WASHINGTON -- President Bush, saying he is convinced that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev remains committed to economic reform, hinted strongly yesterday that he is now inclined to favor some form of Western economic aid to the Soviet Union.
If the Soviets come forward with an economic plan that "makes sense, we'll encourage it," Mr. Bush told reporters. "If we have some reservations about it, we owe Mr. Gorbachev, who is a friend, that 'Hey look, this has some difficulty.' "
Later, he said, "Gorbachev, I am still convinced, is working the reform path, working the perestroika path, and I'm not going to pull the rug out from under him. On the other hand, we have limitations on what we can do. And when we do something, we want it to be meaningful."
Mr. Gorbachev renewed his bid for substantial Western economic aid Wednesday, tossing out the figure of "$100 billion," a sum Mr. Bush called "a large piece of change."
The Soviet leader also wants to attend the economic summit of seven industrialized nations in London in July, although one U.S. official said yesterday that Mr. Gorbachev had phrased his request in a way that "it will not be a big insult if he doesn't come."
He is dispatching Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shcherbakov and personal envoy Yevgeny M. Primakov to Washington next week for meetings with top administration economic officials, including Michael J. Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and State Department counselor Robert Zoellick.
They are expected to be joined here by Grigory Yavlinski, a Soviet economist who has been working with Harvard economists this week on a far-reaching reform plan combining a shift toward a market economy with massive infusions of foreign aid.
Bush administration officials have long been reluctant to extend direct aid to the Soviet Union, seeing no evidence that the Kremlin is willing to undertake the painful dismantling of its command economy.
"The Soviets haven't accomplished any economic reform. They've just talked about it," Deputy Treasury Secretary John Robson told Reuters this week.
But recent actions by Mr. Gorbachev, chiefly his April 23 agreement with nine Soviet republics, have strengthened the administration's faith in him. Mr. Gorbachev told Mr. Bush that his envoys would be bringing "some new ideas on economic reform," the president said yesterday.
Mr. Bush, who spoke yesterday with British Prime Minister John Major, said the two were "in exact sync" on withholding a decision about whether Mr. Gorbachev should attend the economic summit. He stressed earlier, "I don't want to have something come out of the summit that's negative. What I want to have it come out is positive."
His comment indicated that if the allies can agree beforehand on the outlines of a reform package to be announced at the summit, Mr. Gorbachev should be invited, but he didn't want the Soviet leader to come only to have his request rejected.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III stressed in congressional testimony this week that any economic aid to the Soviets should be tied not just to internal reform but also to political concessions.
"I don't think that we are at the point that we can look at this solely as an economic issue," Mr. Baker said, adding that the Soviet Union "does retain the capability to inflict great damage on the United States."