BORIS YELTSIN successfully donned the Mikhail Gorbachev mantle of world leader during his three-country tour last week - the first state visit by the man who faced down the coup plotters in August.
The Russian president occupied the former Soviet seat at the UN Security Council meeting in New York, made significant nuclear arms reduction proposals to Washington, and got President Bush to formally state that United States-Russian relations now constitute a "partnership." This is the kind of shoulder-rubbing with world leaders that Mr. Gorbachev excelled at. And it probably reassured some Russians to see their president received as a "great power" chief.
The US president may be slipping in the polls, but to most heads of state a visit with him is still diplomatic gold. That's why it was important that Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Bush had several hours together at Camp David and emerged calling each other "George" and "Boris." Prior to this, Yeltsin's drinking antics, his lamentable lecturing to national security adviser Brent Scowcroft last June, and rumors of buffoonery had made relations with Bush a question mark. Sunday, Bush made them an exclamation point.
Yeltsin had little to give away. Gorbachev had already played most of the former USSR's bargaining chips - arms reductions, strategic concessions, human rights agreements. Yeltsin's proposal to put Russia's 2,000 nuclear scientists, now dangerously idle, to work on a joint US-Russian missile-defense research program sends a mixed message. On the one hand, it could be argued that a purely defensive "shield" would halt any further nuclear arms race. On the other, it is an alarming proposal to those in the West who (1) thought Russia was ending its weapons research, and (2) worry that the inevitable outcome of such research is increased offensive capability.
But this is a side issue. Of immediate importance is the disintegrating Russian economy and its social impact. In the background of Yeltsin's visit was the question: Can Russia continue toward a democratic future, or will its failing economy and lack of food usher in an authoritarian regime?
Economically, the question is: Can the pathetic ruble be stabilized through the price freeing begun in January? Or must it finally be made convertible to hard currency to attract Western capital?
Either way, state monopolies must end and privatization begin. Bush no doubt told Yeltsin: "We are very concerned about your country's future, and won't let anyone go hungry." His longterm ideas have yet to be articulated.
Russia has made it to February without exploding. The winter wheat is soon to be harvested.