WASHINGTON — Despite continuing resistance to his campaign to remake Soviet society, Mikhail S. Gorbachev maintains "a very firm grip" on power in the Kremlin, the State Department's top European expert said Saturday.
Rozanne L. Ridgway, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, sought to dampen speculation that Gorbachev was buffeted by political pressure at home when he first rejected, then accepted President Reagan's invitation to summit talks in Washington. The meeting, the third between the President and the Soviet leader, is scheduled to begin Dec. 7.
"I don't think Gorbachev is in trouble," Ridgway said in an interview broadcast by Cable News Network. "We still see him making changes in the Politburo membership . . . and I don't think that's a sign of weakness."
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who was in Washington to make summit preparations, abruptly left for home Friday night, skipping a scheduled Saturday meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other Senate leaders.
According to Ridgway, Shevardnadze said he cut short his visit because he was tired, not because he needed to return to the political battles in Moscow.
"I'm rather sympathetic to Foreign Minister Shevardnadze's decision to leave last night," Ridgway said. "We've--all of us--covered a lot of miles in the last six, seven, eight days. We had originally thought it might be necessary to have more than a day's meetings here. But as we discussed the program with the Soviets, it became clear that we would be able to cover everything in one day. . . . I think he went home because the work was done (and he wanted to) go home and just get some rest."
A spokesman for the Foreign Relations Committee said the members were disappointed at Shevardnadze's decision to cancel the scheduled meeting but did not question the explanation that he was physically exhausted.
Nevertheless, by skipping the meeting, Shevardnadze lost a chance to make an early pitch for Senate ratification of an emerging treaty to ban nuclear missiles with ranges of between 300 and 3,000 miles. At a press conference Friday, Shevardnadze said Moscow is concerned that the treaty might be signed but not ratified "because we have had bitter experiences with previous treaties."
The second strategic arms limitation treaty was signed in 1979 but never ratified by the Senate, and two nuclear test limitation treaties also were never approved.
Although some details of the treaty remain to be negotiated, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Shevardnadze promised that it would be ready for Reagan and Gorbachev to sign at the summit.
The Foreign Relations Committee's chairman, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), and a senior committee Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), predicted Saturday that the treaty would be ratified, although they said it would be subjected to close scrutiny.
Critics of the pact--most of them from Reagan's own Republican Party--have said that it might contain loopholes that would permit Soviet cheating and that it would weaken Western defenses by removing nuclear arms without doing anything about the Soviet advantage in conventional weapons. These critics have vowed to wage a fight against ratification.
Ridgway discounted speculation that the reported request of Gorbachev's protege, Boris N. Yeltsin, to resign showed that the Soviet leader is in political trouble.
"He could leave, if he does, because of administrative failures," Ridgway said of Yeltsin, who reportedly asked to resign from the Communist Party Central Committee after a verbal battle with the party's chief ideologist, Yegor K. Ligachev. "Maybe he's the wrong man in the wrong job. It could be out of frustration. We would have to know why before we could say what it means for Gorbachev."
Ridgway said that Shevardnadze and other Soviet leaders have made no secret of the fact that Gorbachev's reforms have generated resistance within the Soviet bureaucracy.
"The status quo has been the status quo for a long time in the Soviet Union," Ridgway said. "A very strong leader has come in to change it; there is resistance, no doubt."
When Shultz met Gorbachev in Moscow on Oct. 23, the Soviet leader refused to fix a summit date, as he had been expected to do, because, Shultz said, the United States would not agree to limitations on its "Star Wars" space-based missile defense program. But just a week later, Gorbachev sent Shevardnadze to Washington to arrange the summit meeting.