Germany, supportive of Yeltsin, pushes for a `micro' aid approach that would help ordinary Russians

MOSCOW may be more than 3,000 miles from Bonn, but to politicians here it feels as close as their own backyard.

Uppermost in the minds of German leaders these days is how to help Russian President Boris Yeltsin. This will be a major topic when Chancellor Helmut Kohl meets President Clinton for the first time March 26.

German officials say the West's "macro" economic aid plan for Russia that was approved at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Munich last year is not getting off the ground. They want to supplement the plan with high-visibility "micro" assistance that will be felt by Russians on the street.

The "micro" approach, which Bonn would like to see fleshed out at the G-7 Tokyo meeting of finance and foreign ministers in mid-April, means everything from soup kitchens in the neediest parts of Russia, to medical assistance at selected hospitals, to summer camp and exchange programs for Russian children. "We need something visible. We need to make the people feel they are not forgotten," says an adviser to Chancellor Kohl.

On a higher level, the "micro" approach also means more help with military conversion and much more technical assistance in business management and government finance.

The fact that the Western aid package of credits, debt rescheduling, and a ruble stabilization fund is far from implementation is not the G-7's fault, German officials emphasize. With the Russian Central Bank stamping out more and more rubles and Moscow and Ukraine entangled in debt questions, the Russians simply have not been able to meet the agreed criteria for the aid.

This is why a parallel, visible assistance program that "looks for concrete points of contact" in Russia is so important, the Kohl adviser maintains.

Like the other G-7 nations, Germany responded with support for President Yeltsin and his course of reforms after his televised speech March 20. In the speech, Yeltsin announced he was taking the question of who should rule Russia directly to the people and that he was imposing "special rule" in the meantime.

Yeltsin's strategy, according to another German government official, was anticipated in the West, which is one reason why the West showed such strong, uniform support for his course.

This official, a Russia specialist, also expressed a surprising degree of confidence and optimism regarding Yeltsin's speech and its immediate aftermath. He said he felt "relieved" that a decision had been taken and a course of action toward a new constitution and elections was chosen. The German government, he said, had already begun to feel that Yeltsin's previous strategy of non-confrontation was no longer viable.

The Constitutional Court's declaration on March 23 that Yeltsin's "special rule" is unconstitutional, the official says, is "insignificant" since the ruling was based on a speech and not documentation. The official puts great faith in Yeltsin himself, who is "not going to back down in front of [Ruslan] Khasbulatov," Yeltsin's chief opponent.

But the German media, especially the more liberal press, warns against putting too many eggs in the Yeltsin basket. In an editorial on March 22, the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung warned that the West should be prepared to suffer the consequences of heavily backing a man who may be toppled.

The German government, like its allies, says there is no other choice. Yeltsin is the only freely elected representative of the people in Russia. His long-term goals are still democratic reform, even though, as another German newspaper writes, he is presently trying to reach "democracy through dictatorship."

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