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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Clinton's Call-Boris Policy Still Vital but Has Its Limits

April 08, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — One of the first things Bill Clinton did when he returned from Africa to work in the Oval Office on Monday was to phone his old friend Boris N. Yeltsin.

It must have been quite a schmooze, a toast to old times by two inveterate campaigners. There was lots to talk about. Over the last couple of weeks, Clinton has celebrated the dismissal of the Paula Corbin Jones case, while Yeltsin fired his entire Cabinet.

So on the surface, at least, it's back to business. Remarkably, the Boris-and-Bill show just keeps on running. Between the two of them, the presidents of the United States and Russia survive elections, coup attempts and scandal. Their personal attributes are often open to question; their tenacity is not.

In the view of the administration, the warmth between Clinton and Yeltsin remains a crucial element of American foreign policy--one that can help determine the outcome of issues ranging from North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion to Russia's help for Iran.

"Even in this era, personal relations among leaders do matter a lot and there's no more positive example than the relationship between these two presidents," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the administration's point-man for Russia, said in an interview this week.

Nevertheless, it's only fair to wonder how much these two men matter anymore to the future of relations between the United States and Russia. Events are moving beyond them.

There are many questions about the direction of Russia's foreign policy. Was Russia's recent campaign with France and China to limit American action against Saddam Hussein a harbinger of new foreign-policy alignments?

How will Russia react in the years after NATO expands its membership to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic? And what will happen if and when NATO tries to bring in other new countries besides these three?

The answers may well depend on who will lead Russia after the departure of Yeltsin, who is 67 and whose term expires in 2000.

Washington is once again awash with rumors about Yeltsin's health. His erratic performances are said to be the possible result of heart problems or depression or both. In his growing isolation, he is said to be relying heavily on the advice of his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko.

The Clinton administration is now scurrying to adjust to Yeltsin's Cabinet shake-up and the changing political situation in Moscow.

Over the last five years, the administration had devoted extraordinary energy courting Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the prime minister Yeltsin just sacked. Vice President Al Gore had been meeting with Chernomyrdin twice a year. Less than a month ago, the vice president took the time to escort the Russian premier on a tour of Silicon Valley.

When Chernomyrdin was fired only a few days later, the administration acted for all the world as though nothing important had happened. "I have no reason to believe that anything different will occur," said Clinton. Yet the president took care to write Yeltsin a personal note from Africa and to make the phone call in Washington on Monday.

Talbott heaped praise on Russia's new acting prime minister, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, who is only 38 years old and has only a year of government service in Moscow.

"There's an awful lot of instant conventional wisdom that he's a transitional figure," Talbott said. "The fact that he's inexperienced and unseasoned in the Soviet mind-set is not all bad, to put it mildly." Kiriyenko, he went on, "could be on the cutting edge of the passing of the torch from one generation to another."

Figuring out who really runs Moscow these days is no longer as easy for Washington as it used to be. Take the example of the CIA and its changing wall charts.

Back in the Cold War, the CIA used to publish regularly a glossy chart of the Soviet leadership. It was a rundown of the Politburo, with pictures and thumbnail biographies of each of the members.

Now, the CIA is putting out a different kind of chart, one that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. It is entitled "Russia's Business Magnates," and it shows pictures of the tycoons who run various industry groups like Gazprom, Russia's huge energy enterprise. Once, the CIA was full of Kremlinologists. Now the same people are turning into Gazpromologists.

The Clinton administration's view of Russia is not as optimistic as it was five years ago.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, looking back on an address he gave in 1993, admits in an upcoming book that, in retrospect, "we did overestimate the popularity and strength of reform in Russia."

Clinton and his team deserve credit for doing as much as possible to help nurse along democracy in Russia. Yet every week, it seems, more instances crop up of the ways in which Russia poses problems for American foreign policy.

Only two days ago, for example, Acting Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov announced that Russia will go ahead, at a faster pace, in helping Iran to complete its nuclear power plant at Bushehr--a project the Clinton administration warned could help Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Maybe Clinton can stop this Russian-Iranian project with a phone call. Don't count on it, though. Sure, Bill and Boris still talk. But Washington's transition to a post-Yeltsin era has already begun.

Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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