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U.S. to Treat Yeltsin as Last Hope for Russian Stability: 2: 2

By Douglas Jehl and Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Spurred by bleak assessments from senior U.S. analysts about the situation inside Russia, President Bush and his closest advisers have decided to go all-out to shore up Boris N. Yeltsin's grip on power during the Kremlin leader's summit meeting with Bush at Camp David tomorrow.

The administration has concluded that if Yeltsin falls, his successor will almost certainly be someone far more hostile to U.S. interests, officials said.

Only two months ago, senior administration officials were almost openly disdainful of Yeltsin and sought to prop up the more predictable Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Even as recently as three weeks ago, senior advisers to Bush were said to have concluded that Yeltsin was such an unreliable champion of reform that the administration might be best off maintaining some distance from him.

But now, with Yeltsin in charge and fighting for political survival, it is he who will be annointed in a deliberate presidential signal to his restive homeland.

That Bush will open his arms to the Russian leader was described by sources as the result of warnings by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and other government agencies that Yeltsin stood as the last best chance for democratic reform in Russia.

"Without depicting Yelstin as a white knight," one official said, repeating an argument U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss was said to have made to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, "this is about the best government they're going to have. ... There's not a better alternative out there to try."

White House officials were stunned by the speed of Gorbachev's ouster. Now, they are increasingly concerned by what they see as the authoritarian and nationalistic character of the opposition to Yeltsin -- as well as the absence of any other leader with remotely his ability to command broad support across the Russian republic.

In the immediate context of tomorrow's visit, White House officials hope to convey their new regard for Yeltsin by offering the once-scorned country cousin the same personal and ceremonial gestures made to Gorbachev when he visited Washington two years ago: an intimate lunch at Camp David, a special presidential windbreaker with the Russian leader's name embroidered on it, perhaps even a one-on-one stroll along the wooden pathways of the rustic mountain retreat.

Bush and Yeltsin are also expected to announce plans for a second meeting later this year, most likely a formal state visit to Washington by the Russian leader.

Some analysts say Yeltsin is engaged in a desperate race against the clock, spending his present popularity to buy time for his country to find a way out of the economic and social quagmire that now threaten to swallow it.

Unless Yeltsin can maintain popular support long enough to fend off an inevitable backlash, analysts have decided, the reforms he champions may die.

While the primary focus of Bush's summit efforts will be on bolstering Yeltsin, the American president will also use conversations at the United Nations today and Camp David on tomorrow to nudge Yeltsin toward a less-expansive view of his power, reminding him that Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other republics must be left to determine their own direction.

The two leaders will also review the status of U.S. and international efforts to aid Russia's economy and of the Middle East peace conference the two nations are co-sponsoring.

Arms control is also on the agenda. And just days after the two leaders unveiled new arms-reduction proposals, a senior administration official said they would like to reach agreement on a timetable for further talks on drastically reducing each nation's nuclear arsenal.

But the official stressed that Bush would seek Yeltsin's agreement to include in future discussions outstanding questions about the Strategic Defense Initiative and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - issues for which Yeltsin had shown little enthusiasm.