STOCKHOLM — A successful outcome for the 35-nation conference on European security seemed assured Friday night, with only a few narrow differences still standing in the way of an agreement to reduce the chances of accidental war in Europe. If adopted, it would be the first major East-West pact since 1979.
Delegates from the 35 nations--including the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada and all European nations except Albania--agreed unanimously to "stop the clock" at midnight as the deadline for concluding the conference passed. Stopping the clock enables them to continue negotiating through the night in the hope of winding up late today.
Members of the Soviet delegation said that it will be impossible to conclude before Monday, but the general feeling among Western delegates is that unless some unexpected difficulties come up, they can conclude the agreement today.
'Matter of Principle'
U.S. Ambassador Robert L. Barry, asked whether the final difficulties involve principles or details, smiled and replied, "For us, details are a matter of principle."
The longstanding impasse over the size of military maneuvers that would require notification to the other side and inspection by foreign observers appeared to ease when the Soviets made a new offer Friday.
The Soviets, who had previously insisted that there should be no advance notification or observers for movements of fewer than 16,000 troops, came down to 14,000 as the threshold figure. Not long afterward, the Western powers, which had wanted a threshold of 9,000, edged up to 10,500.
Arguments on this difference of 3,500 men were still going on late Friday. The difference seems slight, but it is important because the army divisions in Soviet and East Bloc countries average 11,000 to 12,000 men, while the U.S. division can be larger by several thousand.
For the Western allies, it has been an absolute bottom-line position since the conference began, in January, 1984, that the so-called notification threshold must be low enough to cover maneuvers down to the division level.
A Western ambassador going into another round of talks with the Soviets at 9 p.m. Friday said, "We are inching forward, and I think we will get there."
The delegates have agreed that military maneuvers in Europe will be disclosed at least 42 days in advance and will be opened to observers from any country that is a party to the 35-nation conference.
West Yields on Flights
On another critical issue that has divided East and West--the question of who would fly planes sent up to monitor military activity--the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has agreed that the nation being inspected will have the right to decide whose planes will be used.
With the West yielding to the Soviet position, the negotiations now center on procedures for conducting the inspection flights rather than the nationality of the aircraft and pilots.
For example, will foreign observers be allowed access to the pilot's compartment and the navigation table? Will they be allowed to take photos of the inspection area? Will the aircraft have "adequate visibility?" Can the inspectors bring their own radio receivers to pick up signals that would give them a navigation fix?
A month ago, when the Soviets made their first major concession and accepted the principle of aerial inspections over Soviet territory, they insisted that such inspections could only be carried out in Soviet planes. The West came back with a proposal that the planes of neutral countries be used, but there was never full Western support for this.
The French were against it, though they kept quiet and did not break openly with their allies. As one member of the French delegation put it privately: "We agree with the Soviets simply because we do not want Soviet planes flying inspections over France. If American territory were involved in this as well as European territory, would you want Soviet planes flying around?"
Nor were the neutral nations enthusiastic about the position pushed by the United States. Sweden was prepared to make aircraft available in the interests of achieving an agreement, but a Swedish delegate said: "In the end, aerial inspection is either going to work or it will not work, no matter whose aircraft it is. If the Soviets want to mess it up, they can find ways of messing up a flight by a neutral plane as well as one of their own."
Despite the concession from the West over the nationality of the pilots, the Soviets are still holding out on detailed rules and regulations governing the inspections. Soviet delegates argued throughout Friday that it was unnecessary to iron out such details here, under time pressure, and that they should be sorted out later.
But the United States and its allies are not likely to accept this position.
The conference, formally called the Stockholm Conference on Security- and Confidence-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe, was given the task of devising "militarily significant, politically binding and verifiable" measures to reduce the risk of war in Europe.
The last East-West agreement was the second strategic arms limitation treaty between the United States and Soviet Union.