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RUSSIA IN CRISIS

U.S. Takes 'Creative' Approach to Summit

Diplomacy: Unlike scripted China trip, rapid changes in Moscow pose tough challenge for White House planners.

September 01, 1998|TYLER MARSHALL and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — President Clinton's trip to Russia marks his second major summit in less than 60 days, and the meetings that begin today in Moscow unfold in a political atmosphere that is strikingly different from his last overseas visit--both for Clinton and his hosts.

In July, Clinton concluded a carefully choreographed, nine-day trip to China that included five cities and lots of upbeat rhetoric about the future of America's new relationship with a country that had ditched communism in all but name to become an emerging global economic power.

For Chinese President Jiang Zemin, hosting the U.S. president marked a crowning political achievement that boosted his status and effectively consolidated his grip at the top of China's ruling hierarchy.

In Russia, Clinton comes to a nation that many analysts argue has ditched communism in name only, whose bloated, antiquated industries and institutionalized cronyism have sucked in $70 billion in loans and credits from the West yet produced only despair and chaos in the process.

In Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Clinton meets an aging and unpredictable leader who is said to suffer bouts of bizarre behavior and has no prime minister, no government and no credible program for facing the future. The latest in a series of crises gripping Moscow has robbed Yeltsin of what many Russians cite as the two greatest achievements of his presidency: stabilizing the Russian ruble and taming inflation.

And Clinton, weakened and embarrassed by his admission of a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, also comes to Moscow with less political clout than he carried to Beijing.

Two months ago in China, Clinton witnessed a nation brimming with new power in an age in which economic muscle often counts as much as military might on the scale of global influence. Today in Russia, he sees a nation whose star appears to be on the wane.

"I think the consequences of this time of troubles in Russia is that Russia is going to cast less of a shadow on the rest of the world than it has in the past several years," said Arnold Horelick, vice president for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment Fund for International Peace in Moscow.

The turmoil of a collapsing Russian currency and a political standoff between Yeltsin and a Communist-dominated lower house of parliament that Monday refused to confirm Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister have forced White House planners into a largely improvised summit.

With Russia's leadership paralyzed by crisis, there is no chance of progress in resolving issues of direct interest to Americans such as cutting nuclear arsenals and halting the proliferation of nuclear materials to third countries.

And barely a month after Clinton helped push the International Monetary Fund to grant $17 billion in new loans for Russia, there is little he can offer Yeltsin in terms of economic support.

In fact, the main reason Clinton has decided to come at all is that not coming would only worsen the situation for Yeltsin, for Russia--and for the world.

"The reason I'm going to Russia is because we have learned the hard way that problems that develop beyond our borders sooner or later find their way to our doorstep unless we help our friends and our neighbors to deal with them as quickly and promptly as possible," Clinton told an audience Monday at a school in Herndon, Va., before leaving for Moscow.

Rahm Emanuel, a senior White House advisor, added: "We have a vested interest in Russia. In this time of crisis, we're going to be a voice for pressing forward on both economic and political reform."

White House officials conceded that preparing a summit with events constantly changing on the ground is unusual. The frequent criticism of recent summits has been that they have been too staged.

This time, one official said with a laugh, "we're going to let it be creative."

Despite all this, senior White House officials were busy Monday trying to put the best possible spin on the intensifying political crisis in Moscow. Rather than focusing on the fact that the Duma rejected Chernomyrdin, one senior official said, another way of seeing the situation is that Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were not willing to make the compromises necessary to make a pact with the Communists and other opposition politicians in the Duma, as the lower house is known.

Clinton's goal for the summit will be to support the course of reform, which administration officials say they believe Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin are trying to pursue.

"I think that's all you can do is to give some sense of the possibility of stability [in the future] and the need for being on the right path," one senior White House official said.

Times Moscow Bureau Chief Richard C. Paddock contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Summit Agenda

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