PARIS, JULY 16 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said today that the United States would "touch base with the opposition" that split from the Soviet Union's Communist Party during the party's congress last week, a statement that reflects a change in attitude toward the maverick Boris Yeltsin and other radical reformers.

Previously, Baker and President Bush have hailed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the leading reformer in the Soviet Union and have tried to avoid making trouble for him at home. Moreover, in the past, U.S. officials have expressed, not for attribution, skepticism of about Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, who, along with the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, resigned from the party last week with intentions of pushing for reforms from outside it.

Baker said the "good news" for Gorbachev is that he survived the conservative challenge to his leadership and has "consolidated his position" within the party.

The secretary said he agreed with some conservatives in the United States who have urged the Bush administration to keep lines open to the growing opposition movement in the Soviet Union, largely composed of reformers who want to move the country more quickly toward democracy and free markets than some members of the party seem willing to do. In addition to Yeltsin and the mayors of the country's two major cities, the opposition groups also include many younger officials at other levels of government around the country.

Baker flew here today for talks on German unification as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Gorbachev announced agreement in Moscow that a unified Germany could be affiliated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The announcement appeared to catch U.S. officials by surprise; Baker said he had not expected it until August or September.

The secretary said that the United States will support a proposal from Poland aimed at resolving a difficult dispute between Poland and Germany over their common border. Although both West and East German parliaments have passed resolutions pledging to respect the current border, Poland has asked that the four victorious World War II powers -- the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union -- retain responsibility for the border until the new Germany and Poland can come to agreement, which presumably would be soon "I think the good news for Gorbachev . . . was that they fended off the conservatives and did so quite handily."

-- Secretary of State Baker

after unification late this year or early next.

U.S. officials said they hoped the issue could be resolved at the so-called two-plus-four talks involving the two Germanys and the World War II victors that begin here Tuesday. Poland has been invited to attend.

Fielding questions from reporters about the just-concluded 28th Communist Party Congress, Baker said, "I think the good news for Gorbachev. . . was that they fended off the conservatives and did so quite handily." He added that the Soviet president has "strengthened his internal political situation," and "there are no elections coming up now for a fair amount of time." Getting over the last year of party congresses "was quite a large hill to climb," he said. "That's the good news."

"The bad news" for Gorbachev, Baker said, "is that there is a party split, and there will be people pushing the agenda of another organization, whatever it turns out to be, and making the case to the Soviet people that the system has failed and it's the fault of the people who have been in charge. That's the way I see it.

"Now, whether or not the opposition can coalesce, or will split off and fragment into a whole bunch of different opposition groups, remains to be seen," Baker said. But Gorbachev "certainly consolidated his position for some period of time now. And he will have to fend off the political attacks from those who have left the party."

Baker expressed agreement with those who say the United States should not put all its expectations on Gorbachev but should also keep in touch with his opposition.

"I think if you take a look at the way we have approached similar situations in the countries of Eastern Europe and in other countries as well . . . you'd see that we have taken care to touch base with the opposition, to make sure we spend time with the opposition, to make sure that we understand where the opposition is coming from, that they understand where we are coming from," Baker said. "And I don't think that's inappropriate just because it's the Soviet Union."

A senior U.S. official on Baker's plane said it was unclear whether American organizations would offer aid to the Soviet opposition, as they have to some opposition groups elsewhere, because officials do not know "the degree to which the mere fact that they {reformers} have left the Communist Party means that there is going to be any kind of a multi-party democracy in the Soviet Union."

In some cases, such as Poland, organizations in the United States poured millions of dollars into the cause of non-communist opposition movements.

Baker also said he and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze would discuss the prospects for a settlement of the war in Afghanistan.

Baker said the United States wants to know if comments by a Soviet diplomat suggesting the outlines of a deal represent Moscow's views. The key issue is the status of Soviet-backed Afghan leader Najibullah during an election period.