Helsinki — Goodbye, grim Grom. Enter Easy Ed.
This week saw the unveiling of the new Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who only last month stepped into the shoes worn by Andrei Gromyko for more than a quarter of a century. Instead of the dour visage of Mr. Gromyko, the world has seen a less intense, more relaxed Mr. Shevardnadze.
And there is every reason to believe that is precisely the impression the Kremlin wanted to convey. For Shevardnadze's debut may be the capstone of a major Soviet effort, extending over the past year, to project a more open public image.
It is in startling contrast with earlier Soviet practices. And it indicates that the Soviets are willing to give the United States a run for its money in image-building.
At the 10th anniversary observances of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act on security and cooperation in Europe, for example, the Soviets scheduled open press briefings well in advance, then provided some of their top diplomats for on-the-record question-and-answer sessions.
The US, meanwhile, had no prearranged schedule for press conferences and after calling them insisted that its senior diplomats be identifed only as ``US State Department officials.''
Clearly the centerpiece of the effort was Shevardnadze. The contrasts with his predecessor, Andrei Gromyko, were apparent from the first few paragraphs of his speech to the assembled delegates of 35 nations here in the Finnish capital.
There was little of the fiery anti-American rhetoric so common in Soviet speeches. There was criticism, but it was delivered in a measured, low-key manner.
Privately, too, US diplomats said, Shevardnadze came across as a less intense figure than Gromyko -- but no less adept.
One US diplomat found him ``very capable.''
Another remarked that ``he handled the issues competently'' and in ``great detail.''
And Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign minister, said, ``Mr. Shevardnadze is addressing himself seriously and sincerely to the pressing issues dividing us.''
Sir Geoffrey said ``the atmosphere . . . was relaxed'' during his meeting with the Soviet diplomat. ``I think that we were able to establish that we can have sensible, practical, useful discussions with each other.''
But while there was general agreement that his style is more ``relaxed,'' several Western diplomats were careful to stress that Shevardnadze has not altered Soviet foreign policy -- at least yet.
Sir Geoffrey, however, noted that with a new Soviet foreign minister and a new Communist Party leader, that could change.
``There's bound to be a difference in substance and style as the baton is passed from one generation to another,'' he observed.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said that foreign ministers from NATO countries, breakfasting together, compared notes about Shevardnadze. He spoke hopefully about the possibility of a ``new era of cooperation for Europe.''
Similarly, a senior US official noted approvingly, ``We're really doing some talking to one another now.''
Kremlin spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko appeared regularly before the press, accompanied by Soviet Ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin and Viktor Komplektov, a deputy minister of foreign affairs.
A US State Department official, who asked not to be named, cautioned against making too much of this new Soviet ``openness.'' The US had been somewhat frustrated, he said, by the recent Soviet tendency of announcing new initiatives in speeches and through the press -- instead of in formal negotiations.
``It's very difficult to determine what they mean'' when proposals are made through various ``third parties,'' he said.
During a press conference the Soviets appeared to reject a US proposal that Moscow send scientists to monitor US nuclear tests.
The White House said they could calibrate their instruments at the test site to be able to monitor future US weapons tests more accurately.
Mr. Lomeiko, at a press briefing, said the Soviet Union sought to ban such tests, not watch them. He then spoke glowingly of a proposal by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, announced just as the gathering in Helsinki was getting under way, to declare a joint moratorium on underground nuclear tests.
The Soviet Union would observe a moratorium from Aug. 6 until Jan. 1, 1986, whether the US joined in, Mr. Gorbachev had said. Lomeiko offered that as proof of Soviet compromise -- and American truculence.
But US diplomats noted that the moratorium on underground tests -- such as an earlier moratorium on the siting of new medium-range nuclear weapons -- was not formally presented at negotiations and thus could not be discussed.
Moreover, they said, there were no provisions to verify compliance.
One US official characterized the latest Soviet proposal as a ``propaganda exercise.'' Such proposals ``need to be put down in a context . . . where they can be questioned and seriously discussed,'' said another US official.
Sir Geoffrey, the British foreign minister, also cautioned against the practice of negotiating by manipulating public opinion, noting that proposals must be put forward on a ``credible basis.''
And US officials indicated that, despite the new Soviet foreign minister's easier style, they are not yet fully convinced of the seriousness of Soviet efforts to reach compromise.