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Soviets Try to Mollify West as Grip Tightens at Home

WHILE the Lithuanian parliament waited nervously behind homemade barricades for the tanks to come, a smiling Mikhail Gorbachev appeared before his parliament on Tuesday to present his new foreign minister. Alexander Bessmertnykh, hastily flown in from his post as the Soviet ambassador to Washington, wasted no time in assuring a worried world. The Soviet government would pursue a ``political solution'' to the crisis in the Baltics. And as the world seemed headed for war in the Gulf, Soviet foreign policy, including support for the anti-Iraq coalition, holds firm.

``The policy of new thinking will be preserved, will continue and develop,'' he told the Supreme Soviet.

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Hours later, Mr. Gorbachev appeared again before the parliament. He angrily denounced a string of enemies who have defied him, from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the democratic press to the leaders of Latvia and Lithuania.

As the Baltic and Gulf crises unfold in parallel, Gorbachev's government increasingly shows two faces - one to the outside world and one at home. The move to the right in domestic affairs, spearheaded by the crackdown on the nationalist governments in the republics, has not yet been mirrored by any retreat from the post-cold war outlook labeled ``new thinking.''

Some Soviet analysts argue that there is a clear logic to that apparent contradiction. At a time when the Kremlin is struggling to keep control at home, it seeks to avoid any conflict abroad, especially with the West.

``Foreign policy is the area that Gorbachev will try to keep as stable as possible in order not to aggravate the situation,'' says Alexei Izyumov, an expert at the prestigious USA-Canada Institute. ``I don't think that foreign policy will suffer if events don't become just uncontrollable.''

Other Soviets put the relationship between external and internal events in more sinister fashion. ``Moscow figures that, when in the Gulf war thousands upon thousands of people may perish, the West won't pay attention to one or two dozen people killed in the Baltic states,'' Mavrik Wolfson, head of the Latvian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told the weekly Kommersant.

Increasingly there is concern, however, that the violence in the Baltics will seriously harm ties to the West. If no adequate accounting is given, warned former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin, ``all our international contacts will be endangered.''

The choice of Mr. Bessmertnykh was dictated not by the last week's events in Lithuania, Mr. Izyumov says, but by the need to ease Western concern about a Soviet policy shift following the dramatic resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on Dec. 20. The popular Soviet official left with a public warning of coming ``dictatorship.''

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Bessmertnykh is well-liked in Washington and seen as a Shevardnadze man. He is a professional diplomat and a specialist on the United States and, although he is not a political figure, his leanings are considered liberal.

Washington would have been far less pleased with the most likely alternatives being discussed in Moscow - Yevgeni Primakov, a top presidential aide, or Alexander Dzasokhov, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. Both are senior Communist Party officials, but equally important, both are long associated with the Kremlin's policy of wooing radical third-world regimes.

MR. PRIMAKOV, an Arab specialist, emerged as a key player in Soviet Gulf policy as Gorbachev's special envoy on two missions to Baghdad, where US officials felt he was softening the Soviet stance. But some Soviet analysts say he didn't get the Foreign Ministry job because he didn't want it, preferring to emerge as the head of a new National Security Council where he will continue to exert considerable influence.

In an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda published on Tuesday, Primakov repeated the demand for unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

But he also argued on behalf of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his acquaintance of 21 years, for accommodating Iraqi concerns on a range of issues, including access to the sea, a share of the Rumallah oil field, protection against attack and removal of the US military presence after withdrawal, and settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Perhaps the most telling of Primakov's comments was his observation that although Saddam was surprised by the Soviet reaction, he understands the Soviet Union is seeking a peaceful solution, unlike ``the other superpowers.''

Meanwhile, the Soviets are seeking to quiet Western concerns about retreat on the superpower arms control front. There have been charges that the Soviet military violated the spirit of the treaty reducing conventional forces in Europe by moving massive forces east of the Urals, outside the treaty's range. And the slow pace of negotiations on the strategic nuclear arms pact in Geneva has raised worries that long-sought agreement would not be ready in time for a planned US-Soviet summit in mid-February.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Kouklev, a senior Soviet negotiator, presented a soothing picture in a Monitor interview, acknowledging possible ``mistakes'' in the data on conventional forces submitted by the Soviets and predicting the issue would be resolved in coming weeks. Soviet nuclear arms negotiators recently returned from Geneva, he added. ``We reviewed all outstanding problems and felt, given the desire for resolution, they can be settled by the known time limit.''

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