WASHINGTON — In the first concrete payoff in Latin America from warming U.S.-Soviet relations, Moscow played a key role in persuading Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to hold the election that swept him from office, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
The official, who briefed reporters on the understanding he would not be identified, said the Soviet Union pressed Ortega's government to abide by last year's Central American peace accords, which called for contested elections.
The action came after the Bush Administration made it clear that Soviet behavior in Central America would have an important impact on overall relations between Washington and Moscow, the official said.
Washington has been alternately pressuring and cajoling Moscow concerning Central America for the past year, he said, noting that Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, made his first official trip to Moscow, not Latin America.
"We believe that the Soviet Union played a constructive role in encouraging the Sandinista government to hold these elections and to hold a dialogue with the opposition," the official said.
"In an unprecedented way, both sides (the United States and the Soviet Union) have been keeping their side of the bargain, which was, from the beginning, to use our respective influence with our respective friends in the region to try to press the Central American peace process forward," he said.
He noted that just three days before Sunday's election, the Soviet Foreign Ministry issued a statement pointedly calling attention to Sandinista promises to abide by the outcome of the election and to relinquish power if defeated.
The Soviets have substantial clout in Managua because Ortega has been heavily dependent on them for both economic and political support.
In Moscow, Ion Bourliai, deputy head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Latin American department, told a news conference that the Soviet Union is willing to continue its economic aid to the new Nicaraguan government to be headed by President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
"The Soviet Union said it would respect the results and today we are confirming this position of ours," Bourliai said. "Our relations in the trade and economic field are determined by corresponding agreements. The Soviet Union is prepared to meet its obligations in the future if the Nicaraguan side supports this position."
Moscow has been providing about $333 million annually in economic aid to Nicaragua on a credit basis, plus 25 million tons of wheat and rice free of charge, Bourliai said.
In Washington, the senior State Department official said he was "very encouraged" by Bourliai's pledge to respect the election results. As for the promise of continuing aid, the official said that was between Moscow and the Chamorro government.
"The new government will need economic assistance badly," the official said. "The United States will not be able to meet all of their needs by any means." He said he assumes Chamorro "will accept aid from whatever source."
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the Administration is determined to help Nicaragua rebuild its shattered economy. But he gave no indication of the size of the U.S. assistance, nor did he suggest where the government would obtain the money.
The senior State Department official said that no decision will be made concerning aid to Nicaragua until U.S. officials confer with Chamorro's chief economic adviser, Francisco Mayorga, who is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Monday.
"We will develop an aid package for Nicaragua that will be significant and meaningful," Fitzwater said. "The democratic aspirations of the Nicaraguan people deserve our support and they will have it."
However, other officials conceded that the election upset in Nicaragua, coming on the heels of the overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the ouster of dictator Manuel A. Noriega in Panama, will stretch the Administration's $15-billion foreign aid budget to the breaking point.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said after a White House meeting with President Bush and other congressional leaders that the Administration should establish an "emergency democracy fund" to channel foreign aid to Nicaragua, Panama, and Eastern Europe.
"You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars" over a four-year to five-year period, Nunn said. "After all, we spent trillions and trillions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars, defending the free world waiting for this day, and now that we've arrived at this day, I think we should not be shortsighted in our approach."
Nunn is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will help shape the Pentagon's proposed $295-billion budget. But when asked if the democracy fund should come out of defense appropriations, he shrugged and did not answer.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the foreign aid program, said that money for increased aid to Eastern Europe and Panama must come from reduced Pentagon spending. However, the Administration has made it clear that it is reluctant to reduce military programs until it is convinced that the current diplomatic thaw continues.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.