together. It stayed the course, and by doing so created the favorable conditions that made this past week's Helsinki meeting possible.

Yeltsin, who only last fall appeared to be near death from heart disease, looked revived and especially fit in Helsinki. Maybe, just maybe, he'll be able to hang on and pull off a democratic miracle in his homeland.

But if for some reason he can't, NATO and its new partners will be able to deal with the consequences.