RUSSIAN Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's current visit to the United States is coming at a sensitive time for his government.
With Russia more vulnerable than ever to a nationalist backlash, reformers in Moscow anxiously hope Mr. Chernomyrdin's US trip will not only generate trade but also restore international respect for Russia, despite its present political and economic turmoil.
President Boris Yeltsin's administration has been annoyed by what it views as the West's, particularly the US's, lagging support for his economic reforms. It is also roiled by Western efforts to increase influence in what Russia still considers its internal affairs; the fate of other former Soviet republics.
Some Yeltsin supporters say the West's recent actions vis-a-vis Russia are helping the president's hard-line opponents, allowing them to cast the reformist government as a Western hireling bent on betraying Russia's interests. If Moscow is to continue on its current reform path, the reformers say, the US and other Western nations must show greater understanding for the Yeltsin administration's difficult position.
Chernomyrdin, himself an advocate of a cautious reform pace, said before leaving Moscow on Aug. 29 that his most important goal was boosting cooperation, telling the Itar-Tass news agency that his visit would be of an exclusively ``businesslike nature.'' Thus, he began his five-day visit in Houston, where he looked to attract investment in Russia's beleaguered oil industry, the nation's most important source of hard currency revenue.
Speaking to US oilmen Aug. 30, Chernomyrdin said Russia would need about $65 billion by the year 2000 to reverse the fall in Russia's fuel production. He took a step toward that goal the same day, announcing a deal between the Russian Gazprom concern and Houston-based Enron Corp.
Only during the last days of his visit - Sept. 1-2 - is Chernomyrdin scheduled to meet with President Clinton and other US officials. But the political portion of the trip may prove to be the most crucial, from the viewpoint of Russia's more radical reformers.
They want to dispel the widespread impression here that Russia has been reduced to subservience to the West. That perception at home is making it more difficult for the reformers to sell market reforms to a population still dazed by the upheavals brought on by the collapse of communism.
Chernomyrdin's visit was originally to occur earlier this summer, but was postponed because of US opposition to Russia's proposed sale of sensitive missile technology to India. Russia was angered by what it considered an overbearing US stance, but eventually agreed to withhold sensitive technology.
As the reformers see it, the US is helping to foster the image of Russia as junior partner to the West. They cite as an example the recent disclosure of a US policy paper on possible American diplomatic intervention in, and a potential United Nations' peacekeeping role in former Soviet republics. US officials say they aim to stabilize Mr. Yeltsin's administration, but Russian officials resent the initiative in their sphere of influence. Mr. Clinton has said he will refine the US position in the near future.
In another incident, Russia announced recently that it was suspending the withdrawal of its troops from Lithuania until the Baltic nation guaranteed the rights of ethnic Russians left behind. The US responded with a warning that Moscow faced losing millions of dollars in aid. Russia blasted the US reaction as ``entirely inappropriate'' and demonstrating a lack of understanding of the dispute. Moscow and Vilnius on Aug. 30 agreed on a plan in which the last Russian troops would leave Lithuania by Aug. 31, as originally scheduled.