How Bush Could Help Moscow's Odd Couple Get Along

What a difference a da makes. The last time Soviet political maverick Boris N. Yeltsin toured Washington, he got a cold shoulder at the White House and was treated like just another political wannabe on Capitol Hill. But after getting a yes vote from his constituents and winning the first popular election in Russian history, the President of the Russian Republic arrived in Washington on June 18 to find the red carpet all rolled out for him.

The Administration arranged meetings with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, Vice-President Dan Quayle, and President Bush himself. Congress stopped short of inviting him to address a joint session but asked Yeltsin to confer with the bipartisan leadership of both houses and chat with both foreign-affairs committees.

DILEMMA CITY. Yeltsin's presence in Washington raises a thorny question for Bush: Is it possible to embrace this fiery populist, who calls for the rapid dismantling of the state-controlled economy, without undermining Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads the central government?

Proud of his foreign-policy prowess, Bush thinks he's up to the task of dealing with two powerful leaders in Moscow. But caution is in order. Bush has to be careful not to fall into traps set by such leading conservatives as Senators Jesse Helms (R-N. C.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who are eager to push Gorbachev off center stage. They prefer the anticommunist Yeltsin as an alternative to Gorbachev--and they're using his visit to intensify a campaign to shift U. S. attention from the central Soviet government to the republics. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kans.), for example, wasted no time in telling Yeltsin that he favors direct trade in agriculture between the U. S. and the Russian Republic.

As Bush well knows, too-rapid devolution of power to the republics could reduce the Soviet Union, with its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, to anarchy. Even in Gorbachev's embattled state, he continues to deliver on key U. S. objectives, ranging from the fall of the Berlin Wall to an impending strategic-arms deal.

But Bush has his own good reasons to squeeze into Yeltsin's photo op. The President's strong backing of Gorbachev backfired earlier this year when Soviet troops staged a crackdown in the Baltics. It's dangerous for Bush to put all his eggs in Gorbachev's basket. With Soviet politics so fluid, Bush risks leaving the U. S. ill-prepared to establish contacts with possible Gorbachev successors as they emerge in Moscow and the republics.

The President doesn't have to make an either-or choice between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It's in U. S. interests to cultivate solid relations with both men. In April, the two Moscow rivals saw fit to become allies--at least on paper. They, along with the leaders of eight other republics, pledged to work cooperatively to devise a new constitution that would share power between the central authorities and the republics and provide a base for moving to a free-market, democratic system.

This alliance is more than a tactical move by two master politicians. The bottom line is that Gorbachev and Yeltsin need each other. Under fire from conservatives back home, Gorbachev needs Yeltsin's popular support to lend legitimacy to any steps toward reform. And Yeltsin, despite his electoral victory, has no control over key institutions, such as the military, the Communist Party, and the KGB, which still back Gorbachev. Bush's challenge is to keep the momentum for reform alive by pressing both leaders to work together in nurturing free-market economics and the democratic process.

While Gorbachev's credentials are proven, Yeltsin is more of a wild card. He has yet to deliver on any of his rhetorical promises. The trick for Bush is to hold Yeltsin to them--from privatizing industry to signing a new union treaty--and not let him use his new clout to undermine Gorbachev. "It's not clear that Yeltsin can carry out reform in Moscow by himself, much less get people in Vladivostok to do what he wants," says Arthur A. Hartman, a former U. S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Bush has clout: He calls the tune on Western aid. That not only affects Gorbachev but also affects Yeltsin. Atop Yeltsin's wish list is securing private investment and aid for the Russian Republic. Bush should insist that any aid flow through the central government to the republics and be conditional on Yeltsin and Gorbachev maintaining their partnership. Bush has leverage over Gorbachev, too. Any aid should be closely tied to the democratic and economic reforms that Yeltsin represents.

The ideal leader for the Soviet Union is probably a composite of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, a person with Gorbachev's power base and Yeltsin's popular appeal. But George Bush doesn't have the ability to force that kind of leader to emerge. The best he can do is to use his leverage to keep the two Russians moving toward each other--or run the risk of a dangerous breakup of the Soviet Union.

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