VIENNA — Following this month's summit meeting in Washington, the next round of diplomatic action in East-West relations is set for early in the new year at the 35-nation conference here reviewing the 1975 Helsinki agreements on security and cooperation in Europe.
The conference broke for a Christmas recess Friday, and when it resumes, according to a Western ambassador, "there will be a lot of hard bargaining, but the shape of a package deal is already there, and we ought to wind up by the end of March, before Easter."
The Western powers are pressing the Soviets and the East Bloc for a series of specific new commitments in the field of so-called people-to-people contacts and improved economic cooperation. Only when these commitments are in place will there be agreement on a new conference to negotiate reductions of conventional military forces in Europe, a prime objective of the Soviet Union.
The Western powers are insisting that all political prisoners in the Soviet Union be released before there can be any agreement here on a Soviet proposal for a full-dress conference of the 35 nations on human rights in Moscow in 1990.
This was emphasized to the Soviets in Washington in discussions between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Americans, it was learned, handed the Soviets a list of about 450 political prisoners still in prison or labor camps and said the United States would not consider a human rights conference in Moscow until all are freed.
So far this year, about 200 political prisoners have been released, beginning with the return from internal exile of Andrei D. Sakharov. It is possible that those remaining on the American list may also come out in the next few months--if the Soviets want a human rights conference badly enough.
In Washington, Gorbachev took a harsh line in responding publicly to American pressures on the human rights question, but his responses also were televised in his homeland and may have been intended for domestic consumption. The question now is not what the Soviets say, but what they do.
On the Western side, there are mixed feelings here about agreeing to a human rights meeting in Moscow under any circumstances. Those who are opposed say that it would simply amount to an "award" to Moscow for a human rights record that is never going to be clean by Western standards.
Others contend that Western nations would benefit by going to Moscow to argue and negotiate for improved human rights agreements--"carrying the battle into the camp of the enemy," as one diplomat put it.
In the meantime, the nine neutral and nonaligned states taking part in the Helsinki review conference are expected to put forth a new proposal on "humanitarian travel rights" for medical treatment, weddings, funerals and family emergencies. All 35 governments would be pledged to issue passports, exit permits or entry visas within a specific number of days after application is made.
On the question of new talks on conventional force reductions, a major stumbling block was eliminated when the Soviets dropped their insistence that tactical nuclear weapons be included in any talks. However, a number of fine points are yet to be settled when work resumes here in January.
There is one further element that may affect the diplomatic atmosphere in Vienna in the new year--the projected trip by Reagan to Moscow. A successful outcome for this 35-nation conference--progress on human rights together with progress toward reducing conventional arms--would enhance the atmosphere of moderation and change in East-West relations. A bad result in Vienna, or no result at all, might jeopardize a presidential trip to Moscow.