Congress' cheers for Yeltsin give Russians welcome glow of pride Criticism of arms cuts was largely predictable

June 21, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Finally Americans have started to forget about Mikhail S. Gorbachev and have been swept off their feet by Boris N. Yeltsin.

The affection lavished on Mr. Yeltsin on his visit to the United States last week is likely to have a deep psychological effect on his people back home.

The televised pictures of the U.S. Congress lustily cheering Mr. Yeltsin fill a far deeper need than the predictable political sniping produced by an agreement to substantially weaken Russia's nuclear arsenal.

"People feel frustrated," said Georgi A. Arbatov, director of the Institute for the United States and Canada. "Because of the difficulties we're going through, they feel that Russia is humiliated. The reception received by Yeltsin will be very healthy for him here."

Mr. Arbatov, an academician who is quite critical of some of Mr. Yeltsin's economic policies, couldn't help but beam when he described how Mr. Yeltsin was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations when he addressed Congress.

"It meant more than simply liking his speech," Mr. Arbatov said. "Twelve times! You can't fake that kind of enthusiasm."

Of course, the need for a little world respect is satisfied in different ways by different people. And there is an element here that needs to see Russia in its superpower role of old for it to hold its head up with dignity.

To this element, the Yeltsin visit was a veritable minefield of potential explosions. The arms reductions he proposed could very easily provide his critics with ammunition against him. Mr. Yeltsin made himself very vulnerable to the charge that he was further weakening a nation badly sapped of strength already.

Aid for Russia is another point on which Mr. Yeltsin is vulnerable. Wrapping up his six-day North American trip yesterday, he flew back to Moscow from Canada, where he had made the same pitch as in the United States: invest in Russia.

Failure to produce a large package of economic aid from the United States could damage faith in Mr. Yeltsin's ability to lead his nation out of the deep crisis in which it is mired.

But so far, only the most predictable of criticism has emerged here.

Pravda, the newspaper that formerly belonged to the Communist Party, offered some unsurprising fare about arms reduction, seeing it in the darkest of terms and the agreement entirely favorable to Washington.

Was the arms deal, Pravda asked, "hasty and unjustified concessions to Washington and the final loss by Russia of her status and significance as a superpower?"

The more moderate Izvestia offered a more moderate view. Mr. Yeltsin was "right when he decided to break the ice of mutual suspicion with his utmost openness and sincerity," said columnist Vladimir Nadein.

"All pre-Yeltsin politicians knew only too well that the country's poverty was closely linked with the piles of weapons, but before Yeltsin none of them dared admit this in public."

Undoubtedly, Mr. Nadein wrote, Mr. Yeltsin will be assailed for proposing arms reductions so that Russia is "no longer cabable of destroying the world a thousand times, but probably only once."

But Mr. Yeltsin won something far more valuable than the overkill he gave up, Mr. Nadein said: He seized a chance to increase by a thousand times the opportunity for peace.

Mr. Arbatov describes two groups who will oppose Mr. Yeltsin's arms cut initiatives.

"There are those who would criticize whatever Yeltsin would do," he said. "They're simply enemies of Yeltsin and his policies and his government. Their overall colors are red and brown [Communist and fascist].

"The second category is those who have vested interests in the military industrial complex or who combine the idea of greatness of Russia with its military arsenal."

The rabid nationalists who can find nothing right with Mr. Yeltsin quickly weighed in.

Sergei Baburin, a leader of the Russian Unity group in Parliament, saw the arms accord as bowing to Western pressure and as the "destruction of Russia's defense capability."

Nikolai Pavlov, a Baburin ally, said that with the agreement Mr. Yeltsin ceased "being . . . a politician and citizen of Russia."

Mr. Pavlov suggested that Parliament launch an offensive against "this criminal, insane, anti-Russian, anti-people and anti-state regime."

Most thinking people, however, understand that the arms race has been a major source of their nation's poverty. Until 1989, citizens were told that 4.2 percent of the Gross National Product was spent on defense. It was actually more than 30 percent, a strain the economy could not bear forever.

Mr. Yeltsin's opponents are bitter and vocal, but their numbers are relatively small.

Mr. Yeltsin remains in most danger of disappointing the ordinary folk who have been patiently sacrificing in the last months in the hope he can mend the economy.

For two years, Russians have been receiving humanitarian aid. They are invariably grateful for it, even though once it is divided up among so many people, it means a can of sausages here or a box of dried milk there.

Mr. Arbatov thinks these past two years have chastened people.

"Now many people understand it even better than before," he said. "The major work has to be done by ourselves. Aid from abroad can be crucial, but it doesn't solve the problem."

For these patient people, there is victory in Mr. Yeltsin's Washington visit: America had finally forgotten Mikhail Gorbachev.

Russians couldn't forgive Mr. Gorbachev for, as they saw it, making the decisions that resulted in the coup last August. He annoyed many by speaking Russian poorly.

"You were so enamored with Gorbachev, and you couldn't love two at once," Mr. Arbatov said. "Yeltsin saved us from the coup, and this saved the United States from a lot of unpleasantness. On this visit, the real Yeltsin came through."

At last, America and Russia understood each other.

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