Ethiopian sensitivities about their relations with Moscow reach their highest point when the conversation turns to just what the Soviets are doing in the Dahlak Archipelago, a group of about 370 islands about 35 miles off the Red Sea coast.
The United States says satellite photos show that the Soviets have a naval facility on Nocra, one of the islands. The facility is understood to contain two docks, a floating drydock, warehouses and housing for about 150 Russians.
Diplomats say 25 to 30 Soviet cargo and warships call there each month for maintenance, fuel and water.
Remarks by Ethiopian officials on the subject only tend to heighten curiosity. Most tend to change the subject and talk about U.S. plans to develop military facilities at Berbera in archenemy Somalia. Planned U.S. facilities there and in Mombasa, Kenya, and in Oman, probably have more strategic value, but the projects have not been shrouded in secrecy.
Foreign Minister Feleke Wolde-Giorgis denied that there are any Soviet facilities in the islands. He reportedly maintains that the U.S. satellite photos, which he called "a pretext," are of other islands elsewhere in the world.
Ambaye Tekabo, administrator of the Red Sea district, which includes Massawa and the islands, said: "It's a free country. We can be friendly with whomever we want. I can't tell you what is there."
Few Ethiopians know much about the remote islands. Only seven are inhabited, and the total population is only 3,500. Mengistu Haile-Mariam, chairman of Ethiopia's ruling military council, became the first Ethiopian head of state to visit the islands when he toured there last month.
Ethiopian officials rebuffed my request to visit the islands and displayed annoyance over the request. An interview was canceled at the last minute, apparently because the official did not want to be questioned about the role of the Soviets on the islands.
Any Soviets on the islands do not seem to go to nearby Massawa for relaxation. Foreign businessmen who have frequented the port say they have seen no Soviets there, and a recent Saturday evening tour of Massawa's night spots produced no evidence of any. It is possible that they are taken to Aden, capital of pro-Soviet South Yemen, near the mouth of the Red Sea.
Ambaye said Soviet Navy ships do not call at Asmara normally, although four paid a courtesy visit in October for Ethiopian Navy graduation exercises. Cargo ships, often carrying arms, do call at Massawa, according to Feleke.
Under the reign of emperor Haile Selassie, the American presence had far greater impact on Massawa. U.S. Navy ships called frequently to resupply the American military communications facility at Kagnew station in Asmara, where several thousand U.S. military personnel and their dependents lived.
The Navy maintained a hotel for exclusive use of Americans and a few selected Ethiopian guests, causing resentment among many Ethiopians.
In a small sense the Soviets enjoy similar treatment now. Several Soviet civilian doctors and oceanographers working in Massawa are housed at the Red Sea Hotel, once a luxurious hostelry.
The facility, which had more than 100 hotel rooms, is reserved exclusively for Soviet use. Ethiopians are quick to point out, however, that there are plans to relocate the Soviets and refurbish the hotel for tourists.