French President Francois Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced today that they will attend the funeral Wednesday of Soviet president Konstantin Chernenko.
For Mitterrand, the decision to join other world leaders at the Moscow ceremonies represents a break with precedent set following the deaths of previous Soviet leaders and reflects a recent improvement in Franco-Soviet relations.
By contrast, Thatcher and Kohl both attended Yuri Andropov's funeral in February last year, and did not hesitate in deciding to go to Chernenko's.
Thatcher, who said today that Chernenko's death deprived the Soviets of "an experienced leader," is the only western leader to have had substantial recent contact with his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. During his December visit to Britain, when he received his most extensive exposure in the West as a top contender in the Kremlin hierarchy, Thatcher declared, "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together."
Kohl hopes to use his anticipated meeting with Gorbachev this week to forge his own ties with the new leader and may also take the opportunity to meet again with East German leader Erich Honecker.
As statements of condolence from around the world streamed into Moscow today, governments of most Western European countries announced that they would be represented by either the head of state or the prime minister. Italian President Sandro Pertini, 88, cut short an official visit to Argentina and Brazil to be able to pay his last respects to Chernenko.
Japanese Prime Minister Yashuhiro Nakasone and Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe plan to attend the funeral. Nakasone is going even though the Diet, or national legislature, is in session -- a time when Japanese prime ministers usually stay home.
Other leaders who have already announced that they will be going to Moscow include Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Norway's Crown Prince Harald and Prime Minister Kaare Willoch, and Spain's Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. Also planning to attend are Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschlaeger, Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, and Premier Turgut Ozal of Turkey.
The Chinese are sending Vice Premier Li Peng, who is lower ranking than the official sent to Andropov's funeral. This choice, observers said, indicates no major change in strained Sino-Soviet relations.
French political analysts said that Mitterrand's decision to attend the Chernenko funeral in person reflected an improvement in Franco-Soviet relations since the death of the previous Soviet leader, Andropov, last year. The Socialist president suspended what had become a traditional practice of annual summit meetings between French and Soviet leaders after his election in May 1981 and did not attend the funerals of either Andropov or his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev.
Mitterrand met Gorbachev during his first presidential visit to Moscow last June and was impressed by his openness and intellectual flexibility, according to French officials. An invitation to visit France that had already been accepted by Chernenko is now likely to be extended to Gorbachev.
French officials attribute the modest improvement in relations with Moscow to the fact that an equilibrium had been restored to East-West ties following the deployment by NATO of U.S.-made medium-range missiles in West Germany. Mitterrand was a staunch supporter of the deployment because he felt that the balance of power had shifted dangerously in favor of the Soviet Union.
Chernenko's death coincided with a visit to Moscow by French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. In an apparent attempt to display continuity in the leadership and the importance of relations with France, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko went ahead this morning with a scheduled meeting with Dumas just hours after a special Politburo session devoted to the succession.
Mitterrand recalled his meeting with Chernenko in a telegram of condolence to Soviet leaders in which he said his sorrow at the news of the Soviet president's death was "all the more touching because I had last year the occasion to meet and to talk with him during my first official visit to your country." Mitterrand did not meet with Andropov during the period when he was Soviet leader.
For his part, Kohl would like his probable meeting with Gorbachev to illustrate to his East European neighbors that Bonn is no longer being frozen out of East-West diplomacy by the Soviets in the aftermath of its controversial deployment of medium-range Pershing II and cruise missiles.
In addition, the inclusion in the delegation to Moscow of his chief of staff, Wolfgang Schaueble, whose duties include handling ties with East Germany, is seen as a sign that the West German leader hopes to have the opportunity to meet again with Honecker.
At Andropov's funeral, Kohl had a long session with the East German leader, which set in motion the extraordinary rapprochement between the two Germanys last year, a process cut short by Soviet pressure on Honecker.
One Western European leader who will not be attending the Chernenko funeral is Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou who is embroiled in a political crisis following the resignation of Constantine Karamanlis from the presidency. Papandreou, who has endorsed Soviet positions on a number of issues and who said today that Chernenko's death leaves "a great gap" in efforts to promote peace, will be represented by Foreign Minister Yiannis Haralambopoulos.
Officials in Brussels said that no decision had yet been taken on Belgium's level of representation at the funeral.
The Associated Press reported:
Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke echoed other leaders when he noted that Chernenko's brief tenure in office "saw the resumption of the vitally important arms control talks between the Soviet Union and the United States."
Palme said, "Chernenko showed at his appearances that he attached great importance to this issue."
Italian Premier Bettino Craxi said he doubted the shift in leadership would mean changes in foreign policy. "The Soviet Union already has been in the process of making a perceptible change in its attitude," he said in a reference to the arms talks.
In Afghanistan, President Babrak Karmal expressed "grief and sorrow" at Chernenko's death. Babrak was installed with Soviet backing in a 1979 coup.
In the Middle East, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said he wanted to "underline our keenness on continuity and development of the existing relationship of friendship and cooperation between Iraq and the Soviet Union."
Syrian President Hafez Assad praised Chernenko for his support "in our struggle against Israeli occupation" and said he "is worth our deepest respect."
In the Soviet Bloc, state-run radio and television stations interrupted their regular programs to announce Chernenko's death. East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania declared official days of mourning.