Kremlin's comments on air tragedy echo its political rules
From the Politburo to park benches, Moscow's response to the Korean Air Lines tragedy has so far said more about the Soviet Union than about the fate of the lost jet.
At time of writing Monday evening, Moscow officials and their news media had yet to address the question of just what happened to the Boeing 747 and the 269 people on board after it ''invaded'' Soviet airspace in the Far East Thursday.
Put more starkly, why did Soviet fighter jets apparently shoot down the jumbo? Soviet statements have not denied its planes did so. The issue simply has not been mentioned.
The omission owes partly, no doubt, to a considered Kremlin bid to shift worldwide, and domestic, attention to other questions: How did the jetliner end up over a Soviet military region in the first place? Couldn't Soviet pilots have mistaken the craft for a United States surveillance plane?
Kremlin emphasis on this last issue has redoubled since White House acknowledgment late Sunday that an RC-135 spy plane, a converted Boeing 707, had indeed been just outside Soviet Asian airspace some two hours before the larger Boeing 747 was downed.
In Monday morning's Pravda, an apparently updated version of comments Sunday from the head of Soviet antiaircraft forces said Soviet pilots ''did not know'' that the intruding plane was a Boeing 747 and not an RC-135. A reference to the RC-135 in the earlier published remarks was far less explicit.
The article stood by the Kremlin contention that the 747's flight was not that of a mere civilian airliner but ''was a deliberate action designed as a crude provocation.'' It repeated earlier claims that a Soviet pilot fired tracer shells near the 747 as a warning but mentioned no rocket firings. On Soviet TV Monday night, a news commentator went farther in stating ''Our anti-air attack defense forces fulfilled their duty in defending the security of the motherland.''
The Soviet approach, moreover, may pay off. World media attention does seem to be shifting from the downing of a civilian jet to other issues surrounding the disaster. Many diplomats here feel the trend may continue while, in weeks ahead, all facets of the tragedy will lose their immediacy.
The Soviet response seems, meanwhile, to provide uncommonly clear echoes of the rules by which Soviet politics and life run:
* The Kremlin does not, on any international issue, acknowledge error, or at least blame.
The central theme of the Soviet response to the air crisis has been that the US is to blame. ''Immoral,'' is how a Pravda headline decried the US bid for United Nations condemnation of Moscow. The Kremlin line is that the US deliberately dispatched a spy mission inside a darkened Boeing jumbo. When, late Sunday, a commentator on the evening television news gave Moscow's first public hint there were at least some ''peaceful people'' aboard, he suggested this merely showed the depth of CIA cynicism in using civilians for what became a fatal spy mission.
* The Kremlin worries over its subjects' expanded awareness of the outside world in recent years. The mere volume of Soviet media comment on the air disaster - a full 20 minutes of the Kremlin line on the Sunday TV news - underlines the preoccupation with getting a message across not just to the West, but to domestic audiences.
At a recent meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, Politburo propaganda specialist Konstantin Chernenko made such concern explicit, calling on Soviet media to mount a domestic ''offensive'' against ''Western propaganda.''
* Ordinary Russians, although increasingly aware of Western versions of major news events, do seem naturally to side with the Soviet view on issues like the air disaster.
Part of this involves a profound tradition of we-vs.-them nationalism among Russians, particularly older ones. Part, in this case, owes to the Soviet media's expansively intricate accounts of what happened. Not until Sunday's TV commentary was there any hint the downed jet might have been anything but a darkened spy plane with a military crew and relevant spy equipment aboard.
Still, by word of Western radio and word of mouth, unauthorized information does get through. It may even have lent an added allure to such broadcasts for some Soviets.
A foreign youth attending a Soviet school told how, on Friday, the airplane issue came up in a current-affairs class. He said nothing. But the teacher, under questioning from Russian students, said: ''It seems we shot down the plane.''
On Moscow streets, Russians who might ordinarily comment on various issues to a Western reporter are decidedly offstandish on the air disaster.
Yet a constant in the comments they do offer - and it is echoed even by some young, educated Muscovites who usually tend to be somewhat skeptical of the Moscow media - is that any plane that wanders into a Soviet security area should rightly expect possible trouble.
''Besides,'' adds one such youth who expressed horror at learning from a Western broadcast that nearly 300 passengers had perished, ''would the Americans really react differently in our place?''