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Yeltsin learning the right stuff, needs to apply it


WASHINGTON -- Is he for real? Boris Yeltsin, that is.

Is the former Moscow Communist Party boss our kind of democrat?

President Bush seems to think so. Then again, Mr. Bush needed a sandwich good-news summit as much as Mr. Yeltsin did. So the platitudes and praise were inevitable.

Like two canny politicians, they presided over an everybody-wins trade-off: an awesome missile-reduction agreement that will retire Russia's most dangerous nuclear weapons in exchange for incentives to help Mr. Yeltsin with his economic reforms.

Both basked in the summit exposure. Even the weather cooperated. And not surprisingly, Mr. Bush gave Mr. Yeltsin a ringing endorsement.

Indeed, if Mr. Yeltsin merits Mr. Bush's A-plus rating, there is a new era dawning in relations with Moscow and for the Russian people as well.

It means far fewer nuclear weapons -- therefore a safer world -- and more rubles that can be diverted to a better life for the people.

It also makes possible a U.S.-Russian business relationship that can help American corporations tap into Russia's rich resources while perhaps rescuing Russia from economic disaster.

The nuclear agreement, to be enshrined in a treaty within three months, is probably irreversible. It will be legally binding. It is one-sided in the United States' favor, and a good deal for Mr. Bush and whoever is president during the 10 years or so it will take to get rid of two-thirds of the two nations' strategic nuclear arsenals.

And Mr. Yeltsin, or whoever succeeds him -- he has said he won't seek re-election in 1996 -- benefits immensely from the economic relief of reversing the nuclear arms race.

But was Mr. Bush being a little too euphoric about the "new era" and about Mr. Yeltsin himself?

The truth is, Mr. Yeltsin is newly converted to democracy. He is presiding over ministers, a parliament and people who have no experience in democracy or a free-market system.

The coup last August against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev failed, but the resistance to reform that inspired it has not dissolved.

Mr. Yeltsin, like Mr. Gorbachev, is under pressure both from hard-liners who do not want a Western capitalist system and from impatient liberals who are not satisfied with the results.

He may have to bend, at times.

Besides, like all leaders, Mr. Yeltsin is a product of the system that nurtured him.

The Communist governments that ruled Russia for 70 years encouraged neither democratic habits nor the spontaneity and spiritual freedom that made democracy and capitalism a success here.

Mr. Yeltsin is just now learning the ropes. He is catching on fast, and even adopting some of the populist mannerisms that Americans equate with democratic leaders:

The ready handshake. The thumbs-up sign. Shirt-sleeve speeches. Autographing pictures.

"There will be no more lies -- ever," Mr. Yeltsin promised in a speech to Congress.

Like Mr. Bush, he even did the vision thing.

Invoking the idealism that Americans like to think they are guided by, and sometimes actually are, Mr. Yeltsin declared: "History is giving us a chance to fulfill President Wilson's

dreams, namely, to make the world safe for democracy."

The reversal of the nuclear arms race will help. So will U.S. economic support. And Mr. Yeltsin's visit may encourage Congress to approve a $24 billion international aid package.

"Emotionally, how can you abandon a man like this?" remarked Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican whip in the House.

The answer probably is that you can't.

Democracy and quitting the Communist Party may have occurred to Mr. Yeltsin late in life, but the conversion evidently is genuine.

At the summit, he said and did the right things. He signed the right documents. He made the right promises, including a vow to search for any surviving American MIAs from past wars, including Vietnam.

Now he will go home and try once again to jump-start the economy and promote democracy in a country where history is blotted with the cruelties of the czars and the Communists.

The hope is that even in his brief visit to Washington, Kansas and Canada the Russian leader learned a little more about democracy and will be ready and able to apply it at home.

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