Summit unlikely to benefit Clinton Beleaguered president to meet Yeltsin, whose grasp on power is shaky

August 30, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Will Englund contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin are scheduled to meet this week in Moscow in an atmosphere thick with political foreboding and failure for both -- and each unable to rescue the other.

Deeply embroiled in a sex scandal that has drawn increasing calls for his resignation, President Clinton is headed for what is often a refuge for chief executives in trouble at home -- a six-day foreign venture, with stops in Russia and Ireland.

But what Clinton is likely to find in Moscow is a Russian president in even more trouble than he is.

Yeltsin, the one world leader whom Clinton has most consistently championed, is under so much pressure to resign many say he won't last out the year in office, perhaps not even the month of September.

And the cause of free-market, democratic reform in Russia, a top Clinton priority, is all but discredited, undermined by a plunging ruble and capital flight. A business oligarchy and Communist-led parliament have assumed growing power.

Seldom, if ever, has a U.S.-Russian summit been held when both leaders have been so politically feeble.

In Moscow, a Western diplomat remarked that the summit was a matter of fiddling while Rome burns. Even the administration acknowledges that the timing of this week's trip makes it unlikely that anything constructive will be achieved.

"A lot of people wouldn't mind [the summit] being postponed," said Sherman Garnett, a Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In fact, instead of being a refuge for Clinton, the visit to Moscow is likely to give more fuel to his critics, who say his personal troubles not only prevent him from helping Yeltsin, but from staving off what could be a global disaster.

Coming hard on the heels of Asia's financial turmoil, Russia's crisis is sending shock waves through already nervous world markets, causing investors in emerging economies to retrench.

Nuclear threat

More troubling is the threat that Russia's thousands of atomic warheads could pose to the world if the Russian political system were to collapse totally, allowing the nuclear trigger to fall into unstable or corrupt hands.

Stanley Fischer, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, cited Clinton's domestic problems in criticizing the West for failing to give Russia a boost early this month, when strong action might have averted the ruble's collapse.

"And since, as we all know, the American president is weakened at the moment and can't exercise leadership from a position of strength, the chance was missed to give a boost to Russia in a situation that was by no means hopeless," said Fischer, the fund's highest-ranking American, in an interview with a German newspaper.

Even Clinton supporters are bracing for the question, "Who lost Russia?"

"It's below the belt, but you know it's going to be asked because it's a political question," says Toby Gati, a Russia expert who served as the State Department's top intelligence official during Clinton's first term. "People are trying to figure out why Russia failed and look for a simple answer. The administration has been highly visible in its support for Yeltsin. It's an unfair connection, but it's going to be made."

The United States now seems willing to soften the terms of the current IMF loan to make it easier for Russia to get the next installment. But the chance that Clinton could offer Yeltsin additional economic help disappeared as the Russian government moved further and further from the conditions all Western leaders insist are essential for aid: budget cuts, stable revenue collection and banking reforms.

On Friday, Yeltsin sacked Anatoly Chubais, a key reformer.

"Without the reforms it will not be possible to mobilize money either from international financial organizations or from Germany," said Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany.

Opposition to reform

The business elite now in ascendancy in Russia has no interest in reforms that would bring greater competition and higher taxes. This oligarchy was widely seen as the force behind Yeltsin's decision to bring back Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister. Chernomyrdin, who would succeed Yeltsin at least temporarily if the president resigned, was a long-time government bureaucrat under the Soviet system who also has no zeal for Western-style reform.

Complaints that Clinton has turned a blind eye to Yeltsin's failings mounted as the summit approached.

"For years, the administration and the president personally have misled us about what was happening in Russia," charged Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon center, a Washington think tank specializing in Russian affairs.

In Russia, leaders are eager to show that their country is still one of the significant players in the world arena -- despite its current economic problems.

"That is now very important -- maybe more important than before," Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov told reporters this week.

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