Clinton throws his full support behind Yeltsin

March 24, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton adamantly an unequivocally backed Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday, promising to bring an "aggressive" package of U.S. assistance to the table when the two meet in their scheduled Vancouver summit 10 days from now.

"He is, after all, the first elected president in 1,000 years," Mr. Clinton said. "Boris Yeltsin is the elected political leader of Russia, and he has shown a great deal of courage in sticking up for democracy and civil liberties and market reforms. And I'm going to support that."

Mr. Clinton made his remarks in the East Room of the White House, where he held the first formal press conference of his administration. The president began by expressing support for Mr. Yeltsin and by giving his standard stump speech in favor of his economic plan.

He then took 29 questions, which ranged from whether his unpopularity with career U.S. military officers inhibits him from being an effective commander-in-chief (no) to whether he'd consider asking the Justice Department to look into a rash of reported suicides in the county jails of Mississippi (yes).

The president looked comfortable and in command of the issues. But again and again, both the president and his questioners returned to the subject that is gripping the White House these days: the future of Russian democracy.

Mr. Clinton acknowledged that "in the end, the Russian people will have to resolve" the constitutional crisis gripping their nation. But he also said that the stakes are far too high for the United States to simply sit idly by.

"I don't think [Russia] can do what it needs to do . . . in moving to a successful economy unless we move to act across a whole broad range of areas," he said.

Mr. Clinton rejected the view, propounded by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, that the administration is getting too cozy with Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Kissinger argues that Mr. Clinton might be driving Russian reformers who are anti-Yeltsin, but pro-America, away from the United States.

Mr. Kissinger's opinion is not shared by his former boss, ex-President Richard M. Nixon, or by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he had thought about -- and discarded -- suggestions that he might be repeating a mistake made by President George Bush, accused of sticking too long with the former Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But Mr. Clinton also made it plain that the United States' support of Mr. Yeltsin wasn't based on the persona of Mr. Yeltsin but rather on what he stands for.

The president then went on to give a succinct lecture on what the three U.S. goals are in its relationship with Russia and the other former Soviet republics:

* "One is to make the world a safer place by continuing to reduce the threat of nuclear war and proliferation of nuclear weapons," he said.

* "Two is to support the development of democracy and freedom for the people of Russia -- it is a vast and great country -- and for all the Commonwealth of Independent States."

* "And three is to support the development of a market economy with or without President Yeltsin in authority."

Mr. Clinton did not reveal what specifics he would offer the embattled Russian president when they meet, but administration officials have said privately that extending grain credits, facilitating vast technical assistance, encouraging U.S. investments in Russia and offering some direct "safety net-type" aid are what they are considering.

"I expect to spend a good deal of time this week consulting with congressional leaders of both parties and others who might have ideas about what we ought to put in our package," the president said. "And I intend to go there with an aggressive and quite specific plan for American partnership."

The summit is scheduled April 3-4 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Its location was thrown into doubt over the weekend after Mr. Yeltsin precipitated Russia's second constitutional crisis in two years by calling for an April 25 election and all but declaring the Russian Congress irrelevant.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas suggested that it might not be safe for Mr. Yeltsin to travel just now -- that his foes might not let him back into the country -- and wondered aloud whether Mr. Clinton ought not to go to Moscow instead.

Mr. Clinton said he would "consider" such a move but added that the impetus would have to come from the Russian side, which it hadn't.

But there seemed to be some confusion on that score.

In Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Fyodorov said at a news conference that he believed the site of the summit should be changed to accommodate Mr. Yeltsin. In Washington, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev came out of a meeting with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher saying that Vancouver was still the place.

"No changes," Mr. Kozyrev said. "We have agreed upon an agenda and a place for this meeting and we are concentrating . . . on preparing a good stage for the presidents to have a productive summit."

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