Searching for a new relationship

Marcus Gee April 15 1985

Searching for a new relationship

Marcus Gee April 15 1985

Searching for a new relationship


Marcus Gee

The thermometer was registering -45°C when External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and his delegation of Canadian officials stopped at a war memorial in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to lay a wreath. After the solemn ceremony Clark noticed a small girl, bundled up against the cold, approaching the monument with her grandmother. The girl, named Veronica, was frightened by the crowd of strangers. But when Clark handed her his Canadian lapel pin she broke into a smile—and her babushka began a bubbly discourse on the desire of the Soviet people for peace with other nations. As Clark walked away she told Veronica the man was “a Canadian or a Swede.”

Clark—who was accompanied on the nine-day, four-city tour of the Soviet Union by his wife, Maureen McTeer, and seven Tory mps—said that he had drawn a lesson from the exchange, his first meeting on the trip with ordinary Soviet citizens. The best way for East and West to overcome fear and distrust of each other, he said, is through personal contact and discussion. Added Clark: “Fear is obviously a barrier that visits like mine can help to reduce on both sides.”

Indeed, Clark’s trip took place at a time when the Soviet Union and its principal adversary, the United States, are moving cautiously toward reducing the mutual hostility that has recently marked their relationship. A new dialogue has begun, most conspicuously in Geneva, where after a 15-month hiatus the superpowers have resumed negotiations on reducing nuclear arms. In Washington, President Ronald Reagan has invited the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the first U.S.-Soviet summit in six years—an offer that Gorbachev accepted in principle last week. Further discussions about possible times and locations for such a meeting are expected, with some U.S. officials suggesting an autumn encounter at the United Nations.

Both sides stress that their differences remain deep. The Soviets bitterly oppose U.S. plans for research into the “Star Wars” system of space-based antimissile defences. For its part, Washington is still angered by Moscow’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the continued buildup of SS-20 mediumrange missiles aimed at Western Europe. Still, most analysts agree that the signs are encouraging.

With the tentative superpower thaw clearly in mind, Clark played down the issue of East-West tension during his Soviet visit—the first by a Canadian external affairs minister in a dozen years. Instead, he emphasized the unique ties between Canada and the Soviet Union and he argued that the two countries should improve bilateral relations. As a first step, Clark suggested a prompt renewal of the cultural, scientific and educational contacts which were severed after the Afghanistan invasion. The Canadians also endorsed in princi-

ple a Soviet proposal to hold a joint symposium on acid rain. Moscow, for its part, expressed interest in expanding purchases of Canadian wheat when the current contract runs out in 1986.

In Novosibirsk—the second stop in a 6,000-km journey that also took him to Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev and included meetings with Soviet scientists and factory workers—Clark spoke of his home in northern Alberta, reminding his hosts of the common “nordicity” of Canada and the Soviet Union. “To my knowledge, there is no ideology when it comes to permafrost,” Clark said. “We both have to deal with it.”

But Moscow was clearly skeptical of the Canadian approach. The Soviets, like some Americans, have traditionally

tended to regard Canada as a kind of 51st state. Indeed, recent attempts by Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to improve relations with Washington seem to have reinforced that impression in the Kremlin. To that end, before Clark’s arrival Soviet press reports said that the Mulroney government was giving away Canadian sovereignty by adhering closely to the U.S. foreign policy line. As a result, the analysts said, before Moscow would consider a distinct relationship with Canada the Kremlin would seek evidence that

Ottawa was prepared to distance itself from Washington.

The Soviet strategy was revealed on Wednesday, when Clark met for four hours in Moscow with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The setting was the ornate, marble-walled St. Catherine’s Hall, inside the Kremlin. Gromyko was gracious at first, leading Clark by the arm to a negotiating table lined with sheets of gold-embossed Kremlin notepaper, pencils, mineral water and pear juice served in elegant crystal glasses. But the 10 Soviet and 10 Canadian officials swiftly moved on to more businesslike discussions. Gromyko asked if Ottawa would reconsider its support of Star Wars research—a less than subtle attempt to drive a wedge between Wash-

ington and Ottawa. Recalled Clark: “We declined to do that.”

Clark described the talks, interrupted by a rapidly eaten 46-minute official lunch, as “frank and useful.” But Canadian officials also acknowledged that there were sharp disagreements. In fact, the Soviets refused to alter their position on many of the issues raised by Canada. When Clark asked about compensation for the families of 10 residents of Canada who died when a Soviet war plane shot down a Korean Air Lines jet in 1983, Gromyko replied: “This does not concern the Soviet Union. Let those who are culpable take the blame”—a veiled allusion to Soviet charges that the plane was on a U.S.-sponsored spy mission.

Gromyko also took a hard line on the issue of reunifying Soviet families with

relatives in Canada, approving emigration for only five of about 100 cases on the Canadian list. But the most tense moment took place when Clark raised the issue of human rights in the Soviet Union, inquiring about the fate of dissidents Anatoly Scharansky and Andrei Sakharov. Said Gromyko: “We do not discuss our internal matters with any state at all, so let’s pass on to other questions.”

The Canadians had expected Gromyko’s rebuff. Indeed, the next day Clark held an amicable meeting with Vitaliy Vorotnikov, a senior member of the ruling Politburo, who is to visit Canada in late May. Vorotnikov, 59, a close associate of the 54-year-old Gorbachev, is considered a candidate to succeed ailing

Soviet Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, 79, who has often expressed a wish to retire. To the disappointment of the Canadians, Clark was not granted a desired visit with Gorbachev himself.

The rise of well-educated “technocrats” like Vorotnikov is only one in a series of changes that were overtaking the Soviet Union as Clark and his delegation toured the country. Since Gorbachev took power on March 10 following the death of President Konstantin Chernenko, he has sacked dozens of corrupt, incompetent and elderly officials in a drive to “intensify” the weakened Soviet economy and improve productivity. In addition, the government has urged farmers to use new technology, announced that Soviet schoolchildren will be trained to use computers and encouraged state enterprises to expand train-

ing programs for managers. As well, last week the ruling Politburo declared a crackdown on “the ugly phenomenon” of alcoholism, a leading cause of the nation’s declining life expectancy figures. However, analysts note that there has been no indication yet of any steps to relax rigid central control of the economy, nor any move toward a Westernstyle market economy. “Such a path,” wrote one Central Committee official, “is excluded for us.”

At the same time, there has been no visible change under Gorbachev in Moscow’s traditional hard line on security issues. At his lunch with Clark last week, Gromyko again raised the issue of Washington’s Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars,

harshly condemning “the militarization of outer space.” But U.S. officials are clearly determined to proceed with the controversial program. Unveiling his annual report on Soviet military power last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said that Moscow could develop its own prototype antisatellite laser weapon by the end of the decade—a charge that the Soviet news agency TASS quickly labelled an “evilminded slander.”

The federal government has voiced firm support for research into the space defence program. At the same time, Canada made it clear last week that Canadian-Soviet relations should not be “held hostage” to superpower disagreements over arms control. Said Clark: “It’s time, I believe, that Canadians began to realize that we have a range of

interests that touch the Soviet Union and not just the East-West issue that is on the table in Geneva.”

Indeed, the visit seemed likely to lead to a gradual improvement in the bilateral relations, which soured in 1980 when Clark himself, then Prime Minister, cut off the Soviet Union’s line of credit and pulled the Canadian team out of the Moscow Olympic Games following the Afghanistan crisis. To help speed up the process of reconciliation, Clark invited Gromyko to visit Canada. However, he also made it clear that Ottawa will not compromise its strong ties with the United States and its other NATO allies to win Moscow’s friendship.

Hilary Mackenzie