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'Better Than Nothing'

September 29, 1986

As in the case of much that has happened since Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev took office, it is debatable whether the recent conference in Latvia on U.S.-Soviet relations represented a cup that was half full or half empty. On balance, the meeting seems to have been worthwhile.

The conference, sponsored by the Chautauqua Institution of the United States, was held in the seaside resort of Jurmala, near the Latvian capital of Riga in the Soviet Union. Latvia was an independent country until 1940, when it was occupied by Soviet troops in the early days of World War II. Nationalist feelings still run strong.

Participants in the people-to-people effort included government officials and members of the foreign policy establishment from the United States and the Soviet Union, but 2,000 Soviet and American citizens also were on hand. On the Soviet side the participants were selected by the authorities. The U.S. citizen-delegates were primarily people who summer in Chautauqua, N.Y., but the group also included several Americans chosen by the American Latvian Assn.

The meeting featured an exchange of views--unusually frank and free-wheeling, in the Soviet context--on subjects ranging from arms control, Afghanistan and Nicaragua to the Soviet detention of U.S. correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and the reasons for continuing U.S. diplomatic recognition of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as independent countries instead of Soviet republics.

For the most part national Soviet television carried a highly selective version of the proceedings. But local stations carried many hours of the debate, and even Moscow television carried two lengthy segments that gave considerable exposure to the American arguments. As one U.S. diplomat put it, he could not recall another occasion when such a sustained critique of Soviet policies was approved for Soviet domestic consumption.

Unfortunately, there was a downside. The Soviet participants were Johnny-one-notes who refrained from criticism of their government's share of responsibility for the arms race or world tensions. Some of the Americans, as a result, felt compelled to defend U.S. positions even when they didn't want to.

Latvian-Americans who seized the opportunity to converse with the countrymen of their roots--and, in some cases, to pass out pins bearing the pre-Communist Latvian flag--were threatened by security officials. Soviet citizens with whom the Latvian-Americans spoke were, in some cases, questioned by police later.

The proceedings, in short, did not square fully with Gorbachev's call for an open society, facing squarely up to its shortcomings. Still, as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer told newsmen, "a few glimpses of substance came through. . . . This is better than nothing."

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