Ethiopian Regime Looks West for Helping Hand. Mengistu looks to US as Soviet largess wanes, but human rights abuses make aid seem unlikely. FOREIGN POLICY
ON the ropes militarily, economically, and diplomatically, the Marxist regime in Ethiopia is reaching out to the West. President Mengistu Haile Mariam's government ``is on the run like never before and seems to be on an irreversible downward slide,'' says Paul Henze, a specialist on the Horn of Africa at the Rand Corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.Skip to next paragraph
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But as Mr. Mengistu tries to rally support, there is debate in Washington over whether the US should be forthcoming toward a government that has one of the world's worst human rights records, and which is not yet repentant, say US officials, congressional aides and private specialists.
Ethiopia-watchers here agree the regime is weakened, though they disagree on the chances of it crumbling soon. Some, such as Michael Johns of the Heritage Foundation, think it could crack in the months ahead. Others say it still has ``plenty of capability to do harm,'' as one government analyst puts it.
All agree the Mengistu government has recently suffered stunning military defeats at the hands of Marxist rebel movements in Tigre and Eritrea Provinces. ``The Army isn't fighting and the people are tired of war,'' says a specialist recently returned from the region. ``They've suffered too much.''
Ethiopia's Soviet patrons are pushing the government toward economic and political reform, but are meeting resistance from a regime still touting a Stalinist approach. Moscow is also hinting that new military aid may not be as forthcoming after the current agreement runs out next year. But US specialists within and without the US government disagree on how far Moscow is willing to push its ally.
``The Soviets have tolerated and endorsed every excess'' by giving Mengistu more than $11 billion of military aid since 1977, Rand's Mr. Henze says. ``Now they recognize that they have reached a dead-end, and they are trying to pressure a very stubborn regime to make concessions.'' But there is no clear evidence of a reduced arms flow, nor any sign that Moscow willsever its deep ties with the regime, he says.
Ethiopia is seeking to diversify its military supply relationships through overtures to North Korea, Israel and others, according to US officials and congressional aides.
President Mengistu has also made a number of overtures to the US and other potential Western donors and investors. But US officials say the others, without the US, are reluctant to get too involved in what is probably the world's poorest country. So Mengistu has been forced to turn on the charm.
In February, the Ethiopian government asked the US to allow it to send an ambassador to its embassy here after nine years of lower-level representation. President Mengistu has also wined and dined recent US visitors with the message of wanting better relations. Former President Jimmy Carter was his most recent guest late last month.
The Bush administration has not yet decided how to respond and is in no hurry to do so, US officials say. ``The US is not particularly eager to normalize relations [because] we don't think this particular leopard can change his spots,'' a high ranking administration official says.
He and others say the Mengistu regime must stop ``brutalizing'' its people, end the forced movement of peasants, reform its Stalinist economic and agricultural policies, and show an interest in finding a negotiated end to the Tigre and Eritrea rebellions before US-Ethiopian relations can bloom. In the interim, they say, the US is quite happy to have frank talks with the Ethiopians about needed changes.
Animosity in Washington toward the Mengistu regime stretches from the Congressional Black Caucus to the conservative right because of its ``bloodthirsty'' practices and abysmal human rights record, says Pauline Baker, an Africa-watcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming reaction to Ethiopia's overtures is ``to let the regime twist in the wind and let Moscow pick up the bill,'' a congressional aide says.