The Warsaw Treaty, which binds East European states militarily to the Soviet Union, expires in May, and reports have been circulating in the West of disagreement among alliance members over the length of the period for which it should be extended.
But conversations in Romania, Hungary and Poland with government specialists and western diplomats indicate that the treaty will be prolonged easily, most likely for another 20 to 30 years.
Officials involved in planning for a Warsaw Pact summit, which is expected sometime before the May 14 expiration date, stress that a final decision must await a formal meeting of Soviet Bloc chiefs. But a ranking Polish communist party member, echoing remarks by counterparts in other Eastern European capitals, foresaw no serious hitches. "I'm not expecting any problem in deciding the prolongation," he said.
Just how real the debate among the alliance's members ever was about the treaty's renewed length remains open to question. It was Romania, playing its characteristic role as a Warsaw Pact maverick, that first hinted publicly about a dispute.
The decision to renew the 30-year-old treaty was initially to be made in mid-January at a summit meeting planned for Sofia but postponed due, it now appears, to the ill health of Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, who died March 10. In recent weeks the Romanians have created the impression of pushing behind the scenes for a shortened extension period of five or 10 years.
But in official talks here, the Romanians were vague about what discussions they have had with the Soviets or other Warsaw Pact states. In fact, they acknowledged, political and military experts preparing for a summit meeting have never formally discussed differences on the extension issue.
A Western European diplomat observed that Soviet officials in Bucharest seem relaxed about the question of the pact's renewal and have been so since Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader, gave public assurances last year that Romania would agree to a treaty extension.
Several western envoys said they suspect the Romanians of skillfully suggesting there is more to the treaty issue than in fact exists. "They've glamorized and promoted their own part in the renewal, dropping leaks in lots of capitals," said one diplomat. "But when you look more deeply into the matter, you find there was never any real intention not to renew or not to go along with Soviet terms. They've simply used the moment to reinforce their image with the West as the Warsaw Pact's difficult member."
Two other Eastern European states have capitalized as well on reports of a debate, asserting individual rights. In Hungary, Deputy Foreign Minister Istvan Roska told an interviewer the treaty would be prolonged but accented the independence and sovereignty of member states. East Germany publicized the Hungarian minister's remarks, signaling agreement.
But Romania alone goes so far as to refuse to let Soviet troops on its soil and to keep its own troops -- although not its military officers -- from participating in Warsaw Pact maneuvers outside the country. Bucharest also reportedly has rejected past Warsaw Pact requests to increase military spending.
Asked then why Romania stays in the Warsaw Pact, officials here cite political necessity and an interest in maintaining good terms with the country's socialist neighbors.
Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has no expiration date, the treaty establishing the Warsaw Pact set a limit totaling 30 years on the organization's existence. This served to highlight the Soviet Bloc's declared aim of seeing a Europe free of opposing military alliances. The treaty stipulates that the Warsaw Pact will dissolve if NATO ever does.
By hinting that serious consideration is being given to a shortened renewal period, Romania and other Soviet Bloc states can appear to be extending an olive branch to NATO, although privately communist officials admit they do not expect NATO to take the bait.