Clinton lectures Russians on choices, consequences But president's words provide little solace

September 02, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Like a weekend guest who arrives to find the family in the heat of a bitter and raucous quarrel, President Clinton came to Russia yesterday, squaring his shoulders and making the best of a distinctly awkward occasion.

The fight here is not one that can be politely ignored; it's too big and possibly too dangerous for that. There's a lot of crockery in the air. Maybe what this family needs is a little candid advice from the outside.

Clinton - respectfully, calmly, directly - plunged in.

"Now you are at a critical point," he told students and guests during an address at the Moscow University of International Relations, where he appeared after a late-morning session with President Boris N. Yeltsin at the Kremlin.

"There are severe economic pressures and serious hardships, which I discussed in my meetings with your leaders this morning. The stakes are enormous," Clinton said. "Every choice Russia makes today may have consequences for years and years to come.

"Given the facts before you, I have to tell you that I do not believe there are any painless solutions. And, indeed, an attempt to avoid difficult solutions may only prolong and worsen present challenges."

Clinton offered this bit of counsel in a way that didn't sound like a lecture or a patronizing lesson. But, in urging Russia to press onward with reform, he did talk at some length about the rules - the rules of modern international economics, which favor openness, stability, fairness, legality and strong democratic institutions to make the system work. All of these, he didn't have to remind his listeners, Russia lacks.

'The rules of the game'

"We can't ignore the rules of the game," he said, with a little edge to his voice. "You will do very well if you just get your fair share of investment. To get your fair share of investment, you have to play by the rules that everyone else has to play by. That's what this whole crisis is about."

Russia's crisis has caused the ruble to collapse, banks to refuse funds to depositors, stores to close, debts to go unpaid, billions of dollars to be moved abroad, and prices to leap upward. It has the parliament and Yeltsin crossing swords, has left the country without a functioning Cabinet for more than a week, and has everyone anxious about how it can possibly end. It gets worse every day.

Today, the ruble is to open at an official rate of 10.88 to the dollar; yesterday it was 9.33. The cash shortage is becoming acute. Russians went on a buying spree last weekend, and grocery shelves are starting to go empty. Russia imports 80 percent of its food and with the banks freezing up, there's no way to get money to suppliers. Bakeries are closing because there is no yeast.

In July, it was reported yesterday, production declined 9 percent, as did exports. Russia, which has always made money exporting oil and gas, recorded a trade deficit for the first time.

The Communists in parliament announced they would never support Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, whose nomination as prime minis

ter was soundly rejected by the State Duma on Monday and who was promptly renominated by Yeltsin. The president insisted yesterday that Chernomyrdin must be approved. The next vote will probably take place Monday, and it could be a week after that before a third and final vote is held - which could lead at last to the establishment of a new government or to the dissolution of parliament.

"President Yeltsin is pushing the nation to a civil war," said Gennady Zyuganov,the Communist Party leader.

'Convincing' measures

Chernomyrdin called yesterday for a tax cut, and, as acting prime minister, said the government needed to move quickly to restore foreign currency markets, set policy on the exchange rate, preserve the banking system and ensure there's enough money in it to keep things flowing.

"The measures which we have to take should be convincing," he said, "as we have exhausted the limit of errors."

Yesterday was the first day of school here, traditionally a day of fanfare, with heaps of flowers for teachers and little girls with enormous bows in their hair. Clinton went to a school. So did Yeltsin. The teachers rang little bells to let the children in. Thousands of teachers haven't been paid for months.

Clinton - the exotic foreigner who carries baggage of his own in the form of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Monday's plunge of the Dow Jones industrial average - generally makes a good impression on Russians when he visits.

That he managed to quote writers Anton Chekhov and Aleksandr Pushkin yesterday went over well. He astonishes listeners by talking so freely and easily and confidently on almost any subject, as no Russian politician seems able to do. But the idea that Russia

should put its house in order and play by the rules didn't have anyone cheering in the aisles.

"It's easy to speak about it," said Marina, an 18-year-old international studies student on her first day at the university. "In this country it's difficult to follow all the rules."

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