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Gorbachev back at work

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's long absence from the labyrinthine corridors of power in Moscow has to represent one of the more private vacations recorded among modern heads of government in an age of instant communications. Despite intense public speculation about the Soviet leader's health and political well-being, there he was earlier this week, back at work - and looking tanned and fit. The relief and appreciation from around the globe about Mr. Gorbachev's return are indicative of the extent to which he has captured the imagination, and expectations, of much of the world. In his short tenure of office so far, Gorbachev has proved himself to be a resourceful leader and a first-rate communicator, not quite of the same cut as several of his recent predecessors. Granted, for just such reasons he represents a particularly challenging Soviet leader for the United States to deal with. And yet, we suspect that few people, in the US or elsewhere, would not agree that it was good to see Gorbachev back - and pressing ahead with his own agenda for modest political and economic reform within the Soviet system.

Perhaps there will yet be more to be said about the 52-day absence. But for now, Gorbachev is reportedly looking ahead to a crucial special plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee. He is said to have been working on an address to that gathering, as well as writing a book, during his Crimean vacation.

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But that barely begins to identify what must be an especially crowded docket for the Soviet leader. There is the likely visit to the US later this year to meet with President Reagan and sign an expected arms agreement abolishing medium- and short-range US and Soviet missiles; the continuing Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, with all the casualties that has meant for both sides, as well as the enormous economic costs to the Soviet economy; finding ways of modernizing Soviet agriculture and industry; satisfying demands for greater cultural and political assertiveness by the Soviet Union's huge non-Russian community - who constitute just under half the overall population; and so on. However Gorbachev spent his recent vacation, that's no insignificant agenda to come home to - and perhaps enough to warrant another respite down the road.

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