President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a demonstration of the tentative steps toward improved U.S.-Soviet relations that each has taken in recent months, exchanged New Year's greetings Friday to the Soviet and American people.
Reagan used the Soviet airwaves to gently prod the Kremlin on such still-sensitive issues as human rights and regional conflicts, while expressing U.S. determination to reach agreement on long-range nuclear weapons reduction--perhaps in time for a spring summit in Moscow.
Gorbachev, appearing on American television, declared his readiness to resolve regional conflicts and "to continue fruitfully the negotiations on reducing strategic arms. . . ."
No Harsh Language
The messages were notable not so much for their content as for the fact that they were broadcast at all--and for what was not said. Missing from each was any of the harsh language that has characterized remarks by Reagan and Gorbachev on the more sensitive issues in the U.S. and Soviet relationship.
And, in a reflection of the improvement that has accompanied the signing last month of the treaty eliminating U.S. and Soviet land-based medium-range nuclear weapons, the Soviet willingness to telecast Reagan's remarks was in sharp contrast to the reception a similar New Year's message was given a year ago.
Then, Gorbachev declared that superpower relations were too poor after the unsuccessful summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, to justify an exchange of New Year's greetings. Accordingly, Reagan tried to have his message delivered by radio over Voice of America, but Soviet officials tried to blot out the broadcast, electronically jamming it in many areas of the Soviet bloc.
This year, Soviet citizens turning on their television sets Friday evening could see this: The chief executive of the United States, sitting before a fireplace and the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to Theodore Roosevelt, and addressing them from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
"Good evening. This is Ronald Reagan, President of the United States. I'm speaking to you, the peoples of the Soviet Union, on the occasion of the new year," he said, commencing a condensed introduction to American society that gave his Soviet audience a glimpse of American holiday traditions and a miniature civics lesson.
"At this time of year, Americans travel across the country--in their cars, by train, or by airplane--to be together with their families," he said. "Most of us celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. And as part of those celebrations, we go to church or synagogue, then gather around the family dinner table," for a meal "of goose, turkey, or roast beef . . . . "
Reagan's references to the holiday gatherings in both countries was bound to strike a chord with most Soviet viewers, since the New Year's celebrations are warm family affairs there.
In an implied contrast with the Soviet system, Reagan said that a new American president will be chosen this year.
"I'll still be President next January, but soon after that, the man or woman leading our country will be the one the American people pick this coming November," he said.
Reagan kept his criticism of the Soviet Union to a minimum. He said Americans were concerned "about senseless conflicts in a number of regions."
Without mentioning Nicaragua or Afghanistan, where Soviet-supported governments are facing rebellions aided by the United States, and without any direct reference to the Soviet assistance, the President said:
"In some instances, regimes backed by foreign military power are oppressing their own peoples, giving rise to popular resistance and the spread of fighting beyond their borders. Too many mothers, including Soviet mothers, have wept over the graves of their fallen sons."
In addition, he said, "as you know, we Americans are concerned about human rights, including freedoms of speech, press, worship, and travel . . . We will always speak out on behalf of human dignity."
That emphasis on human rights also may have touched a sensitive point so far as the Kremlin is concerned, but it was too general to arouse any reaction among the public, Western observers here said.
The President also described the space-based missile defense program--the Strategic Defense Initiative--as "a defensive shield that will threaten no one." The program is strenuously opposed by the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev, noting the improved ties that have stemmed from the medium-range arms treaty, said the pact "marks the first step along the path of reducing nuclear arms and that is its enduring value."
"It has brought our two peoples closer together. We are entering the new year with a hope for continued progress, progress toward a safer world," Gorbachev said.
The Gorbachev videotape showed the Soviet leader, like Reagan, in a dark suit and dark tie. He was seated at a desk in an elegant setting, with light blue draperies in the background.
The tape provided by the Soviets opened with a view of an illuminated red star, and then shifted to a brief view of a Kremlin wall, before Gorbachev began his remarks. Each tape ran approximately 5 1/2 minutes.
'Fabric of Trust'
The Soviet leader, referring to increased contacts between Soviet and American citizens, declared: "Like thousands of strands, those contacts are beginning to weave into what I would call a tangible fabric of trust and growing mutual understanding."
He predicted "profound changes" in the Soviet Union "along the lines of continued perestroika , democratization and radical economic reform." Perestroika is the Russian word to describe the restructuring of the Soviet economy and society that has become a centerpiece of Gorbachev's program.
The two videotapes of the leaders were exchanged earlier in the week. But until Wednesday, it was uncertain that either would be aired.
The Soviets had said they would carry Reagan's message on state television only if Gorbachev were given access to the U.S. airwaves. On Wednesday, it became apparent that three networks--ABC, CNN, and NBC--would carry the entire tape in special New Year's morning broadcasts. CBS decided to carry excerpts of the remarks in regularly scheduled newscasts.
In Moscow, the President's speech was broadcast only on the main national television channel while a cartoon show and a concert were shown on the second and third channels.
The official news agency Tass carried a seven-paragraph article on Reagan's address but did not publish the text. It did transmit the entire text of Gorbachev's speech that was broadcast in the United States.
The broadcast time of the President's message--7 p.m. in Moscow--ensured it of a large audience on the three-day holiday weekend. But several Muscovites contacted by telephone said they had not seen Reagan because they were entertaining guests.
The televising of Reagan's speech was his second appearance on Soviet television, following a 1986 address after the leaders' November, 1985, summit in Geneva. Gorbachev also sent a message that was broadcast by the American networks.
Staff writer William J. Eaton in Moscow also contributed to this story.