KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- The White House yesterday welcomed Mikhail S. Gorbachev's move away from the Soviet Communist party "as another step forward in the reform process."
The brief statement issued here by President Bush's spokesman Marlin Fitzwater also noted that U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss presented his credentials to President Gorbachev during Kremlin session earlier yesterday.
Mr. Struass also met for 40 minutes yesterday with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who is increasingly regarded here as the major power in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Bush, who was monitoring yesterday's developments from the golf course, would not comment specifically on reports that Soviet President Gorbachev had quit the Communist Party.
"I heard one report on the ninth hole and another one I got on the 11th on the same matter," he complained. "So, you can't really comment until you know the facts."
But the president applauded the swift course of Soviet events that he said seem to be to "working in favor of the United States."
"I see nothing adverse . . . to the interests of the United States, which of course is our prime interest in all this," the president added in a brief exchange with reporters outside the clubhouse.
The White House also reacted cautiously to the declaration of independence by the Ukrainian Republic, saying it would wait to see whether the the central government would concur in the move.
As it happens, the Ukraine is the only Soviet republic besides Russia to have its own U.S. consulate. Established under an arrangement worked out during President Jimmy Carter's administration, the consulate in Kiev just opened last spring.
U.S. officials say they have no plans to recognize the independence of any Soviet republic, including the Baltics, until a pact has been made with the central government.
Noting that Mr. Yeltsin seems to be calling most of the shots for the central government and that he has been a proponent of independence movements, the White House estimates such an agreement would develop more quickly now.
Academic analysts of Soviet affairs concur, and say that even with his withdrawal from the Communist Party leadership, events may already be moving too fast for Mr. Gorbachev to keep pace. "These questions are now measured in terms of hours," said Thane Gustafson, of Georgetown University. "He [Mr. Gorbachev] has to put himself at the head of the liberal bandwagon right along with Yeltsin if he wishes to survive, or else you could end up with a mob backlash. . . . You could basically have 1989 in Eastern Europe occurring all over again."
Dimitri Simes, of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, said Mr. Gorbachev's resignation from the party was "the absolute minimum he can do if he wants to stay as president. The Communist Party is perceived in the Soviet Union today the way the Nazi Party was perceived in Germany in 1945. . . . He was the one who was really instrumental in destroying the party, but I don't think he fully understood the momentous consequences of his actions."
Whatever the future structure of the Soviet Union, the overriding issue will continue to be its economy. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is expected to raise the issue of greater economic aid for the Soviet Union at a meeting scheduled here today with President Bush.
But Mr. Bush is holding fast to his insistence that the market reforms to the Soviet economy be put in place before a large infusion of cash would be warranted, or even wise.
"Eventually, there may be a way we can help with money," he told reporters. "But before that we've got to see reforms in the Soviet Union. We've got to know who we're dealing with in these ministries. There's just a lot of things that have to happen before we can move forward."