Chernobyl hurts Gorbachev's image abroad. But domestic political impact on Soviet leader seems minimal

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's international standing has been weakened by this country's handling of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident, according to Western diplomats. But, they add, it is unlikely there will be any significant domestic political fallout from the event.

``It's clearly been a setback'' in international terms, says one Western diplomat. ``Gorbachev has spoken a great deal about glasnost [openness]. This was an acid test, and so far it's failed.''

Moreover, he says, it has proved that Mr. Gorbachev ``still faces a monumental task'' in altering a system unaccustomed to admitting its failures.

But Soviet handling of the Chernobyl disaster is not unusual, according to several Western diplomats, and therefore unlikely to have any domestic political repercussions.

``This is the traditional Soviet approach,'' notes one diplomat.

After Soviet pilots shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 7 in 1983, he notes, a similar approach was taken: silence, followed by denying culpability, followed by belated and partial disclosure, while attempting to shift the blame to the West.

Then, it was the allegation that the Korean civilian airliner was on a spy mission. Now, it is that although Moscow gave prompt and full information about the Chernobyl disaster, the Western news media -- at the instigation of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the White House -- chose instead to spread ``falsehoods'' about what happened in order to spread ``hatred'' against the Soviet Union.

``Whenever they're looking at any kind of international incident which leads to international embarrassment,'' says a Western attach'e, ``they throw up as much dust as they possibly can.''

But in this case, ``it backfired,'' says another diplomat.

It is not only the US which is alarmed by the lack of disclosure. ``It was two full days before we were notified,'' says a European diplomat.

``On Monday [April 28th] they told us there was no accident at a nuclear plant'' in response to an official diplomatic inquiry, he said. That same evening, Tass, the Soviet news agency, confirmed that an accident had indeed taken place. ``The first we learned of it was on the evening news,'' said the diplomat.

Another European diplomat said, ``They've done so many, many things wrong during this episode.''

Notably, Gorbachev himself has said nothing about the Chernobyl accident -- the worst in the history of nuclear power production -- despite the evacuation of at least 40,000 Soviet citizens, the contamination of the area around the reactor, and escalated radiation levels across much of Europe. Most diplomats say that silence is by design. One says it gives Gorbachev a degree of ``deniability'' that may prove useful later.

Indeed, Soviet officials are suggesting that the delayed response to the disaster was largely the fault of local authorities. ``This keeps Gorbachev above the fray,'' says one, giving him the flexibility to later mete out discipline while at the same time having ``clean hands.''

On the other hand, the dispatch of Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and the No. 2 man in the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev, to the disaster scene on May 2 shows that ``there is no shortage of high-level involvement,'' notes one diplomat.

One intriguing aspect of Soviet behavior during the accident and its aftermath has been the role of the Moscow Communist Party chieftain, Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Yeltsin, who already had a reputation as one of the most candid, plain-speaking members of the ruling Politburo, was in Hamburg during the early days of the disaster. He was attending the congress of the West German Communist Party, and the engagement had been made weeks in advance.

One diplomat says that, by virtue of being the highest-level Kremlin official in the West at the time, Yeltsin was ``exposed'' and therefore compelled to say something.

But others suggested his candor -- he was the first to confirm massive evacuations and the use of helicopters to dump sand, lead, and boron on the reactor -- was in keeping with his past blunt criticism of failings within the party and government.

Another diplomat, however, notes that Yeltsin was only ``relatively out front'' in releasing information, sometimes merely divulging the contents of a Tass release a few hours before it was printed. Yeltsin, says the diplomat, did not go ``out on a limb.'' If he had ``slipped the leash,'' the diplomat adds, ``he would have been reined in. But he wasn't. He kept on talking.''

Still, he adds, Yeltsin's future political fortunes bear close scrutiny after his performance in Hamburg.

So will Gorbachev's efforts to regain some of his lost international stature, according to some diplomats. ``The question is how much he can recoup,'' says one high-level Western diplomat.

``When you're so secretive, of course you're going to generate suspicion, fear, and doubt,'' he says. ``I would hope,'' he adds, ``that they [the Soviets] perceive that this aspect of their system costs them dearly at times like this.''

But the West should take no pleasure in Soviet discomfort, according to Western diplomats.

``Everybody sympathizes with them'' about the accident, says one. ``Nobody wants to see the situation get any worse.''

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