Gorbachev leaps back from political demise News analysis

May 29, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Margaret Thatcher is singing his praises to Moscow students and Soviet parliamentarians. His spokesman says an early U.S.-Soviet summit is likely following an upbeat phone conversation Monday night with President Bush. His relations with Boris N. Yeltsin are the best in many months.

Yesterday, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev flew off to the Kazakh republic for a meet-the-people tour of the kind he has generally avoided since the political freeze of last fall and winter. Next week, he goes to Oslo, Norway, to deliver the Nobel Peace Prize lecture. And a few weeks after that, he hopes to be in London, making a case to top Western leaders for massive economic aid to the Soviet Union.

By any standard, the beleaguered father of perestroika seems to be making a remarkable political comeback. In January, Mr. Gorbachev packed his staff with hard-line Communists and shocked his admirers by approving the bloody seizure of Lithuanian broadcasting facilities by Soviet troops.

As recently as early April, independent Soviet newspapers were calling Mr. Gorbachev a political corpse.

Now he has scrambled his way back to acceptance, if not acclaim, at home, while recovering much of his credibility as a reformer in the West.

"Please do not underestimate the enormous advances in political terms in the Soviet Union," Mrs. Thatcher told students Monday at the elite Moscow State Institute for International Relations, urging them to stand by the Soviet president.

Yesterday, addressing a parliamentary committee, she "spoke highly of reforms carried out in the Soviet Union and East European countries and the personal role of Mikhail Gorbachev in initiating them," Tass news agency reported.

She also called on the seven major industrial powers to invite the Soviet leader to their London meeting, saying that his presence "would be beneficial to the next stage of economic reform."

Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko characterized the Gorbachev-Bush telephone conversation Monday as "very substantive" and said an early summit appeared likely. Mr. Bush confirmed that "I want to go to Moscow" and said he may shuffle summer travel plans to do so "sooner rather than later."

Meanwhile, the Soviet president is getting good reviews from an audience far tougher than mere Western politicians. Mr. Yeltsin, the Russian leader and Mr. Gorbachev's chief rival, said Saturday that the Soviet president had freed himself of the grip of the hard-liners.

"January, February and March were the darkest period, marked by a consolidation of right-wing forces that dragged the president along with them," Mr. Yeltsin said at a news conference.

During an eight-hour meeting with republican chiefs last Friday, Mr. Yeltsin said, "We did not exchange a single unpleasant word. This was most remarkable."

In an interview yesterday with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a reformist newspaper, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, second-largest of the republics after the Russian Federation, gave a similar analysis. "Lately, he's been in a very radical mood. Gorbachev is changing his positions," said Mr. Nazarbayev, who at times has been nearly as critical of the Soviet president as Mr. Yeltsin has been.

Particularly important, he said, was Mr. Gorbachev's willingness to concede more power and autonomy to the republics. "Now he's given certain undertakings on this account: The union of republics will be a union of sovereign states -- that is, not what he said earlier -- and these sovereign states will receive all rights. That's why our task now is to support the efforts of President Gorbachev at this new stage in the life of our society," Mr. Nazarbayev said.

Mr. Gorbachev flew to Kokchetav in northern Kazakhstan yesterday and immediately waded into the crowd for spontaneous exchanges, some of which were broadcast by television and radio. Though it is quite likely that the crowd was screened, Mr. Gorbachev has in recent months sought far fewer such street meetings with citizens than in earlier years at the height of his popularity.

During the winter, Gorbachev aides say, he came to rely heavily on the army, KGB and conservative officials partly because he saw no real unity or strength in the democratic movement. But the coal miners' two-month strike, which ended earlier this month, showed that there was real clout behind the democratic slogans of Mr. Yeltsin, and Mr. Gorbachev felt confident about tacking back toward reform, parliamentary deputies say.

The shift has prompted hopes for relatively swift movement on the two most pressing political issues of the day: the future of the Soviet Union and economic reform. Nine republics appear prepared to sign a new union treaty, possibly as early as next month. And Soviet officials are in Washington to persuade the U.S. administration that this time, the Soviet president really is serious about junking the old economic order and embracing market reforms.

In the rethawing of relations with the West, little attention has been focused on Armenian accusations that the Kremlin has conspired with Azerbaijan to deport thousands of Armenians from Azerbaijani territory. Likewise, attacks by Soviet "black beret" troops on Baltic republics' border posts have provoked relatively little reaction from the West.

But both events are reminders that the battle of hard-liners to save the empire -- all 15 republics, not just the nine that appear willing to stay in the union -- is not over.

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