EVEN before Boris Yeltsin touched down on United States soil June 18, the newly elected president of the Russian Republic had scored public relations victories on two fronts. First, by sending an advance team that worked to get out the Russian leader's message before his arrival, Mr. Yeltsin showed that he has matured as a politician and international statesman in the two years since his first visit to the US.
Second, in his advance message the charismatic Russian chided Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other senior Soviet officials for their recent unabashed requests for major, unconditional Western aid.
Yeltsin comes "not with his hand extended, as some of our leaders do on their foreign visits," Viktor Yugin, a leader in the Russian parliament, told reporters gathered June 17 at the Soviet Embassy here. Rather, he continued, Yeltsin was coming "to discuss mutually beneficial economic cooperation and cultural ties."
Yeltsin arrives in the US at the height of debate over what the West should do, if anything, to prevent a possible collapse of the Soviet economy and promote genuine, lasting market reforms.
The enthusiastic reception of Yeltsin's visit could bolster Gorbachev's bid for Western economic aid, because as a noncommunist and as the first democratically elected leader of Russia, Yeltsin could be instrumental in helping Gorbachev implement radical market reforms.
Over the weekend the much-discussed "grand bargain" proposal linking Western aid to Soviet reform, drawn up by US and Soviet academics at Harvard University, was delivered to the White House and the Kremlin.
The White House, for its part, has been lowering expectations that it might embrace the deal. "I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a response," said a White House spokesman. "We think the ball's in the Soviet court."
President Bush has thrown doubt on the ability of the US to come up with the billions of dollars it would need to contribute to the plan.
At the unveiling June 14 the plan's architects did not project an exact cost of the proposal, which would provide credits and cash to ease the hardships that would result from the shift to a market system and a convertible currency. But Stanley Fischer, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who took part in the project, says for the first few years the figures would be "large between $20 billion and $25 billion a year, a cost to be borne by the Western industrialized nations.
The first step, says Dr. Fischer, is for the Soviet Union to gain associate status at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which will then oversee the country's economic restructuring. The big change, he continues, would start in 1992, when price controls would be lifted, trade restrictions would be eased, and the money supply and budget deficit put under control.
When asked if Yeltsin will support the plan, Mr. Yugin said, "I think we will."
Such a position would put Yeltsin in a minority among top officials in the Soviet Union, who have resisted conditions being placed on talks over Western aid.
Members of a high-level Soviet delegation that discussed economic reform with top Bush administration officials last month have been affirming their commitment to the "anti-crisis program" already approved by the Soviet parliament.
Gorbachev aide Yevgeny Primakov and First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shcherbakov, have distanced the Kremlin from Grigory Yavlinsky, the lead Soviet economist on the Harvard plan.
Mr. Yavlinsky's murky status is "convenient for everybody involved," says Fischer of MIT. If the plan is deemed workable, everyone can embrace Yavlinsky's work, Fischer says. If not, the Kremlin will not be seen as having failed yet again to follow through on an economic reform plan.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin
Yavlinsky, who served briefly as Yeltsin's top economic adviser, was one of the main authors of the so-called 500-day plan that promised market reforms in less than two years. Gorbachev initially approved the plan, but then backed away from it. It remains to be seen how far Gorbachev is willing to go along the path to radical reforms.
Meanwhile, by using the Soviet Embassy as his base of operation during his three-day US visit, Yeltsin demonstrated the deferential side of his marriage of convenience with Gorbachev. And on the eve of his departure for the US, Yeltsin also nodded his head to Gorbachev by agreeing to a draft of the Soviet Union's new union treaty, which now faces the national and republics' legislatures for approval.
In a way, Yeltsin can afford to take the high road on the question of economic aid since Gorbachev, as President of the entire Soviet Union, is doing the asking for him. Although it is questionable whether any future aid would be distributed fairly to all 15 Soviet republics, there is less doubt that Russia, by far the largest republic, would benefit.
Stops along the way
Yeltsin is in the US to talk investment and trade. He will meet with President Bush in the Oval Office June 20. Other top-level meetings include Vice President Dan Quayle, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney.
On June 19 Yeltsin is to meet with congressional leaders who sponsored his visit. On June 21, he goes to New York to speak at New York University, meet officials at the Federal Reserve Bank, and talk with business executives and human rights advocates.