Eastern Europe's woes shadow Clinton triumphs

January 16, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

GENEVA -- As President Clinton wraps up his eight-day European trip today, the answer to the central question of his visit -- whether it did Eastern Europe any good -- sounds like an old Russian riddle.

Who has all the power in the world in the post-Cold War era? Answer: the president of the United States.

Well who, then, can help the beleaguered people of the former Soviet empire? Answer: certainly not the president of the United States.

Everything on Mr. Clinton's trip, his most visible foray into foreign affairs so far, went as well as or better than the White House had hoped.

"We didn't change the universe," said one senior administration official. "But we set out some reasonable goals on nuclear arms reductions and NATO and showed where we wanted to go."

If anything, this assessment was an understatement. Everywhere the president went, he seemed to have impressed foreign leaders and made them to accept his vision for a united, democratic Europe.

In Belgium, the United States' allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization fell completely in line with Mr. Clinton and went out of their way to praise him.

In Prague, the Czech capital, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary publicly signed on to Mr. Clinton's plea for patience in their clamor to join NATO.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk agreed to give up his nuclear missiles -- despite determined opposition from his own Parliament.

And in Moscow, once the feared power center that presided over those nations, President Boris N. Yeltsin signed every U.S.-sponsored initiative put in front of him. Russia's president was so in tune with the vision expounded by his younger U.S. counterpart that, in a transcript of the joint news conference of the two presidents, it's not always easy to see where Mr. Clinton leaves off and Mr. Yeltsin begins.

Mr. Yeltsin also made a point of telling his countrymen that Mr. Clinton had kept his promises made in Vancouver, British Columbia, last April. "Bill Clinton demonstrated he has a fine sense of our particular situation," Mr. Yeltsin said. "Since Vancouver, Bill Clinton has done a lot, keeping his promise to remove the bad economic vestiges of the Cold War."

So, on its face, the trip was a tangible success. If something substantive comes from Mr. Clinton's meeting with Syria's President Hafez el Assad here in Geneva, it would seem like icing on the cake. The wily Syrian has tripped up his share of U.S. presidents before, but perhaps wisely, the administration has raised few expectations about the encounter the two men are to have here today.

As for the greater mission of Mr. Clinton's odyssey, it was in Minsk -- between Poland and Russia, in the misty, forsaken lowlands of the former Soviet republic of Belarus -- that the irrepressible Mr. Clinton ran into the limits of what he can do.

Dimensions of problems

There, it was the dimensions of the problems facing Eastern Europe, not Mr. Clinton's resolve, that left the most distinct impression.

No matter how many NATO leaders queue up to the microphone to praise him, how many crowds line up five deep just for a glimpse of his motorcade, or how many Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians drink Coke, watch CNN, "want to be like Mike" and love "Beel Clinton," it is not the United States that can save them. Even before leaving Moscow, Mr. Clinton acknowledged as much.

"In the end, you will have to decide your future," Mr. Clinton told the Russians. "American support can certainly not make all the ++ difference."

He said the same thing in Ukraine and made a similar point yesterday in Minsk, where the grim landscape itself drove this point home to the president and his advisers.

"You saw it in Kiev, you really see it here," said one senior administration official. "Just how far they have to go. Just how little of it we can do."

Added another White House official: "This republic was subsidized by the old Soviet system. It had cheap food coming in here, and cheap fuel. Now they don't. They are going to have to decide whether they want to continue the Stalinist economy -- or if they want to make reforms and create a modern economy that can compete. That's a huge order, and foreign aid is not going to do it for them."

This conclusion carries with it an ironic -- and harsh -- implication: It leaves the Clinton administration in the role of saying that the only nations in the former Eastern bloc that it can really help are the ones who need it the least.

Since Belarus, or "White Russia," became independent in 1990, for instance, the United States has contributed a paltry $150 million in aid. That covers only a tiny fraction of this nation's huge needs. But unless the state agrees to privatize its holdings, there is no practical way to contribute to the economy that will have a lasting impact.

Besides, as Mr. Clinton himself noted this week, the United States' own needs are great, and its capacity to give is limited.

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