Farewell to the ‘evil empire’

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 13 1988

Farewell to the ‘evil empire’

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 13 1988

Farewell to the ‘evil empire’


As they bade farewell under a shining Moscow sun last week, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev seemed aware that it was probably their last meeting. The smiling American and Soviet leaders and their wives chatted and linked arms during a walk together down the steps of the Kremlin. At the end of their first-ever visit to the Soviet Union, Reagan said that he and his wife, Nancy, felt “moved” and “emotional.” And he added in his parting words to Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, “We think of you as friends.” A more reserved Gorbachev replied that in his three years of dealing with Reagan —during which they had had four summit meetings—“we have come a long way.” But he cautioned, “We have not yet done what is required by our two countries and the rest of the world.”

Such mixed emotions and reactions were characteristic of the fourth Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Reagan—listening to the hardships of dissidents or walking with Nancy

in the Arbat pedestrian mall to shake hands with Muscovites—clearly showed Soviets the human face of America. Gorbachev—appearing before a live news conference for the first time in his own country-displayed self-confidence and occasional severity. But the Soviet leader, facing a critical test of his leadership when he seeks endorsement of his radical reform policies at a special Soviet Communist party conference later this month, appeared the more successful of the two leaders.

Said William Taubman, a professor of Russian studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, who was in Moscow last week: “He has clearly strengthened his hand.”

Still, the two leaders apparently failed even to get within sight of their most important goal: agreement on a strategic arms reduction treaty (START) covering long-range missiles. Instead, they had to settle for the ceremonial signing of the just-ratified INF treaty, abolishing mediumand shorterrange nuclear missiles, which they had already concluded at their last summit, in Washington last December. Apart from that modest achievement and a joint closing statement claiming that overall they had found “extensive and significant areas of agreement,” the two sides also signed minor arms control pacts and other agreements ranging from cooperation in space research to student exchange programs. And despite the

warmth of Reagan’s

farewell remarks to his host, the five-day summit was marked by moments when Gorbachev was clearly irritated. The cause was the President’s lectures about Soviet human rights violations and the slow pace of arms control talks. During an extraordinary two-hour-and-20-minute news conference, televised live throughout the Soviet Union on Wednesday, Gorbachev repeatedly criticized his guest. “The American administration does not have a real understanding of the real situation insofar as human rights are concerned,” he said. “They just don’t know about the progress in the sphere of democratization in this country.” And on arms control, the Soviet leader complained of “missed opportunities.”

Gorbachev also criticized his U.S. guests over the wording of a joint closing declaration. “I gave the President both the Russian and English text,” he said. “He read it and he said, T like it,’ but, when today we met to finalize the text, it turned out

that not everybody likes it among those who surround the President.” Added Gorbachev: “This contrariness in American policy, in the conduct of the U.S administration, is disappointing to our people.”

The summit was also punctuated by moments of friction between the two first ladies, whose mutual incompatibility grew painfully obvious. At one point during the week, when Raisa Gorbachev had indicated impatience with Nancy Reagan’s late arrival for a viewing of some ancient icons at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, Reagan swept in and interrupted her dissertation to reporters on the artistic significance of the icons. “Now, wait a minute,” said the U.S. First Lady. “I want to talk now.” She then proceeded to dispute Gorbachev’s interpretation. “I don’t know how you can neglect the religious elements,” she said. “I mean, they’re there for everyone to see.”

Soviet annoyance about Reagan’s stance on human rights was evident from the start of the summit. Krem-

lin officials were harshly critical in private of Reagan’s meeting last Monday with 13 Soviet dissidents and Jewish refuseniks at the American Embassy. Said one Soviet official: “It is as if

we went into your jails to meet your prisoners and called them heroes. This is not the way to do business.” Added Gennadi Gerasimov, the principal spokesman of the foreign affairs ministry: “These are not exactly the finest examples of Soviet citizens.” And the government newspaper Izvestia alleged that one of the dissidents was a convicted war criminal with a Nazi past.

Later, Reagan appeared to soften the severity of his human rights criticisms. Addressing 600 students at the Moscow State University on Tuesday, he said that many violations were caused by bureaucratic delays and mistakes, not by the political leaders.

But despite such apparent inconsistencies, and a number of minor verbal gaffes, most ob■ servers agreed that Reagan registered an important personal triumph while in Moscow. Prior to the summit, there were evident worries on both the American and

Soviet sides that the 77-year-old President, exhausted by the rigors of travel and an eight-hour time difference, would not be able to cope with his schedule. And, in fact, Reagan did appear wan, tremulous and—during question and answer sessions—occasionally disoriented. Some of his aides appeared concerned about his answers to some questions, such as his assertion that hè could not understand the complaints of American Indians because “some of them became very wealthy” as a result of the “great pools of oil” under their reservations.

Many Soviets seemed to be captivated by their first close encounter with the President’s cozy personality. Said university student Victoria Bolgina, 20, after hearing him speak: “I never used to like him, but he seems such a warm and nice man that I cannot help but admire him.” Reagan appeared to make a similar impression on some Soviet intellectuals. After he spoke to members of the Writers’ Union —and in spite of mispronouncing the names of some of the Russian authors he quoted—Vitaly Korotich, editor of the weekly magazine Ogonyok, remarked admiringly: “Mr. Reagan is a simple man, a normal man.” As well, Soviets were clearly pleased to hear Reagan withdraw his 1983 characterization of their country as an “evil empire.” Sergei Plekhanov, deputy director of the Soviet government’s Institute of USA and Canada Studies, told Maclean’s that he considered Reagan’s public repudiation of that label to be “a symbolic act that tells us all that the Cold War is over.”

Still, most observers said that it was Gorbachev who derived the biggest gains from the summit. Soviet

newspaper and television commentators emphasized the President’s favorable remarks about Gorbachev’s leadership qualities and his reform policies. The expressions of support come less than a month before a special party congress in which some

5.000 delegates from across the Soviet Union will be asked to endorse Gorbachev’s reforms in the face of determined opposition from entrenched bureaucrats and the ideological Old Guard. Gorbachev has described the congress as a “watershed” in Soviet history. As one Moscowbased Western diplomat said last week, “He is staking everything on this meeting.”

As of last week, more than

3.000 delegates had been elected for the congress, and senior party officials said that they believed that supporters of Gorbachev’s reforms were in the majority. But Gorbachev was clearly having an uphill fight. He personally attended a Moscow party meeting on June 3 to encourage members to vote for delegates favorable to him. And at the end of the week, a number of key supporters of his reform policies were elected.

But Gorbachev is facing widespread public discontent at his failure so far to overhaul the lacklustre Soviet economy. In a poll of Moscow residents conducted in late May for The New York Times and CBS News, 33

per cent of respondents said that their material wealth had improved over the past three years. But only 40 per cent said that they expected their standard of living to improve in the next five years. As well, Soviet government studies show that because of

cle carried by the Soviet news agency TASS last week said that one solution could be to relocate workers to the frontiers of Siberia, the north and the far east of the country.

Against that uncertain background, Gorbachev has continued to

economic restructuring, more than three million Soviet citizens will lose their jobs over the next two years. Although most of them will be offered other work, the alternatives are likely to be often unpopular. An arti-

push through reforms and changes with unprecedented speed. In holding a televised news conference on June 1, he took a calculated risk that details of some of the party infighting might be exposed to the Soviet public.

And that is exactly what happened when a British reporter asked him to comment on an interview given by Boris Yeltsin, the former Moscow party chief fired last year because of his outspoken views on reform, to BBC television earlier in the week. Yeltsin called for the dismissal of the party’s second most senior official, Yegor Ligachev, who, he said, was widely believed to lead the forces opposed to glasnost. Gorbachev responded that the question of Ligachev’s resignation was “nonexistent.”

But perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of change took place a day later.

Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s most famous dissident, was allowed to use the foreign ministry press centre to hold a news conference.

While praising Gorbachev as “a great statesman,” he supported Reagan’s complaints that the pace of human rights reform was too slow. “[Reagan] was expressing the natural interest of the American public,” said the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent six years in internal exile because of his outspoken criticism of the pre-Gorbachev regime. And the 67-year-old Sakharov complained that one dissident Reagan had met in Moscow had been punished: biologist Sergei Kovalyov, he said, had been denied a promised job at a Moscow scientific institute. Said Sakharov: “This is a crying example of the old methods.”

For the state to give Sakharov a forum to speak his mind was unprecedented. Said a foreign ministry official who watched the news conference: “We are witnessing a historic event.”

Still, the two superpowers remain deeply divided over the next steps to take in search of a START agreement. Gorbachev and lesser Soviet officials insist that such an agreement is possible before Reagan leaves office in

the new year. But American officials seem to be less optimistic, saying that the principal obstacle is Soviet opposition to Reagan’s multibilliondollar Strategic Defence Initiative (SDl), popularly known as Star Wars.

And although Reagan seems to believe that Soviet objections to SDl can be overcome without the Americans giving up their insistence on testing its systems in space, he did not appear to expect an agreement during his presidency. Said Reagan at his final news conference: “I would like to sign an agreement, but talks do not have to end with me.”

Nevertheless, neither side appeared overly disappointed at the summit’s outcome. Declared Plekhanov: “These meetings and achievements are like little bricks being added as we build toward more co-operation and less belligerence.” Added Taubman: “In the end, the continuing dialogue may be one of the most important achievements.”

Meanwhile, many Soviets say that the increased national self-confidence they feel under Gorbachev is likely to contribute to improved relations g with the West. Said Tanya Se-

0 cova, a 20-year-old language

1 student at Moscow State Uniz versity: “Freedom is some| thing Gorbachev has given us. I Now, we are no longer afraid I to deal among ourselves and § with others. We can deal with

the United States because we feel equal.” For her, and millions of other Soviets in the wake of the summit, that is a heady and challenging new equation.