US-Soviet exchanges survive a rough year. `We've learned a lot' in the last year

Much of the good feeling between the superpowers generated by last year's Geneva summit seems to have dissipated. But there is - so far, at least - one exception: American-Soviet exchange programs.

A year ago, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed an exchange agreement, ending a six-year hiatus since the last agreement lapsed and paving the way for renewed cultural, educational, and scientific visits between their two countries.

The modest programs spawned by that agreement have survived the ups and downs of a particularly challenging year in superpower relations, marked by mutual mistrust and recrimination over the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the United States bombing of Libya, the arrest of an American journalist in Moscow, mass expulsions of diplomats, and acrimonious summit in Iceland.

And there have been, in turn, a few ``breakthroughs,'' according to Ambassador Stephen H. Rhinesmith, the coordinator of US-Soviet exchange programs.

In September, more than 200 Americans took part in an unprecedented ``town meeting'' in Riga, Latvia, involving energetic debate over the policies of both superpowers. The Soviets say they intend to send a like number from the USSR to the Chautauqua Institution meetings in the US next year. A few Soviet young people have made their way to the US, and 150 schoolchildren are expected to come next year.

One US official dismisses these exchanges as ``essentially peripheral'' to superpower relations. But, notes Ambassador Rhinesmith, ``In the last 40 years, we have nothing of record of any Soviet teen-ager coming here for anything other than a sporting event.''

To be sure, negotiating exchange programs has not been without challenges.

``We've learned a lot,'' Rhinesmith says. But, he adds, both countries seem to believe that the exchanges are serving their purpose - although they differ in defining just what that purpose is.

To the Kremlin, the goal seems to be ``proving the society is more open than it is,'' Rhinesmith says, as well as supporting its foreign policy objectives.

At the same time, Moscow seeks to boost its image in the world by sending out the most impressive foreign visitors it can muster.

And, to some extent, that serves US interests as well, according to Rhinesmith. Any degree of Soviet openness and exposure to the West can only be beneficial, he says. And even if the Soviets who do visit represent only the Soviet elite, he speculates, perhaps the exchanges will have a magnified impact back home.

Still, the two countries disagree on the nature of exchanges.

The US, Rhinesmith says, sees the primary benefit of exchanges as helping to broaden the understanding of the individuals involved. The Soviet Union, he says, sees the benefits as accruing to the state.

Those benefits are more than political. The US government and private donors still underwrite the cost of some cultural visits to the USSR, while most Soviet performers here have generated valuable hard currency - much of which goes back to the Kremlin's coffers.

Soviet ballet stars and musicians have found receptive audiences in the US. But two major US symphonies - in San Francisco and Philadelphia - have been forced to cancel engagements in the USSR. The contracts offered by the Soviets were inadequate to cover expenses, and private US donors were skittish about underwriting the visits.

In 1985, according to US government figures, 65,000 Americans went to the USSR; only 3,500 Soviets came to the US.

``The flow is still very much in that direction,'' says Rhinesmith. ``But it's better than no flow at all.''

Rhinesmith, who was active in a number of ``people to people'' exchange programs before his government appointment this year, says arranging exchanges with the Soviet Union is unlike dealing with any other country.

``We're trying to find reciprocity between two systems that aren't reciprocal,'' he says, between ``a centrally controlled, top-down society'' and one that's exactly the opposite.

Exchanges between the US and other countries sometimes result in lifetime relationships, with frequent return visits. That, so far at least, has generally proved impossible with US-Soviet exchanges, primarily due to tight Soviet restrictions on travel outside the country.

Nevertheless, Rhinesmith says, face-to-face encounters between Americans and Soviets can help to promote understanding and aid in managing - though not eliminating - tension. ``The tension is going to be there, because the systems are different,'' he concludes.

The US government offers advice and assistance to American groups trying to establish exchanges, says Rhinesmith, though it does not try to stop groups from making their own arrangements directly with the Soviets.

Rhinesmith offers this advice for would-be exchange-program planners or participants: ``Be patient. And persistent. Things do not happen fast. They do not happen easily. And they never appear to be resolved.''

And what could Moscow do to promote better people-to-people relations? ``Let 5,000 people out of the country next year on exchange programs,'' he says. That, he says, would go a long way toward realizing the intent of the agreements signed in Geneva a year ago.

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