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NEWS ANALYSIS : As Yeltsin Steps In, Some Doubt He Can Fill Role

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 11 visits to the Soviet Union during the last three years, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has warmed up to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, dined at the home of Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, even lazed in a sauna with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

But when it comes to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, the most powerful leader in the new post-Soviet commonwealth, things haven’t quite clicked the same way. When Baker met the Russian leader in Moscow last week, the secretary of state’s smile seemed forced, his manner more wary.

“People still have reservations about Yeltsin,” a U.S. official explained. “He’s shown a great knack for amassing power . . . but no great knack for defining any far-sighted policy goals. Everybody deals with him because he’s there--but would you deal with him if he weren’t in power? No.”

For almost seven years, as the United States built a new relationship with the Soviet Union, the key partners in the enterprise were Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, cerebral conciliators who actively sought the goodwill of the West.

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But now that the Soviet Union is virtually no more, both Baker and President Bush, who put great store in “personal diplomacy,” must forge a working relationship with the rough-hewn Yeltsin.

“A lot is riding on Yeltsin,” said CIA Director Robert M. Gates, who expresses more admiration for the Russian leader than do most of Gates’ colleagues. Gates said Yeltsin’s presence is one of the main reasons he is encouraged about today’s Russian Federation: “He has shown a feel for where the Russian public is that I think is unmatched by anybody else.”

Still, other officials say they are not yet comfortable with the idea of Yeltsin as a world-class leader. “He’s a study in raw power,” complained one. “He’s the kind of guy who pokes you in the chest to make a point.”

Their objections go well beyond reports of Yeltsin’s boorishness. In years past, diplomats swapped tales (of uncertain reliability) about Yeltsin’s drinking too much, urinating on an airport runway and eating caviar at an official banquet with the stumps of two of his fingers that were blown off in an accident when he was a teen-ager. But now, officials say, it’s Yeltsin’s style of politics that has them worried.

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One worrisome point, some officials say, is Yeltsin’s on-again, off-again commitment to real economic reform in the new Russia: “There’s been a lot of talk, but not much action,” complained one.

An even greater problem, they charge, is Yeltsin’s frequent assertion that Russia is the sole heir of many of the old Soviet Union’s major assets--including its nuclear arsenal and its seat on the U.N. Security Council--with little apparent regard for the sensitivities of his nuclear-equipped neighbors, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

A Russian grab for regional power--even if it’s over republics that have been ruled from Moscow for centuries--could bring the United States and the new sovereign Russia into a sudden confrontation, officials said.

“Our main concern now is to make sure the Russians behave themselves and not to give them any pretext for asserting domination,” one official said.

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“Russian leaders have the habit of thinking in imperial terms, including Yeltsin,” former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said last week in an interview with Cable News Network. “I have the impression that the Yeltsin entourage would like to restore the domination of the Russian republic.”

A drive by Yeltsin to bring the other republics to heel could prompt some of them--such as Ukraine, with the support of a substantial Ukrainian-American community--to appeal to the United States for help.

That kind of dispute among former Soviet republics “is exactly where we don’t want to be,” one U.S. official said.

Yeltsin’s defenders argue that those fears are exaggerated.

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“The most impressive thing about Yeltsin’s brand of Russian nationalism is precisely that it doesn’t seek domination over the other republics,” a State Department official said. He noted that the Russian leader made a point of putting the headquarters city of the new commonwealth in the Belarussian capital of Minsk to avoid the impression of domination from Moscow.

“This is a man who has . . . shown remarkable mastery of Western or democratic political skills,” CIA Director Gates said in an interview. " . . . He is somebody who has peacefully overseen the destruction of the old central government and brought about this commonwealth. He has put together an economic reform plan that, in its essential elements, looks like it could have been written by the International Monetary Fund.”

Inside the Administration, Gates, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Vice President Dan Quayle are said to be Yeltsin’s most ardent fans. Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and President Bush are said to remain skeptical.

Some who believe that the Administration should have embraced Yeltsin more warmly argue that the United States may have lost influence with the Russian leader by waiting so long. Now that he has come to power despite U.S. objections, they suggest, he may see little need to take U.S. advice.

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But most aides believe that Russia’s need for economic help is so desperate that Yeltsin will seek good relations with Washington despite the differences of the past.

Scowcroft and Yeltsin got off on the wrong foot in 1989, when the Russian--then an up-and-coming opposition leader--asked for a White House meeting with Bush and made it clear that he was not satisfied with seeing a mere national security adviser.

Bush’s hesitation about Yeltsin and his devotion to Gorbachev--including public praise for the Soviet leader this fall even as his power was clearly slipping away--has prompted a spate of impromptu psychoanalysis among foreign policy experts.

In this case, they argued, differences of political style were also differences of substance.

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“There was a great deal of psychology involved there,” suggested Leon Aron, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation who is writing a biography of Yeltsin. “Bush owed something to Gorbachev; they had come a long way together. I think (the Administration) also saw, in Gorbachev, a fellow bureaucrat--a politician who, like them, had followed a conventional path up through the ranks. Yeltsin is the exact opposite: an insurgent, a man who made his career, even in the (Communist) party, by being unconventional.”

“The Administration has been seeking stability, which is fine,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former Reagan Administration official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But their mistake has been to think that the situation was going to be stabilized by . . . the kind of appeals to reason that Gorbachev was always making. . . . What will stabilize the situation is power, power wielded by someone like Yeltsin, who has real political legitimacy.”

In any case, Russian and American officials, recognizing that they are now stuck with each other, are working to improve the relationship, from both sides.

Yeltsin has deliberately reached out, sending a talented diplomat, Andrei Kolosovsky, to Washington as his personal envoy. Kolosovsky, working from the Soviet Embassy, has found a ready audience not only among U.S. officials but also among the embassy staff, who suspect that he may soon be Moscow’s full-fledged ambassador.

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And once-skeptical U.S. officials now take pains to praise Yeltsin’s political acumen and to note how much he has “grown” since his first, tempestuous visit to the United States two years ago.

“He’s a good politician,” a senior official told reporters traveling with Baker, in carefully chosen words.


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