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Gorbachev Keeps West Off Balance : Few Can Agree on Where Soviet Reforms Will Lead

Times Staff Writer

No one can be sure whether Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has the will and imagination to quiet the deep, long-standing fears and suspicions that many in the world have about the Soviet Union.

But there is little doubt that Gorbachev, with great charm and tact and flair, has managed in a relatively brief time to push Western diplomats and their old assumptions far off balance.

Despite protests from the White House that he has done little more than seize old ideas of President Reagan’s on arms control, much of the world sees Gorbachev as an innovator and a pragmatic compromiser, a statesman whose initiative and determination are responsible for the forthcoming treaty that would dismantle and destroy some nuclear weapons for the first time.

Not since the most terrible moments of World War II, when Allied propaganda portrayed Josef Stalin as a tough, taciturn leader inspiring his embattled people into a heroic defense against the hordes of German invaders at Leningrad and Stalingrad, has a Soviet leader received the international acclaim that Gorbachev is getting.

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Yet, although he may inspire hope, outsiders really do not know what his reforms portend for them. The dynamism of Gorbachev has set loose a storm of speculation about the future of the Soviet Union and thus the future of mankind. But much of it is contradictory.

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the accords that eventually led to the end of the war in Vietnam, has written that if Gorbachev and his supporters “succeed in the objective of making their country stronger--without changing the foreign policy that produced current tensions--the democracies will in the long run be less secure.”

But Andrei D. Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his courageous dissent against the harshness of Leonid I. Brezhnev’s regime in the Soviet Union, told Times correspondents recently in his apartment in Moscow that “the West must show some interest in the success of perestroika "--the word used by Gorbachev to describe his attempt to restructure the Soviet economic and bureaucratic system.

Perestroika, Sakharov said, “is the road for transforming the Soviet Union into an open society, which is the only actual guarantee of world peace.”

The ferment in the Soviet Union can stir the adrenalin in any Kremlinologist who likes to plot the future. The permutations are endless. So is the maze.

If Gorbachev transforms Soviet society, will the Soviet Union be more pragmatic and less adventurous, or less inhibited and more hostile? Will increased confidence foster arrogance or amiability? Will Gorbachev’s reforms spread to the satellite countries of Eastern Europe? What if Eastern Europe explodes on him? What if Gorbachev’s reforms fail? Will his successors turn inward or outward, perverse or friendly?

Many analysts are wrestling with the intricacies of these questions. Marshall I. Goldman of Wellesley College and Harvard University’s Russian Research Center has even predicted to the Senate-House Joint Economic Committee in Washington that Gorbachev will be forced from office “within two or three years.” That would leave little time for any of his reforms, including those in foreign policy, to take root.

The analyses sometimes seem to depend on the ideological spyglass used. Some analysts who once found only unmitigated evil in the Soviet past can see only unmitigated failure in the Soviet future. Futuristic scenarios about Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, in fact, reflect so much guesswork, so much chasing after swiftly changing evidence, so much evaluation of shifting sands, that most should be read these days like political science fiction.

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Geopolitical Philosophy

Yet despite all this uncertainty, a consensus has developed in the West about some of the foreign policy directions Gorbachev is taking and about some of the geopolitical philosophy that seems to be guiding him.

Analysts agree that Gorbachev needs a respite from East-West tension and a corresponding decline in military spending to devote his full attention and resources to restructuring the woeful Soviet economy. They agree, too, that his reforms may once again set loose nationalist and democratic forces in Eastern Europe. How he deals with them, in fact, may be the touchstone of his foreign policy. The experts also tend to believe that he will refrain from new Third World adventures during the time of respite.

Gorbachev has already changed the tone of Soviet foreign policy. “The changes in contemporary world development are so profound and significant,” he told the 27th Communist Party Congress in February of 1986, “that they require a rethinking and comprehensive analysis of all factors involved.”

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‘Interrelated, Interdependent

In a lengthy speech Monday marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev suggested that even the conflict between communism and capitalism, once described as inevitable, was giving way to a new era of guarded cooperation in an “interrelated, interdependent” world.

“The main reason” for this more conciliatory approach, Gorbachev said, “is the problem of human survival. This problem is now with us because the development of nuclear weapons and the threatening prospect of their use have called into question the very survival of the human race.”

At the same time, Gorbachev, though more subtle and sophisticated, is guided by the same geopolitical principles as his predecessors. Unlike Nikita S. Khrushchev, Gorbachev does not apparently believe that communism has any chance now of “burying” capitalism. Yet he still cannot conceive of the United States as anything but a rival.

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“We will never end up killing each other with kisses,” a Soviet government analyst said recently in Moscow. “I would not say that we will always be hostile, but we always will be two different countries, with our own national interests that are opposed.”

Major Role to Play

It is obvious that the Soviet Union has given up the idea of influencing Western Europe through the ever-declining Communist parties there. But it has not given up its self-conception as the great European power. Since the 18th Century, Russian czars and Soviet general secretaries have believed that they have a major role to play in Europe, and no one expects Gorbachev to feel any differently.

Finally, according to all specialists, Gorbachev, no matter how much energy he devotes to the Soviet economy and to military budget cuts, has no intention of abdicating the Soviet Union’s status as a world superpower. Many experts believe that Gorbachev would be less foolish than his predecessors in any Third World escapades, but they discern in Gorbachev’s early foreign policy moves--like his maneuvering in the Persian Gulf--a desire to make it clear that the Soviet Union intends to be treated as a power that counts everywhere in the world. Gorbachev’s surprising embrace of the United Nations in recent statements--a sharp reversal of past policy--has been cited as evidence of this.

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A massive shake-up has encouraged new thinking. After 30 years of tight rule by the dour, iron-handed Andrei A. Gromyko, the Foreign Ministry was turned over to Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the Georgian Communist Party leader who had no experience in foreign affairs but a long friendship with Gorbachev.

Gorbachev brought back from overseas two of the Soviet Union’s best qualified America watchers--Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin from Washington and Ambassador Alexander N. Yakovlev from Ottawa--to take key foreign policy posts on the party Central Committee in Moscow. Yakovlev was later promoted to the Politburo. Shevardnadze has replaced two-thirds of the Soviet Union’s ambassadors.

The difference in atmosphere is striking. A Western ambassador in Moscow with long experience in Soviet and East European affairs said that all the old polemic and ideology and prepared policy statements are gone from the conversations of Soviet diplomats these days.

“When you talk with them now,” he said, “it’s almost like talking with a Westerner. I could have had that kind of conversation with a Pole 20 years ago, but I could not have had it then with a Russian.”

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More Noticeable Outside

That change may be even more noticeable outside the Soviet Union.

“For the first time that I can remember,” Dominique Moisi, the deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations, said over lunch in Paris recently, “American diplomats in Paris are not as bright and sophisticated as Soviet diplomats in Paris.”

The new tone in Soviet foreign policy and the personality of Gorbachev have generated great popularity for him, even in the United States.

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A September Gallup poll for Times Mirror reported that 40% of the American people gave Gorbachev a favorable rating. That is the highest known favorable rating for a Soviet leader since the end of World War II. Gorbachev, in fact, had a higher rating than most of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Only Jesse Jackson, with 48%, polled higher.

European Popularity

Recent European polls consistently show that Gorbachev is now a more popular leader in Europe than President Reagan. A survey conducted by the U.S. Information Agency reported that 63% of Europeans gave Gorbachev credit for the progress in arms reduction talks, while only 13% gave the credit to Reagan.

“It is amazing,” a French government official said recently with grudging admiration, “how they have been able to improve their image without yielding anything substantive.”

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Despite this skepticism, Gorbachev is seen so much as an innovator in foreign affairs that the Soviet specialists of the French Foreign Ministry recently completed an exercise of trying to figure out what his next bold moves in international public relations might be. High on this list--a list of informed guesses--were an attempt to act as a mediator in the Persian Gulf and a deal with Japan over the disputed Kurile Islands.

Reagan is largely seen outside the United States as a statesman reacting favorably to the proposals of Gorbachev but offering little new on his own. Since the President obviously wants to complete a historic arms reduction agreement before his term ends, and since Gorbachev’s innovations have largely been revivals of dormant American proposals, the U.S. government has had little choice but to react favorably.

Reactor Rather Than Actor

The United States also has been seen as a reactor rather than an actor in East-West relations because of the U.S. decision not to do anything to help or hinder Gorbachev in his program of restructuring the Soviet Union. That is in line with the views of most American Kremlinologists; many insist, in fact, that in any case there is nothing the United States can do to help or hinder.

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Some critics question the motives for American inaction. “It is true that the United States is doing no more than react to the initiatives of Gorbachev,” said Moisi, the deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. “But that is not because American diplomats believe that is the wisest thing to do. It is because American diplomacy is so weak now.”

Distrust and Discord

History weighs heavily on Americans and other Westerners trying to assess whether the new tone of Soviet diplomacy presages a new era in which the Soviet Union discards its hostile and aggressive policies. Except for the four years during World War II when the Allies and the Soviet Union fought against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the 70 years of Bolshevik rule have been marked by distrust and discord between Moscow and most of the West.

There is a long catalogue of bitterness: Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks on Russian territory at the close of World War I, Moscow’s long campaign to promote and finance revolutions against Western governments, Stalin’s cynical signing of a nonaggression pact with Hitler on the eve of World War II, the subjugation of Eastern Europe, the Cold War.

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For Americans, there is an added complication. Perhaps powered by an irrepressible native optimism, Americans have sometimes been too quick in the past to seize on any hint of an opportunity for an understanding with the Soviet Union.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson said to Congress, “Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia?”

Unbridled Eagerness

Wilson was talking about the February Revolution that toppled the czar, not the October Revolution that thrust V. I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power. But his words have often been cited as evidence of the hasty and unbridled eagerness of Americans to find some good in what is going on in Russia.

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Americans, a French government official said recently with a note of both concern and contempt, “have long had a fascination for U.S.-U.S.S.R. reconciliation.” Sensitive to such criticism, many Americans are reluctant to seem too eager once again.

In a recent interview in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock Jr. accused American supporters of detente in the early 1970s of too much optimism. For a few years, detente produced a strategic arms limitations treaty, increased trade, a sharp rise in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and numerous cultural and scientific exchanges. But it soon dissipated into Cold War tension.

‘Oversold Detente’

Justifying the current U.S. policy of caution, Matlock said: “We learned in the ‘70s that it’s unwise for a democracy to close its eyes to the real problems in a relationship and try to sweep them under the rug simply because some things were going well. And I think, in fact, though it wasn’t our policy to do so, in the ‘70s we oversold detente, and there was a tendency not to harp on the problems because somehow the political leadership wanted to convey the idea that things were moving ahead.”

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Comments like these are sure to make many Americans hesitant about reacting to Gorbachev with too much optimism and enthusiasm. The architects of detente, after all, were former President Richard M. Nixon and former Secretary of State Kissinger, two men not often described as starry-eyed about the Soviet Union.

Task Force’s Conclusion

Yet despite such historical obstacles, a few influential Americans have questioned the wisdom of the U.S. government’s refusing to do anything to help Gorbachev. In a surprising report, a task force of 39 prominent Americans, including Republicans and Democrats, concluded in October that it was in the U.S. interest to encourage Gorbachev and his reforms.

Sponsored by the Institute for East-West Security Studies, the task force, headed by Whitney MacMillan, chairman of Cargill Inc., an agricultural business company, and Joseph Nye, director of Harvard University’s Center for Science and International Affairs, proposed more disarmament negotiations to help Gorbachev reduce military spending, a welcoming of Soviet proposals for investment in joint ventures in the Soviet Union, increased trade and commercial credits if the Soviet Union improves its human rights record and an attempt to draw the Soviet Union into the world economy by allowing it to sit as an observer in meetings of institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

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Focusing on Image

Much of the discussion about Gorbachev’s foreign policy and a foreign policy toward Gorbachev focuses more on image these days than substance. Beyond the image, however, lie some complex problems that may prove intractable no matter how much poise and sophistication are displayed by Gorbachev and his new diplomats. A closer look at three of the issues underscores the difficulty of trying to plot the future based on the little we now know of Gorbachev.

Reagan and Gorbachev, who are to meet Dec. 7 in Washington, say they plan to sign a treaty that will scrap all American and Soviet ground-based missiles with a range of 300 to 3,000 miles--the so-called intermediate nuclear forces. Gorbachev has made nuclear disarmament the key issue in his relations with the United States.

“We will never agree that nuclear weapons should be deemed a reliable means of preserving peace,” he told editors of the Italian Communist Party newspaper L’Unita several months ago.

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Intense negotiations are expected next year on reducing the U.S. and Soviet arsenals of strategic long-range nuclear missiles and on how far the United States can go in testing and developing its proposed space-based missile defense system without violating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Nuclear disarmament has struck a chord of hope in a fearful world, and the treaty, when signed, is sure to be regarded as historic, allowing both Reagan and Gorbachev to bask in glory and acclaim. It may be a deserved tribute.

Gorbachev may sincerely desire a nuclear-free world. He has certainly been willing to foster good will and put aside old Soviet shibboleths. He even allowed American experts to inspect the Soviet Union’s secret radar site in Abalakavo in September to try to prove that it did not violate the 1972 ABM treaty.

Yet, looked at coldly, the proposed treaty does no more than return the nuclear situation in Europe to what it was before the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union began installing its new SS-20 intermediate-range missiles. Also, the proposed treaty erases a Soviet humiliation by dismantling the American missiles that were installed in Western Europe after a long Soviet campaign to whip up Western European public opinion against them.

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In fact, although European public opinion favors the new treaty, many European leaders and analysts are suspicious of it for leaving them more vulnerable to attack by conventional Soviet forces now based in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev, in short, can be seen as a visionary statesman or as a guileful strategist, depending on how an analyst looks at the treaty.

Freedom Bids Quashed

East Europe may prove to be the most intractable issue for Gorbachev and, for the rest of the world, the surest test of his intentions. Not only do the Soviet forces in Eastern Europe threaten the democracies of Western Europe, but they have consistently quashed all attempts in Eastern Europe at independence or democratization. They have done so directly, as with the intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or indirectly, as with the encouragement of the Polish military takeover in 1981.

Reagan has called on Gorbachev to demonstrate his good intentions by dismantling the Berlin Wall. No one expects this to happen. Yet even more dramatic upheavals might be in store if Eastern Europeans begin to take to heart Gorbachev’s calls within the Soviet Union for more openness and restructuring and democracy.

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“What will Gorbachev do,” Moisi asked, “if the Poles and Czechs and Hungarians run into the street and cry, ‘We want the reforms of Gorbachev?’ ”

It is not an easy question to answer. The economies of Eastern Europe, for the most part, are already ahead of the Soviet Union. The standard of living is a third higher; Hungary and Poland already have experimented with some of Gorbachev’s economic proposals. There was no great political difficulty when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leader most in tune with Gorbachev, introduced a package of economic reforms in Poland in October.

In his Monday speech, Gorbachev appeared to be encouraging greater independence within the Warsaw Pact rather than tighter control by Moscow. “We have satisfied ourselves that unity does not mean identity and uniformity,” he declared.

Then, on Wednesday, Gorbachev stressed that the Soviet Union will no longer dictate policy to its allies. In a speech to foreign delegates attending the anniversary celebrations here of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev criticized “the arrogance of omniscience” and called for “a more sophisticated culture of relations among progressive forces . . . to accumulate all the diversity of experience.”

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Triggering of More Demands

The problem for Eastern Europe lies in the opening of the political system implied by glasnost and the possibility that each political reform will trigger a demand for even greater reform--a multi-party system, perhaps, or true independence--in societies chafing under their domination by a foreign power. Gorbachev can not offer the Czechoslovaks less than he offers Soviet citizens. Yet he can not be seen to preside over the dismantling of the Soviet empire. If that happened, his tenure might come to a dramatic end.

He has a delicate and puzzling task. To complicate matters more, important changes loom ahead in Eastern Europe. Most of the Eastern countries have stagnated under aging leadership for a long time. Jaruzelski has led Poland for only six years, but Todor Zhivkov has led Bulgaria for 33 years, Janos Kadar has led Hungary for 31 years, Nicolae Ceausescu has led Romania for 22 years, Gustav Husak has led Czechoslovakia for 18 years and Erich Honecker has led East Germany for 16 years. Their average age is well over 70.

Biology alone should ensure changes in the leadership soon. It may be difficult to avoid instability in the coming years.

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Use of Force Criticized

The third issue--Soviet adventurism in the Third World--is complicated by the feeling of many Western allies that the Reagan Administration exaggerates the problem. Ambassador Matlock, in the interview, condemned “the Soviet use of force outside its borders” and cited as examples the employment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the support for Cuban troops in Angola, the supply of arms to Central America and the backing of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

While most allies agree on the significance of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, they do not, in general, rate the Third World very high as a focus for contention between the Soviet Union and the United States.

“Third World problems are too murky,” a French government official said. “They escape the grip of East-West relations.”

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Several analysts believe that the Soviet Union has found some of its adventures, especially in Africa, costly and irrelevant. Gorbachev, according to this view, will not commit money, equipment and personnel to foolish ventures. At the same time, these analysts do not foresee him disentangling himself easily from those nettlesome situations that irritate the Reagan Administration so much.

“I do not think the Soviet Union will give up its present entanglements in Angola, Ethiopia and Cuba and so on,” Michel Tatu, the Soviet affairs specialist of the influential French newspaper Le Monde, said in a recent interview, “but I think it will not look for more.”

Need for Cooperation

The Soviet Establishment likes to spread hints these days that the Soviet Union intends from now on to deal responsibly--perhaps even cooperatively--with problems in the Third World. A senior official of a Soviet government research institute said in a recent interview that there was a need for cooperation by the superpowers in their dealing with the Third World.

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“Unpredictable results are not only possible, not only probable, but inevitable,” he said. “In an atmosphere of East-West confrontation, these issues are not manageable. With more normal East-West relationships, more stable East-West relationships, there will be a tendency to keep these inevitable conflicts in normal bounds.”

The Soviet Union demonstrated its new responsibility during the voting for director general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris in mid-October.

The strident and dictatorial incumbent, Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, withdrew from the race when the Soviet Union and its East European allies refused, despite all the pressure from Africa, to support him. Since many analysts believe that a victory for M’Bow would have destroyed the organization, Paris newspapers are hailing Gorbachev now as the savior of UNESCO.

Boris Asoyan, a commentator for the weekly newspaper Literary Gazette, called recently for an end to Soviet news reports that flattered and lied about African dictators simply because their regimes had the blessing of the Soviet government.

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Even Amin Was Hailed

“I remember,” Asoyan wrote, “how we used to describe the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his clique as military leaders inspired by patriotism. These patriots, according to various estimates, annihilated between 150,000 and 300,000 people over the course of six years.”

This plea for realism is another example of the new style and tone of Soviet thinking about the outside world. But it still does not tell us very much about how and if Gorbachev will use that style and tone to change Soviet foreign policy and make it seem less hostile and threatening.

A team of Times reporters spent a month traveling through the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of Soviet citizens, for this portrait of the world’s other superpower on the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

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The reporters are William J. Eaton, The Times’ current Moscow bureau chief; Robert Gillette, Moscow bureau chief from 1980 to 1984; Dan Fisher, Moscow bureau chief from 1977 to 1980, and Stanley Meisler, The Times’ Paris bureau chief.


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