Inside the diplomatic pouch

(First published June 6, 1988, Financial Times of Canada)
By Adam Corelli

OTTAWA — The confidential telex was dispatched from the Canadian embassy in Moscow in 1979 by Robert Ford. The ambassador’s job was to inform External Affairs in Ottawa what changes to expect in the Soviet Union, then under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. In hindsight, Ford did a remarkable job. The telex he sent fingered a virtually unknown 48-year-old man named Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev as a leadership prospect.

For six years after Ford’s perceptive assessment, Canadian diplomats in Moscow filed a series of dispatches that charted Gorbachev’s statements and outlook — until he became Soviet leader. The confidential dispatches, obtained by the Financial Times, stress that the policy of glasnost – much under discussion during last week’s U.S.Soviet summit – was planned by the Politburo long before Gorbachev’s succession and that the reforms were to represent only a “new face” on an old system. Soviet communism, the envoys said, seemed to be headed for an inevitable shakeup. Its purpose: to reduce inefficiency so that the Kremlin could better compete with capitalism; but capitalism itself was never envisaged.

In a dispatch dated Nov. 28, 1979, Ford informed Ottawa that a “fast-rising” official named Gorbachev had been made a candidate member of the Politburo. “Gorbachev is thought to be responsible for economic and agricultural matters,” the document notes, “a portfolio which has proven in past to be an extremely slippery incline for younger mems (members) of leadership group . . . While Gorbachev may be a young leadership prospect, both his personal potential and permanency of his tenure have yet to be established.” But the appointment, says the dispatch, represented a rapid one-year rise from a relatively obscure posting as a regional first secretary. In another dispatch a year earlier, Gorbachev is described as a “dark-horse candidate” whose election was “surprising” because he was unknown, young and from the field rather than from the central bureaucracy.

External Affairs made heavy deletions from virtually all of the dispatches, which were obtained under the Access to Information Act. The Financial Times requested all records collected by Canada on Gorbachev before he became Soviet leader. But even the edited cables indicate that Canadian diplomats were struck by Gorbachev’s engaging personality and deep understanding of issues. With his 1983 visit to Canada, the dispatches become much more certain about Gorbachev’s potential. A May 27, 1983, dispatch to the Moscow embassy from External Affairs assessing the one-week May visit describes Gorbachev as being remarkably conversant with the issues raised. “Arriving as an unknown,” the dispatch reads, “Gorbachev proved to be astute, impressive, professional, fully briefed and remarkably knowledgeable on international and bilateral affairs.”

Although written five years ago, it reads like last week’s newspaper. “Throughout the tour Gorbachev asked (a)string of penetrating questions revealing comprehensive knowledge of his area of responsibility…. Gorbachev left a very favorable impression. Articulate, intelligent, confident, competent and with a sense of humor,  Gorbachev conveys an aura of energy and effectiveness…. Moreover, he avoids clichés and political sermons and delivers his views without the rhetoric or ideological overtones so common to Soviet spokesmen.”

Former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan recalls the visit fondly. “He asked thousands of questions when he was here,” Whelan says. “He talked all the time about how much money we spent on armaments. He said we should be spending more on people.” When Gorbachev finally met Pierre Trudeau, who was then prime minister, their private one-hour talk focused on arms control. Since leaving power, Trudeau has remained friends with Gorbachev, meeting him privately in Moscow.

Four months before Gorbachev rose to power, Canada’s Moscow dispatches became more critical about Soviet motives. A cable titled Gorbachev – The Shoe Fits dated Dec. 17, 1984, suggests that the changes that accompanied his eventual rise to the top were long planned by the Politburo. It notes that Gorbachev described the founders of Marxism-Leninism as seeing self-government resting on ensuring real, practical participation of ever bigger masses of people in management and economic decisions. It also notes that Gorbachev saw mass media as offering the Soviets a chance to increase the popularity of policies at home by being quick and accurate with information and to counter negative propaganda in foreign countries.

The dispatch writer, un-named, continues: “Contradictions: Gorbachev plays off duality of sharpening capitalist-socialist conflict by exaggerating external threat. Capitalism, he says, is on defensive, collapsing from spiritual malaise and internal contradictions. It is waging psychological war against (the Soviet Union). Consequently, ideological contradictions cannot be tolerated if party is to stay competitive.” The envoy goes on to quote Gorbachev: “More than ever before, we need a consistent class approach to the assessment of current events and developments, political vigilance to and intolerance of alien views, efficiency, boldness and persistence.”

“(The) party, ” the envoy says, “must be quick to adapt to what is increasingly fast game.”

The striking conclusion warns that the speech by Gorbachev “has effectively frozen speculation” about differences between him and the rest of the Soviet leadership. The dispatch says, “First impressions can be misleading” and suggests, “we may only now be getting to know ‘real’ Mr. Gorbachev.” Nearly four years later, that sober assessment seems as well grounded as Robert Ford’s earlier prophecy.