Yeltsin Blunts Bear Claw, Snuggles Closer to West

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin is preparing to reassert his nice-guy, reformist image in an attempt to overcome the political damage from Russia's military venture in Chechnya.

At stake is not only President Yeltsin's shaky political future but also Western aid, including a $6.25 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Yeltsin's dependence on hard-line aides since the beginning of the Chechnya crisis has led critics to see an anti-Western policy emerging in the Kremlin. But with a cease-fire reported yesterday and the Chechen capital of Grozny largely in Russian hands, Yeltsin appears to be trying to polish his severely tarnished image.

On Thursday, the Russian president will make his annual address to parliament, where he is expected to assess Russia's involvement in Chechnya as well as stress his country's commitment to democratic reforms.

In a sign that Yeltsin may be distancing himself from those who led him into the Chechnya debacle, the address is being prepared by a working group of 16 reformers. They include top economic aide Alexander Livshits, national security adviser Yuri Baturin, and Georgy Satarov, Yeltsin's political adviser.

''All the signals are that this is going to be a strongly reformist policy program,'' said one Moscow-based Western diplomat. ''It's part of a platform to try and produce a few successes, which will make a start in reversing the disastrous fall in his ratings, and, to some extent, to reassure international opinion.''

WESTERN governments have consistently backed Yeltsin, as they see him as democracy's best hope in Russia. But after the Chechnya war, which is bringing extensive civilian casualties, such reassurances would encourage the West to continue its moral and financial support.

But Sergei Stupar, a member of the working group preparing the address, said it will not be a ''propaganda piece oriented toward the West in order to present a favorable image'' of Yeltsin. He said the address will contain a ''concrete and critical analysis'' of the Chechen operation.

But observers doubt Yeltsin will take direct action against hard-liners in the military, which has been criticized for its indiscriminate use of force in Chechnya. In particular, Yeltsin will probably refrain in his address from criticizing his ally, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, who observers say could eventually become a scapegoat for the war. Yesterday, the respected Deputy Defense Minister Boris Gromov, a critic of the Chechnya campaign, was moved to a new -- and less important -- post in the foreign ministry. Two other deputy defense ministers were dismissed last week.

Western officials are still concerned that the fighting in Chechnya could spread. But they say Russia recently has taken some positive steps on the economic front, which include abolishing oil quotas and passing a serious pro-reform budget.

Although the parliament on Friday passed a proposal to nearly triple the minimum monthly wage, which would cost almost half the budget deficit and jolt inflation, Yeltsin is expected to veto the decision.

Another hopeful sign was the appointment last week of reformist Sergei Belyaev as Russia's new privatization minister. He replaces Vladimir Polevanov, who called foreign investment a ''threat to national security.''

Western officials are still looking for more signs. The Group of Seven industrialized nations have invited Yeltsin to its summit meeting in June, but US officials have been reluctant to commit to a date for a Clinton-Yeltsin summit this spring. And the IMF has still not decided whether to approve the crucial standby loan, which Russia needs desperately to plug its budget gap.

''As far as the world sees, the Russian government is just reverting to war,'' the Western diplomat said, ''and so there is a need for strong statements to restore confidence.''

Skeptics, for their part, say that actions speak louder than words and that Yeltsin's speech will be a hollow gesture.

Yeltsin's address ''is like a Christmas card with best wishes,'' said Mikhail Berger, a political analyst for the daily Izvestia newspaper. ''It has nothing to do with real life.''

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