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Slick Talk Won't Erase Soviet Image : Gorbachev Must Realize We'll Judge Both Good and Bad

December 22, 1987|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer .

Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev comes through as the greatest believer in press agentry since Madison Avenue. He is ready to admit that all is not well in the Soviet Union, but he doesn't want to hear other people say it. He wants us to look at his country through wish-tinted glasses--and he seems to think that if he can charm or shame dastardly elements of the American media into accepting his version of Soviet reality, the barriers to a new era of superpower cooperation will melt away.

Sorry, Gorbie. As much as you may want to believe it, the Soviet image isn't that easily repaired.

The arms-control treaty signed by Gorbachev and President Reagan during the Washington summit was important in itself. The elimination of medium- and shorter-range missiles means that, for the first time, nuclear arsenals on both sides are actually being reduced. There is reason to hope that follow-up negotiations may produce progress on strategic-arms reduction and the conventional balance in Europe.

However, most experts are convinced that while Gorbachev's interest in arms control is probably real, the goals of present Soviet diplomacy toward the West are far broader.

The Stalinist system of rigid, centralized economic controls worked well enough when the rapid buildup of basic industries--steel, chemicals, energy and the like--was the name of the game. But it has proved disastrously unsuited to the new age of sophisticated computers and information technology.

As nearly as can be judged, something of a consensus has emerged in favor of channeling scarce resources and skilled brainpower into the civilian sector--and that can't be done safely unless the competition with the United States in military technology can be constrained within predictable and acceptable limits.

The Soviet Union also needs to tap more deeply into Western capital and technology. And that, too, can be done more effectively if the atmosphere of political confrontation and competition with Washington can be eased.

All these threads came together in the Washington summit meeting. Gorbachev spent a lot time with Reagan. But he spent even more time in meetings with trade-minded bankers and businessmen, influential members of the American media and intellectual Establishment--and in carefully calculated appeals over their heads to the American people.

In public-relations terms the Gorbachev performance was an enormous success--at least for the short term.

Polls taken after his departure showed that half the American people still think of U.S.-Soviet relations as "unfriendly," but that is down from two-thirds who felt that way two years ago. Almost two of three Americans who were polled three years ago said that they considered the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Roughly the same proportion now feels otherwise.

At the same time, Gorbachev could not help noticing that the Gorbie admiration society was not universal. Emigre and human-rights groups staged a massive demonstration at the start of his visit. And post-summit polls confirmed that, while people heavily favor the medium-range-missile treaty, they do not trust the Soviets to abide by its terms without extensive on-site inspections.

Gorbachev, on his departure, called the summit "a major event in world politics"--one that would advance Soviet-American relations across a broad spectrum of issues. But he accused the U.S. press of trying to perpetuate the image of the Soviet Union as an "enemy," and appealed to news executives to abandon outworn "stereotypes."

The American press is imperfect, and perhaps could do a better job of reporting from the Soviet Union--just as it could do a better job of reporting news of business, sports, religion and politics at home.

But anybody would have to be deaf, blind and stupid not to notice that Gorbachev's efforts to promote a more humane, less authoritarian style of Soviet rule have been widely publicized in this country. Media perceptions generally reflect reality--and as Soviet reality changes for the better, so will American perceptions.

What Gorbachev really wants, however, is for the media to use a double standard--to report on the positive changes that are visible in Soviet society without noticing the blemishes. That won't wash.

Does he really expect the world not to notice that, on the very eve of his arrival in Washington, police in Moscow broke up a human-rights demonstration and roughed up an American television newsman? Or that, despite all the talk about glasnost , the would-be publishers of unauthorized publications are harassed and denied access to printing facilities?

Did Gorbachev expect Americans to take seriously his equation of Soviet restrictions on people who want to leave the country with U.S. barriers against people who want to enter? Does he expect us not to draw conclusions from the fact that people are trying to get into one country while they are trying to get out of the other?

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