WHEN Russian leader Boris Yeltsin walks into the White House today, he will be seeking something he didn't get the last time he was there - respect. On his first visit two years ago, Mr. Yeltsin was treated with suspicion and viewed as an unstable populist repudiated by his former ally, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He was granted only an audience with a presidential aide, during which President Bush "dropped in" for a few minutes' chat.
"Two years ago, Yeltsin was a man who rebelled against Gorbachev, which was a sin in American eyes, a man without any substantial program, a man who attracted sympathy here but who had no political base. Now it is quite different," observes Victor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Yeltsin has returned as the first democratically elected leader in the history of Russia. His government is pursuing radical political and economic reform of the Soviet Union into a democratic, market-based society. And he has moved from confrontation to cooperation with Mr. Gorbachev, giving the Soviet leader crucial aid against conservative Communist opponents of reform.
It is not difficult to discern Yeltsin's yearning to be accorded the esteem he feels he deserves as a leader in his own right. According to an account by the official Tass news agency, Yeltsin told reporters at the airport before leaving that he wanted to give Mr. Bush "a realistic idea" of the Soviet situation. That meant, he continued, that the best course for the United States "is to conduct a dialogue both with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, instead of bearing in mind just one political figure."
Such talk is not meant to suggest that Yeltsin is ready to challenge Gorbachev again. In his speech at the Soviet Embassy in Washington on Tuesday night, Yeltsin gave Gorbachev credit for reforms that led to his own election. But he also conditioned his support upon Gorbachev's own reform commitments.
"If Gorbachev is a reformer ... then I am with him," he told ABC television. "If he holds up reforms ... I'm his opponent."
Some here suggest that Gorbachev was miffed by the speedy invitation to Yeltsin. According to one view, Gorbachev would have preferred the Yeltsin visit to follow his own summit with Bush and his mid-July luncheon with the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in London.
But the Kremlin is visibly trying to play down any hint of displeasure with Yeltsin's trip. The two men met before Yeltsin's departure, with Gorbachev's spokesman describing the visit as a "positive fact."
Even if this is only politeness, the reality is that the two men are drawn together, not by feelings of warmth, but by political necessity.
"They are chained together," says Igor Sedykh, editor in chief of Russia's Information Agency.
Abroad and at home, Gorbachev's tattered credibility as a reformer benefits from his alliance with Yeltsin. Without a stable political deal with the republics, along with serious market reforms, Gorbachev has no hope of getting the Western aid and investment he will seek in London.
Such a deal came a step closer this week when Gorbachev and the leaders of nine republics met to finalize the draft of a new union treaty. Some key issues remain unresolved, including taxation and control over energy and power resources. But the draft has been sent to the republic parliaments for consideration.
Kremlin officials express optimism the treaty could be concluded in July, after parliamentary amendments are reconciled in a final negotiating conference. Others are skeptical it can move that fast, but the direction of movement is undeniably forward.
The republics are the main source of support for more radical economic reform plans, such as the "grand bargain" drawn up by Harvard University experts and Soviet economists, led by former Russian Deputy Premier Grigory Yavlinsky. The plan calls for linking large-scale Western aid to carrying out concrete reforms. On Monday, Mr. Yavlinsky presented the plan to the assembled republican leaders, who gave it their backing, Gorbachev aide Grigory Revenko told reporters.
The republican-Gorbachev pact has redrawn the lines of political conflict. The axis of struggle has shifted from Gorbachev vs. Yeltsin and the republics to a battle pitting the republics against the central Supreme Soviet (parliament) and the Cabinet. The parliament and its Cabinet are the bastions of the more orthodox Communists and their bureaucratic allies.
When Gorbachev was leaning to the right last winter, he relied on these institutions for support. Now those forces are openly attacking the deal Gorbachev has reached with the republics.
The Communists object to plans to rapidly follow the new union treaty with a new constitution and elections for all national posts. They fear such elections could sweep them from control of the parliament. Supreme Soviet chairman Anatoly Lukyanov has sought a role for the parliament in approving the treaty. But Mr. Revenko drew a line on this, saying that since "the republics form the union, they cannot be brushed aside by another body."
The tension between Gorbachev and the conservatives sharpened early this week when Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and supporters in the parliament went on the offensive. At the parliament session on Monday, they dismissed the Harvard-Yavlinsky plan and warned of being financially dependent on the West. Mr. Pavlov defended his own "anticrisis program," which offers a more centrally directed and gradual shift to the market. He asked the parliament to give the Cabinet additional powers, supposedly to carry
out that program.
Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko tried to play down the challenge to Gorbachev. But Revenko more bluntly rebuked the conservatives, telling reporters that "the Cabinet of ministers has enough powers."
But doubts persist about Gorbachev's own consistency, particularly on economic reform. He told Soviet television that he saw no obstacle to a "synthesis" of the Pavlov plan and the Harvard-Yavlinsky approach, a remark reminiscent of last fall when Gorbachev abandoned a deal with Yeltsin in which he agreed to support the radical 500-day reform plan initially drawn up by Yavlinsky.