MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev declined yesterday to see a U.S. congressional delegation on its way back from a tour of Soviet troops' bloodshed in the Baltic republics. And the Soviet Foreign Ministry decided at the last minute that its press center would not be available for the delegation's news conference.
What to do? Head to the Russian Federation headquarters, where Mr. Gorbachev's rival, Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, met the delegation for more than an hour. Hastily arrange a news conference at Mr. Yeltsin's shop.
"I believe I speak for all the delegation when I say that Mr. Yeltsin demonstrated the strongest possible commitment to the continuing of the process of democratization and perestroika," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission and led the 13-member delegation, which included Baltimore Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd.
As for the Soviet president? "I and the delegation were very disappointed that our request to meet with President Gorbachev did not work out," Mr. Hoyer said. "Whether for schedule purposes or other purposes, we have been unable to meet with President Gorbachev."
The day symbolized a reluctant but unmistakable shift in U.S. political orientation from Mr. Gorbachev to more progressive, elected republican leaders led by Mr. Yeltsin. Many Soviet reformers see the shift as coming belatedly, prompted by the shock of troops' killing of 20 Baltic citizens last month and the sharply contrasting reactions of Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin to the violence.
Mr. Gorbachev at first justified the troops' assault but subsequently issued relatively mild criticism of the killings. Mr. Yeltsin immediately denounced the violence, flew to Estonia and signed mutual-aid pacts with the three Baltic republics. He also called on Russian soldiers not to use their weapons against unarmed civilians.
The implicit snub to the delegation by Mr. Gorbachev was underscored in their meeting with Rafik N. Nishanov, chairman of one house of the Soviet parliament and a Gorbachev loyalist. He lectured the congressmen on "attempts to dictate solutions to Baltic problems from outside" and said that "internationalization" the Baltic independence issue could only hinder its resolution.
"We were quite disappointed, frankly, with our meeting with Mr. Nishanov," said Representative Don Ritter, R-Penn. "It sounded like pre-glasnost and [pre-] perestroika language to us. It was quite disturbing."
Mr. Ritter, the ranking House Republican on the Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was clearly bowled over by Mr. Yeltsin.
"From my view, Boris Yeltsin may be one of the most important political leaders in the world today," said
Mr. Ritter. "Reactionary forces could crush democratization in the Baltics. But it would be very difficult for the reactionary forces to crush democratization in the Russian republic."
Mr. Cardin said he believed the mission had "underscored the importance to the United States of the Baltic struggle," which he said he had been persuaded was certain ultimately to succeed. But he said that the U.S. position had to acknowledge the crucial role of Mr. Gorbachev in any settlement.
Mr. Hoyer named three steps Mr. Gorbachev could take to improve his faltering image in the West: to remove troops still occupying broadcast and printing facilities in Lithuania and Latvia, to open immediately "substantive, real negotiations" with the Balts over independence and to restore the course of the "historic" reforms he himself started.