WASHINGTON — UNITED STATES and Soviet diplomats sit down in London today and tomorrow to discuss Africa for the first bilateral regional review during the Bush administration. The Horn and southern Africa will be the focus of attention, US officials say, though there is no set agenda. Secretary of State James Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze agreed to continue these reviews when they met in March.
``These are exploratory talks,'' says a ranking US diplomat. ``We want to see how far `new thinking' is going in Soviet Africa policy and they want to get a sense of our new direction.''
The possibilities for narrowing past US-Soviet differences and finding areas of cooperation seem greater than ever before, US officials and specialists agree.
Private Soviet assessments of the situation in Angola and Mozambique, for example, are very close to those of US analysts. Soviet officials say negotiated settlements are needed to halt civil strife in both countries, and they are quite blunt in pointing out shortcomings of the two Marxist governments.
There is also evidence Moscow has been pushing Ethiopia to reform its economy and seek an end to its internal wars, US officials say. Moscow has also reportedly told the Ethiopians not to expect higher levels of military assistance.
``All around the world the Soviets are asking to what end they are involved in these very expensive adventures,'' says a senior US official. And they are telling their clients that Soviet economic realities ``mean you'd better negotiate your reentry into the rest of the world'' soon, he says.
Still, these changing perspectives do not mean this week's meetings will be a ``love fest,'' says Pauline Baker of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The US, for example, still includes human rights as an important factor in reconciling with a regime like Ethiopia, while the Soviets do not, she says.
Michael Johns, of the Heritage Foundation, says Soviet policy reevaluation so far seems largely aimed at cutting costs while maintaining its old commitments. Moscow seems to be trying to get the West to bail out its clients, he says. ``We shouldn't be fooled that they are pulling out rapidly,'' Mr. Johns says. ``There are opportunities here, but clear dangers, too.''
US officials are entering the talks with no intention of picking up the check for Soviet clients, they say. Rather, the US is looking for concrete evidence that perestroika (restructuring) has come to Africa, they say.
In the Horn of Africa, the US would like to see the Soviets use their influence with Ethiopia to facilitate delivery of relief supplies into southern Sudan. They also want to see what the Soviets have to say about stopping the flow of lethal supplies from Ethiopia to rebels in the Sudan and Somalia.
The current regime in Ethiopia has been making overtures toward the US in recent months, apparently with Soviet approval. But Washington is not eager to bite unless that government undertakes major changes, officials say.
``There needs to be a radical restructuring of the government's attitude toward its people,'' says a senior administration official, who cites massive human rights violations and persistent use of food as a weapon against Ethiopian citizens. He also says the Ethiopian government must show ``a willingness to negotiate an end to its costly civil wars.''
``We are not optimistic about the chances for such changes as long as [Ethiopian President] Mengistu is around,'' the officials says, ``and we'll share that assessment clearly with the Soviets.''
``This is, after all, a regime propped up by Soviet aid and a population fed by Western charity,'' he says.
The basic question is how hard the Soviets are willing to press Mengistu to clean up his act, US officials say. For example, the US has so far seen only Soviet suggestions that they will cut back military aid to Ethiopia, they say. The US would like to see concrete evidence of reduced deliveries.
On southern Africa, the talks will probably focus on Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique, though the US may also probe Soviet views on South Africa. The two sides will probably review progress in implementing the Namibia accords, and may explore what can be done to help Mozambique overcome its serious problems.
Ending Angola's civil war may well also be discussed. Soviet officials privately contend the government and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels should negotiate a solution. But as in Ethiopia, Washington is waiting for evidence that Moscow will apply pressure to that end. They would particularly like to see a cutback in $1.5 billion annual Soviet military aid to Angola.
``As long as the Soviets maintain their aid flow, the US will aid UNITA,'' the senior official says. ``If the Soviets cut back, we'll look at our supply, with the caveat of the overwhelming amount of support they give.''