BORIS Yeltsin, who leads Mikhail Gorbachev by a margin of 59 percent to 18 percent in the Soviet opinion polls, is about to challenge his rival in what may be Mr. Gorbachev's last stronghold: Washington. Yeltsin's chief of staff, Gennadi Burbulis, came to Capitol Hill recently to lay the groundwork for a full-time diplomatic mission here, representing what he calls the "independent, sovereign state" of Russia.
Mr. Burbulis and five other officials of the Russian republic reminded Vice President Quayle at a private meeting that they came not as the opposition to Gorbachev but as representatives of their own government, which has more people and land area than the other 14 Soviet republics combined. That government's formal claim to "sovereignty," now four months old, has triggered Moscow's most profound constitutional crisis since 1917. It's as if secessionist South Carolina had been joined in 1861 not just by the other Southern states, but by New York and New England.
The secessionists' takeover of the Russian heartland makes it harder than ever to justify the Bush administration's exclusive focus on helping Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin's government has already reached out to Lithuania, helping thwart Gorbachev's economic embargo. It has claimed the power to veto the deployment of Russian troops anywhere outside the Russian republic. If the Russian republic makes good its claim to sovereignty, "the Soviet Union" will be as extinct as the Holy Roman Empire.
Four years ago, Yeltsin still called himself a socialist; today he talks about the "sacred right" of private property. Opportunism? Maybe. What matters more is that he speaks for Russia, a culture and polity born many centuries before Leninism and as certain as England or China to endure for centuries to come. Gorbachev speaks only for the Soviet Union, an ideological construct that inspires loyalty from almost nobody outside its ruling class.
Yeltsin's emissaries told a symposium hosted by Washington's Free Congress Foundation that their government is ready to bypass Gorbachev and build its own web of relations with the West, including direct negotiations with United States investors and entrepreneurs.
The Yeltsin agenda in some ways resembles …