Moving to establish warm ties with the newly elected president of the Russian Federation, the White House announced Thursday that President Bush will meet next week in Washington with Boris N. Yeltsin, whose previous visit to the United States was marked by thinly veiled official snubs.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater portrayed Yeltsin's first-round victory in Wednesday's voting across Russia as a signal of the Soviet leadership's commitment to a pluralistic political system.
"This is the first election in Russia, and we're happy to see it," Fitzwater said.
Perhaps even more important for the Bush Administration, it was seen as a reflection of the depth of the disenchantment across the Soviet Union's most populous republic with the leadership of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--further raising the possibility that at some not-too-distant point, Bush may find himself dealing with a new leader in the Kremlin.
However, Yeltsin's visit to Washington, and particularly his meetings with Bush and--separately--with Vice President Dan Quayle, pose a problem for the Administration.
"You've got a fine line," said one senior Administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You can't undermine Gorbachev because he's our main man. But we've got to reach out and get some eggs into the other guy's basket. It's got to be done delicately."
Reflecting just such a balancing act, Fitzwater took note of Bush's previous meetings with the elected leaders of other Soviet republics. He has met six times in the past year, most recently in May, with leaders from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are in the throes of popular efforts to break away from the Soviet fold.
However, Yeltsin is the first elected leader to pose a direct challenge to Gorbachev's continued role at the helm of the troubled Soviet political system, and his invitation to visit the White House next Thursday allows Bush to signal a readiness to work with the competing components in the increasingly diverse Soviet political spectrum. An Administration official said there has been no signal of complaint from Moscow.
Yeltsin visited the United States in September, 1989. He stopped briefly at the White House, where he met with Brent Scowcroft, the President's national security adviser. But Bush stayed away from the meeting, as the Administration gingerly sought to avoid stepping into Yeltsin's rivalry with Gorbachev.
Bush had no public comment Thursday about Yeltsin's election.
But, meeting with Baltic-Americans, Bush reiterated the U.S. government's long-held policy that "the Baltics will one day once more be free" as he took advantage of a ceremony commemorating Baltic Freedom Day to signal support for the efforts of three Soviet republics to gain their independence.
The republics--Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia--have been governed by the Soviet Union ever since they were annexed in June, 1940, as the result of a secret World War II pact between Hitler and Stalin.
Bush saluted the resumed negotiations between Soviet and Baltic leaders over the independence-minded republics' future, and he signaled his concern about continued Soviet acts of harassment that are "incompatible with the process of peaceful change."
"Good-faith negotiations cannot go forward in an atmosphere of threat and intimidation," he said.
As with his upcoming meeting with Yeltsin, Bush has walked a fine line in his dealings with the Baltic republics, speaking encouragingly of their aspirations for independence while taking care not to undercut Gorbachev's efforts to keep the Soviet nation from fragmenting.
The Administration's comments on the Russian election were a departure from traditional policy, under which U.S. officials would consider it improper to remark on the "internal affairs" of another nation, and it reflected the uniqueness of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union. The election was the first in which Russians have chosen their leader.
The balloting "underscores the continued movement forward on political reform that the Soviet Union has undertaken under the leadership of President Gorbachev," Fitzwater said. "It certifies the commitment of the Soviet leadership and its people toward establishing a political system that is democratic and pluralistic."
Asked whether the Administration would also like to see Gorbachev face voters, the spokesman said: "We won't try to dictate events, but we think elections are sound and a basis for a democracy."
Congress addressed a tentative invitation to Yeltsin several weeks ago; after his victory appeared certain, the White House quickly extended a formal invitation for a meeting with Bush. Fitzwater said Bush and Yeltsin will discuss "the future of the Russian republic."
The dates for a full-scale summit meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow remain uncertain while negotiators work to complete a strategic arms reduction agreement. But the Soviet leader and Bush will meet in London on July 17, just after the formal close of the annual conference of the leading industrial democracies, when Gorbachev will speak to the seven-nation group about Soviet economic difficulties.
OFFICIAL VISITS -- UNITED STATES