SPECULATION about a new Russian president is increasing. After Boris Yeltsin recently failed to meet visiting Defense Secretary William Perry and disappeared from public, different sources started to describe him as ill-tempered, weak, and finished as Russia's leader. Ten years ago the speedy changes of Soviet leaders made predicting the next leader of the mighty superpower an important task.
Still today, a lesson from the past may be useful.
I remember an unusual episode, from my own diplomatic career, in 1984. At that time I was working as Soviet representative to the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. My American counterpart was Ambassador Luis Fields, Jr. In March of '84, upon returning from Washington, he asked for a private meeting. Referring to the delicate subject of the conversation, he turned down a proposal to meet at my residence and invited me to a lunch on neutral territory, a suburban restaurant.
Ambassador Fields said nothing special over lunch. I was wondering why he wanted to see me. When I was ready to leave, Fields suggested we take a walk in the park. As we strolled, he said Washington wanted to establish a serious, businesslike contact with Kremlin leaders. Vice President Bush had entrusted him to inform me that he would be ready to meet with one of the new Soviet leaders during his planned trip to Geneva. The meeting should be strictly confidential. No one was to know anything. I asked if the Americans wanted to see someone specific. Fields said the vice president wanted to meet Mikhail Gorbachev. He did not explain why the secretary in charge of ideology was chosen; but he insisted that it be Mr. Gorbachev.
I told Fields I would promptly report our discussion to Moscow. But I was extremely troubled by it. The situation seemed simple. It was my duty to report the American idea presented by Fields to Moscow. But when I started imagining the possible reactions to my cable I began to hesitate. It was still only a few weeks after the death of Yuri Andropov. Konstantin Chernenko had since come to power. My report about plans to hold a meeting with the ``future Soviet leader'' would be ill-timed, to say the least.
I was also afraid the American idea might be regarded in Moscow as a provocation that would complicate the tense relations between our two countries. Finally, the fact that Washington chose an unusual contact to deliver the message, rather than going through the Soviet ambassador in Washington or the American ambassador in Moscow, could turn against me personally.
So I decided to wait before making my report.
Fields did not follow up on the idea of a Bush-Gorbachev meeting. In mid-April, however, Mr. Bush arrived in Geneva. His speech to the conference was scheduled for April 18. On the eve of the speech I took a phone call from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, in whose palace Bush stayed during his trips to Geneva. Aga Khan told me mysteriously that our ``mutual friend'' would like to see me. Naturally, I said yes.
When we met, Bush briefly mentioned his main goal for the visit, which was to deliver his speech. When we turned our discussion to other issues, Aga Khan left. Bush immediately shifted the conversation and began talking about the possibility of conducting an unofficial Soviet-American high level meeting. He stressed that Washington attached great importance to relations with Moscow. Bush reiterated what Fields had told me and added that the place and time of the meeting could be determined with considerations of mutual wishes and possibilities. As his counterpart at the meeting, Bush mentioned a name: ``Gorbachev will be your next leader. Do you understand that?,'' he said. I could not forget the vice president's words nor his confidence.
Bush said he had already been to Moscow twice (in 1982 and '84 he represented the US at Brezhnev's and Andropov's funerals) and said he might come again. (He did, in '85, for Chernenko's funeral). In turn, I promised to report his proposal to my boss, Andrei Gromyko.
As soon as I arrived in Moscow, I met Mr. Gromyko. The foreign minister heard Bush's proposal attentively without asking a single question. When I finished my report, a heavy silence fell on the room. Gromyko was thinking intensely without paying attention to me. Then he turned and asked: ``And how are things going at the conference?'' I understood the conversation was over.
I don't know if Gromyko reported Bush's initiative to his Kremlin colleagues, or if any further steps were taken. But I do know the American proposal in 1984 to meet with the ``future leader'' of the Soviet Union had a definite influence on Gromyko. He was the one who proposed Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985.
I wonder if anyone in this country could predict the next leader of Russia with the same confidence Bush did in 1984? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.