BUT WHO'LL PEEL THE POTATOES?

Who lost, who won in the recent embassy flap in with Moscow?

The hostility persists. Western sources say the U.S. Embassy here resembles a fortress under siege. Squads of Soviet police patrol the entrances on the outside. Squads of Americans, including Marines, guard the inside.A few days ago I saw the Soviet militia blocking the vehicle entrance to the embassy with a Volga sedan, moving it only when an official U.S. diplomat's car entered or left.

Some Western diplomats say philosophically that the whole mess is an incredible case of the inability of a few to foresee the inevitable consequences of certain actions. They also say that no one wanted it to turn out the way it did.

But, depending on your point of view, the present situation at the embassy is a triumph - or disaster. Few take a middle ground.

Those who call it a U.S. victory dwell on the new esprit de corps of U.S. diplomats, other staffers and Marines who, with stiff upper lip, are on front- line duty with sandwiches and cold drinks. Those who see it as a disaster point to the shut-downs at the embassy, the washing room that is all but idle, the snack bar that is no longer serving french fries (Russian workers used to peel the potatoes), the garage that is almost closed down, the contacts with Soviet citizens that have dwindled.

All told, the embassy lost about 180 Soviet employees who earned $1.3 million annually. They included translators, drivers, mechanics, secretarial help in the consulate, maintenance men, plumbers, electricians and the like. But there were also dozens of cooks and personal maids working for U.S. diplomats. They also were abruptly withdrawn in revenge for the U.S. government's decision to oust 55 Soviet diplomats.)

My impression is that nobody won in this improbable Soviet-U.S. flap.

I will stick my neck out and predict that within five years, and probably a lot less than that, both superpowers will want to renegotiate the controversial decisions of 1986.

Some foreign sources put additional weight on the U.S. side of the scale. They say for example that elimination of all the Russians working inside the U.S. Embassy removed at last all KGB links inside the embassy.

But why would Moscow shoot itself in the foot?

Not long ago a Western report claimed that the U.S. ambassador's driver was a KGB colonel. The envoy is said to have chuckled at the report, saying he didn't think his driver was that high up but that, in any case, the man had a winning personality.

Foreign sources give another plus to the U.S. side. They say the change has led to self-reliance, to the feeling that Americans can do a host of things for themselves, that they are not really as spoiled as often depicted.

It is a fact that U.S. diplomats now sweep and wash floors, pick up groceries ordered from abroad, look for non-Russian baby sitters, and try to organize business trips, despite the extra duties for everybody.

Some reports have cited money-saving. But this is canceled out by the big loss of time for U.S. diplomats who in some cases have to drive their kids to school. Also, to replace Russian maids and plumbers with help from the United States will entail much higher dollar costs in the long run.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the oncoming brutal Russian winter. Russian workers used to shovel snow, melt the ice around the embassy, change tires, fix heaters, and start cars when the mercury dips to 20 and 30 degrees below freezing. Some Western observers wonder who will choose to come to Moscow's hardship post that has now become harder.

It is already uncomfortable for embassy wives who can not find simple things like lettuce and celery in the local markets. But before this, the wives at least had maids and drivers to help with the shopping and search for other foods. Finally, who is going to end up peeling the potatoes? My guess is that it will be a long time before U.S. Embassy workers see a french fry in Moscow. Let let them eat cake like the rest of us.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe