US and Russian Leaders Play to Voters Back Home

Yeltsin emphasizes trade and investment needs rather than aid

ALL politics, the saying goes, are local politics. The truth of that maxim has been abundantly evident here during the weekend summit of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his US counterpart, Bill Clinton.

From the first moments of the meeting in this Canadian Pacific port city, both men displayed a sharp awareness of how their grand diplomacy would play to the folks back home.

Even as he put his $1.6 billion dollar aid package on the table here, President Clinton was hard at work selling the need for such spending to his fellow Americans. "Historically in our country foreign aid has never been popular," Clinton told reporters. "And that's why I have gone out of my way to show that this is the establishment of a partnership which will be mutually beneficial. This is not in any way an act of charity that we are engaged in."

Such talk suits Mr. Yeltsin, who has his own image problems to worry about. With his eye firmly fixed on an April 25 referendum that could decide his fate, Yeltsin went out of his way to avoid being tabbed as a mendicant with an outstretched hand.

"You see, too much [economic aid] is not very good either," Yeltsin told reporters April 3. "Too little is not good because it's not enough to enable you to solve problems, while, on the other hand, too much can be bad because it would be used by the communists to target us. The opposition is going to say in that case that we are going to be in hock to the West."

Yeltsin's sensitivities are more than justified. Even his own prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, shares many Russians' discomfort over being the recipients of Western handouts.

"What they tried to do, this humanitarian stuff ... it is humiliating, though it is not meant that way," Mr. Chernomyrdin said in a TV interview broadcast in Russia after the president departed.

Such concerns motivated Russian insistence that the summit's final communique avoid even the term "aid," informed Russian sources said. Instead the Russians stressed trade and investment.

During the summit talks, Yeltsin aired Russian complaints - not new, but emphasized in recent weeks - that while the West preaches the virtues of free markets, it is blocking Russian access to markets for products such as fish and enriched uranium. He pressed for the United States to permanently remove the long-standing Jackson-Vanik amendment, which bars trade privileges without a guarantee of free emigration for Russian Jews and others, as well as the end to cold-war-era restrictions on the sale of hi gh technology to Russia.

Finally, Yeltsin pronounced himself "very satisified" with what the US president had to offer. But more than dollars, the Russian leader was looking for a morale boost from Clinton's personal and very public support. Yeltsin arrived here only days after the close of a bitter emergency session of Russia's Congress of People's Deputies, where hard-line opponents mounted a serious, though ultimately failed, bid to oust him from office.

Yeltsin managed to preserve an April 25 vote of confidence in his rule, which he hopes to use to demand a new constitution and new elections for the parliament. But he has been forced to swallow a Congress countermove which sets up a more elaborate four-question referendum requiring Yeltsin to gain a majority of the electorate to win.

Although Yeltsin has challenged the voting requirements in the country's high court, the Vancouver summit showed he feels confident he can win the vote, no matter how it is framed.

On his way to the summit, the Russian leader turned a refueling stop in the Siberian mining city of Magadan into a seven-hour campaign event. He pressed the flesh at a fish factory, chatted with border guards, and reassured beleaguered shoppers of help in restoring savings lost to Russia's super-heated inflation. According to Russian reporters who accompanied the president, he was enthusiastically received by crowds of thousands.

In the midst of the stormy Congress, Yeltsin had canceled such stops, apprehensive over extending his absence from the capital. But on April 2 Yeltsin restored them, a sign of his new frame of mind.

That determination was evident from Yeltsin's first moments on the rain-soaked tarmac at Vancouver's airport, when the former Siberian Communist Party boss dismissed the offer of an umbrella with a brusque wave. And it was clear in the defiant words Yeltsin spoke at a brief first press conference later in the morning.

"The communists want to take revenge, to take us back to the past, to throw Russia back to stances and positions that it had assumed earlier," he said. Asked if Russia will continue market and democratic reforms, Yeltsin shot back: "As long as there is President Yeltsin in power in Russia, then without question, the reforms will continue."

And while the summit agenda ranged from economics to the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yeltsin's mind never seemed to stray far from the political fight back home.

At a luncheon with Clinton and Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney, Yeltsin talked at length about the political situation. He provided an elated account of his campaign whirl in Magadan, claiming a crowd of 50,000 had gathered to back him.

Yeltsin's vigor clearly impressed his young American partner. "The Boris Yeltsin that President Clinton met with today did not look, act, or talk like a politician on the ropes," said Strobe Talbott, Clinton's Russian policy coordinator, after the first day of talks.

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