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Ethiopia becomes Moscow's biggest toehold in Africa, but how strong is link to Kremlin?

A giant bronze statue of Lenin, said to be the biggest in all of Africa, is frozen in dramatic midstride about a mile from Revolution Square in Addis Ababa. It symbolizes Soviet ties to the dominant country on the strategic Horn.

Which way, though, is Lenin striding? Forward into Ethiopian hearts and minds , or only onto the surface of Ethiopian life?

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Does the statue represent a forbidding turn for Ethiopia, or does it simply mean the existing leadership is acknowledging massive arms aid from the Soviets without much changing its own existing ways?

To mark the 10th anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power, Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile-Mariam this week formed a new Ethiopian Workers Party, complete with a Soviet-style Central Committee and ruling Politburo.

Yet experts contacted here see this as more of a strategy to retain power and to ensure more Soviet arms than a deep ideological commitment.

They agree that on the surface Mengistu is bowing to the Soviets in some ways - and that Ethiopia has become the Soviet showcase in Africa as a whole.

They accept that this is far from desirable for the West, since what happens in Ethiopia affects not just the Horn of Africa, but the Red Sea, such conservative Gulf states as Saudi Arabia, and the countries through which the Nile River flows, including Egypt and Sudan.

However, they also see clear signs that Ethiopia, suffering tragic drought and starvation, is keeping ties to the West, from which it receives almost all its food and humanitarian aid.

They see Ethiopian leaders still wearing US university rings. More fundamentally, they point out that most Ethiopians are either Coptic Christian or Muslim.

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They dismiss the idea that any new Politburo could stamp Soviet ideology on a country divided among the ruling Amharas, secessionist Eritreans and Tigreans, and a new Oromo secessionist movement. The Oromos, whose base is in the Chercher mountains near Addis, are fighting the government in Wollo Province and are angling for some degree of cooperation with other secessionists.

''The Politburo machinery makes de jure what has long been de facto,'' said Charles Maynell, editor of the biweekly Africa Confidential publication in London.

''Ethiopians don't take labels such as 'Marxism' as seriously as we do. If they have to pay lip service to it to get a free tank, they'll do it, but they remain pragmatic Ethiopians underneath.''

Mark Malloch Brown, editor of the Economist magazine's Development Report, commented:

''The change to Marxist and Soviet names isn't terribly significant. . . . The Soviets have been putting the pressure on and although Mengistu has hesitated, it would now cause more rumpus if he didn't go ahead. . . .

''Ethiopians I talked to late last year were faintly embarrassed by the Lenin statue. 'Oh, yes,' they'd say, 'but you see, he's striding towards the airport.' ''

The change to Soviet names and structure ''is probably expediency,'' says another source familiar with British government thinking. ''The Ethiopians are pragmatic: They get arms from the Soviets and food aid from the West.

''The British think it's necessary to keep talking to Mengistu, however: It can be argued that he's only gone this far because the West cold-shouldered him for so long.''

Apart from the war with Eritrean secessionists, Mengistu's most urgent need is to find food for a growing number of his people affected by famine and drought.

The Soviets give little help. They have to import large amounts of grain them- selves.

Ethiopian sources say 5 million people need food urgently. Western sources put the figure closer to 3.5 million. ''By the end of this year the figure will be 6 million because prospects for the next harvest are pretty disastrous,'' according to Hugh Mackay, overseas director for the Save the Children Fund in London. ''We need 750,000 tons of grain by the end of next year. Right now we have 70,000, very little from the US. . . . What Ethiopia desperately needs is a comprehensive agricultural development plan.''

The Soviet Union has clear reasons to woo Ethiopia. Ordered out of Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia in the last decade, and watching its influence fade as South Africa grows more dominant in Angola and Mozambique, the Kremlin can claim success for arms aid to Addis.

Soviet naval ships use dry dock and other facilities in the Ethiopian-controlled Dahlak Islands in the Red Sea.

Mengistu called off his first visit to the West a year ago when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko stayed away from the United Nations General Assembly, and Ethiopia was the only African nation to join the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The Soviets and East Germans are planning for the long term in Ethiopia, attempting to set up a Marxist Workers Party complete with urban neighborhood associations to watch and indoctrinate.

But experts here say much of this is Ethiopian tactics aimed at ensuring more arms aid to match the more than $2 billion received from Moscow since 1977. This excludes aid funneled through Libya, sources say.

Addis Ababa gives visas to Western newsmen covering the drought. It received junior British minister Malcolm Rifkind in July to talk about British and European aid. It receives European funds through the European Community's Lome Convention mechanism.

Meanwhile, diplomats say the way to see Soviet influence wane would be to allow Mengistu to feel more secure from secessionist attacks. But so far no easing of Eritrean, Tigrean, and Oromo threats is in sight.

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