Wary Clinton pins faith on democratic change

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The Independent Online
AN impotent United States watched events in Moscow yesterday with ever- growing concern, as measures tortuously being devised by the West to help President Boris Yeltsin appeared increasingly irrelevant to hopes of reversing the steady erosion of the Russian leader's grasp on real power.

For the moment, officially at least, all predictions are eschewed of the outcome of the bewildering constitutional struggle on which Mr Yeltsin's fate may hinge. Although support for the President in his battle with the conservative- dominated Congress is still the order of the day, Washington is anxious to avoid any impresssion of direct interference.

Speaking after a furious Mr Yeltsin had stormed out of Congress following passage of a resolution sharply curtailing his executive authority, President Bill Clinton was the embodiment of caution. 'I support democracy in Russia and the movement to a market economy, and Boris Yeltsin is the elected President of Russia,' Mr Clinton declared.

But in his next breath he seemed to play down the gravity of a clash which could decide the future of post-Soviet Russia, referring to 'a parliamentary dispute over there which, as far as I can see, is within the bounds of legal authority', and expressing the hope that whatever happened next 'was consistent with that'. Uppermost in the US President's mind was a desire to avoid any impression of prior US endorsement for any last-ditch, extra-constitutional steps by Mr Yeltsin, such as a militarily-backed imposition of emergency presidential rule or dissolution of the Congress, at which he hinted during his Moscow meeting with the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, last week.

Those musings were urgently relayed by Mr Kohl to his fellow leaders of the G7 industrial nations, first and foremost to Mr Clinton. But the latter stressed yesterday he had not talked with Mr Yeltsin since his encounter with the German Chancellor, and that he still plans to hold the scheduled summit with Mr Yeltsin in Vancouver on 3 and 4 April.

Meanwhile, G7 officials will examine interim help for Russia at a meeting in Hong Kong this weekend, to which Russian representatives have been invited.

Three broad types of assistance have been canvassed here of late: a rescheduling of the dollars 80bn ( pounds 56bn) of foreign debt Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, specific assistance for officers in the demoralised Russian military, and greater Russian access to international arms markets - one of the few areas where the country has goods to sell for precious hard currency.

But none of these measures would bring much immediate benefit for ordinary Russians, and all could be rendered pointless by the onrush of developments in Moscow. Privately, policy-makers here are increasingly doubtful whether Mr Yeltsin can retain even diminished executive power.

Many indeed are worried that the Clinton team could be repeating the error of President Bush, who clung to Mr Gorbachev long after Mr Yeltsin's predecessor had lost control of events.

More broadly, the intellectual argument is swinging back in favour of those who have all along insisted the West had only the most marginal influence on the unfolding of the Russian crisis.

The belief of this school is that, for Russia, democracy and the market are fundamentally alien concepts. Pointing to the scant success of aid from the IMF and others thus far, it maintains that, to qualify for massive help, Russia must first demonstrate it wants to help itself.

Countering this realpolitik however is the feeling that every conceivable alternative to Mr Yeltsin will be more inimical to the West, and that a further weakened, disintegrating Russia will open the gates to nuclear-armed anarchy.