Gorbachev, on sidelines at home, shines abroad MIDDLE EAST CONFERENCE

October 27, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev's co-sponsorship of the Madrid talks this week underscores the new role he has created for himself since the putsch of August: that of international mediator and peacemaker.

Two weeks ago he managed to get the leaders of Serbia and Croatia to sit down together in Moscow and agree, however tentatively, to a cease-fire and eventual negotiations.

Last week, Mr. Gorbachev's government had a hand in a brokered settlement in Cambodia.

And, while in Madrid, Mr. Gorbachev also hopes to persuade President Bush to set another round of nuclear arms cuts in motion.

Of all the world's headaches, in fact, seemingly only one defies his doctoring -- the one back home.

Mr. Gorbachev's popularity rating is bouncing around the teens, according to polls, and worst of all he's being ignored -- even by protesters.

When the official trade unions held a demonstration near the Kremlin Wednesday over the issue of wages and prices, two men were the object of their scorn: Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president and the chief political force here, and Ivan Silayev, a Yeltsin man who heads the caretaker Soviet government that is nominally under Mr. Gorbachev.

When Mr. Gorbachev delivered a 28-minute address to parliament last week on the issue of economic agreement among the republics, he was met with stony silence.

In that speech he also angrily denounced the move toward individual republican armies. "This is no joke. Such talk is dangerous," he said.

The next day the Ukraine decided to create a 420,000-man army.

But the key issue is the inability of the government -- or of the various governments -- to get the economy moving toward reform and a free market. And that issue has fallen squarely in the lap of Mr. Yeltsin.

Thursday his government said Russia is likely to issue its own ruble, in order to take control of the currency. The Ukraine is moving to do the same.

Mr. Yeltsin also has suggested that prices, which still bear almost no relation to value, may soon be set free to find their own level. One of his advisers, Galina Starovoytova, told the newspaper Trud that such a step, plus other "radical" reforms, could come as early as tomorrow.

There is not much of a role for Mr. Gorbachev. Unlike President Bush, who is criticized for ignoring domestic problems, the Soviet Nobel Peace Prize laureate is free to pursue his foreign agenda. He argues, in fact, that it's all in keeping with his long-range plan for the country.

"The chief task of the president, as he formulated it himself, is to carry out successfully the reforms which he initiated in 1985, and which are still being carried out, even though we are in a difficult situation," one of his spokesmen, Karen K. Kargizyan, said Friday.

"His foreign efforts are important in and of themselves, but they also aim at promoting the success of perestroika in this country."

What do foreign peace conferences have to do with perestroika? In Mr. Gorbachev's view, true reform can only be successful if the Soviet Union joins the world system, if it creates an economy compatible with the capitalist West's.

By allying itself with the United States in trying to cool down hot spots, the Soviet Union not only contributes to general peace and prosperity but shows itself to be acting in good faith with its former adversary.

Mr. Gorbachev made it clear that he expects a payback for that effort: help from the West, and from the United States in particular, in building a new free-market system.

Madrid should be a tonic for him. The Arab countries agreed to come only if the Soviet Union were a co-sponsor of the conference.

That's quite a contrast to his one attempt at domestic peacemaking earlier this month. Mr. Gorbachev invited the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to sit down with him to work out a solution to their long-running ethnic warfare.

The president of Azerbaijan, who had looked to Moscow for support and, until August, had always found it, never bothered to show up.

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