Soviet leader aims to boost presummit position on Paris visit
The Soviet presummit road show continues this week, moving from Washington to Europe. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrives today in Paris for a three-day state visit. And there is every indication he will use the occasion to bolster the Kremlin's position in advance of the November summit meeting with President Reagan.
The Kremlin continues to show a deft touch in the way it handles the news media, scheduling the visit -- as well as other events this week -- in ways that will gain maximum advantage for Moscow in the battle for public opinion.
The visit to France was carefully considered and expertly timed. It comes on the heels of a visit to the United States by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, which was generally viewed here as a political success.
France is a pivotal country in Western Europe, and it has been critical of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a research program into space-based defense (popularly known as ``star wars'').
Mr. Gorbachev will undoubtedly use the visit to underline Moscow's opposition to the SDI, while at the same time stressing the Soviet Union's various proposals for arms limitations.
Not coincidentally, as Gorbachev embarks on his trip Soviet negotiators in Geneva at the arms control talks will be outlining a new Soviet plan calling for reductions in offensive nuclear arsenals.
The plan will be unveiled in a special two-day plenary session. A secrecy pledge -- plus the customary rules of diplomacy -- will prohibit much public comment by US negotiators (although some press leaks are likely). Thus, while the Soviets seize the initiative in Geneva and US negotiators are constrained from commenting, Gorbachev will be grabbing headlines during his visit to France.
The visit is shaping up as a major media event, capped perhaps by a joint press conference to be held by French President Franois Mitterrand and Gorbachev. Meanwhile, Washington -- if it says much at all -- will have to avoid the appearance of being merely critical while Moscow appears constructive.
Also, there are unconfirmed reports that Gorbachev may stop in West Germany on the way back to Moscow. Bonn, although generally supportive of the Reagan administration's foreign policy, has wavered on the SDI issue, and Gorbachev would, of course, like to exploit any differences to the Soviet Union's own advantage.
Many Kremlin-watchers here expect Gorbachev once again to exhibit the same savoir-faire in France that he did in Britain last December. Gorabachev and his wife, Raisa, were lauded by the British press, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was upbeat in her assessment of the visit.
Soviet officials are delighted at Gorbachev's ``image'' in the West, especially after years of embarrassment under three successive enfeebled Soviet leaders.
Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, said the visit to France would strengthen Franco-Soviet ties, and predicted that could ease tension between the East and the West.
Still, Gorbachev will face a number of challenges during his visit as well.
For one, a number of French parliamentarians have been outspoken in their criticism of Soviet human rights policies.
And if Gorbachev has displayed any chink in his public-relations armor, it is an apparent inability to handle such criticism well. Westerners who have met him say he adopts a curt tone, bristles at such questions, and brushes them aside.
Diplomats who specialize in human rights say the reason is that his record since coming into office is nothing to be proud of. They say that a rigid crackdown on dissent, begun by former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, is continuing.
Mr. Mitterrand himself has also criticized Moscow's human rights practices. In a break with diplomatic protocol, he raised the case of exiled Soviet human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov during a Kremlin banquet last year.
Still, French authorities have prohibited many public demonstrations against Soviet human rights and emigration policies during the visit.
Pravda noted approvingly that France had doubled trade with the Soviet Union over the past five years, resisting what it claimed were US pressures to limit dealings with the Soviet Union. Indeed, France has recently launched a number of projects with the Soviets, including major modernization efforts in the Soviet automotive industry. But, as even Pravda was forced to admit, France has cooperated fully with the West in limiting the export of high technology to the Soviet Union.
The reason, left unsaid by Pravda, is fear that such technology will be turned to military use.
Also, Mitterrand has stubbornly pursued French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific -- something the Soviets have pointedly and repeatedly criticized. The so-called ``Greenpeace affair'' -- in which French secret-service agents sunk a ship belonging to the Greenpeace environmental movement -- has also drawn strong criticism here.
In addition, relations between Mitterrand and French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais are at low ebb -- and Gorbachev will be forced to be somewhat circumspect in his comments on the issue for fear of either alienating his host or alienating French communists.
No one is expecting a return to the days when France and the Soviet Union had a ``special relationship'' that was markedly warmer than other Western European countries.
In 1981, Mitterrand ended the practice of holding yearly meetings between the French and Soviet leaders.
Consequently, Gorbachev will have to offer more than media savvy and self-confidence in order to make the trip a diplomatic and political success.
If it is successful, however, it is likely to add to Gorbachev's momentum as the US-Soviet summit, now only six weeks away, draws closer.