A MILESTONE in Vatican-Soviet relations is marked here today when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Polish-born Pope Jean Paul II meet - a first for a Soviet leader. The two leaders share a common Slavic background but bring quite separate agendas to this historic encounter. Despite a tradition of religious repression in the Soviet Union, the pope hopes to win a promise of greater religious freedom and the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic, or Uniate, Church, which was forcibly absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946.
In exchange, Mr. Gorbachev may ask the pope for assurances that the Roman Catholic Church will refrain from fueling nationalist sentiment in the Baltic republics and the Ukraine, which is considered the Soviets' breadbasket.
While in Italy, Gorbachev was also bidding for a boost in Western support for his ambitious economic and political reform programs in the Soviet Union. He met with top-level politicians in Rome and business leaders in Milan yesterday before flying to Malta tonight for the floating summit with President Bush.
But businessmen here as elsewhere in Europe need little convincing that they can become profitable partners in perestroika (restructuring) and are dreaming of the eventual creation of a vast European market that will stretch from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains. Italian car makers and clothing and computer manufacturers are already vying for business in the East.
``The opening of Soviet and Eastern European markets [that] we are witnessing is a historical occasion for Italy and Europe that we must seize quickly or risk seeing it disappear,'' said economist and Soviet specialist Claudio De Vincenti of the University of Rome.
Vittoria Merloni, who heads a large appliance concern, agrees. ``Italian companies must not lose this opportunity.''
Ultimately, the test of Gorbachev's staying power and ability to implement political reform at home will be his ability ``to fill Soviet store shelves with consumer goods,'' says Cesare Merlini, president of the Rome-based think tank Institute of International Affairs.
Already, Italian companies sell about $2 billion of goods to the Soviet Union. Italy which largely imports oil and natural gas from the Soviet Union, is now second only to West Germany in forming Soviet joint ventures.
Gorbachev, says Mr. Merlini, was anxious to show he's not only depending on the West Germans to invest in perestroika and provide the technology and training to help convert production from military equipment to consumer goods.
When Gorbachev arrived in Rome Wednesday, around $3 billion in deals between Italian private and state-owned companies and the Soviets were in various stages of negotiation.
Early in the week, the carmaker Fiat wrapped up a $4.4 billion deal for the production of 300,000 compact cars a year in a plant southeast of Moscow.
Olivetti, the computer company, is aiming to supply computers to a Soviet savings institution with some 80,000 branches.
A series of official protocols to promote investment were also signed that will shield Italian companies from seizures and protect industrial patents. However, investors wanting to do business in the Soviet Union still face the difficulties of repatriating profits because of the inconvertible ruble and mountains of red tape.