TURNU, Romania (AP) _ The ancient bus finally expired at the border in a huge puff of smoke, leaving passenger Ioan Maties stranded, enraged _ and insightful about the economic realities creating a new Europe.

``It has taken us 12 hours to come 40 kilometers (25 miles),'' he yelled, kicking the bus. ``How can we even think of entering the European Union?''

His outburst offered a welcome burst of amusement for all the other people sitting in a long line of creaky Soviet-bloc cars waiting _ and waiting _ to cross into Hungary. But the depressing message also was clear.

Seven years after the Iron Curtain was lifted, a new division of Europe is well under way. The new fault lines are being created not by ideology, but by the differences between haves and have-nots _ those making the adjustment to free markets and those that aren't.

Faint now, the lines will thicken in little more than five years, when the wealthy European Union starts expanding eastward. Only a handful of states from the former Soviet bloc will join at first _ most will be left waiting because of flawed economies or democracies.

Starting this week is a series of diplomatic parleys in Vienna, Lisbon, London and Brussels that will examine NATO expansion, the end of Communism, the situation in former Yugoslavia and other pressing questions.

The marathon opens in Vienna on Monday, when officials from the 54 nations in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, joined by non-members Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Israel, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, start a three-week biennial review.

The results will go to a summit in Lisbon on Dec. 2-3, where 61 world leaders and the heads of NATO, the United Nations and world economic institutions will gather.

Membership in the European Union is more than a matter of prestige.

The eastern nations fear that failure to get in now will mean being shut out permanently _ that the economic gaps will grow to become unbridgeable and those left outside will be drawn back into the Russian orbit or sink into economic and political chaos.

The collapse of communist rule and the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia has left 18 countries theoretically eligible for membership in the European Union. They cover an area the size of Alaska and Texas combined and are home to 200 million people.

Clearly on the slow track for membership are Belarus and Ukraine, emerging from centuries of Russian domination; the shrunken Yugoslavia, still following authoritarian rule; and Albania, clawing back from decades of ruinous Stalinism and isolationism.

Most of the other states _ 10 already are associate EU members _ hope for quick entry.

Across eastern Europe, acceptance in the powerful trading union is viewed as a rite of passage symbolizing an end to discrimination by rich neighbors.

``No one cares about us. We are treated like stupid imbeciles, like second-class citizens,'' said Wieslaw Momot, one of hundreds of Poles who recently camped out for as long as a week in front of the Italian Consulate in Warsaw to get a visa. ``If that is going to change after we join the EU, then obviously everyone will be happy about it.''

In most cases, membership in NATO is mentioned in the same breath as the European Union, and both organizations agree that memberships are linked, at least informally.

NATO is considered a necessity, particularly in Poland and the Baltic republics, which have long histories of domination by Russia.

But after decades of envying the prosperous West, what most people in the newly democratic parts of central and eastern Europe really hanker for is EU membership.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia are considered most likely to win membership, with their good economic performances and functioning democracies.

Some already match or outperform the poorer EU members in some sectors _ inflation this year is projected at 8.5 percent for the Czech Republic and 8.6 percent for EU member Greece. Unlike EU countries generally, the Czech government actually had a small budget surplus last year.

Jacques Santer, head of the EU Commission, said in April that talks on admission with some front runners will likely start in 1998. The commission, the EU's administrative body, has set 2002 as the earliest possible time for expansion.

Slovakia is considered iffy for membership _ its economy is improving but its politics remain authoritarian. Also lagging is Romania, where a democratically elected government has been too mired in the communist past to race ahead with market reform.

Worst off is Bulgaria, where hyperinflation looms. Bread and electricity prices have more than doubled since June, and the national currency, the lev, has plunged. The Oct. 2 assassination of the first post-communist premier raised fears about anarchy.

``Even Russia is ahead of us now,'' Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev said in an interview. ``I can see the danger of political instability and social unrest if we're left on the other side of that (EU) line.''

In a separate Associated Press interview, Romanian President Ion Iliescu warned of Europe being split by dangerous ``new elements of differentiation and discrepancy'' if only some former Soviet bloc members get into the EU and NATO.

``We are radically against such discriminatory methods,'' Iliescu said, echoing common Romanian fears that traditional rival Hungary will get early acceptance and use that for an edge over Romania.

Unmistakable differences already separate Europe's haves and have-nots.

Hungarians, Czechs and Poles are happy to take German marks, for them a symbol of the West. At the Romanian border town of Turnu, restroom attendant Ana-Lydia Vlada has more limited horizons. She would rather have Hungarian forints for use of the facilities _ for her, Hungary is the West.

Emiliu Toth, manager of the aging and cash-starved UCM machine factory in the grimy steel town of Resita, has longer-term worries.

``If all the investment and orders go to others, there would be nothing left for Romania,'' he said. ``We can survive for two or three years. Being left outside for any length of time would radically hurt Romania's chances of ever catching up again.''