Clinton tells Russia: stick to the rules

Moscow summit: two beleaguered presidents meet as their domestic problems threaten to engulf their discussions
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The Independent Online
IT WAS what Russians call Knowledge Day, the first day back at school for the autumn term, when the older pupils traditionally show the ropes to new arrivals, taking them hand-in-hand around the flower-decked classrooms.

The ceremony is meant to comfort the nervous, to show them that the place is safe and that order prevails.

These qualities were, however, not much in evidence yesterday. A befuddled President Boris Yeltsin sought to take in hand his new arrival from America, Bill Clinton, with reassurances that Russia's reforms were irreversible. And a battered President Clinton sought to take Mr Yeltsin in hand by urging him to stick to the painful journey towards a capitalist economy. But there was an end-of-term feel about it all.

Knowledge was in short supply. No one was any the wiser about the issues that now count - the exact price Mr Yeltsin will pay, or the tactics he will resort to, to secure parliament's confirmation of Viktor Chernomyrdin, his choice of prime minister; the complexion of the government that may result from brokering a deal with the Communist-dominated Duma; the strategy for curing a country in which the currency is gasping for life, the banks are tottering and prices rising steadily.

Mr Clinton flew to Moscow intent on urging the Russians not to resort to Soviet-style remedies, a mission with the added attraction of diverting America's febrile interest from Monicagate. He came with Hillary, her first public appearance since the scandal broke.

Mr Clinton did, at least, make his point clearly enough. "You have to follow the rules if you want to be in the international community," he said in a speech to students at Moscow Institute of International Relations, where the KGB's diplomats used to train. The rules, the President explained, meant paying taxes; not printing money; no bail-outs for special interests and fair treatment for creditors.

There was a tinge of warning when he said: "We want to offer support - so long as you take the steps needed for stability and progress."

It is open to question how much Mr Yeltsin took this on board. "Bill Clinton and I are friends," he said as he was shown round Moscow's School No 1,130 during a Knowledge Day visit. But when the two men met and hugged in the Kremlin a few hours earlier the Russian leader had that stiff-limbed, far-away look with which Russians are so familiar. Mr Clinton tried in vain to guide him to face the cameras, but gave up with an exasperated shrug.

The Kremlin publicity machine cranked into gear with a statement, attributed to Mr Yeltsin, that reforms would continue. The acting prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, chimed in by talking about tax collecting and cutting budget spending. This was music to the ears of the West and, more importantly, to the International Monetary Fund, which is threatening to withhold a $4.3bn (pounds 2.6bn) tranche of Russia's $23bn rescue package.

Even the tax police weighed in with a rather sinister warning to schoolchildren that their free education would be in jeopardy unless their parents paid tax.

Ultimately, this summit is being overshadowed by the political dilemmas of its participants, and the magnitude of the crisis around them.

The Russian newspapers were scathing. "Friends in Need", said Segodnya's headline. Moskovski Komsomolets compared it with the 1974 summit of the "half-corpse Nixon with the half-alive Brezhnev".

Behind the scenes, American officials admit Mr Yeltsin may well have to make concessions to the parliamentary left-wing opposition, including some ministerial posts. On the eve of his boss's trip, the US Vice- President, Al Gore, said: "Communists of today are not the same as Communists of 50 years ago."

The reality, though, is that no one knows what the Communists are. The coalition headed by the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov includes radical elements and about 15 per cent are Stalinist.

Mr Clinton will meet MrZyuganov today. He will hope to hear reassurances that a reasonable deal can be done with the Kremlin.

But, publicly at least, Mr Zyuganov remained on the warpath. Western nations "have given unequivocal support to the man [Yeltsin] who has drunk himself to degradation, who is insulting the nation and the common sense of us all", he said. It is not what the Americans will want to hear.