‘Gorbymania’ Captures Bonn--It’s a Challenge to the West, Aide Says

Times Staff Writer

“Gorby! Gorby! Gorby!” the thousands of West Germans chanted outside the Bonn’s old city hall on Tuesday as they wildly waved red hammer-and-sickle flags in honor of the visiting Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“Gorbachev--the Evangelist of Peace,” one of the welcoming banners in Bonn’s Marktplatz proclaimed. “Keep It Up, Gorbachev,” a placard in Russian said, “and Bring Us Peace.”

People hung out of windows and climbed lampposts around the old town square to catch a view of Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, in one of the warmest welcomes Bonn has given a foreign leader in many years and one of the warmest he has received during his recent travels.


Posters and buttons hailing Gorbachev are everywhere in central Bonn. Press coverage of his four-day visit is best measured not by the column but by the page. And West German television is providing almost continuous live broadcasts of the visit.

Even the country’s senior political commentators--for whom seriousness, gravity and caution are virtues--are caught up in the sometimes ecstatic praise for the Soviet leader.

“Mikhail Gorbachev has come to symbolize the hope of Europeans, particularly Germans, for the end of the Cold War and the start of an era of true peace,” one veteran commentator, a political scientist, said on television Tuesday as he discussed the welcome given Gorbachev by the crowd outside City Hall.

“That such a man has come from the Soviet Union is both extraordinary and particularly important.”

Although dismissed sometimes as “Gorbymania,” the popular enthusiasm for Gorbachev and the changes that he has made in the Soviet Union and in its foreign policies is now an important factor in international relations, putting pressure on governments in the West to match his initiatives.

“The ‘Gorbachev challenge’ is a better name for it,” commented Georgy A. Arbatov, a leading Soviet foreign policy specialist who is accompanying Gorbachev. “We want to take what we call our ‘new political thinking’ right to the people. We want them to see what we are proposing and to compare it to what has existed for so long, to what the others are proposing. . . .


‘We Are Not Doomed’

“The man in the street is ahead of the politicians,” Arbatov continued. “People begin to see that we are not doomed to live under that modern sword of Damocles--the threat of nuclear war.

“Call it Gorbymania if you want, but it represents good will toward the man and the changes that his policies have brought to our country and, in fact, to the world. This good will, after so many years of confrontation, is itself a cause for optimism.”

For Gorbachev, a popular welcome such as he received here is an important success--one he actively seeks--for it strengthens his argument that people want to end the confrontation between East and West of the past four decades, and it gives him political leverage in the negotiations with Western leaders.

“When East-West relations were defined primarily in military terms, there was little popular input into shaping Western policy,” another senior Gorbachev adviser said Tuesday. “As those relations are redefined in political terms, governments cannot so readily use the national security argument to exclude popular demands for change. . . . This has given us another avenue of approach.”

Moscow Surprised

Gorbachev’s strong impact on Western public opinion--in West Germany, polls show him as the world’s most popular political figure--surprised Moscow, according to Soviet officials, for no Kremlin leader in recent times had generated such enthusiasm abroad. But Soviet officials moved quickly to nurture the image, incorporating into their broader diplomatic offensive both Gorbachev’s popularity and the changes that his political and economic reforms, known as perestroika , were bringing to the Soviet Union.

“We are depriving our opponents of the ‘enemy image,’ ” Arbatov remarked. “We are leaving them without the enemy they have used to justify their policies, particularly the arms race, for so long.”

Summit meetings have consequently become important vehicles in presenting the “Gorbachev challenge” to the West, providing much of its momentum as the Soviet president has met in Moscow with the leaders of France, Italy, the United States and West Germany last year. He has visited Britain, China, Cuba, India, West Germany and the United Nations in New York in the last eight months. And he is planning a visit to France next month and one to Italy and the Vatican in the autumn.


“Summits are major, high-profile opportunities to put our ideas across to the world,” a senior Soviet press relations official said, asking not to be quoted by name. “On a visit like this, we have full access to the West German public, of course, but also to most of the West European public and even to that in America and Japan. The whole world is watching us and listening to us.

“Summit visits have taken on an even greater role in our diplomacy. We try to use them well, but we are not nearly as skilled as, say, the Americans or the British in packaging or in slickness. We have problems in scheduling, we have problems in coordination, we choose poor camera positions, our press kits are sometimes rather thin. . . .

“Fortunately, we have some rather powerful ideas, such as the abolition of nuclear weapons, and, of course, we have Mikhail Gorbachev.”

The Soviet Union has long regarded diplomatic preparations for summit meetings as serious business, using them to bring together diverse negotiations--arms control, international issues, cultural exchanges, trade--with the goal of a series of agreements that could be signed along with a broader agreement setting out new goals for the relationship.

“A summit gives us a focus and a deadline,” a Soviet Foreign Ministry official said. “As events, they move things forward with most countries because decisions have to be taken, agreements reached and compromises made.”

To maintain the momentum of his “challenge,” Gorbachev has also used the summit meetings several times to squeeze from his own military and other foreign policy hard-liners agreements on such measures as the unilateral 10% reduction of his country’s armed forces that he announced at the United Nations in December.


“They know that he has to maintain the momentum, at least for tactical advantage, and they can usually be persuaded that a 10% or 12% cutback is safe,” a well-placed Soviet source said recently in Moscow. “But it has been a fight almost every time. A general can understand giving up a weapons system when the other side also gives up a system. It is difficult, however, when all you get are cheering crowds in return for your concessions.”

But there have been fewer unilateral moves recently since Moscow concluded that Gorbachev had a new image problem--that of a man who would offer concession after concession because of a domestic political need for foreign policy successes.

To the policy preparations that lead to summit meetings, the Soviet Foreign Ministry has now added a growing public relations and press effort to ensure that Gorbachev will have in his schedule on each summit trip several opportunities to address local audiences, a chance to meet local well-wishers such as those in the Bonn square, a full-dress press conference and probably a television interview.

To ensure that the new Soviet domestic and foreign policies were highlighted in advance of the Gorbachev visit, a team of high-level briefers came to Bonn a week early. They gave press conferences and interviews, they made as many television appearances--even on a game show--as could be arranged and they went through a grueling schedule of lunches, dinners, cocktail gatherings and other informal meetings with the opinion-makers of West Germany.

Moscow’s logic is simple: To rid itself of its image as an enemy, the Soviet Union has concluded that it must prove that, under perestroika, the country is changing and becoming a trustworthy friend.