Soviet ships bearing goods to sell are making the port of Antwerp their European home. Since early last year when European Community countries joined the US in imposing a limited trade embargo on the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan, some countries in Western Europe have frowned on Russian vessels appearing at their shores.
But according to the Transworld Marine Agency (TMA) -- the Soviet company that oversees the movement of Russian ships in Antwerp -- the number of Soviet cargo ships calling at Antwerp rose from 1,444 in 1979 to 1,650 last year. The amount of Soviet cargo handled at the port increased in the same period from 7.1 to 10 million tons.
"In fact, more of our ships called at Antwerp than at any other port in the world," a TMA official said.
By contrast, only 940 Russian cargo ships were welcomed at the world's busiest port, Rotterdam, in 1979. And while the amount of Soviet cargo handled (about 4.7 million tons) has remained steady at about 2.5 percent of Rotterdam's total for several years, it has jumped at Antwerp from 8.8 percent in 1979 to over 12 percent last year.
"The port is thriving," an Antwerp Regional Development Authority official said. "Activity at Rotterdam has stabilized at about 300 million tons a year. But here it has been growing at about 13 percent per annum for the past three years." Antwerp is now the seventh busiest port in the world, handling some 80 million tons of cargo every year.
A major reason for Antwerp's rapid growth in recent years has been Belgium's open-door approach to trade with Soviets, which has allowed them to build an impressive infrastructure at the port.
Partly because of it, trade between the Soviet Union and Belgium has increased since 1970 more than fivefold, reaching 37 billion Belgian francs (about $1.1 billion) in 1979. Exports of Soviet oil and oil products alone were worth 10 billion francs.
The Dutch, on the other hand, have been like many other European governments --less accommodating to the Russians, particularly since the Afghanistan invasion.
As far back as the early 1970s, the Dutch government refused to allow the Soviet Union to open consulates in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and the port of Rotterdam has been unable since to capitalize on the huge increase in transshipments of grain from the US to the Soviet Union. The Soviets, in fact, have now imposed a grain boycott of its own on the Rotterdam port in retaliation.
The Soviet presence in Antwerp is extensive. One Soviet firm, Allied Stevedores, supervises the loading and unloading of Russian ships at the Antwerp port. It owns 10 wharfs, plus warehouse space covering 55,000 square meters.More than 20 cranes are at its disposal. The Soviet Union is the fourth-largest user of the port, after Britain, Greece, and West Germany.
There are few indications that either the Russians or the Belgians are prepared to discourage stepped-up Soviet use of the port.
"Antwerp has been ideal for us," a Soviet official said. Port officials, meanwhile, say that plans to expand the facilities are progressing. Construction on a whole new port area covering 1,500 acres has begun, and when it is completed, the Antwerp dock area will cover nearly 42,000 acres and accommodate 19,000 to 20,000 seagoing craft a year, compared with 17,000 today.
"I wouldn't be surprised if some day onequarter of the cargo handled in Antwerp was labeled 'Made in the USSR,'" a Western shippi ng expert said.