US Steps Back From Partnership With Russia

Economic tumult and Yeltsin's decline prompt US officials to make stern warnings

It was to have been a partnership that would make the world a safer place.

But the Clinton administration's grand vision of helping transform Russia into a free-market democracy with which it could work to ease international tensions and consolidate the new global economy has vanished.

With President Boris Yeltsin's authority ebbing and his people facing a winter of food shortages amid deepening economic tumult, the United States is being forced to rethink relations with Russia. Its size and atomic arsenal hold profound implications for the security of the US and its allies.

Mr. Yeltsin and his team of youthful pro-West reformers were driven onto the political sidelines by the economic collapse in August. Now Yeltsin's new health problems have compelled him to hand many of his responsibilities to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and raised the possibility that he could be forced to resign before his term ends in 2000.

"There is a general fear that we are at the beginning of the crisis and we don't know who will be in the Kremlin" in a year, says Russia expert Michael McFaul of Stanford University in California.

But recent speeches by senior US officials show that concerns over Russia's struggle to shed its communist legacy run deeper.

In a worst-case scenario, Russia, spanning two continents and 11 time zones, could break into smaller, nuclear-armed states as regional strongmen move to restore order after a collapse of Moscow's authority. Another scenario has Russians opting for authoritarian rule in hopes that a firm hand in the Kremlin could end political and financial chaos, crime, corruption, and corrosion of global power.

Last Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administration's point man on Russia expressed such apprehensions at Stanford University. He slammed Mr. Primakov for retreating from reform and warned that "economic decline carries with it the danger of political drift, turmoil, and even crackup."

Assessments of Russia's future are bleaker than at any time since Yeltsin embarked on his Western-style reform programs in 1992.

"We cannot say that Russia will emerge from its difficulties any time soon. Nor should we assume the worst, for there are still plenty of people in Russia who will fight against turning back the clock," said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an Oct. 2 speech in Chicago. But, she added, Russia's emergence as a stable, free-market democracy after more than 70 years of communism is "an open question."

Cooperation continues

The administration is eager to continue working with Moscow on security issues of shared concern, such as terrorism, arms control, and securing Russian nuclear materials from theft. Anxious to help millions of poor Russians through the winter, the US agreed last week to provide 3.1 million tons of food aid.

But US officials no longer celebrate the "partnership" they touted with unabashed zeal throughout Yeltsin's heyday as a keystone of US-Russian relations. Assertions that reform in Russia is "irreversible" are gone.

"We can help Russia make tough choices, but in the end, Russia must choose what kind of country it is going to be," Mrs. Albright said, building on a theme sounded by President Clinton during his September visit to Moscow. In unusually blunt tones, US officials also warn that Russia could pay a heavy price if it adopts policies that put it at odds with the US and its allies.

That tone stands in stark contrast to the sunny US pronouncements on Russia aired before fiscal mayhem discredited Yeltsin and pro-West reformers.

Only three months earlier, Mr. Clinton had proclaimed in Berlin that "Russians are building a democratic future .... We must support this Russian revolution."

Washington's misgivings have been fueled by the failure of Primakov's governing mlange of moderates and communists to produce an economic rescue plan that restores investor confidence. Instead of paying workers back wages, collecting taxes, closing failed banks, and reviving industries, Primakov's government proposed Oct. 31 to print more rubles and increase state economic intervention.

Defaulting on loans

In a further jolt, Moscow last week announced that next year, for the first time, it will be unable to make foreign-debt payments.

"Our concern is that ... the Primakov team is prepared to abandon a stable currency, a viable exchange rate, and a sound monetary policy," said Mr. Talbott. Until Primakov is "willing and able to make the difficult structural adjustments necessary for recovery and growth," he said, the International Monetary Fund will halt disbursements of a US-backed $22.6 billion bailout.

Some experts say the Clinton administration should have begun reassessing its Russia policy much sooner. They point out that it continued backing huge injections of money even after Yeltsin became more authoritarian and unpopular and repeatedly reneged on vows to push reforms and crush corruption. As a result, these analysts say, the US was closely identified with the failure of Yeltsin's reforms, allowing nationalists and communists to stoke anti-American sentiment.

The administration appears to be trying to avoid a repeat of congressional criticism by distancing itself from Primakov, a former Soviet intelligence operative who is distrusted on Capitol Hill.

The US may also be better positioned to deal with whatever political forces emerge from 1999 parliamentary elections and the contest to succeed Yeltsin.

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