In a dramatic symbol of joint American and Soviet efforts to settle regional conflicts, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze each met simultaneously here Wednesday with representatives of an opposing side in the Angolan civil war.
The two meetings in Washington provided strong new impetus for a cease-fire that would end Angola’s 15-year-old civil war. The session suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union are preparing to cut off military arms and support to their clients in Angola soon.
At the Soviet Embassy here, Shevardnadze offered an unprecedented hand of reconciliation to Jonas Savimbi, president of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the American-backed rebel group that has fought the Angolan government for more than a decade. It was the first time any senior Soviet official has agreed to talk to the Angolan rebel leader.
“People have grown tired of the war,” Shevardnadze told Savimbi before their 45-minute meeting.
At virtually the same time, Baker sat down with Pedro Van Dunem, foreign minister for the Angolan government, which came to power in 1975 with the help of Soviet arms and Cuban troops. Ever since, Moscow has been giving military assistance to the Angolan regime.
The two parallel sessions demonstrated the efforts by the two superpowers to cut back on the military and financial resources they have been supplying to the Angolan conflict.
The Soviet Union has served notice that it is planning to phase out its military assistance program to the Angolan government. At the same time, support in Congress for the American covert aid program to Savimbi--estimated at about $60 million a year--is also eroding.
Over the past year, Shevardnadze and Baker have also been attempting to work out an end to hostilities in Afghanistan, another longstanding regional conflict that is a vestige of the Cold War. But the two superpowers have been unable so far to work out a political settlement between the Soviet-backed Afghan government and the U.S.-supported Afghan rebels.
In Angola, however, there have been a series of recent moves toward a reconciliation between the warring parties.
Last week, Savimbi dropped a longstanding demand that Angola’s ruling party, the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), recognize his own party, UNITA. Instead, Savimbi suggested that he would agree to a cease-fire if the MPLA agreed to legalize opposition parties.
At a party congress last Sunday, the Angolan ruling party appeared to meet Savimbi’s conditions. The MPLA abandoned its Marxist-Leninist ideology in favor of “democratic socialism” and approved the creation of a multi-party system.
On Wednesday, Shevardnadze told reporters that if UNITA and the Angolan government can decide upon a cease-fire, then “it would be easier for us to address the possibility of a cutoff of arms.”
Portugal, the former colonial power in Angola, has been serving as the mediator in an effort to negotiate a political settlement between the two Angolan factions. Portugal’s chief mediator, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, told reporters in Luanda on Tuesday that he hopes a cease-fire can be arranged by March. One sticking point is the question of how soon elections would be held.
After talking with the Soviet foreign minister, Savimbi suggested Wednesday he would like to work out a cease-fire and national elections as soon as possible.
“The cease-fire needs to be linked to an irreversible process leading to free multi-party elections,” he said in a written statement. “A long delay between cease-fire and elections will risk the collapse of the truce.”
Van Dunem, the Angolan foreign minister, said after his 30-minute meeting with Baker that “progress is being made towards an agreement which can lead to a cease-fire.”
The State Department said Baker urged the Angolan foreign minister “to persuade his government to make the necessary final compromises . . . to reach a peaceful solution to the 15-year conflict.”
State Department officials estimate that over the past year, the Soviet Union has supplied at least $500 million in military assistance to the Angolan government.
U.S. officials said that during their meetings in Houston earlier this week, Baker and Shevardnadze endorsed the idea of a cutoff of all lethal aid to Angola as soon as a cease-fire takes effect. However, their agreement leaves both of the superpowers free to continue supplying their respective clients in Angola until then.