WASHINGTON — Georgi Arbatov, the Soviet Union's consummate political insider, probably holds the record for attending superpower summits. For three decades, as a close adviser to Soviet leaders Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the 67-year-old Arbatov has helped shape and explain Soviet foreign policy in a skeptical world.
The Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, which he directs, has long been a major Soviet window on the Western World and has been central to the development of the Soviets' "new thinking."
Arbatov and his wife, Svetlana, have an adult son, Alexei, also a foreign-policy specialist. The elder Arbatov began his government service as a Red Army artillery captain in World War II; he was wounded and decorated. The author of a score of books and monographs, a ubiquitous panelist at think tanks and television talk shows globally, Arbatov is an intimate of Western as well as Soviet leaders. He has been a member of the Communist Party Central Committee for the past 12 years.
Always managing to defy predictions of his political demise, Arbatov now seems at the top of his form. Last year, running on a reform slate that included Andre Sakharov, Arbatov was elected to represent the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the newly created People's Congress. He is currently chairman of the Supreme Soviet subcommittee on international treaties.
Once considered "Mr. Establishment," Arbatov appears increasingly in the role of an independent critic while retaining his access to power. He is considered a particularly close confident of Politburo member Alexander N. Yakovlev, often credited with being the architect of perestroika and glasnost. Arbatov, however, has urged a faster pace of reform, particularly for the economy.
Recently Arbatov led the call in the People's Congress for major cuts in Soviet defense spending. (Arbatov wrote on the subject in a Feb. 25, 1990, article in Opinion.) His stance elicited a strident counterattack from leading figures in the Soviet military Establishment.
Arbatov, who was at Gorbachev's side for his debut interview with Time magazine in 1985, remains a very strong Gorbachev loyalist. He was one of those chosen to brief Gorbachev intensively at the Soviet Embassy hours after the leader's Wednesday-night arrival in Washington.
Recently published minutes show, however, that Arbatov was one of the few members of the Central Committee who had a kind word to say about Boris Yeltsin during the historic October, 1987, session that witnessed Yeltsin's break with Gorbachev and the party leadership. Yeltsin, the maverick politician who has been a constant critic of Gorbachev, was elected president of the Russian republic last week.
When I interviewed Arbatov seven years ago (Opinion, July 18, 1983), midway in Andropov's brief tenure, Arbatov predicted profound changes for his country and the course of the Cold War. This week, in interviews over a three-day period, as the politics of his country unraveled, Arbatov was again asked to predict the future.
Question: Is the Soviet Empire crumbling? Is Gorbachev on the ropes? Does Yeltsin's victory mean the end of perestroika?
Answer: As Gorbachev says, we are involved in a revolution but one which he tries to do by evolutionary means, without violence. This is a period of very deep and far-reaching changes. It cannot go according to the master plan, so there are inevitable mistakes and disruptions. But the direction is correct.
Q: Is there life after Gorbachev?
A: We are already beyond the point where it is possible simply to return to the past. Of course the honeymoon is over. He understands this himself. He is now responsible for five years of what has happened in our country. There is a mixed picture. There are some obvious achievements. Glasnost is one of them. There is political reform which has not yet ended but which goes on successfully. The third one is foreign policy, where he has the greatest successes. I don't agree with those who complain that he is simply giving away something and decreasing our security. We were never so secure as now.
At the same time, of course, in the economic field we have had mistakes, tremendously costly sometimes.
Q: You may feel more secure but it appears that the Soviet empire is crumbling.
A: As to empire, this refers back to a very serious dispute between Lenin and Stalin. Stalin, being from a small republic, was despite it a great Russian chauvinist. He wanted a sort of empire. Lenin insisted that we cannot, in a multinational state like ours, have a stable situation without these republics feeling sovereign, feeling like independent states. Therefore, he insisted on self-determination up to cessation from the Soviet Union. This was the slogan of the Bolsheviks from the very beginning.
Q: And it's in the constitution.