Moscow policy costs White House dear

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The Independent Online
CAUGHT by surprise by ultra-nationalist and Communist success in the Russian elections, the White House is scrabbling for a new policy in the run-up to Bill Clinton's visit to Moscow early next month.

The problem for Mr Clinton is that his previous Russian policy was grossly oversold. During his first year in office he met criticism over American frustrations in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti by emphasising that he had got Russia right. The White House stressed that what happened in Moscow was much more important than events, however melodramatic, in Mogadishu or Port-au-Prince.

In fact, Mr Clinton did not really have a policy on Russia, apart from unrelenting support for President Boris Yeltsin almost regardless of what he did. The election results came as a nasty shock, all the more embarrassing because Vice-President Al Gore - expecting to see the pro-Yeltsin reformers triumphant - flew into Moscow just after the results were announced.

Officials in Washington, previously over-sanguine about Russia, may now be over-reacting. On Monday Strobe Talbott, the State Department's ambassador at large for Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, said the economic 'shock therapy' previously advocated by the West had not worked. He said the US was now looking at other Russian reformers - in addition to Mr Yeltsin.

At the same moment the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, was saying the election was a 'wake-up call' to reformers. He warned them to 'be very conscious of the pain that takes place in the transition' from Communism to capitalism. In Moscow, Mr Gore was criticising the International Monetary Fund for not being sensitive enough to the needs of the Russian people. The IMF now says it is loosening up on its conditions.

One Russian observer pointed out that current American misgivings over radical reforms leading to the impoverishment of the Russian people - industrial output is 60 per cent of what it was three years ago - are similar to criticism made by the opposition leader Ruslan Khasbulatov in the old parliament before, with strong US approval, it was dissolved.

The same undercurrent of panic is evident in the media. The historian Michael Beschloss, who recently co-authored a book with Strobe Talbott, writes that historians of the future may see the pivotal event of 1993 in American politics as being not the North American Free Trade Agreement or health care, 'but the thunderbolt that came from Russia'. Mr Beschloss says that the success of the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky puts foreign policy back at the centre of US concerns.

Other American commentators hold that the US is over-reacting. They say that Mr Zhirinovsky is a 'flake' whom voters supported by way of protest. Russians are politically apathetic and absorbed in their private lives and, the commentators say, Mr Yeltsin will gain support at home and abroad from people panicked by the spectre of Mr Zhirinovsky.

Debate in the US about the possibility of Russia emerging as a new threat has profound significance for Mr Clinton. The armed forces and intelligence services would benefit from re-emergence of a menace to US security to justify their budgets. The fear of re-emergent Russian nationalism sparked by Mr Zhirinovsky's success at the polls will further cramp Mr Clinton's ability to shave the defence budget and use that money for domestic reforms.