MARCUS GEE May 30 1988


MARCUS GEE May 30 1988



The new style is a striking departure from tradition. In contrast to their dour, rough-spoken predecessors, modern Soviet diplomats are often urbane, well-tailored, highly educated and fluent in foreign languages. But most remarkable is the message they carry. Since coming to power in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev has sharply altered the way that officials in his vast, often xenophobic country deal with the outside world. Abandoning the Cold War rhetoric of the past, Soviet leaders now say that they want to reduce military competition with the West, resolve costly regional conflicts and improve relations with non-Communist countries in the Third World.

Realism: In Moscow, that approach is known as “new thinking,” but Western experts say that it is simply realism. During the 1970s the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars intervening in local disputes from Angola to Afghanistan. Those efforts drained the economy, angered Western leaders and alienated those in sympathetic developing countries. Now, clearly eager to focus its resources on economic reform at home, the Soviet Union is sharply reducing its military spending abroad and pressing Marxist allies to ease their reliance on Soviet support.

In the process, the Soviets are backing away from the strong support for Third World liberation movements, which became a central tenet of their foreign policy under former leader Nikita Khrushchev. Earlier this year Gorbachev declared that it was “inadmissible and futile to encourage revolution from abroad.” Said John Steinbruner, a foreign affairs expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution: “They are recognizing that their revolution, as they originally defined it, is not going to sweep the world— and there is not much they can do about it.”

While withdrawing from costly, futile foreign entanglements, the Soviets

are working hard to forge new ties with trading nations such as Brazil and Japan. Said University of Toronto Sovietologist Timothy Colton: “The Soviets realize that, no matter how big the Red Army is, if they become irrelevant economically, they are not going to be a major world power for long.” Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghani-

stan is the clearest evidence yet of the country’s new policy. But other signs can be found in almost every part of the globe:

Africa: In the mid-1970s, striving to expand its influence among African nations, the Soviet Union began to support three new Communist regimes: Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. Those nations are now among the poorest on a troubled continent. While maintaining military support for the Ethiopian regime of Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, which has recently lost ground to separatist rebels, the Soviets are reportedly pressuring him to dismantle collectivist agricultural policies that have hampered food production. Meanwhile, Mozambiqueravaged by famine and South Africansupported insurgents—has jettisoned Marxist economics and welcomed

aid from several Western countries.

Angola’s Marxist government, despite massive Soviet assistance, is no closer to defeating South Africanbacked rebels than when civil war broke out after the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Now the Soviets are encouraging the Angolans to settle the dispute at the

conference table. Soviet officials gave tacit support to exploratory peace talks in London in early May. A week later Angolan and South African officials met a second time, in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.

Still, the recent flurry of diplomatic activity may not lead to a quick solution. South African and U.S. officials say that they will continue supporting the rebels until Cuba withdraws its 40,000 troops from the country. And Angolan leaders say that will not happen until South Africa removes its troops from Angola and grants independence to neighboring Namibia.

Central America: Moscow has two Marxist outposts in the region—Cuba and Nicaragua—and the Soviet leadership is clearly not happy with either. Evidently concerned about the cost of subsidizing Fidel Castro’s Cuba—an

estimated $15 million a day—Soviet officials have chided the Cubans about economic mismanagement and waste. Nicaraguan leaders have reportedly received similar scoldings. Said one European diplomat in Managua: “They have found that Nicaragua is a tap that doesn’t turn off.” The Soviets have also encouraged the Sandinistas to open talks with U.S.-backed contra rebels. To reinforce the point, they temporarily withheld oil shipments to the Sandinista government early this year.

While lecturing their allies, Moscow’s leaders are seeking friends

among Latin America’s so-called new democracies. In a trip to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay last September Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze urged closer trade links.

Asia: The focus of Moscow’s new Asian policy is China. Relations between the two Communist giants, adversaries since a bitter division in the early 1960s, have been gradually improving. Gorbachev has already addressed two of Beijing’s three conditions for closer ties: withdrawal from Afghanistan and Soviet troop cuts on the heavily militarized Sino-Soviet border. Meeting the third—bringing about an end to the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea—will be tougher. The Soviets are pressing their allies in Hanoi to withdraw the 100,000 Vietnamese troops who are fighting nationalist rebels in Kampuchea. Sup-

porting Vietnam and its crumbling economy cost Moscow an estimated $4 billion last year. But the stubbornly independent Vietnamese are unlikely to agree to a rapid pullout.

Moscow’s objectives in Asia are mainly economic. In a groundbreaking speech in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok in July, 1986, Gorbachev said he envisioned a new link between the Soviet Union—three-quarters of which lies in Asia—and the booming economies of the Far East. In November of the same year he travelled to New Delhi and signed an agreement to increase trade between India and the Soviet

Union by 150 per cent. Moscow has also tried to woo the increasingly prosperous nations of Southeast Asia by advocating a so-called zone of peace in the region that would reduce foreign naval forces.

Middle East: Since President Anwar Sadat expelled them from Egypt in July, 1972, partly because of delays in Soviet arms deliveries, the Soviets have been outsiders in the region. Gorbachev and his envoys are now striving to change that. While maintaining close links with hardline Arab states, such as Syria and Libya, they have called for a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. A year ago Gorbachev publicly advised Syria’s President Hafez el Assad that recognizing Israel’s right to secure borders was a key condition for peace. In April he delivered the same lecture to Yasser

Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The results so far have been mixed. Washington officials have agreed to Soviet involvement in a proposed international peace conference on the Arab-Israeli dispute. But many Israelis still see Moscow as fundamentally pro-Arab. “We have elements of change,” said one Israeli government official, “but we don’t yet see a new, coherent Soviet Middle East strategy.”

Israel and the Soviet Union are gingerly exploring the possibility of renewing diplomatic contacts, broken by Moscow after the Six Day War in 1967.

Since last July the Soviets have maintained a consular delegation in Tel Aviv—officially to inspect Soviet property, mainly old buildings and plots of land dating back to czarist times.

Some Western officials say that they distrust Moscow’s friendly new demeanor. The Soviets, they say, are preparing to resume a campaign for world domination. But if the Soviets are indeed sincere in wanting to improve their global relations, the consequences would be far-reaching. In the long term, the current bipolar worldled by hostile superpowers—could be replaced by a multipolar system. In the meantime, Western leaders are regarding the apparent metamorphosis of their Communist adversary with wary fascination—and hope.

MARCUS GEE with correspondents’ reports