After Yeltsin Meeting, Clinton Must Sell Aid Plan Back Home

The president will seek Congress's backing for at least $700 million to help Russian republic next year

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OVER a working dinner in a hotel restaurant Saturday evening, Boris Yeltsin told Bill Clinton that he was born a simple peasant, citing humble origins as something he and the American president held in common, recounted Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos the next morning.

Russian President Yeltsin's comment was one of many indications of the personal bond between the two leaders that developed last weekend.

President Clinton appears to have threaded a diplomatic needle in his first test at high-profile, high-stakes summit diplomacy. The test of his summit success - a test he referred to in his own remarks - is how he sustains the attention.

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Mr. Clinton was addressing two audiences at the summit, and both will take consistent, sustained effort to reach. He must persuade the American public that the course of events in Russia still matters to Americans. He must persuade the Russian public that the United States and the West will follow through and sustain their support of democratic and market reforms.

In contrast to last year, when the West announced $24 billion in aid to Russia that never materialized, Clinton said at his final summit press conference: "We are going to try to make sure that anything we say will be done, in fact, will be done."

Americans have little grasp of what has happened to formerly communist societies, says Dennis Bark, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Choices and responsibilities that come naturally to Westerners are very difficult for the newly independent to take. "They need moral leadership from Western leaders," he says.

Clinton's $1.6 billion economic aid package was big enough to exceed expectations, make news, and send a calibrated signal of support for Russian reforms. Yet, it was modest enough that it could be cobbled together from money already authorized by Congress.

In the next steps, the president will need to win new spending authority from Congress. He has already requested another $700 million for Russian aid for next year.

Clinton is a populist president who ran on the issue of domestic affairs in a country relieved to let go of the burden of 40 years of contained hostility with the Soviet bloc. Asking people to divert more money from the US to the former Soviet Union now is not easy.

"This is a great first step," Dr. Bark says. "The value of the first step is in what happens now."

Clinton has become far more "forward" in his approach to Russia than was George Bush, a president noted for his foreign-policy interests, says Ray Garthoff, a Brookings Institution scholar and former ambassador to Bulgaria.

Summiteering was the strong suit of President Bush. It helped him rally allies to his cause. In the first half of his term, in fact, Mr. Bush was perceived to be the past master of international crisis management through personal diplomacy.

Clinton does not suffer by comparison, however, in his first summit setting. Bush overcame his initial aggravation with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, to forge a close, high-trust relationship. But Bush, no peasant, never warmed up to Yeltsin. He became a Yeltsin supporter after the Russian's tank-straddling heroics during the thwarted Moscow coup in 1991, but never moved visibly past a formal admiration for the Russian president.

Clinton and Yeltsin, by contrast, hit it off. They were nearly effusive in their admiration for each other. Clinton said Sunday he found Yeltsin to be "very much what he seems to be. He's a person who rose from humble beginnings who has never forgotten where he came from." Clinton, too, is conscious of his own humble beginnings. His stepfather in his sometimes troubled family was a car dealer in Hot Springs, Ark.

He also touted Yeltsin for a basic democratic instinct, a trust in the judgment of people themselves. "My belief is that deep down inside, he actually does trust all those people who live in those communities in the 12 time zones that make up Russia. And that is a very great thing."

Yeltsin, for his part, said: "We immediately found common language in Vancouver, probably because we're both businesslike people and yet, to some extent, idealists."

Yeltsin went into the summit warning that an aid package would have to offer just the right amount to be effective but not too indebting for the Russians. He came out, not surprisingly, praising it as a large and wise package. "We do not need astronomical figures, headline-making figures. What we need are real figures. These are real figures which are doable."

Whenever a president raises his profile on the world scene, he raises his stature, if only briefly, with the American public. Clinton could use the boost. His job approval going into the summit had hovered for weeks between 50 percent and 55 percent. A Gallup poll for USA Today-CNN taken at the end of March showed 52 percent approving of his performance, the lowest figure for this stage of a presidency since figures became available during the Eisenhower administration.

The more-urgent purpose last weekend, however, was to boost Yeltsin's popularity at home.

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