MOSCOW — RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin embarks today on a tour of Western nations that could make or break his reform efforts at home, government officials say.
During the Western tour Mr. Yeltsin will meet with the leaders of the United States, Britain, and Canada, as well as participate in a special United Nations Security Council summit tomorrow on global security.
Yeltsin prepared the ground for his visit yesterday with a televised speech in which he said Russia was ready to join the US in rapid arms reduction, a response to President Bush's State of the Union address, which called for further US cuts.
"The leadership of Russia confirms its commitment to the policy of radical cuts in nuclear arms, ensuring maximum safety of nuclear arms and all installations related to their development, production, and exploitation," Yeltsin said.
Gen. Geliy Batenin, an adviser to Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, says the outcome of Yeltsin's meetings with Western leaders will be "crucial" in determining the eventual success or failure of Russia's attempt at sweeping democratic and market-style reforms.
"We've come to the point of no return," General Batenin says. "Yeltsin must win support for his economic and political reforms from Bush and other Western leaders.... If he loses this chance it will be the end for his government."
The West has indicated that Russia's commitment to arms control and radical economic reform will play the key role in shaping future foreign aid to Moscow.
Substantial Western financial assistance is vitally needed to support Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Moscow officials have said. Such aid could greatly ease popular discontent during the difficult transition period, as Russia tries to build a market economy out of the rubble of the collapsed Communist command system.
Members of the G-7 group of industrialized nations so far have been reluctant to throw their full weight behind Russia because of doubts about reform efforts. The G-7 finance ministers, for example, recently urged the International Monetary Fund to admit Russia and other commonwealth states as members, possibly paving the way for new loans. But at the same time, the ministers declined to establish a stabilization fund to prop up the value of the Russian ruble, saying the Russian government had to do more
to control the money supply and curb inflation.
Concern over the breakup of the military of the former Soviet Union, particularly the fate of its nuclear weapons, also is an obstacle to aid.
To clear up lingering doubts in the West, Yeltsin must convince Western counterparts that his government has a coherent plan to ensure future economic, political, and military stability in the commonwealth, given that Russia considers itself the legal successor to the Soviet Union.
"It's critical for Yeltsin" to accomplish this, Batenin says. "Aid will be forthcoming only if the West is given a clear explanation on how political and economic reforms are going."
Yeltsin's arms-control speech could go a long way to dispel Western fears about nuclear proliferation in the former Soviet Union. The Russian president, saying his arms-control proposals are coordinated with the other 10 commonwealth members, promised that strategic nuclear weapons deployed on Ukrainian territory would be dismantled earlier than the announced 1994 target date. Unlike Ukraine, which has pledged to become a nuclear-free state, Russia plans to maintain some nuclear arms.
Yeltsin also proposed creating an international agency to oversee nuclear-arms reduction. In addition he said savings from nuclear-arms reduction "will be channeled to meeting civilian needs" and to reforms.
Despite such statements on nuclear arms, the collapse of the Soviet Union still poses potential military and political threats to global security.
A bitter dispute over control of the Black Sea fleet has driven a wedge between Russia and Ukraine, threatening the future stability of the commonwealth. The two sides have said they can solve their differences through negotiations, but have made little actual progress so far.
Yeltsin held talks Tuesday with Black Sea fleet commanders in which the Russian leader stressed the need to preserve the unity of the flotilla. Ukraine is seeking to take over a large portion of the fleet.
Perhaps the toughest challenge facing Yeltsin is keeping Russia in the fast lane to a market economy. The Russian government, headed by Yeltsin, is finding itself under tremendous pressure to ease up on reforms. Seizing on popular discontent caused by price increases, a wide array of forces are now opposing the government's crash reform plan.
If Yeltsin fails to win the complete backing of the West, some political experts say Russia could start on a downward spiral in which opponents of the government gain the upper hand and force curtailment of reform.
Starvation and hyperinflation would result if the government is forced to abandon radical reforms, Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar said in an interview in the Trud newspaper Tuesday.
"If by March we recoil under the influence of social demagogy, political intrigues, and public impatience, the credits will be stopped," Mr. Gaidar said. "And then, within a month, mass hunger will start."