IN the last week, a flurry of high-profile diplomacy has added luster to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's world image. Even Monday's gathering here of Warsaw Pact leaders, usually a perfunctory exercise after superpower summits, was surrounded by an air of excitement as many new faces gathered around the table with Mr. Gorbachev.
And the Soviet general secretary delivered: He finally issued a formal Kremlin condemnation of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Gorbachev had hinted such a move last Friday when he said that Moscow's reaction to Prague Spring had been ``not quite appropriate.'' But, demonstrating his usual flair for public relations, he waited to make it official until the people he most needed to impress were gathered around him.
As a further bow to Czechoslovakia's new leadership, Gorbachev discussed the possibility of removing the 75,000 Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia when he met with party chief Karel Urbanek and Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec.
Over the past two days, Soviet radio and television have been reinforcing the now-standard line that the East European allies are free to take their own path of development - although Gorbachev reportedly had ``frank'' discussions with the only remaining hard-line communist leader, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. A Tass statement on their meeting was noteworthy for its lack of warmth.
The Soviet press is giving positive reviews to the Malta summit. Izvestia analyst Stanislav Kondrashov remarked in a front-page article Monday that the Bush-Gorbachev summit ``convincingly affirmed the new character of superpower relations'' and gave an ``important impetus to their cooperation.''
For Gorbachev, whose image at home no longer gets much of a boost from triumphant superpower summits, a key element in ``Malta's promise'' will be whether it results in concrete economic benefits for the Soviet Union. And on that score, Gorbachev got much of what he wanted. The Soviet Union looks set to receive most-favored nation (MFN) trade privileges from the US, as well as US support for gaining observer status in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which regulates world trade.
MFN status will likely come after the Soviet parliament finalizes legislation that would greatly liberalize, in theory, the right to travel and emigrate. With such status, the Soviet Union would be eligible for export credit from the US government. This could be especially valuable for imports of US food by the Soviets, who have bought a record 10 million tons since October. The US Agriculture Department runs a program, for example, that gives export credits for major purchases of US food, grains, and oilseed.
MFN status, however, does not carry the potential, at least for now, to make a major difference in Gorbachev's ability to put goods on the shelves. But given the dire economic straits he faces, every bit helps.
The offer of observer status at GATT holds benefits for the Soviets largely as a vehicle for encouraging gradual integration into the global trading system, something Gorbachev has pushed hard for. As a GATT observer, Soviet representatives would be allowed to sit at monthly meetings of the GATT council, but would not take part in any decisions.
The Malta and Warsaw Pact summits had another effect: They overshadowed Gorbachev's historic visit with the Pope last Friday and the first visit here by an Israeli government minister since 1967.
In his historic meeting with the Pope, Gorbachev stalled on the question of the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church. He said a planned law on freedom of conscience would allow free practice of the religion, but the Ukrainians say that does not constitute formal recognition. The Pope wants to open formal diplomatic relations with the Kremlin, as agreed to in principle with Gorbachev, but he will want a more explicit recognition of the Ukrainian Catholics first.
The visit here Sunday by Israeli Agriculture Minister Avraham Katz-Oz resulted in an agreement for Israel to export $30 million worth of food to the Moscow area over the next six months. The visit signaled a continued warming of informal Soviet-Israeli ties, which appear to be heading for formal status. At the end of this month, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres will come to Moscow.
On Dec. 6, a story incorrectly identified Shimon Peres as the Israeli prime minister. He is the vice prime minister.