If Russians could eat fine speeches, all would be well

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PRESIDENT Clinton's Russia policy was badly shaken by the success of the extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in December's parliamentary elections. President Yeltsin and the reformers, heavily backed by the Americans, suddenly looked vulnerable. It was feared that the summit last week might turn out be an embarrassment for both sides.

Since December, however, the White House and the Kremlin have absorbed the shock and decided to maintain their co-operation regardless of the spectre of Mr Zhirinovsky. The result has been another chummy summit, which Mr Yeltsin yesterday described as an 'unqualified success'. The Russian leader has reaffirmed his commitment to reform, the US President has underlined the West's continuing support and Ukraine has joined in the general goodwill by signing a deal promising to give up its nuclear weapons.

But the summit, complete with cosy touches - such as Mr Clinton playing his saxophone for Mr Yeltsin - will prove to be nothing more than a holiday for politicians in trouble at home unless all the fine words are translated into deeds. The biggest tangible achievement is the arms agreement whereby Ukraine pledges to surrender all the nuclear missiles it inherited from the old Soviet Union in exchange for supplies of fuel from Russia and increased financial support from America. Mr Clinton praised Leonid Kravchuk's bravery and vision in helping to make the world more secure. But the Ukrainian president will face uproar in the Kiev parliament from nationalists, who say Mr Zhirinovsky's electoral success in Russia makes it all the more important for Ukraine to protect itself.

'The Moscow deal is terrible,' said Tatyana Yakheyeva, a member of the Ukrainian assembly. 'At the very least there will be a veto on the deal. At the most, Kravchuk faces impeachment.'

Mr Kravchuk is in a weak position because reform is moving slowly in his republic and his people are suffering even greater hardships than the Russians. If it comes to a choice between his own political survival and sticking to the deal, what will he do?

The main promise Mr Yeltsin made at the summit was not to deviate from the path of economic reform. Privatisation in Russia has progressed to the point where it is virtually irreversible. The important question is whether the president is going to keep on fighting inflation, which is starting to drop, or whether he will yield to conservative demands for more social spending. We will have a clearer idea of Russia's economic prospects when a new cabinet is announced this week. The man to look out for is the monetarist Finance Minister, Boris Fyodorov. Much hangs on whether he keeps his job.

Mr Clinton's fine words at the summit related, inevitably, to aiding Russia. Some dollars 900m is to be 'freed up' this year and dollars 1bn made available to Moscow over the next two years. This appears to be mostly money already pledged.

The Russians are themselves partly to blame for the fact that they have not received all they have been promised, because they have failed to meet conditions for loans and sometimes preferred not to borrow what they could have had. But ordinary Russians are now very sceptical about Western promises of assistance, and the nationalists are downright hostile to what they see as humiliating charity. The West must put its money where its mouth is, and make its help more effective.

During a televised meeting with members of the public on Friday, Mr Clinton was asked whether he was worried at the prospect that Mr Zhirinovsky could be in the Kremlin two years from now. He replied that two years was an eternity in democratic politics. It is, and all those who support Russian reform still have time to make it work. But time is running out. Mr Zhirinovsky has not gone away. Neither has the world's nuclear arsenal. If we are to enjoy the fruits of the end of the Cold War, we cannot afford any more empty summits.