Poll fall-out tests Clinton's support for Yeltsin

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ABANDONING an initial effort to play down the success of anti-Western parties in the Russian elections, the Clinton administration is trying to see if it has any alternative to its policy of all-out support for President Boris Yeltsin. Defeat for Mr Yeltsin's supporters is embarrassing for the White House because it had said that - whatever the setbacks in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti - its policy towards Russia was working.

Over-confidence in Washington led to the Vice-President, Al Gore, arriving in Moscow to celebrate the success of reform just as its advocates were being trounced at the polls. Next month President Clinton himself comes to Moscow on a visit which is looking ill-timed.

The problem for the administration is that - other than supporting Mr Yeltsin - it does not really have a Russian policy. In the broadest sense, the US would like a strategic partnership, such as that with Germany and Japan after the Second World War, but then Washington was dealing with defeated foes whose actions it controlled.

The contrary is true of Russia. The elections show the limits of US influence and information. The dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.4bn) in US aid counts for little for Russians who have seen industrial production fall 40 per cent in three years. A World Bank report shows there is minimal Western private investment other than in the oil industry. Polls show that 48 per cent of Americans oppose, and only 44 per favour, sending more aid to Russia.

Lack of control over what is happening in Russia affects President Clinton in two ways. He has left vague his reaction to Russian military intervention in the non-

Russian republics. If, in the wake of ultra-nationalist success in the elections, Moscow now toughens its stance towards Ukraine and the Baltic states, the administration will find it difficult to know how to respond.

Second, joint projects between the US and Russia are vulnerable to increased political instability. The administration has already committed itself to building a joint space station, but the Baikonur Cosmodrome from which it would be launched needs dollars 100m in investment and is, in any case, in Kazakhstan. A dollars 10-12bn project to develop oil and gas fields off Sakhalin Island in the Far East is due to be signed this week.

President Clinton is not yet being damaged by the fall-out of the Russian election but he is vulnerable because he had trumpeted the success of his foreign policy towards Russia. If Russian policy, under President Yeltsin or his opponents, does become nationalistic then it will also give ammunition to opponents in the US - mostly Republicans - who want to slow the reduction in military expenditure.