INTERESTING EVIDENCE is accumulating that the Soviet Union has read the American election returns and is prepared to explore what kind of business it can do with Ronald Reagan. The Kremlin has committed itself to no more than the same general review in which the president-elect has also expressed interest. This will surely be welcomed, however, by those who had feared that Mr. Reagan's longstanding record and recent campaign utterances had shut out the diplomatic option. It will be taken as bad news only by those who see in every such "realistic" Soviet gesture a trick meant to undercut American resolve.
One public sign of the Soviet attitude came in Madrid at the conference reviewing the Helsinki Accords. One should not get carried away here. In ending a filibuster and agreeing to a procedure that will put Soviet-bloc human rights violations at an international spotlight, Moscow was merely making good on a clear-cut obligation. For the United States and others to have let it bluster its way out, however, would have corrupted a major vehicle of East-West exchange. As it is, Madrid will treat human rights for five weeks, on Jimmy Carter's time. The conference will reconvene late in January, on Ronald Reagan's time, to weigh proposals on detente in Europe. This offers the new administration an early, convenient, and important forum in which, if it chooses, it can show how it means to work with its allies and with the Soviet Union, too.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Soviet officials have just received a group of unofficial but well-connected Americans and conveyed support for continuity in the SALT process, notwithstanding the fate of the SALT II treaty. The Soviets, it seems, are not inclined to get hung up at this point on Mr. Reagan's explicit emphasis on "linkage" of arms control and political issues. Rather, they appear to feel that SALT II was ratified in military effect, though not in political form, since both sides chose not to exceed its agreed-upon restraints, and that it is up to Mr. Reagan to propose any desired changes. That is exactly what he had intended to do. The question of whether the risks and costs of nuclear competition can be restrained by agreement, formal or informal, is no more answerable than it was before, but at least Mr. Reagan will get his chance to try.
Poland, of course, dominates the whole East-West scene. Months of political preoccupation on top of decades of communist misrule have created a brutal crisis. The export of food is essential to earning the foreign exchange to pay huge foreign debts, on whose payment vital new credits depend. But this food is now being diverted to domestic consumption in order to reduce shortages and avert further unrest. The broad pact by which the authorities exchanged recognition of the independent trade union movement for cooperation in dealing with economic duress is far from self-implementing. If recognition is abridged, the workers can withhold their labor, and it they withhold their labor, economic crisis may turn to complete collapse. But if recognition is not abridged, the Soviet Union may yet intervene.
Some part of Moscow's decision will ultimately turn on its perception of Ronald Reagan. That makes him a silent but central actor in the Polish drama. Once in office, furthermore, he will have to respond to the Pole's request for multi-billion-dollar economic relief. Nothing this big was going on when Jimmy Carter took office. Not to speak of the difficulties in the Persian Gulf.