"The Russians' greatest reverse in Africa in years"

The end of Britain's colonial empire in Africa is not a gain for the Soviet Union. This is the view of Western diplomats here as Zimbabwe, formerly the British colony of Rhodesia, begins its first full week of independence.

"Robert Mugabe's election [as Prime Minister here] was probably the greatest reverse the Russians have suffered in Africa in years," says Richard M. Moose, United States Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs.

Other Western experts tend to agree. A high-ranking British official says the fledgling government of Zimbabwe has shown a clear preference for getting aid from Western nations -- and thereby avoiding the strings attached to aid from Soviet-bloc nations.

American sources add that President Carter's refusal to lift sanctions and recognize the interim government of former Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa garnered some good will in the Mugabe camp.

But the American cause probably was helped more by the Soviet miscalculation in backing former guerrilla leader Joshua Nkomo than by any direct action taken by the US government.

Another Western expert says flatly that the Russians "backed the wrong horse" in Zimbabwe -- a reference to the fact that Mr. Nkomo's party placed a distant second in February's majority-rule elections here.

As a result, the Soviets already seem to be catching some fallout from their earlier errors of judgment about Prime Minister Mugabe.

Indeed, both Cuban and Soviet delegates to Zimbabwe's independence ceremonies were hardly visible. The Russians fielded a delegation of only three. One member of the delegation, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Leonid F. Ilichev, has only recently been touring southern Africa, and reportedly tried to secure and invitation to visit Mr. Mugabe prior to independence. He was pointedly snubbed.

And some sources claim that Prime Minister Mugabe gave strict instructions to limit the size of the Soviet contingent to the independence ceremonies, although he reportedly let British Governor Lord Soames take public responsibility for the decision.

By contrast, the US has six official delegates, three of them black. (All were men, however.) The US also scored diplomatic points by being the first country to open an embassy here, only 12 hours after Zimbabwe achieved independence.

Andrew Young, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, led in the singing of the national anthem as the US flag was raised at the embassy, which is located in a spacious suburban home. Mr. Young was co-leader of the delegation, along with Ambassador-at-Large W. Averell Harriman.

At the embassy opening ceremony, the US granted some $2 million to Zimbabwe to rebuild 159 rural health clinics damaged during the war.

In contrast to the Soviets, the British are basking in a warm relationship with the new government here because of their deft steering of the country through a cease-fire, majority-rule elections, and eventual independence.

Mr. Mugabe paid glowing tribute to Lord Soames before he departed Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe admitted he was at first suspicious of the burly Lord Soames, but says he has "ended up not only implicitly trusting but fondly loving him as well."

But Western nations can hardly rest on their laurels here. There clearly is still some resentment over Britain's colonial role. As a 21-gun salute boomed out to signal Zimbabwe's independence (at midnight Thursday, April 17), one of Mr. Mugabe's party workers exulted, "Colonialism is finished."

Prince Charles, on hand to represent the British Crown, termed Zimbabwe's independence "a tribute to all of those who so bravely continue to believe in peace." But minutes earlier, the crowd at Rufaro stadium had filled the air with a repeated chant in Shona: "We have taken the country with war."

Mr. Mugabe has announced his intention to join the nonaligned nations' movement. But the movement is in a state of change. Its founder, Yugoslav President Josef Broz Tito, is seriously ill. Its current leader, Cuban President Fidel Castro, lost face by telling nonaligned nations the Soviet Union was their natural ally -- just before the Soviet invasion of nonaligned Afghanistan.

Thus, former Ambassador Young may be right when he predicts, "I think you can see Robert Mugabe emerge very quickly as a world leader . . . in the nonaligned movement."

But Mr. Young says the real test of Mr. Mugabe's leadership will be his efforts to solve the problem of underdevelopment in his own country. And Western policymakers contend that their countries must play a key role through the provision of aid and technology if Mr. Mugabe is to remain friendly to the West.

As for the Russians, one US official says, "They'll lie in the weeds and hope that Mugabe stumbles."

Mr. Mugabe shows no signs of doing that quickly, however. Barely 24 hours after being sworn in, his government announced new budget decisions that would remove sales taxes on many of the commodities used by poor Africans here, such as cooking oil and sugar.

In addition, the sales tax on all other consumer items was cut from 15 to 10 percent -- another boon to lower-income people. In contrast, the excise duties on liquor and cigarettes were increased.

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