A preparatory meeting here to draw up ground rules of reviewing East-West relations and human rights is rapidly reaching a climax, with neither side getting exactly what it wants.
With just three days to go before a scheduled summer recess, there are signs that agreement will be reached shortly on an agenda and organizational framework for the higher-level meeting in the fall.
At issue is how the implementation of the 1975 Helsinki declaration, including its controversial provisions on human rights, will be discussed. The West has been pressing for a full review of progress, or lack of it, in the last two years - a debate that the Sovet Union and its allies would like to restrict.
For the last few weeks, the gulf between the two sides has been exemplified by differences over whether there should be fixed time limit to the fall talks. Soviet bloc negotiators demanded a firm cutoff date, saying in private that they did not want to be dragged into long negotiations of the kind that preceded the Helsinki summit.
Most Western countries, including the United States, were equally determined that there should not be a cutoff date on the grounds that it could lead to a filibuster that might prevent full discussion of human rights.
For their own reasons, the neutral countries - who hold the balance in Belgrade - originally sided with the West on this issue.They wanted to ensure that the conference would not end without a guarantee that further meetings would be held in the future.
The neutrals' latest proposal states that every effort should be made to end the meeting by Dec. 15, but if all work had not been completed by then, delegates would return to Belgrade on Jan. 16 for talks that could last "up to a month."
The formula's final sentence would say that the meeting would begin late in September or early October. The meeting "will end its work by adopting a concluding document and setting a time and place for the next meeting."
Whether this adds up to a cut off date or not is the subject of considerable debate among delegates. The formula is believed to be acceptable to the U.S. delegation - provided that the rest of the package looks right. American delegates, if required to justify it to Congress, would argue that the meeting can only end by consensus on the concluding document.
Soviet delegates can point to another sentence that appears to indicate that the conference must conclude by Feb. 15. This enabled Yuli Vorontsov, the chief Sovet negotiator, to tell journalists that he was now convinced there would be a "positive outcome" to the talks.
If the proposal is adopted, the effect may be to postpone arguments over the cutoff date until February.
Some delegates are already warning that such postponement of problems could be dangerous. Others hope that the talks will be over by then anyway and the International Atmosphere may have improved.