WASHINGTON — President Bush telephoned Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Wednesday to urge him to help bring about a peaceful transition of power from Nicaragua's Sandinistas to the newly elected opposition government, officials said.
The unusual summit-level telephone diplomacy was part of a major effort by U.S. officials to persuade all factions in Nicaragua, from the leftist Sandinistas to the U.S.-backed Contras, to defuse tensions and cooperate in a transition to the newly elected, pro-American government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
Bush said his 40-minute talk with Gorbachev was "a very constructive conversation." He praised the Soviet leader for several Kremlin statements recognizing Chamorro's surprise victory over the Soviet-backed Sandinistas.
Asked whether the call was made specifically to focus on Nicaragua, Bush said: "Well, no, just to review these two areas (Nicaragua and Eastern Europe). And I think we need to be doing a little more of that kind of thing, and I think he agrees."
Beyond that, the President declined to discuss details of the conversation.
But other Administration officials said one of the purposes of Bush's call was to urge Gorbachev to use his influence with leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, whose members have appeared divided over whether to cooperate with the incoming government or to resist it.
At the same time, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other officials signaled that they believe that U.S.-backed rebels, most of whom are camped along Nicaragua's northern border, should begin demobilizing even before Chamorro's inauguration.
Sandinista President Daniel Ortega demanded Tuesday that the Contras disband before Chamorro takes power, and in a speech later in the day, Chamorro added her voice to those urging that they dismantle their forces. But some rebel leaders insisted that they would keep their forces together until the inauguration.
"Our policy (is) to encourage the voluntary reintegration of the resistance under safe and democratic conditions," Baker said at a Senate hearing.
"Those conditions, we think, are now rapidly being created," he said. "But this, of course, is a very complex issue. It's an issue that has to be handled with some degree of sensitivity and care. . . . There are legitimate fears on both sides. What I think both sides want to avoid . . . is a standoff, with each side demanding that the other go first. The war is over in Nicaragua."
Other officials said the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Cresencio Arcos, visited Contra camps along the border this week and urged the rebels to "cool it," as one aide put it.
Another official said the Administration hopes Chamorro will encourage the rebels to begin demobilizing before her inauguration, "to avoid giving the Sandinistas an excuse to screw up the transition."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, asked if the Administration sent word to the Contras to lay down their arms before the inauguration, told reporters: "We're waiting and seeing how this plays out. We won't dictate things at this point."
Former President Jimmy Carter, who helped mediate between Ortega and Chamorro on election night, also called on the Contras to dismantle their forces.
"If you have an army on the edge of your country or in your country that still threatens military action, that's obviously a very destabilizing factor," Carter told reporters after meeting with Baker at the State Department.
State Department officials said there were indications that both the Sandinistas and the rebels are backing down from some of their initial, defiant positions.
And Contra leaders who initially rejected the idea of demobilization said Wednesday that they are willing to discuss the issue with Chamorro or her aides, officials noted.
U.S. funding for non-military aid to the Contras officially ended Tuesday, but the State Department still has $7.3 million available from unspent funds to pay for a repatriation program, as well as for food, clothing and medicine, they said. In 1988, Congress ended Contra military aid.
Bush spoke with reporters about his telephone talk with Gorbachev aboard Air Force One en route to Republican fund-raising stops--in Staten Island, N.Y., and in San Francisco--before his scheduled arrival in Los Angeles last night for a four-day visit to Southern California.
The "rational, cordial discussion" brought to mind "those days not so many years ago when a talk of this nature would not have been possible," Bush said. "The mood of the day back then--confrontation, rhetorical overkill, tension bordering on hostility. Today's talk was so different--no polemics."
The President said he thanked Gorbachev for the warm reception given to Baker in Moscow two weeks ago and told the Soviet president that he wants to press forward with negotiations to reduce long-range nuclear weapons. They also discussed the situation in Eastern Europe, he said.