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WORLD RESPONSE. North's popularity bemuses Moscow

``The outburst of unbridled chauvinism that is currently shaking America is no accident. At one time [America's] hero was Lt. [William] Calley - do you remember the mass shooting at My Lai? Now Oliver North is on the pedestal.'' Thus Tomas Kolesnichenko, a senior staff writer with the Communist Party daily Pravda, commented Monday on the Iran-contra affair. (Other world reactions: boredom, bafflement. Pages 9 and 10.)

Mr. Kolesnichenko's lengthy article was one of the most detailed discussions so far of the story. Up to now it has been covered regularly, but in a relatively low-key manner, by the Soviet news media.

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Kolesnichenko implied that events like Irangate were part of the United States system. But he said they are worrisome for the Soviet Union, whose fate is inextricably linked to that of the US.

``If this lieutenant colonel is permitted to do anything, then why wouldn't, let's say, a general be allowed to set into motion strategic [nuclear] rockets or in the future the SDI system?'' The reference was to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'').

Kolesnichenko made it clear that he did not expect the affair to lead to Mr. Reagan's downfall. He expressed regret that Americans were not surprised that ``the President, to put it crudely, lies to his own people, covers up his tracks, and avoids responsibility.'' He quoted a US public opinion poll that indicated Reagan still has a 48 percent approval rating.

Some Soviet officials worry that the scandal may force Reagan to take an even tougher line with Moscow - thus effectively ruling out a treaty on mid-range missiles. Most officials, however, apparently hope that it will sharpen his appetite for an agreement and the Washington summit that will almost certainly follow.

As the Iran-contra crisis began to unfold several months ago, a senior Communist Party official said it would be ironic if Moscow ended up helping a conservative President out of his predicament by signing an arms agreement with him. ``But we don't care,'' the official continued. ``We want the agreement.''

Observers here offer a number of tentative suggestions for the hitherto terse coverage of the affair.

First, internal political debates in the Soviet Union are something of a novelty and are still occupying much attention.

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Second, the Soviet leadership has never quite been able to fathom the US system. The resignation of President Nixon in the wake of Watergate, the last such scandal, was a bitter disappointment to Moscow. Despite his right-wing politics, Mr. Nixon had gone further than his more liberal predecessors in developing relations with the Soviet Union. The belief has not yet died that Watergate was engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency to discredit Nixon and d'etente. Sergei Losev, the director general of Tass, the country's main news agency, has just published a thriller that reportedly develops this line of conspiracy theorizing.

And finally, some observers suggest, glasnost still looks a little pale compared with the extent of openness in the US system.

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