While Yeltsin Drank

HAL PIPER

July 10, 1993|By HAL PIPER

When Boris Yeltsin came to town, 'twas a famous occasion. The Great Man was drunk.

At least, so we all thought at the Johns Hopkins breakfast meeting. I shook Mr. Yeltsin's hand in a reception line and concluded that drunkenness best explained his glassy-eyed incomprehension when I addressed him in his native tongue. (Or possibly it was my pronunciation.)

Nearly four years ago, Mr. Yeltsin was not yet a Great Man, only a gadfly irritant to Mikhail Gorbachev. (Remember him? Time magazine's ''Man of the Decade?'')

Nobody quite knew what to make of Mr. Yeltsin, or what to do with him. President Bush granted him a brief audience, but decreed that no pictures be taken. By then, Mr. Yeltsin had sobered up. The Sun's diplomatic correspondent at the time, Stephens Broening, reported this fact delicately, noting that the Russian's speech became progressively less slurred and more coherent as he trudged through the day's schedule.

But then, perhaps Mr. Yeltsin wasn't drunk at all. My Russian friends from Moscow stuck up for him. Reports in their newspapers of Mr. Yeltsin's drunkenness struck them as obvious disinformation planted by Gorbachev partisans.

Mr. Yeltsin looked drunk to me, but I'll cut him some slack. He was probably jet-lagged. He had come to Hopkins late the night before, after a full day in New York, visiting the Stock Exchange, among other things. If he finally got to Baltimore sometime after midnight, wound up too tight to sleep, and if availed himself of a hospitality bottle while replaying the days's events with his underlings, and then couldn't pull himself together for a 7:30 breakfast meeting -- well, so what?

What I remember from that breakfast is that while Mr. Yeltsin was, ah, indisposed, the underlings (who apparently had eschewed the hospitality bottle) told us what they had seen the day before at the New York Stock Exchange.

Russia needed a stock exchange, the underlings said. One wished to expostulate: O, say not so! Surely you remember that Wall Street is the very bootheel grinding the oppressed faces of the toiling masses.

No, Mr. Yeltsin's underlings explained. Communism's mistake was the abolition of private property. What had to be done was the transfer of ownership rights from the state to workers. But just handing Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov a piece of paper and calling it a share of ownership was meaningless unless that share could be bought and sold at an independently determined value. Thus, a stock exchange.

So, while Yeltsin drank, his underlings studied.

Last week, more Russian underlings came to Baltimore -- aides to members of the Russian parliament. The visit was arranged by the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington-based, quasi-private cultural exchange group.

The visitors were looking at real estate, at banking, at criminal justice. They were mock-arrested and put through the rigmarole of arraignment, working with a public defender and doing time in a lock-up.

They toured Baltimore with real-estate magnates and learned how to bid on a home in Guilford and an office building in Baltimore county. A title company explained mortgage points and property taxes and how to complain to elected officials.

During their five-week program, some of the Russians will get as far as North Dakota, where they will look at grain elevators and learn about crop insurance against flood and drought.

Like the underlings who accompanied Boris Yeltsin, these visitors are learning about America. Seeing it first-hand teaches more than many hours in a lecture hall. Not everything will be applicable to post-Communist, democratic Russia. (Let's hope nobody told the Russians about PACs and campaign-finance loopholes.)

We've been through this before. The Marshall plan gets deserved credit for rebuilding Europe after World War II. But private, low-level exchanges of college students, local officials, young leaders did much of the work of rebuilding German and Japanese political institutions and turning those countries into allies of the United States.

At their Tokyo summit yesterday, the world's most powerful leaders announced a $3 billion aid package for Mr. Yeltsin's Russia. That's important. But even more important in the long run are the lessons learned and the friendships built by underlings while the Great Men drink their toasts.

Hal Piper edits the Opinion * Commentary page.

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