The Bill and Boris Show

October 01, 1994

By the time the last of the bear hugs and bonhomie were exchanged, the "Bill and Boris Show" had fallen off the front page. That's good. That other news eclipsed Boris Yeltsin's talks with President Clinton this week testifies that Russia is progressing in its triple transition from dictatorship to democracy, from empire to nation-state, from communism to capitalism.

Habit prompted some reassuring public song-and-dance, but it was striking that both presidents called attention to disagreements. "It is fair to say that the United States is a strong partner and not an easy one to deal with," Mr. Yeltsin said. Mr. Clinton let it be known that he had not been satisfied on the thorny issue of Russian arms sales to Iran. Again, a few cross words are all to the good. They show that the real purpose of the White House meetings was to thrash out problems and to pursue common aims. In a word, diplomacy.

The changed nature of the Russian-American relationship is seen in the new "partnership for economic progress." Since the collapse of Soviet power, economic partnership has meant American handouts to prop up a chaotic Russian economy. The "operative word," Mr. Yeltsin recalled, has been "help." The new agreement shifts the focus to private investment in Russia. The U.S. will provide financing and insurance for investors, and Russia will improve its tax and regulatory structures so as to provide a stable business environment.

Substantial questions remain. Unless the U.S. and Russia cooperate, there seems to be no hope of resolving the Bosnian war, but they cannot agree on whether to lift a U.N.-ordered arms embargo. Bosnia's government tactfully finessed the issue by proposing a six-month time-out before a showdown. Asked if he might change his mind in six months, Mr. Yeltsin bluntly suggested that the Americans change their minds instead.

Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics are another potential problem. While its troops patrol Haiti, the U.S. can hardly deny that, as President Clinton put it, "Russia plainly does have a significant interest in what happens on its border." But Russia has already intervened militarily in Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, and it is poised to do so in Azerbaijan. At the next summit it may be necessary to talk frankly about the line between Russian security concerns and the sovereignty and independence of its neighbors.

Disagreements should not obscure the real progress the U.S. and Russia have made. The most pressing item is the dismantling of the awesome nuclear arsenals the superpowers built in their days of rivalry. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin agreed not to wait until 2003, the date specified in a previous agreement, to cut their stockpiles in half. They will start scrapping warheads and breaking up missiles almost immediately. The sign of a maturing diplomatic relationship is that it knows how to disagree, but also how look past disagreement to find ways to cooperate.

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