George Shultz and his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, yesterday began the first in a series of monthly consultations that are designed to pave the way for a United States-Soviet summit in late May or early June. Mr. Shultz is scheduled to have four rounds of talks with Mr. Shevardnadze, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. He leaves for Brussels tomorrow morning.
Speaking last night, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that both ministers had ``without hesitation'' described the working atmosphere as ``excellent'' and ``businesslike.'' The two ministers felt they were making ``good progress across a whole range of issues,'' Mr. Redman added.
The main topics discussed were arms control, human rights, and regional issues, including Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and Angola. Neither Redman nor Gennady Gerasimov, his Soviet counterpart, would give any details of the talks.
Officials stress that the main aim of the talks is to compare positions rather than to produce major breakthroughs. The most tangible outcome, a senior US official said Friday, would be clarification of where each side stands on the main issues. Although the atmosphere has recently improved in US-Soviet relations, the two sides still appear to differ perceptibly on a number of important points.
Key items on the Shultz-Shevardnadze agenda include:
Strategic arms. Hopes seem to be fading for an agreement on a 50 percent cut in strategic (long-range) weapons by the next summit. Both sides say they still want an agreement; each blames the other for the delay.
Late last week, Vladimir Petrovksy, a Soviet deputy foreign minister, said that US negotiators on strategic weapons were retreating from the agreements reached during last December's Washington summit, and ``blocking'' further progress.
The US says that Soviet negotiators are responsible for the slowdown. Speaking in Moscow on the eve of Shultz's arrival, a senior US official commented that strategic arms negotiations will have to move faster in the next two months than they have over the last two.
But both sides seem in agreement on one point: A summit will take place whether or not an arms agreement is reached.
Afghanistan. On Feb. 8, Mr. Gorbachev said that Moscow would start pulling its troops out of Afghanistan on May 15, providing that Pakistan and Afghanistan could reach an agreement in UN-sponsored talks in Geneva by mid-March. Soviet officials portrayed the coming Geneva meeting as little more than a formality.
It has not proven so easy. Pakistan insists that it will not sign an agreement until an interim government is established in Kabul. Shultz has expressed his support for the Pakistani approach. The Soviets insist, however, that the question of the next Afghan government is a ``purely internal issue,'' and have accused the Pakistanis of backing away from an agreement. Despite the deadlock, the official news media here are continuing to tell the Soviet people their troops will be home soon.
The Gulf. In July 1987, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 598, calling for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has so far failed to comply with the resolution.
Moscow says it agrees with the idea of a new arms embargo resolution to force compliance with the cease-fire call. The full UN Security Council is expected to be involved in discussions on a draft next week.
Western observers feel that Moscow is dragging its feet. Any Soviet hesitations about an embargo are probably motivated in part by a desire not to alienate Moscow's neighbor Iran - especially at time when it needs Iranian help with an Afghan solution.
Middle East. Shultz leaves for a Middle East swing later this week. Soviet Mideast officials are just completing tours of the region. Moscow calls for an international conference to bring peace to the region. The US has been cool to the idea, prefering to see Moscow's role in the area limited. But recent unrest in Israeli occupied territories has spurred a new US initiative, which presumably is being discussed here.
Human rights. US sources express concern that Jewish emigration figures are again declining, the release of political prisoners has halted, and long-promised changes in the legal code have not materialized. The International Helsinki Federation estimates that 329 political prisoners were released last year, but 360 are still in prison.
Shultz spent much of last evening talking with Soviets outside the official hierarchy, including physicist Andrei Sakharov.