THE Russian Federation's exuberant president has made the rounds in Washington, talking shop with members of Congress and greeting Mr. Bush at the White House. His plain-spoken style and readiness to deal have impressed nearly everyone. But he also poses a dilemma. Just how do you conduct business with Boris Yeltsin while sustaining the important agenda with Mikhail Gorbachev? The Bush administration is rightly keeping its eyes on arms control and regional peacemaking, endeavors which can only be pursued with the Soviet "center."
But Mr. Yeltsin undoubtedly represents the future. And nothing is likely to be more critical to a bona fide new world order than a reconstituted, democratic Soviet Union. Just what shape that new "union" may take is unclear. The new relationship between the center and the republics being hammered together by Yeltsin, now with Gorbachev's collaboration, presages a significant dispersal of power - and some rethinking of how the US can work with its old adversary.
That process is already underway with regards to economic restructuring. The "center" is quickly becoming less relevant to the question of market reforms and Western aid. The reformers are at the republic level, or even the municipal level - exemplified by Yeltsin, with his calls for radical change. Westerners wanting to encourage reforms will have to deal with Yeltsin's corps of free marketeers. Yeltsin has none of Gorbachev's hang-ups about private property and central control.
Potentially Russia is fertile ground for investment, with bountiful resources and a huge, often highly trained work force.
But the politics are far from settled. The Yeltsin-Gorbachev partnership is about to be put to new tests by conservative forces back home, who are rallying to hold off the new union treaty and Western economic theory.
The trick is to support both Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For now, they're on the right track together.