For Malta, the Mediterranean island republic that suddenly found itself the focus of unsought world attention this weekend, the past year has been a period of careful diplomatic fence-mending with the West after the resignation last December of Dom Mintoff. The socialist prime minister had allied it with the Soviet Union and Libya.
Without substantially altering the policies of the Mintoff government, the new prime minister, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, has nonetheless repaired relations with former colonial ruler Britain, Italy and the European Community, and reached an "amicable" solution with the Vatican to a church-state dispute that led to Mintoff's resignation.
Malta and the United States, once the frequent target of Mintoff's tongue-lashings, are again on speaking terms, according to sources from both sides, despite a number of political and economic issues that remain unresolved.
Maltese Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona and U.S. officials held what were described as "fruitful" talks here last month and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. has sent two missions to Malta to examine possibilities for American business there.
As Malta has shown a new willingness to get along with the West, the United States has muted its criticism of that country's close ties to Libya, its North African neighbor and chief Third World trading partner. "For reasons in part understandable," one U.S. source said, "Malta is always going to deal with Libya. We just point out to them that we don't think Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's policies are very helpful to the region."
U.S. and Maltese sources make clear, however, that Malta's new approach is more a change of style than substance, and that Mintoff is still a powerful figure in the ruling Malta Labor Party.
Mifsud Bonnici, in an interview in September with The Times of London, acknowledged that there had been a "certain amount of lowering of tension" and "a shifting of emphasis" since he came to office that "seem to have brought about some reassurance" in the West.
But Mifsud Bonnici, who was handpicked by Mintoff, insisted that "we cannot say the policies of the new government are different from the policies of the old."
Malta, 60 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles north of Libya, is about twice the size of the District of Columbia and has a population of about 380,000.
After more than 1 1/2 centuries of British control, it became independent in 1964 but remained closely allied with Britain and Western Europe. In 1971, the Malta Labor Party came to power and Mintoff, a socialist firebrand, became prime minister. He abrogated a defense pact with Britain, renegotiating it to triple British rents for military bases and to provide for British withdrawal in 1974.
In 1979, Mintoff signed a wide-ranging agreement with Libya, and he signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation last year that provides for Libyan military assistance. A 1981 pact with the Soviet Union guarantees Malta's neutrality and provides oil bunkering facilities for Soviet vessels.
Sceberras Trigona, at the United Nations last month, scolded westerners for their criticism of these moves. He described Malta's opening to the East as "simply a legitimate extension of existing partnerships, [not] an outright replacement" of traditional alliances.