Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze concluded two days of talks in the Siberian city of Irkutsk today by agreeing on the importance of Soviet and American cooperation in Asia.
"In Asia, too, the Soviet Union and the United States do not regard each other as adversaries," Shevardnadze told reporters during a news conference after the talks.
The U.S. and Soviet officials acknowledged, however, that they had not achieved any breakthrough that would lead to a settlement of the civil war in Afghanistan.
Shevardnadze said he and Baker reached agreement on the need for "free elections" in Afghanistan, but he made it clear that both Soviet and American officials must convince the parties in Afghanistan of the need for an agreement.
During the news conference, Baker and Shevardnadze announced that the United States will send a team of businessmen and technical experts to Moscow.
The broad claim by the two officials that the Soviet Union and the United States intend to cooperate in Asia represents a dramatic change from the past decade, when the United States aligned itself with China in opposition to Soviet positions in Asia.
On arms control, Shevardnadze announced, as had been expected, that the Soviet Union intends to stop production of rail-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles at the beginning of 1991.
The two men also reportedly discussed the time and scheduling for another summit meeting sometime near the end of this year between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Throughout the day, the secretary of state and the Soviet foreign minister mixed business with pleasure as they rode a hydrofoil on Lake Baikal, one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, and tried a bit of fishing on the nearby Angara River.
"I like Siberia. I like Siberia!" Baker exclaimed at one point as he wandered into a crowd that had gathered along the waterfront to see the visiting VIPs.
The two-day series of talks marked the 11th time that Baker and Shevardnadze have met since the beginning of this year. Their remarkably frequent series of meetings has taken them to nine cities on four continents.
The session in Irkutsk had special importance because it is the first time the top superpower diplomats have met in Asia, where the Soviet Union and the United States have competed for influence for decades, but where the two countries are also neighbors.
Baker was invited to Irkutsk to reciprocate for the U.S.-hosted superpower negotiations held last fall in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He and Shevardnadze met for their first session Wednesday morning in the sitting room of a guest house in downtown Irkutsk.
Before the talks, Shevardnadze made clear he expected that Afghanistan would be the top item on the agenda. "We have things to discuss about Afghanistan," he told reporters. "I would not call those new ideas, but we'll see."
Shevardnadze insisted that the departure of Afghanistan President Najibullah for the Soviet Union earlier this week "has no relation to our talks."
"He is not in Moscow, by the way," the foreign minister said of Najibullah. "He will be on vacation in the Soviet Union." When the vacation ends, Shevardnadze said, Najibullah will return to Afghanistan. "I have no doubts about that--just like any of us after vacation," he quipped.
Soviet officials had previously said Najibullah was in their country for medical care, not for a holiday. Gorbachev also left Moscow this week to vacation in the Crimea in the Soviet south, so the Afghan leader could meet him there.
In both Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, there was continued movement that could indicate that a solution to the Afghan conflict was in the offing. Daud Razmyar, the Afghan ambassador in Moscow, was granted an audience with Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander M. Belonogov to discuss "a political settlement in Afghanistan," the official Soviet news agency Tass reported without providing details.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Abdul Rahim Hatif, the deputy vice president, was appointed to head the government in Najibullah's absence, according to state-run Radio Kabul. The announcement was a surprise for many, since such appointments are rarely made during a short foreign trip by Najibullah and the selection passed up his second-in-command, Sultan Ali Keshtmand.
For his part, Baker told reporters in Irkutsk he wanted to talk to his hosts about a series of issues besides Afghanistan, including the ongoing U.S.-Soviet talks on a new strategic arms reduction treaty and efforts to reduce conventional forces in Europe.
By midday Wednesday, there were signs of some sort of stumbling block as morning talks ran an hour longer than expected. Later, Baker's staff canceled a press briefing that had been scheduled that evening and refused to provide any details of the discussions.
It was not clear whether the U.S. officials were responding to requests from Soviet officials to minimize press coverage on the sensitive subject of Afghanistan.
"They (Baker and Shevardnadze) have the right to keep working," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler told reporters.
The search for a U.S.-Soviet agreement on Afghanistan came only two weeks after Baker and Shevardnadze served notice at a meeting in Paris of a new initiative to end the civil war in Cambodia.
After Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, the United States surprised Kremlin leaders by helping to organize support and funding for a surprisingly resilient force of Afghan guerrillas.
Frustrated by the Soviet inability to defeat the insurgents, or moujahedeen , Gorbachev announced in 1988 that the Soviet army would withdraw from Afghanistan. The last Soviet troops left early last year.
At that point, it was the Americans who were caught by surprise. Most U.S. officials believed, and predicted publicly, that Najibullah's regime would crumble within half a year or so after the Soviet pullout and that the moujahedeen would take over the country.
But the Bush Administration underestimated Najibullah's staying power, the importance of huge Soviet arms shipments to Kabul and the effects of debilitating feuds among Afghan guerrilla groups.
Over the past few months, Congress has shown signs that it is growing tired of supporting and paying for the Afghan guerrillas. Covert U.S. funding for the Afghan civil war now reportedly amounts to about $280 million a year, but some congressional leaders in recent weeks have talked openly about the need to cut the funding.
Their own economy teetering, the Soviets also have a definite material incentive to bring about an end to the Afghan fighting. According to some Western estimates, the Kremlin now pays as much as $300 million a month to prop up Najibullah's government.
The atmosphere for the superpower talks in this cool, quiet Siberian city was markedly different from that of previous meetings this year between Baker and Shevardnadze. At one juncture, as they traveled outside Irkutsk, a cow halted their motorcade as it drank from a mud puddle.
As the foreign ministers chatted in the front of their hydrofoil about Siberia, Shevardnadze's 14-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, began playfully arm wrestling with one of Baker's assistants, Caron S. Johnson.
Sophie won, both left- and right-handed.