Bush-Yeltsin Encounter No. 2

June 19, 1991

Is that $100 billion "Grand Bargain" fashioned by Harvard scholars and Soviet reformers more Gorbachev or more Yeltsin? Or are the un-elected president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the popularly elected new president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, going to put aside their rivalry in the interest of luring a Western aid package to rescue a failed economy?

These questions should be at the forefront of President Bush's concerns when he meets Mr. Yeltsin in the Oval Office tomorrow in one of the touchiest diplomatic encounters of the year. The last time the two men conferred, on Sept. 12, 1989, Mr. Yeltsin was sobering up after a drinking bout on the Johns Hopkins campus and Mr. Bush was doing his best to pass him off lest Mr. Gorbachev be offended. A White House communique stated that Mr. Bush had "noted his very positive relationship with General Secretary Gorbachev."

No such put-down is in the works this time. Mr. Yeltsin's resounding victory last week in the first free election in Russian history makes him a figure Washington will have to take seriously.

As Mr. Bush prepares for a mid-July summit between Mr. Gorbachev and leaders of the world's seven mightiest industrial democracies, he will also have to take seriously a controversial Western assistance plan drafted at the urging of Grigory Yavlinsky, a 38-year-old Soviet economist who has lined up allies at Harvard who champion ambitious "shock treatment" reforms.

While such intellectual backing will be an asset for Mr. Gorbachev when he goes to London, the fact is that Mr. Yavlinsky is a protege of Mr. Yeltsin -- not of Mr. Gorbachev. And the further fact is that while Mr. Gorbachev will be pleading for bailout billions, only Mr. Yeltsin (with Mr. Yavlinsky's encouragement) has endorsed a radical conversion to the kind of market economy vigorously opposed by the reactionary Soviet premier, Valentin Pavlov.

This being the case, Mr. Yeltsin's appearance gives Mr. Bush an opportunity to re-emphasize his own conditioned, step-by-step approach to any big infusions of Western funds. Without fundamental changes, which would include the dismantling of Marxism-Leninism and its control apparatus to make way for a quasi-capitalistic system, there is no case for large-scale Western investment. That's the message for Mr. Gorbachev. And without political stability, which would include a loose but workable sharing of authority between the Kremlin center and the various republics, the West cannot be comfortable in its relations with the Soviet Union. That's the message for Mr. Yeltsin.

The new Russian president carries with him into the White House the legitimacy that can come only through a free elective process. His vision of what the Soviet Union should become, even taking into account the demagoguery that comes naturally to a populist politician, is closer to what the Western democracies want than anything yet heard from Mr. Gorbachev.

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