PRESIDENT Clinton said during the electronic ``town meeting'' in Moscow last week that America is the world's oldest democracy and Russia is the world's youngest democracy. With mingled charm and optimism Mr. Clinton urged Russians to continue with free elections and to create free markets. His TV performance, designed as much for an American as a Russian audience, was skillful. He rightly called Russia a ``great power''; Clinton supported Boris Yeltsin and the reform process without quite antagonizing the new hardliners.
White House strategy in Moscow accentuated the positive; the president's foreign-policy team, led in Russia by Strobe Talbott, decided that qualified optimism for post-Soviet Russia is the appropriate posture. There is a good argument for this tack, given Russia's uncertain future.
Yet while Clinton is president of the world's oldest democracy, he was visiting an ancient culture - with the world's second largest nuclear arsenal - that is suffering deeply enough from economic chaos and wounded national pride that it has just given a huge electoral victory to a fascist who embodies a growing desire for regaining empire. Russia's internal problems and the minor leverage of a US president were evident by the departure of Mr. Yeltsin's economic-reform czar, Yegor Gaidar. Yeltsin assured Clinton in Moscow on Friday that free-market reforms would continue; on Sunday, Yeltsin was showing Gaidar, the architect of those reforms, to the door.
The most substantial part of Clinton's Kiev-Moscow-Minsk trip was Ukraine's signing of an agreement to give up the rest of its nuclear arsenal to Russia. Yet the Ukrainian parliament must first ratify the paper. This may cause strife in Ukraine since Moscow is treating the agreement as a great triumph over Kiev; many Ukrainians see it as a dangerous capitulation.
Underscoring Russian-Ukranian tension is a nasty question that the president of the world's oldest democracy did not broach: How serious is Russia's imperial ambition?
Clinton spoke of democracy and free markets, but said little about treating neighbors as sovereign states. With Russian troops still in the Baltics and with a recent serious military incident in Latvia, the most important message for Moscow is: One cannot have reforms and the rule of law, and an imperial policy that seeks to make neighbors into colonies.
If the US does not make this message more explicit, nationalists will infer that America treats post-Soviet territory as a Russian issue, not an issue falling under international law.