US-Swedish relations improve. For first time in 26 years, a Swedish premier visits US

On Sept. 9, Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson will pay an official visit to Washington - the first by a Swedish prime minister in 26 years. United States officials describe the prime minister as a man of strength, of quiet leadership - a stable, solid individual.

Such words were rarely used by these officials to describe Mr. Carlsson's predecessor, Olof Palme, assassinated in February 1986.

Palme, a passionate Socialist whose leftist foreign-policy views often were at odds with those of the US government, had headed Sweden's Social Democratic Labor Party for 17 years and served as the country's prime minister for more than a decade.

It was Palme who, in the US view, initiated and prolonged the much-publicized public rows between the two countries throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, first over Vietnam, then over the Reagan administration's policies in Central America.

Unlike Palme, Sweden's new premier has shown little interest since taking office in March 1986 in projecting his socialist conscience onto the world stage.

``His international interests are not extensive,'' said one US official, adding that Carlsson also has actively sought to minimize the differences between his country, which is officially neutral in international affairs, and the US.

``We're now handling our problems behind the scenes, keeping them more private, less public,'' the official said.

Swedish officials, however, say that Carlsson is expected to do much more than listen during his visit to Washington this month - and many Americans may not like what he has to say.

High on the prime minister's agenda will be the Reagan administration's continuing involvement in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua, where the US is supporting the contra rebels. ``We're still opposed to US policy there,'' one official emphasized, ``and we intend to make our feelings well-known.

``We've agreed to disagree on Central America,'' he added. ``But we here in Sweden firmly hope that that won't make dialogue in other areas impossible.''

Relations between the US and Sweden have improved significantly even within the past year, particularly in the field of trade.

On a visit to Stockholm last May, the late US Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge lifted restrictions on certain US high-tech sales to Sweden after the Swedish government promised to tighten curbs on re-exports of US equipment to the Soviet bloc.

A year earlier, the Commerce Department had imposed a $440,000 fine on Asea AB, a Swedish engineering company, for selling US computers to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia from 1980 to 1983 - the largest civil penalty imposed on a foreign company for violating US laws controlling exports to potential adversaries.

The Swedish people seem to like Carlsson. Since taking office he has recorded the highest popularity rating of any of their leaders since World War II.

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