PRESIDENT Clinton's decision to hold his first summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on April 3 and 4 in Vancouver, British Columbia, indicates that the new administration does not understand the Russian internal political scene. Mr. Clinton's well-intentioned effort to, in his words, "try to offer some innovative solutions to the difficulties faced by the president and the Russian people" is badly timed, given the crisis Mr. Yeltsin faces back home in Russia.
While the summit dates mean nothing here in the United States, they are significant on Yeltsin's home turf. One week later, a vote of the Russian people may decide whether Yeltsin or his parliament wins a battle for political control.
In announcing the summit's venue March 5, Clinton stated he wants to go to Vancouver "with the intention of trying to more aggressively engage the United States in the economic and political revitalization of Russia." Despite these good intentions, meeting on the eve of a major domestic battle could backfire, playing into the hands of Yeltsin's hard-line opponents.
Since Clinton's election in November, Russian officials have pushed for a summit meeting as soon as possible after Jan. 20. The Americans were reluctant to set an early date, given Clinton's commitment to focus on pressing domestic issues.
Finally, at a February meeting in Geneva, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev agreed on the April date. At that time, administration officials indicated the date was chosen in an effort to "help" Yeltsin at a time when he is facing political turmoil at home.
The ill-timed US-Russian summit can only fuel Yeltsin's hard-line communist detractors, who have been arguing for months that the Russian president is being manipulated by Western demands in return for financial aid. Mr. Kozyrev nearly lost his job the last time parliament met, in December, because he was publicly pilloried on those very charges.
Even if Yeltsin leaves Vancouver with the promise of more economic assistance from the US, his Old Guard communist opponents will criticize him for allowing Washington to "buy" a voice in what they believe are internal matters.
THE Vancouver summit will be held exactly one week before Russian voters decide in a referendum whether parliament or the president should have supreme legislative authority. Depending on the outcome, Yeltsin could potentially be sidelined as a figurehead or he could succeed in diminishing the influence of his combative parliament. At Yeltsin's request, Russia's highest legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies, meets March 10 to consider a Yeltsin-proposed power-sharing deal. If the Congress r ejects the plan, Yeltsin says he intends to go ahead with the April 11 referendum.
Russians resent being reminded that the US is the only remaining superpower. The last thing they are looking for is a poor stepchild relationship with their former heavyweight equal, and the Clinton administration knows this. When the two leaders meet, Yeltsin will have little choice but to play to the home audience and try to prove his domestic detractors are wrong. He must show that Russia, as the heir to the Soviet Union, retains much of the clout and independence of its predecessor.
Lately, Yeltsin has demonstrated this independence; his recent overtures in Asia show he remains a major international player who should not be counted out. During highly-successful trips to China and India he laid the foundation of a Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing bloc, a potentially important force in the new post-communist world order. Further demonstrating that he plans to chart his own foreign- policy course, Yeltsin said he will honor a commitment to provide India with cryogenic rockets, despite American
objections that the technology could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.
Most of Russia's territory lies in Asia, and Yeltsin's commitment to this alliance is grounded in strong ethnic as well as political considerations.
As Clinton prepares for the summit, he should take care not to treat Russia as an erstwhile superpower reduced to third-world country status. Nor should he regard Yeltsin merely as someone seeking Washington's help in order to survive the byzantine corridors of Russian power politics. That miscalculation could be costly for both leaders.