Clinton, Yeltsin head for a summit marked by their mutual dependence

April 01, 1993|By Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon | Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- One is the pre-eminent world leader, the other a supplicant clinging to shrunken power. But Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin will meet in Vancouver Saturday as political partners.

The U.S. president, who embarks today after a speech in Annapolis, stakes much of his international prestige and his long-term domestic economic agenda on Russia's transformation from nuclear rival to democratic ally and potentially lucrative market.

The Russian president is depending on the United States to help cushion the pain of that change for his desperate people, offering enough hope to keep it going and him in office.

Their joint quest diminishes the sort of tension that underlay Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet summits. Yet some of the old electricity flickers off-stage, generated by what top U.S. officials call the "forces of darkness" in Russia seeking to recapture an aggressive imperial past.

The meeting site on the Canadian Pacific coast symbolizes the transcontinental vastness of Russia and the immense impact such forces could once again exert on vital U.S. military and economic interests in Europe and the Near and Far East, requiring a new and costly military buildup.

This sheer size of Russia underscores how relatively powerless Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin are, even together, to control events in a rapidly splintering expanse that embraces about 100 ethnic groups.

"We can take an important role in helping nurture a democratic society and a market economy over there," said a member of the National Security Council staff. "Ultimately, though, the success of reform is on the Russians' shoulders."

The choice of Vancouver, just north of the U.S. border in the province of British Columbia, highlights the domestic political constraints on Mr. Clinton as he tries to increase aid for Russia while fulfilling his campaign pledge to shrink the U.S. budget and "grow" the economy at the same time.

His opening package of aid programs for Russia, in fact, comes totally from hundreds of millions of dollars already appropriated by Congress but still unspent. Officials refused to disclose the total.

Mr. Yeltsin will review additional ideas for a future U.S. aid package that Mr. Clinton will then try to sell to Congress, as well as for a multibillion-dollar "macro" strategy drawn from all seven industrialized democracies.

White House officials say the underlying purpose of the president's speech today in Annapolis is to begin the tough task of selling the American people on the concept that it is in their own economic interest for the United States to embark on a sustained, expensive and long-term effort to help Russia build up a free-market democracy.

The Clinton administration has staked enormous political capital pTC on the anticipation that Mr. Yeltsin will survive his domestic political trials. In the last month, the administration embraced the Russian president closely -- even when it appeared he might not last as president -- and continues to characterize Mr. Yeltsin as the best hope for democratic reform in Russia.

Privately, however, White House officials involved with planning the summit say that they hope Mr. Yeltsin understands how serious the United States and other Western allies are when they say that they can't really help until Mr. Yeltsin completes the reforms he has begun.

The initial problem, the NSC official said, is Russia's hyper-inflation, which came about when the central bank in Moscow began wildly printing rubles last year.

"They must contain inflation for the [aid] money to make sense," this official said.

The other, even more profound alteration in the Russian landscape that the U.S. side is looking for is a "psychological change," one official added, which involves nothing less than the Russian government allowing its people to engage in capitalism.

While acknowledging that this is a tall order, a White House official said that Mr. Yeltsin must begin this process.

"It's the only way, really," he said. "Russia needs hundreds of billions of investment and no Western government -- no combination of Western governments -- can meet it. It has to come from the private sector. And you have to start somewhere. You need a system where if [a foreign business person] makes an agreement in Sakhalin [in the Russian Far East], it's not countermanded in Moscow."

But the United States and the rest of the nations of the West must also move to provide greater immediate help, several officials say.

Mr. Clinton wrote the leaders of the other G-7 nations -- Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Italy and Japan -- "and told them that this is a critical time in Russia and we've got to do better than we're doing," a White House official said. By the time the group's foreign and finance ministers meet in mid-April, the White House hopes other countries will unveil new aid packages comparable to Washington's.

In addition, Germany, which has given more direct aid than any other country, is being pressed to restructure Russian debt.

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