IT was a ``human error'' that was responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, the Moscow party chief, Boris Yeltsin, explained in an interview with West German TV. But an even greater human error -- which the Kremlin still refuses to admit -- was the Soviet leadership's failure to provide a prompt and truthful account of the disaster. Soviet explanations of why the disclosure came only after an official request from Sweden, where high levels of radiation were detected, are profoundly unsatisfactory. When he appeared on ABC News's ``Nightline,'' Yevgeny Pozdnyakov, a Soviet embassy counselor in Ottawa, claimed that the delay was due to weekend timing. Presumably Moscow was reluctant to bother its neighbors over a minor matter of radioactive cloud.
But what about Soviet residents in the Chernobyl area? Why were they not advised of the danger? Georgi Arbatov, director of the US and Canada Institute and a Soviet Community Party Central Committee member, suggested in an interview with the BBC that the initial silence over the incident was necessary to avoid ``panic.'' Well, fear of panic could be a genuine concern. But does it justify keeping people in the dark for two days when their very lives could be in danger? Does the government have a right to treat its subjects as little children who cannot be trusted to act responsibly?
There were also reports from Moscow implying that the procrastination resulted from inadequate communication rather than a deliberate cover-up. The leadership itself was allegedly not aware of the disaster until the Swedish request on Monday. This explanation, putting the blame on local officials in Kiev, particularly on Shcherbitsky, the Ukrainian party boss, smacks of outright disinformation. It is hard to believe that Shcherbitsky, one of the last Brezhnev-generation survivors in the Politburo, would dare keep the Chernobyl situation a secret from the Kremlin.
But even if he took this chance hoping to bring bad news later when the disaster would already be under control, there were other sources to advise the Politburo about the tragedy. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is supervised by two ministries in Moscow: the Ministry of Power and Electrification and the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building. Under the Soviet centralized system, their officials would be informed right away even about a much smaller problem. The KGB, which has the responsibility for protecting the Chernobyl plant and has its representatives on the site, would inevitably be told as well. It would require a conspiracy of silence on the part of all these party and government agencies for Mikhail Gorbachev not to be made aware of the catastrophe a few hours after the reactor explosion. At the May 6 press conference in Moscow, it was suggested by the Soviet deputy prime minister, Boris Scherbina, that authorities on the spot had at first ``not made a true assessment of the accident.'' But this fails to explain why, even after evacuation of local residents was ordered, the Kremlin for more than a day still felt under no obligation to issue a public statement.
The way the Chernobyl crisis was handled was not an accident. There is a striking similarity between the Chernobyl disaster and the Korean airliner affair. In both cases the first Soviet instinct was to say nothing at all. Then came the cover-up and efforts to put the blame on foreign enemies. Later came unattributed hints that it was local officials rather than the brass in Moscow who were at fault. In September 1983, ``informed sources'' suggested to Western correspondents in the Soviet capital that the Far Eastern Air Defense Command decided to shoot the civilian airliner without checking with the Politburo. And this month some of the same sources attempted to put the finger on officials in Kiev.
But of course in 1983 the Soviet leader was former KGB chief Yuri Andropov. The world expected more from Gorbachev. Now it appears the world was wrong.
That should come as no surprise to those who closely observed Gorbachev's performance as the general secretary.
Every Soviet leader -- with the notable exception of Leonid Brezhnev -- has initially called for openness and for fearless criticism. And in every instance what was really meant was the criticism of the leader's opponents or comrades who had outlived their usefulness to No. 1. There was plenty of criticism at the recent 27th party congress. But none was directed at the general secretary or his close associates. And that is despite the fact that Gorbachev had been on the Central Committee Secretariat since 1978 and could be held responsible for the pitiful state of Soviet agriculture, of which he was directly in charge.
The Chernobyl accident was an extraordinary event. But the way it was dealt with by the Politburo was nothing but business as usual. The disillusionment with Gorbachev's charm offensive is bound to raise questions in the West as to whether it would be prudent to buy a used car from this man, or an arms control agreement, for that matter. And, as with a used car, the answer is ``yes,'' provided you genuinely need it and have reliable inspection procedures. But only the incurably trusting would rely on a sweet-talking salesman's promises.
Arms control will survive the Chernobyl disaster.
Illusions about Mr. Gorbachev should not.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.