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Aiding Yeltsin is too important to be delayed

With the distraction of the New Hampshire primary out of the way, is it too much to demand that President Bush now pay attention to the ominous possibility that the former Soviet Union will not survive its enormous economic and political crisis?

If the rapid decay of the former Soviet republics is allowed to proceed, it will do incalculable damage to Europe, America, and the rest of the world.

Unless the West seizes the opportunity to support Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his economic program, there could be a right-wing coup as early as April, says John P. Hardt, senior specialist on Soviet affairs for the Congressional Research Service.

Hardt told a House committee headed by Rep. Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, last week that Yeltsin's economic reform program, designed with the help of economist Yegor T. Gaidar, is the best put forward so far, "responsive" to Western conditions. There are no attractive alternatives, Hardt argues.

He likens the Yeltsin-Gaidar program to "a Chapter 11 bankruptcy with excellent assets but poor management." He points out that Yeltsin has largely destroyed the old system, but that Yeltsin has temporized in his pledge to convert arms factories by keeping over 10-million defense-industrial workers on the payroll while they seek new jobs elsewhere.

"This contradictory policy threatens to destroy rather than convert the defense industrial program to production for consumers and export," Hardt fears. To deal with this problem, a private sector advisory committee, similar to one that was set up in Marshall Plan days, could help.

But Bush, pleading U.S. poverty, and distracted by his first priority, the need to get re-elected, hasn't been paying attention. Needled by Pat Buchanan, who ran in New Hampshire on an "America First" isolationist program, Bush has shunned the global leadership role necessary to save the former Soviet Union.

Hardt is not alone in begging Bush to take an activist role. "The potential, impending disintegration of the former Soviet Union presents the single most serious threat to American national security in the period since World War II," Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, told a House committee in December.

Allison, and his colleague, Robert Blackwell, were the original proponents of a "grand bargain" more than a year earlier that would have extended huge credits to the still-existing Soviet Union in exchange for a commitment to adopt market and democratic mechanisms.

They warned that "no single event in the post-War period would pose such high and uncontrollable risks of nuclear war as the violent collapse of the Soviet Union into chaos and civil wars." Since then, with the breakup of the union into independent states, this prospect has become even more alarming.

Secretary of State James A. Baker, traveling in Central Asia and Russia, has been exploring the possibility of reclaiming some of the Soviet nuclear brain inventory before it's drained by higher bidders in Iraq, Iran, Libya, or others who pose a threat to the West. But Bush doesn't seem to be involved.

In the good old days of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, when Bush was riding sky-high in the popularity polls, the myth created by the White House was that the president would simply overwhelm all potential political rivals in 1992 because of his extraordinary competence in foreign affairs.

Today, the high-tech razzle-dazzle put on round-the-clock television by the Pentagon's spin-doctors is but a dim memory. Instead, Americans wonder if whatever net gain produced by the Gulf war was worth the price.

If President Bush still has the instinct to be the great global leader, wielding authority that no Democratic candidate can hope to match, he should be telling the American people that stabilizing Russia and other republics could be a turning point in world history _ that we have a challenge, and must meet it.

Washington Post Writers Group