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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Moscow’s Helping Hand Was Just a Mirage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few years ago, the justice minister of Zanzibar was heard complaining about the unsavory character of the Soviet consul of the time--a nasty man, he said, who had taken a Zanzibari girlfriend but made no effort to help Zanzibar, a semiautonomous island politically linked to Tanzania, with foreign aid.

But hadn’t the Soviets paid for the country’s hospital? a visitor asked rhetorically. “What makes you think that?” the minister replied.

“It’s the V.I. Lenin Hospital, isn’t it? Right next door to the Soviet Consulate?”

The minister smiled ruefully, recalling that as a briefly independent country, Zanzibar had had a short fling with communism.

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“We built it and named it that ourselves,” he said. “The Russians put their consulate next door just so people would think they paid for it.”

As the minister’s complaint suggests, much of the Soviet Union’s impact on African development--as opposed to African militarism--was as showy and ephemeral as a Potemkin village.

Sturdy roads and railways built by the Communist Chinese can be found all over Africa, and on Zanzibar itself are immense blocks of worker housing erected by the East Germans (albeit as graceful and inviting as a wart).

But little created by the Soviets is still standing. Even the few social welfare programs they offered Africa promised more than they delivered. Thousands of African students won scholarships to study in the Soviet Union, many of them at Patrice Lumumba University--named after the Congolese leader suspected of having been assassinated by the CIA. But they almost always returned home complaining of being treated by the Soviets with open discrimination and contempt.

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Very rarely did Moscow pull its weight in international relief efforts. Only once, in 1989, did the Soviet Union contribute substantially to the annual food emergency program in Ethiopia, a client state that--largely because of Soviet-financed civil war--had a persistent need of 1 million tons annually in food aid.

Africans’ commitments to Soviet ideals began evaporating soon after the era of glasnost began. The Soviet AK-47 was elided from the state seal of Mozambique in 1990, when the former people’s republic reconstituted itself as a theoretically democratic state allowing a free-market economy. In Angola, where Cuban troops seen as Soviet proxies fought to a draw with American-financed rebels, bringing a potentially rich economy to a standstill in the process, the Cubans finally left last year and democratic elections are being planned.

But the Soviets’ essentially negative role in Africa had a baleful effect on the behavior of other foreigners, particularly the United States. For the Soviet presence in Africa generated, as if through a Newtonian counter-reaction, an American preoccupation with the Soviet Union’s activities rather than with the more pressing problems of development.

Chester A. Crocker, the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has reportedly told acquaintances that during his time on that job, about 85% of his energies were consumed in trying to resolve the Angolan conflict between superpower proxies.

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All over sub-Saharan Africa, the Soviets left a distinctive image as sullen and arrogant beings. In Ethiopia’s northern province, Eritrea, where Soviet military advisers were a fixture for years, assisting the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in his attempts to subdue a separatist rebellion, they were universally regarded with suspicion and distrust as clannish and tighter with money than a drum.

“The Russians are the kind of people that will steal potatoes from a shop,” recalled one resident of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, shortly after the Soviet advisers were withdrawn from the front lines in 1989. “Four of them would walk into a cafe and order one Coke.”

Writing from exile in the United States, former Ethiopian Relief Commissioner Dawit Wolde Giorgis recalled Soviet participation in an international airlift during the great famine of 1985.

“It was irritating to see that the Soviet crew members were quite lazy and completely unmotivated by this human tragedy,” Dawit recalled. “They always started their shuttles late and ended them early.” With 36 aircraft, the Soviets never moved as much food as the British air force managed with only two Hercules air transports.

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They also engaged in wholesale thievery of relief supplies, Dawit wrote. “They would steal crates of food or anything else they wanted for their own consumption. . . . Although it was hushed up, it was a terrible blow to the prestige of the Soviet Union, whether they knew it or not.”

The Soviet presence in Ethiopia--the Kremlin’s most important client state on the continent--owed much to Moscow’s sense of opportunism and to the Carter Administration’s confused policy toward the country.

Mengistu, who became the undisputed ruler of Ethiopia in 1977, had been partially educated in the United States, but he evidently harbored some mistrust and resentment of the Americans. Nevertheless, many Ethiopian commentators believe that an Ethiopian-Soviet alliance was far from inevitable in those days.

What changed the tide was Somalia. Its dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, had been heavily armed by the Soviet Union, although he was constantly biting the hand that fed him by denouncing the Soviets. With that in mind, the Carter White House was drifting slowly toward a Somali alliance.

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As the Americans stood silently by, Somalia invaded Ethiopia in July, 1977. What ensued was a bizarre exchange of allies between the United States and the Soviet Union, accomplished with little more foresight than goes into changing partners at a square dance. With the Americans seemingly in hand, Siad Barre expelled Soviet and Cuban advisers from his country in November, 1977. The Soviets simply moved over the border into Ethiopia where, as Dawit later wrote, “their information on Somali targets helped turn the tide.”

Almost overnight, Ethiopia’s entire arsenal was converted from American to Soviet specifications. But with the help of the Russian and Cuban advisers, the Ethiopians were able to use the new equipment to smash the Somali advance.

For many years after that, Mengistu, a pro at mobilizing nationalist impulses to cement his grip on power, used the Soviet Union’s help in this national crisis to keep Ethiopia’s ruling classes behind the new alliance.

As for the Americans, they were saddled with another unsavory partner. Carter announced that he would not arm Somalia as long as it pursued its war, but he never publicly condemned the invasion, and U.S. arms shipments to Siad Barre’s government grew over the following years. The solid Ethiopian-Soviet relationship left Washington without any alternative ally in the Horn of Africa to counter the Soviet Union.

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The Soviets eventually provided Mengistu with an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion in military hardware before ending the arms deal in 1990. They did try to keep Mengistu on a short leash, providing the Ethiopian army with almost no spare parts so that maintenance and repair of most of the military’s equipment would have to be performed in the Soviet Union.

Four years into the Gorbachev era, when the Soviets were desperately trying to unwind many such foreign entanglements, Mengistu was high on the list to be dumped. One story making the rounds of Addis Ababa in late 1989 was that, during the visit of a top Soviet defense official, Mengistu had tried to browbeat his guest into continuing the soon-to-expire arms deal. The minister cut him off with a raised palm.

“You don’t understand,” he told Mengistu. “To us, you’re an embarrassment.”

Voices

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“I have been over into the future, and it works.”

--Lincoln Steffens, American writer, upon returning from 1919 visit to post-revolutionary Russia

“Communism is like Prohibition; it’s a good idea, but it won’t work.”

--Humorist Will Rogers, from his autobiography

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“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”

--Nikita S. Khrushchev at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow, Nov. 18, 1956


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