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Candidate Yeltsin Gets Tacit Endorsements From G-7 Leaders


MOSCOW — As French President Jacques Chirac extolled breakthroughs in nuclear security and East-West relations "due to the personality of Boris Yeltsin," the beaming Russian president was on hand to take the bows.

Yeltsin was out of earshot for more subtle praise from President Clinton, who described him as a partner in the quest for prosperity and peace. But Clinton's confident prediction that Russian voters will "look to the future and not the past" in shaping their society made clear which candidate the White House prefers in the upcoming presidential election here.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto put aside his nation's chilly dispute with Russia over ownership of the Kuril Islands to describe himself and Yeltsin as "good friends."

Leaders of the Group of 7 industrial nations gathered in Moscow on Saturday ostensibly to tackle nuclear security and proliferation issues but also to cast Yeltsin as an important world player before a Russian audience.

With the June election shaping up as a contest between an incumbent currently on the outs with his own people and a Communist cashing in on nostalgia for Soviet-era clout, Russia's most influential allies are finding it increasingly difficult to separate their support for the reform process from the persona of Yeltsin.

Clinton's backing of Yeltsin was carefully telegraphed and devoid of advice to voters that many here would consider inappropriate interference in their domestic politics, if not an outright attempt at bullying.

But Chirac's lavish accounts of Yeltsin's successes made clear that Western leaders are worried about the Kremlin chief's reelection fortunes--and the fate of the reform program that rides with them.

"I would like to thank Boris Yeltsin for his hospitality and tell him that a big surprise awaited me in the Kremlin as well," the French leader said, adding that on previous visits he found the ancient fortress and its palaces in disrepair. "So it gave me much pleasure to enter these huge buildings, which had regained their former splendor. Dear Boris Nikolayevich, thank you for that."

Chirac also credited Yeltsin with prodding the G-7 leaders to focus on the problem of nuclear smuggling and waste-dumping, and said the powerful economic alliance had been expanded to include Russia in political discussions, "and I repeat, to a large extent, this is related to the personality of Boris Yeltsin."

Clinton acknowledged that Russians must make their own political choices as they firm up their fledgling democracy, but he expressed confidence that many will recognize the advantages of staying on the path of reform.

"There will be consequences to the votes they cast, and they will be able to sort out those consequences," Clinton said. "And sometimes voters are right about what the consequences are of their votes, and sometimes they're not."

Clinton did insist that a continuing dispute over Moscow's sale of nuclear technology to Iran is just one source of friction among otherwise smooth ties.

"On balance, we've gotten a lot more progress out of this nuclear relationship with the Russians than this one setback would indicate," Clinton said of the Kremlin's plan to sell $1 billion in nuclear technology to a country the United States has deemed a menace.

The accolades offered Yeltsin were enough to miff his Communist opponent and the current front-runner, Gennady A. Zyuganov.

"I don't want to write it off as a preelection trick," the 51-year-old Communist said of the summit's elevation of Yeltsin's profile. "But I would not want to see interference in the internal affairs of Russia."

Yeltsin currently trails Zyuganov in public opinion polls. A handful of other contenders apparently do not have enough support to reach the second round of the election in July, when the two top vote-getters will face off.

State-financed media have been covering Yeltsin's campaign swings in every detail while ignoring Zyuganov both in Moscow and on the road. Businesses and banks that have flourished as a result of economic liberalization under Yeltsin have also been lobbying for the incumbent and have pledged broad financial support for his reelection.

The G-7 chorus for Yeltsin is just the latest in a clear campaign by Russia's trading and political partners to help stave off a Communist victory that could dismantle the progress achieved during five years of market reforms.

Two months ago, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Moscow to meet with Yeltsin and hail the development of trade ties between Russia and Western Europe. Obviously aiming at the pocketbook issues troubling many Russians, Kohl spouted impressive statistics on Russian joint ventures with Germany and other Western countries that produce the bulk of this country's hard-currency earnings.

A $10-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was approved earlier this month, largely on the assurances of the United States and other influential members that reform in Russia remains a cause worthy of investment.

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