Yeltsin back in the saddle Reorganized cabinet: Returning from sick leave, president vows to continue reforms.

March 11, 1997

BORIS N. YELTSIN lost no time in reaffirming his authority after returning from a long sick leave earlier this month. He shuffled the Kremlin cabinet and vowed to continue economic reforms. He also promised to push for closer union between Russia and Belarus. Next on the agenda will be his summit with President Clinton in the capital of neighboring Finland March 20.

Mr. Yeltsin's popularity at home is sagging. Millions of Russians -- including military officers -- have not been paid for months because the government simply does not have enough money. The summit will not change any of that. But unless Mr. Yeltsin comes home with some kind of satisfactory deal from Mr. Clinton about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, popular outrage in Russia may be added to his troubles.

No other issue quite unites Russians of all political stripes as much as their opposition to NATO's eastward push. To them it is bad enough that such former communist countries as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have applied to join the 48-year-old Western alliance. But most Russians are absolutely scandalized by the thought that a possible membership of such former Soviet republics as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would bring U.S. nuclear weapons to their door steps. More than anything else, this reminds them of how far Russia has fallen from the days when it was a world power. The acceleration of union talks between Russia and Belarus is one political consequence of the NATO plan.

If Mr. Yeltsin does not get a deal from Mr. Clinton, the Russian's political situation will worsen. It already is bad enough. The promotion of Anatoly Chubais from Mr. Yeltsin's chief of staff to first deputy prime minister may have been a necessary move. But Mr. Chubais, who engineered the much criticized privatization of state-owned businesses, is so unpopular among ordinary people that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov claimed the economist is almost as hated in Russia as Hitler.

Frantic last-minute shuttling by high-level U.S. and Russian officials between Washington and Moscow indicates both sides are trying to work out a face-saving compromise.

The Helsinki summit will take place in the Finnish president's suburban seaside residence, an ultramodern building called "Tango." As they say, it takes two to tango.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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