PRESIDENT Clinton's summit visit to Moscow is like a walk through a thorny thicket - there is a path, but it is mighty easy to get snagged and scratched along the way.
The US president is trying to deliver continued support to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with whom he spent most of yesterday in meetings, walks around the Kremlin, and a dinner at his country dacha. But Mr. Clinton is also trying to widen US links to a broader swath of the political spectrum, most of whom were invited to a reception last night at the US ambassador's residence, with the exception, of course, of the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The US leader has echoed the views of many Russian politicians -
and Russian voters - in criticizing the international loan agencies for imposing too-harsh conditions, of offering ``too much shock'' and ``too little therapy'' in Russia's economic reform policies.
Yet Washington also wants to make sure there is no retreat from fundamental reforms, no return to the methods of the old command economy.
The message may be a bit too subtle for the Russian body politic. As was evident from the first day of Russia's new parliament on Tuesday, Russian politics remains polarized along ideological lines and plagued by personal animosities. Into this heady mix, a US president's words can have an unintended effect.
``Judging by the statements of American officials, the United States is ready to introduce considerable changes in its relations with Russia and stop supporting radical reform based on shock therapy,'' Sergei Stankevich, a former Yeltsin adviser and now a member of a moderate reform party in the new parliament, told the Itar-Tass news agency on Wednesday.
``Clinton should say he's supporting reforms but not reformers,'' says economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads another reformist opposition party. He argues that Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar and his policies were clearly repudiated by the electorate in the December parliamentary vote.
But the US position is hardly to oust the Gaidar group from the government.
``I want to see in the top hierarchy [of the Russian government] some strong reformers,'' US Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said here on Wednesday, according to Reuters. ``I'm optimistic that Gaidar is going to remain. Beyond that ... there are others who may have the same ideology, but may be more politically acceptable.''
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is considered more sympathetic to the go-slow approach and to continuing to subsidize the giant state-owned factories. But it is those subsidies that many economists consider to be the obstacle to reforms, triggering further inflation and making it impossible to truly shift the economy to a market basis.
Mr. Chernomyrdin's government has been a de facto coalition of his moderate allies and the Gaidar group. The reformers had hoped the election would yield them a clear victory, giving them total control of the Cabinet. Instead, they are fortunate to even remain part of the new government.
Chernomyrdin is scheduled to announce the Cabinet list on Jan. 17, according to Russian television reports.
Informed Russian sources say that the four top posts will be equally split between the two camps - the top Vice Premiers will be Mr. Gaidar and Chernomyrdin ally Oleg Soskovets, with Alexander Zaveryukha, who was elected to parliament on the ticket of the pro-Communist Agrarian Party, and reformist Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov serving as deputy premiers.
Anatoly Chubais, the head of the highly successful privatization program, had been set to be demoted to a less-than-Cabinet level. But in what may be interpreted as an attempt to reassure the US and other Westerners, Mr. Yeltsin decreed yesterday that Mr. Chubais will remain deputy premier.
Such moves tend to strengthen the impression that the Americans are almost participants in the Yeltsin government. The US support for Yeltsin has been sharply criticized by Communists and extreme nationalists who see this as evidence of Russian kowtowing to the US.
But moderate liberals are also critical of an overly pro-Yeltsin policy that refuses to recognize the existence of an anti-Yeltsin liberal opposition. They accuse the US of lending credence to Yeltsin's creation of a system of strong-man rule in the name of fighting the Communist-nationalist threat.
``Two or three months ago in the United States, there was no vision of democracy, including the democratic opposition,'' Mr. Yavlinsky says, ``because our government, including President Yeltsin, was more afraid of the democratic opposition than that of Zhirinovsky. The outcome is quite clear: We now have a nationalist opposition.''