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Communists: Among Friends

4 minute read
John Moody

Disarray, disability and a death in the Kremlin had forced postponement of the Warsaw Pact’s biennial summit meeting for nearly a year. So by the time convoys of ZIL and Chaika limousines were finally streaking through the yellow brick streets of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, the meeting last week was embarrassingly overdue. The Political Consultative Committee, made up of Communist Party leaders from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania and the Soviet Union, had been expected to gather in January. But Mikhail Gorbachev’s predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, was too ill to travel then, and indeed died only a few weeks later. By contrast, Gorbachev impressed his Warsaw Pact comrades with the vitality and ease of command he has demonstrated in the Soviet Union. When the two days of secret talks at the foot of Mount Vitosha were over, Gorbachev had sent a message to allies and adversaries alike: the Warsaw Pact, whose 6 million fighting men make it the world’s largest military machine, was in capable hands.

Although Gorbachev, 54, was the youngest man sitting at the round conference table (Bulgaria’s President Todor Zhivkov, 74, was the oldest), he was clearly first among equals in a group that exists largely to endorse Moscow’s foreign policy and buffer the Soviet Union’s western flank. The military bands and effusive bear hugs, however, could not mask the fact that the Sofia summit resulted in little more than Kremlin posturing in advance of Gorbachev’s November meeting with Ronald Reagan in Geneva. A 15-page declaration blamed the U.S. for aggravating the arms race and piously declared that since its founding in 1955 as a counterforce to NATO, the Warsaw Pact “has been reliably safeguarding the peaceful constructive labor of the fraternal peoples.”

Soviet and East European news media had hinted that the Sofia meeting would produce new arms-control proposals. In the end it served up warmed-over Soviet initiatives, some already rejected by the West. The notion of declaring a nuclear-free Balkan zone was endorsed, along with a similar proposal for Northern Europe. With an eye to the likely deployment of U.S. cruise missiles in Belgium and the Netherlands, the document also suggested that the U.S. and the Soviet Union refrain from stationing nuclear weapons in nations that do not already have them and put a lid on existing nuclear arsenals. Said a senior Western diplomat in Sofia: “There’s nothing much here that’s different from what the Soviets are already proposing.”

Although it has one-third more manpower than NATO, and twice as much armor and artillery, the pact is evidently under considerable strain. When the signatory nations met last April in Warsaw to formally renew the alliance for 20 more years, Nicolae Ceausescu of Rumania let it be known that he favored an extension of only five years. Many East Europeans view the 535,000 uniformed Soviet soldiers stationed in their countries as an army of occupation. That impression is reinforced by the ultimate control exercised by Soviet officers during military maneuvers, which are conducted four times a year. A study conducted last year for the Canadian Defense Department that circulated around the NATO high command concluded, perhaps too optimistically: “The entry of NATO troops into Eastern Europe would trigger a collapse of the Communist regimes there.”

Soviet soldiers have little contact with the local populations, and sometimes become addicted to drugs or alcohol. A West German newspaper reported that four Soviet soldiers who were on maneuvers in Czechoslovakia last year sold their tank to a tavern owner for two cases of vodka. Such abuses are exactly the kind that Gorbachev has singled out for stern corrective measures in his own country. He is unlikely to ignore them among the Soviet Union’s military allies. –By John Moody. Reported by Kenneth W. Banta/Sofia

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