Confused mission to Moscow Clinton visit: Amid financial chaos, summit with Yeltsin shows two presidents at their weakest.

August 29, 1998

IN THE DAYS of the "Evil Empire," summits between U.S. presidents and Soviet leaders were always tricky matters. Even with proper advance planning, success never was certain.

So it is with Tuesday's scheduled meeting in Moscow between Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin. Both presidents are in serious trouble and hope to emerge from the pow-wow stronger. There are no guarantees, though. This risky undertaking could backfire.

The circumstances are inauspicious. Russia is undergoing the worst financial and political crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union seven years ago. President Yeltsin's faculties are in doubt, as is his hold to power. The No. 2 man in the Kremlin is a prime minister-designate, but he has not been confirmed. The country has no government.

The situation may have changed by the time Mr. Clinton arrives in Moscow. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin may win the communist-led parliament's backing Monday, allowing him to form a cabinet. Under one possible scenario being negotiated yesterday, that cabinet would include communists for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet regime.

Communists, claiming to have changed their ways, have returned to power in many former Soviet states without causing calamity. Russia's communists, however, are ideologically unrepentant and fiercely opposed to free-market and democratic reforms. Their reappearance at the Kremlin while the U.S. president is in town would be awkward even in the best of times.

Canceling the Moscow summit at this late date would probably only increase the concern about the global economy that has sent stock markets into a free fall. But it is difficult to see what good can come from a parlay of two presidents who are at the weakest points of their careers.

If building worldwide confidence is the purpose, this is not the way to do it. If Mr. Clinton's hope is to convince the enfeebled Mr. Yeltsin to stick to reforms, he is arriving in Moscow too late to make a difference. Most free-market advocates have already been removed in anticipation of a regressive political deal that undoes reform by reintroducing price controls and ends the convertibility of the ruble.

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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