Clinton takes to Russian airwaves

January 15, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- Extolling the strength of Russian culture and the wonder of the American dream, President Clinton treated all of Russia to a civics lesson yesterday.

He did it in an extraordinary electronic town hall meeting that put his signature on this Moscow summit.

"Once, every generation or two, all great nations must stop and ** think about where they are in time," Mr. Clinton said in a televised address to the Russian people. "They must regenerate themselves. They must imagine their future in a new way. Your generation has come of age at one of those moments."

The event culminated a day in which he made some real and symbolic strides toward peace, prosperity and a diminished nuclear threat.

Meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, Mr. Clinton signed a three-way agreement pledging to remove all nuclear warheads from Ukraine. As expected, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin signed a pledge to de-target each nation's intercontinental ballistic missiles away from other nations.

In addition, Russia and the United States signed a human rights accord, various economic development deals were announced, and Russia agreed to join the Partnership for Peace, an adjunct NATO-sponsored organization that will include Eastern European military exercises -- and, it is hoped, long-term cooperation -- with the Western alliance.

But the most compelling image of the day, indeed, of Mr. Clinton's three-day stay in Moscow, were not the accords and formal stuff of diplomacy. It was the simple image of an American president trying to communicate with the anxious citizens of another nation.

Mr. Clinton, who repeated yesterday that he wanted to be remembered in history for restoring a sense of community to the United States, tried to envelop Russia with that same vision. Using big-screen televisions and satellites now devoted to peaceful purposes, Mr. Clinton bombarded this troubled land with his message that democracy takes time, and hurts sometimes, but in the end, is worth the struggle.

"I know that your transition to a market economy has been hard, painfully, even emotionally disorienting to millions of people," Mr. Clinton said. "But if the change seems costly, consider the price of standing still or trying to go back. The old system failed before. . . . If you attempted to reimpose it, it would fail you again."

As Russia itself enjoys freedom for the first time, but struggles with the excess of capitalism, so did Mr. Clinton himself epitomize both extremes of the American tradition. He quoted Abraham Lincoln but held his microphone like Phil Donahue in an event that was at times full of campaign-type hype but at other times evocative and moving.

The most striking moment came when an unnamed 13-year-old boy stood and said, "I saw your picture shaking hands with ZTC President Kennedy, and I'd like to ask you how old were you, and when you got the idea to become a president of the United States?"

"Come up here," the Mr. Clinton said gently. "Come shake hands with me, and maybe you'll be a president of Russia someday."

The little boy then went up to the stage, where Mr. Clinton not only shook his hand, but hugged him, too, and then put his hand on the boy's shoulder and said:

"Probably our greatest president was Abraham Lincoln. When he was a young man, Abraham Lincoln wrote in his diary: 'I will work and get ready and perhaps my chance will come.' I say that to you."

In so doing, Mr. Clinton translated the American dream directly into Russian. But -- until yesterday, at least -- this was not a place where parents told their children, as they do in America, that if they apply themselves, they, too, can grow up and be president.

For too many Russians the new way seems too distant, to difficult, even illusionary. This was now the fourth consecutive summit in which both sides proclaimed the end of the Cold War, but the Russia that Mr. Clinton spoke to yesterday is psychologically damaged by its inability to immediately make the transition its people have voted, marched and died for.

In their frustration, many Russians have turned on Mr. Yeltsin. Others have questioned whether the United States is really the right model for Russia.

On Dec. 12, in national party elections, nearly 23 percent of those who voted turned to an ultra-nationalist party led by Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a man given to reminiscing bitterly and belligerently about the days of empire.

Consequently, many Russians are no longer in the mood to listen patronizing talk from Americans, a fact that Mr. Clinton seemed to have at the top of his mind.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Yeltsin yesterday, he emphasized that the two leaders were equals, he repeatedly praised Russia's people -- and he freely admitted that the United States has plenty of faults.

Mr. Clinton was also sensitive to the damage that can be done to Mr. Yeltsin if the Russian leader is considered too close to the Americans.

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