Russia 'seeks markets, not charity'

MOSCOW - Bruised from weeks of conflict with his conservative opponents, Boris Yeltsin was looking for a little comfort from the West yesterday as he made the final preparations for his weekend summit in Vancouver with President Bill Clinton. Asked who would be running the country in his absence, Mr Yeltsin said at the airport: 'I have a telephone and I will run the country myself. Be sure the nuclear button is in safe hands. I am not abandoning the controls.'

While the fear of a putsch in his absence has diminished in the past two weeks, Russia's economic woes show no signs of disappearing. However, a generous aid package will take time to have any effect on the Russian economy and can do little to relieve Mr Yeltsin's immediate domestic political nightmare.

'Those who already back the President will go on doing so whatever the West offers and, as for the hardliners, they will see this trip as another example of Yeltsin going cap-in-hand for foreign charity, which could actually make things worse for him,' said Ilya Veselyov, a Yeltsin supporter.

Mindful of this danger, Moscow has been careful to stress it is not begging for more aid but seeking an end to Western trade discrimination, which is hampering exports. 'The Americans are talking about expanding aid to Russia but we are not asking for additional credits,' said the Foreign Trade Minister, Sergei Glazyev, this week. 'What we demand is free access of Russian goods to the markets of developed countries, including those of the United States, and an end to discrimination against Russia in foreign markets.'

Fearing its own commerce could be undercut by cheap Russian goods and services, the West has been slow to lower trade barriers. In particular, it wants more access to world markets for commercial space-launches, arms and aircraft.

Despite Mr Glazyev's denial that Moscow was seeking aid and loans, Mr Yeltsin is unlikely to refuse the package which Mr Clinton is expected to lay on the table at Vancouver. The G7 group of industrialised countries is also considering more help for Russia, which the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, discussed with the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, at a brief stop-over in Moscow on his way to south-east Asia yesterday.

If the West does offer more aid to Moscow, it must ensure it arrives promptly and in full, as Russians are cynical about a sum of dollars 24bn which was promised before but only delivered in part. This gave ammunition to hardliners in the Congress of People's Deputies who accuse Mr Yeltsin of selling out Russia's interests to the West for a trickle of aid. Russia's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, who will be in charge while Mr Yeltsin is away, has spoken of 'mythical Western aid'.

The Russian press largely refrained from pre-summit comment yesterday, although the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya ran a cartoon of Mr Clinton lecturing Mr Yeltsin about market economics against a background of Russians queuing at a soup kitchen.

Economics will dominate the summit, although Mr Clinton will also be hoping to hear assurances about Russia's commitment to arms reduction and to decisions of the world community over Yugoslavia and Iraq. The Russian leader is likely to give these quietly, although Mr Kozyrev has suggested Mr Clinton should not push Mr Yeltsin too hard for public rhetoric, given the delicate situation in Moscow.

After the drama of last week, when Mr Yeltsin seemed on the brink of introducing emergency rule and the Soviet-era Congress came close to impeaching him, there was another lull yesterday in the Russian constitutional crisis but the battle is far from over.

Comments