With spy flap over, British and Soviets return to diplomatic table

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are working hard to reassemble the diplomatic furniture that got strewn during their recent spy row. On the cultural and political level, Soviet and British representatives are pulling their chairs up to the table again after the suspension of key meetings.

A whole menu of arms issues will now come up for discussion between the British and Soviets as a result of Mr. Gorbachev's invitation to return to the diplomatic table, and Mrs. Thatcher's enthusiastic, although conditional, acceptance.

In both capitals diplomatic personnel are packing their bags as they move in to take the places of their colleagues expelled in September. The British expelled 31 Soviets. Moscow responded by matching each expulsion by London. In the restocking of embassies the British have granted two visa applications. The Soviets have approved three, and five others are pending.

The diplomatic row over spying which began with the defection of the KGB chief in Britain, Oleg Gordievsky, brought Anglo-Soviet relations to their lowest ebb. Diplomats were concerned it would take a long time to get the damaged relationship back on its feet.

Yet there is every indication that both sides see the wisdom of drawing a line under the whole affair and getting on with the business at hand.

Gorbachev has long wanted a separate dialogue with both Britain and France on nuclear weapons, analysts say. Both Britain and France have independent nuclear deterrents and have taken similar positions on overall arms arrangements. British officials place special emphasis however on the fact that the Soviet language in the proposal refers only to ``dialogue,'' and not to negotiations about Britain's nuclear deterrent, Polaris.

Gorbachev's offer to France came in his recent visit to Paris, but a formal proposal to Britain didn't come until Oct. 12.

The British government has responded more enthusiastically than expected, but has made it crystal clear that its basic position remains unchanged. Britain is not interested in separate talks until there is a significant reduction in the superpower arsenal. This parallels the French position. Also, Britain insists that there mustn't be any significant increase in Soviet defense capability.

If the Soviets are willing to talk, then Britain wants such talks to be as broadly based as possible. Says a British official, ``The Gorbachev proposal gives us the chance to play the ball straight back at them and talk on the whole range of issues.'' That would include everything from talks on mutual and balanced force reduction and chemical weapons to regional arms control and confidence-building measures.

As a sign of the improvement in Anglo-Soviet relations, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is expected here sometime in the first half of next year to meet with Sir Geoffrey Howe, his British counterpart.

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