BORIS YELTSIN broke away from groundshaking events at home last week for a two-day visit to Rome to confirm important economic links and make the acquaintance of Italian Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti and Pope John Paul II.The Russian president's visit came at a critical time in his republic's history. He flew here after he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed the Soviet Union would be dissolved by year's end. And when he left Rome on Friday night, it was to join other republican leaders in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, to form the new Commonwealth of Independent States to take its place. "He must have decided that this was a good opportunity to get the international blessing that he needed," says Sergio Romano, Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1989. Italy says it is ready to extend diplomatic relations to Russia, within the framework of a European Community agreement. "The question of recognition is a matter of time," a Foreign Ministry spokesman says, "a very short time." Mr. Yeltsin took home a nearly $1 billion line of credit. And he reached tentative agreement for the giant Italian company Fiat to acquire 30 percent interest in the Soviet automaker Vaz, which produces 60 percent of Soviet cars. "The results of the visit have truly exceeded my expectations," the Russian leader told reporters. Even before Yeltsin's trip, Russia's relations with Italy were important: After Germany, Italy is Russia's largest Western lending and trading partner. "You must not forget we have the biggest Communist Party in Western Europe," says the Italian spokesman. "There are a lot of people who are following with extreme attention and interest what is going on there." Yeltsin met with about 200 business leaders, assuring them he is pressing forward with convertibility of the ruble by the end of 1992, privatization, and a free-market economy. But a flurry of further business agreements likely will be a long time in coming. Sergio Pininfarina, the head of the Confindustria employers' federation, warns against expecting quick profits from the country, saying that "Russia seems a sound investment for the medium and long term." Mr. Romano agrees, saying that small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are the core of the Italian economy, cannot afford the risk associated with Russia at this time, because they lack the patience a large company can afford. Furthermore, he adds, the current political situation needs to stabilize. "You can't really do much unless there is a clear, visible, formally recognized legal framework," Romano says. "In other words, it's not possible to do anything with a country that has not put down in writing what is property, what are prices, what is the value of things." On Friday, Yeltsin also met with Pope John Paul II. The two charismatic Slavs discussed a wide range of political issues, including the need to keep the former Soviet Union's nuclear arms under one central control. The Russian leader took the opportunity to assure the pontiff of his intentions to guarantee religious freedom to Russian citizens. But, conspicuously, he did not renew Gorbachev's invitation to the Pope to visit Russia. "Yeltsin is a Russian and must not be indifferent to an important component of the Russian society, the Orthodox Church," says Romano.