The small West African nation of Guinea is becoming a master at balancing its East-West relations. In Conakry, as in a number of other African capitals, the main market bustles with small boys peddling tins of Russian caviar to Westerners while Soviet technical advisers and their wives buy food.
The Soviet presence remains strong three years after the military regime of Gen. Lansana Conte took control of this rundown but potentially prosperous African state following the unexpected death of the dictatorial President S'ekou Toure. The government's decision to liberalize the economy and abandon the ``Marxist'' centralized system has led to renewed cooperation with Western donors. But traditional political ties remain unshaken.
The policy reversal was judged necessary to revive the ruined economy: The former ``jewel'' of French West Africa had become one of the world's poorest countries.
``We cooperate with everyone wishing to participate in national recovery,'' said Daniel Lopis, secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry.
The depth of cooperation depends on ``what is offered,'' Mr. Lopis added. Communist countries are providing scientific, social, and agricultural assistance, he says. Western diplomats say there are more than 1,000 Soviet technicians, teachers, and scientists here.
But military assistance has long been the kingpin of cooperation. The Guinean military is equipped mainly with Soviet weapons and planes. Most officers are Soviet trained. The Soviets retain strategic landing and refueling rights at Conakry airport.
``The Soviet Union's vital interests have so far been unaffected by the change in regime,'' said one Western diplomat in Conakry. ``However, relations could gradually wither if policies continue to diverge,'' he added.
Plans to renegotiate an agreement with the Soviets over a bauxite mine may be a sign of diverging policies. Soviet engineers developed and still manage the mine. It produces about 3 million tons of bauxite a year for trade with East Europe.
Guinea is seeking to renegotiate the agreement soon in order to obtain more favorable terms, says Ousmane Sylla, minister of natural resources, energy, and environment. The government has also tried to negotiate more favorable fishing agreements with the Soviets.
The country's vast mineral riches and fertile farmland have been squandered by misguided policies and corruption, say analysts here.
During the last years of Toure's rule, disillusionment with Soviet aid set in. A move toward the West began. This trend accelerated after Toure's death and has been most visible in renewed close ties with France, Guinea's former ruler.
Opening doors to the West without falling prey to ``re-colonization'' or angering the East can be tricky.
At independence in 1958, Guinea rejected France's offer of close cooperation. Relations were restored in the mid-70s. France is now the main backer of the economic recovery program - to the tune of $100 million in 1985.
French involvement in the recovery program can be seen everywhere. French consultants have been awarded contracts to prepare plans to revive industry and other sectors. Some 840,000 French textbooks were distributed as French replaces local languages in primary schools.
The omnipresence of the French is causing concern in some circles. ``We don't want to be recolonized by the French,'' a senior official said. ``Priority should be given to mobilizing Guineans and the respect of national sovereignty,'' he stressed. But donors, who recently pledged $670 million for a public investment plan, worry that such a policy would greatly slow down recovery. Guinea has few people with technical educations.