Summit of the Besieged

Two years to go.... Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton might be pardoned for grimly reciting that refrain as each seeks to survive till the end of his term by diverting public attention from an administration under siege.

The natures of their respective crises are, of course, completely different. President Clinton's Starr problem, while intensifying this fall, is cushioned by a still humming economy. In contrast, President Yeltsin's shaky economy is the core of his crisis.

Mr. Clinton can wrest diversionary drama from a long-playing cat-and-mouse struggle with terror groups - and from upcoming trips to Ireland and Moscow. The latter may be billed as a Summit of the Besieged.

Americans and Russians need to avoid becoming mesmerized by these grave constitutional soap operas. In Moscow's case, it's important for the fledgling first democracy in Russian

history to make it to the next presidential election without a coup or impeachment.

That next Russian election is foreshadowed with the abrupt return of reform-slowing Viktor Chernomyrdin to the prime ministership. He makes no secret of his desire to succeed Yeltsin in 2000. If there's to be a true democratic choice then, Mr. Chernomyrdin should face one of the capable young reformers Yeltsin has hired and fired like a musical chairs master. He may also face Yuri Luzhkov, the populist mayor who has done so much to modernize Moscow.

Fifteen years ago, Yeltsin pioneered the role of populist mayor getting things done in Moscow. Now he seems to be stuck in a version where he tries to outwit his old Communist rivals in parliament by dumping his Cabinet. There's poetic justice in his giving Chernomyrdin back his old job as prime minister. It now falls to that representative of the big natural gas and heavy industry monopolies to run the economy his previous government did so much to sink. It did so by failing to reform tax collection, bank lending, and the heavy hand of the "robber barons" on the media and politics.

The rest of the world cannot ignore Moscow's slowing of reform. As one commentator noted, no one wants "an Indonesia with intercontinental missiles." So European leaders and members of the Clinton foreign policy team must press Yeltsin's new Cabinet to negotiate an end to Moscow's foreign debt freeze and resume efforts to assure fair, universal collection of taxes.

Russia's economy is relatively small. But the world economic system needs to have it working well.

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