BORIS Yeltsin, who leads Mikhail Gorbachev by a margin of 59 percent to 18 percent in the Soviet opinion polls, is about to challenge his rival in what may be Mr. Gorbachev's last stronghold: Washington. Yeltsin's chief of staff, Gennadi Burbulis, came to Capitol Hill recently to lay the groundwork for a full-time diplomatic mission here, representing what he calls the ``independent, sovereign state'' of Russia. Mr. Burbulis and five other officials of the Russian republic reminded Vice President Quayle at a private meeting that they came not as the opposition to Gorbachev but as representatives of their own government, which has more people and land area than the other 14 Soviet republics combined. That government's formal claim to ``sovereignty,'' now four months old, has triggered Moscow's most profound constitutional crisis since 1917. It's as if secessionist South Carolina had been joined in 1861 not just by the other Southern states, but by New York and New England.
The secessionists' takeover of the Russian heartland makes it harder than ever to justify the Bush administration's exclusive focus on helping Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin's government has already reached out to Lithuania, helping thwart Gorbachev's economic embargo. It has claimed the power to veto the deployment of Russian troops anywhere outside the Russian republic. If the Russian republic makes good its claim to sovereignty, ``the Soviet Union'' will be as extinct as the Holy Roman Empire.
Four years ago, Yeltsin still called himself a socialist; today he talks about the ``sacred right'' of private property. Opportunism? Maybe. What matters more is that he speaks for Russia, a culture and polity born many centuries before Leninism and as certain as England or China to endure for centuries to come. Gorbachev speaks only for the Soviet Union, an ideological construct that inspires loyalty from almost nobody outside its ruling class.
Yeltsin's emissaries told a symposium hosted by Washington's Free Congress Foundation that their government is ready to bypass Gorbachev and build its own web of relations with the West, including direct negotiations with United States investors and entrepreneurs.
The Yeltsin agenda in some ways resembles the manifesto by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, published last month in two major Moscow journals. ``How Shall We Reconstitute Russia?'' the exiled writer's most detailed commentary since 1973 on current Soviet politics, calls for the deliberate renunciation of both Soviet and Russian imperialism. He envisions a ``Russian Union'' reduced to the Slavic republics of Russia, the Ukraine, and Belorussia - plus the northern, mostly Russian section of Kazakhstan in Asia.
The Russian republic's spokesmen in Washington were not as forthright as Solzhenitsyn, but their government has already moved far beyond Gorbachev's reforms. It has not only pushed for the more radical version of the ``500-day plan'' for transition to a free-market economy, but has abolished the Russian office of the Council for Religious Affairs - the state agency that regulates all church activities. The Russian parliament has even passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all Soviet advisers from Iraq. To the West, the Yeltsin/Russian agenda is clearly more attractive than the Gorbachev/Soviet program - but will it succeed?
Kremlin-watcher John Dunlop of the Hoover Institution is optimistic. He believes Yeltsin's takeover of the Russian republic, combined with other milestones such as the election of reformist local governments in Moscow and Leningrad, has launched what he calls ``the `Jaruzelskiazation' of Gorbachev... it is already conceivable that he will be both a one-term president and the last president of the Soviet Union.'' Dunlop's ``optimal scenario'' is the emergence of ``a relatively benign Russia, reduced in size, pluralistic, with a market or mixed economy, at peace with her neighbors, but maintaining armed forces strong enough to deter potential aggression.'' Its likelihood? ``Something like 70 percent.''
What movements like Solidarity did in other formerly captive nations, Russian secessionism is doing in Moscow. Eighteenth-century federalists such as James Madison or George Mason would be delighted: The Slavic equivalents of state governments are leading the way to freedom, while the national government lags behind. As the world's only other continent-sized federation, America should stop ignoring this transformation and start helping it.