Who is Bessmertnykh?

Eduard Shevardnazde's replacement at the Soviet foreign minister post is in for a full test by both the US and Soviets in the months ahead

THE selection of Aleksander Bessmertnykh as the new Soviet foreign minister is a strong indication that Moscow wants to preserve the improvement in Soviet-United States relations. Bessmertnykh was deputy foreign minister and first deputy foreign minister from 1988 to 1990, responsible for Soviet-US bilaterals, before becoming ambassador to Washington. He has spent nearly 20 years at the embassy in Washington and the Soviet delegation to the United Nations, specializing in Soviet-US relations and arms control. Bessmertnykh has attended nearly every Soviet-US summit meeting since 1985 and, in the 1960s, attended several sessions of the UN General Assembly as an aide to then foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko. Bessmertnykh's swift and overwhelming approval as foreign minister by the Supreme Soviet in the wake of the violent crackdown in Lithuania also indicates that the Soviet leadership remains sensitive to the international reaction to Moscow's hard-line domestic policies. Bessmertnykh is not only a veteran diplomat but has a reputation as a reformer. Upon confirmation, he pledged to continue the ``new thinking'' of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. He is Moscow's leading expert on the US. His condemnation of the Iraqi missile attack on Israel showed his support for the US position in the Gulf and an unusual sympathy for Israel's domestic predicament. The postponement of the summit meeting until May or June - the first delay of the scheduled Soviet-US summit in more than 30 years - will defer the test of Bessmertnykh's within the Soviet leadership.

Another test will be whether he is willing to support the ongoing Soviet retreat from the third world. Shevardnadze, since the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, has been Moscow's point man in contributing to resolving regional problems in Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. There were 50,000 Cuban combat forces in Angola when Shevardnadze became foreign minister; currently there are less than 10,000. Shevardnadze inherited 100,000 Vietnamese combat forces in Cambodia; Vietnam pulled out all forces in 1989. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State Baker have been instrumental in improving conditions in Angola and Cambodia.

The Nicaraguan case has been more dramatic, with Moscow cutting off arms to the Sandinistas in 1989 and pushing for elections in 1990. Shevardnadze also tried to persuade the Sandinistas to halt arms shipments to the insurgents in El Salvador. Moscow has supported the UN observer group in Central America, which monitors compliance with the agreement prohibiting use of territory to aid guerrilla operations in neighboring states, to name a few specifics.

Moscow's unprecedented cooperation with the US in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait not only contributed to the US decision to transfer its most capable ground forces and armor in Europe to Saudi Arabia but opened Shevardnadze to charges in the Supreme Soviet that he was being too supportive of US interests and ignoring Soviet national interests on Moscow's ``sensitive southern frontier.'' Presumably, Gorbachev will be taken to task for ``allowing'' the buildup of a huge US air and naval force that will be present when the war with Iraq is over. Still, Shevardnadze was supportive of the US political and psychological campaign against Saddam before Operation Desert Storm, and was the first Soviet official to state that force might be required.

Shevardnadze also has led the way in ending the ``blank pages'' in Moscow's diplomatic book, establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea and consular relations with Israel and South Africa. Presumably conservative forces in the Kremlin opposed all these moves. Shevardnadze has consistently condemned Palestinian terrorism and even cooperated with the Israeli government in 1989, when the Israelis had to deal with a hijacked Soviet airliner. Recent KGB efforts to work with other intelligence services on international terrorism may have been inspired by Shevardnadze. Moscow also played a role in establishing peacekeeping and verification operations in the border area between Iran and Iraq and in Namibia, and coordinating humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa and southern Africa.

Shevardnadze's record will allow for numerous tests of Bessmertnykh's position and stature in the coming months. In addition to the summit meeting with Washington later this year, Gorbachev will be traveling in April to Japan, where he had been expected to unveil a compromise on the issue of the northern territories. The war in the Persian Gulf will complicate Soviet-US discussions on Central America, Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia but, hopefully these issues will soon return to the superpower dialogue. The resolution of the data dispute over the conventional forces treaty and the completion of the strategic forces treaty will reveal not only Bessmertnykh's knowledge of these matters but his commitment and orientation as well.

Bessmertnykh's latitude during these discussions will indicate Gorbachev's foreign policy in the wake of the violence in Lithuania and Latvia, and whether Moscow's shift to the right on domestic matters will lead to a greater foreign policy role for the military. Shevardnadze's resignation in December was a protest and warning against the ``onset of dictatorship''; Bessmertnykh's views on these issues are unknown. He will have to deal with the increased prominence of defense and the KGB. Shevardnadze's resignation failed to reverse the shift to the right. Bessmertnykh must realize Gorbachev's use of an ``iron fist'' in the Baltics could undermine Soviet foreign policy. Bessmertnykh, whose name means ``immortal,'' will be fully tested.

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