NEWS ANALYSIS : Cowboy Boots Give Yeltsin a Global Leg Up
They called each other “Boris” and “my friend George,” and declared with reciprocal fervor that they admire each other hugely.
President Bush surprised Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin with a birthday cake bearing a single candle (he was 61 on Saturday). And Yeltsin left with the full package of Camp David souvenirs, from a fur-lined White House parka to hand-tooled Texas cowboy boots with a silver map of Russia on the side.
If Bush’s main goal this weekend was to “make Boris Yeltsin feel important,” as one of the President’s aides put it, he appears to have succeeded handsomely.
From the moment on Friday morning when the President deliberately plunked himself down next to Yeltsin at the U.N. Security Council to the private lunch the two leaders shared Saturday at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Bush laid on a calculated effort at male bonding--and Yeltsin responded in kind.
“I have a very warm feeling in my heart about what he has done and is trying to do,” Bush said of Yeltsin as the two presidents spoke with reporters in a chilly airplane hangar. “I consider him my friend.”
“I’m just tremendously impressed by his wisdom,” Yeltsin said of Bush, delivering what sounded oddly--or, perhaps, not oddly--like an election-year endorsement. “I think he has incredible qualities, not only as a politician but also as a person. . . .
“Today our relations have been formed as friends,” Yeltsin went on. “And we talk quite frequently to each other. We call each other on the telephone. We say ‘Boris’ and ‘George.’ And already this says a lot.”
Behind the declarations of mutual admiration, of course, lay a far more serious aim: making sure the leaders of the world’s two largest nuclear powers understand and trust each other, especially when the next crisis comes.
Despite the hearts-and-flowers tone of their joint news conference, the two presidents’ three-hour meeting was dominated by talk of the daunting problems they will have to face together: the prospect of economic collapse in Russia and its neighbors and the danger of nuclear proliferation around the world.
U.S. officials had said that they wanted to give Yeltsin the message that, after months of holding him at arm’s length, Bush and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft have finally decided that supporting the Russian president is their best hope for avoiding even greater instability in the former Soviet Union.
“We think Yeltsin went away reassured,” an Administration official said.
On the other side of the table, Yeltsin wanted desperately to impress the Americans as a reliable partner and to convince them that the failure of his reforms would spell danger for the United States and the West as well as Russia itself.
On that level, each president got what he wanted. Bush declared his full support for Yeltsin’s economic reforms and implied his backing for a major Western economic aid program run by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Yeltsin accepted Bush’s profession of friendship and responded to U.S. concerns about Soviet nuclear weapons, the “brain drain” of former Soviet nuclear scientists and reported Russian arms sales to Iran.
Some Bush Administration officials were still uneasy about Yeltsin’s penchant for making sweeping declarations without offering crucial details, such as his call for a joint U.S.-Russian effort to build a global defense against ballistic missiles. “We still aren’t sure what he’s talking about,” one official said.
But more important than any specific issue--or the vague declaration of a “new era” of friendship that Yeltsin requested--was the effort to put the Bush-Yeltsin relationship on the same close footing as the telephone partnership Bush enjoyed with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s predecessor as top political figure in what used to be the Soviet Union.
Bush and Yeltsin have taken the first steps, but they are not quite there yet.
Yeltsin betrayed some of his own uncertainty inside the meeting, a U.S. official said, demanding at one point: “Do you consider us adversaries?”
“No,” Bush is said to have replied, opening up a long exchange about the partnership both seek.
In a revealing moment, when Bush was asked about his personal rapport with Yeltsin, he began by recalling, “I had a very close relationship with Mr. Gorbachev. It was built on respect. It became a friendship.”
There was still a tentative quality to some of Saturday’s bonhomie. Bush addressed Yeltsin at one point as “Mr. President--Boris”; when he reached out to touch the Russian’s elbow, his hand stopped an inch short. And there was still a yawning gulf in style between the blunt-spoken construction boss from Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) and the deliberately casual patrician from Yale.
One important point, U.S. and Russian officials said, is that the two presidents recognized that they will disagree on some issues but resolved to keep that from poisoning their relationship as a whole.
“In the future, there’ll be full frankness, full openness, full honesty in our relationship,” Yeltsin said. “Both of us value that very, very much.”
“At some point, on some issues, American and Russian interests are going to conflict,” a U.S. official said. “That’s when we’ll find out whether this friendship can really last.”