The Vancouver Summit: Yeltsin looks for a silver lining: Russian leader impresses Clinton with his vision of the future

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THIS was the summit that had to be a success - and ostensibly it was. Yet for all the gushing language of the 'spin doctors', this Clinton-Yeltsin summit in some ways has been as unfathomable as the weekend weather in which it was shrouded: damp and foreboding, occasionally lit by shafts of brilliant sunshine, but the clouds never lifting enough to reveal the mountain backdrop which makes this city special.

Outwardly the talk has been of lofty vistas of 'partnership' and 'a watershed of history', when the West has a chance to help create an irreversibly democratic Russia. No less remarkable, however, was the extent to which a beleaguered Russian President and an American counterpart who must prove his credentials in foreign affairs kept their eyes glued to politics at home.

Yesterday the United States finally opened up its much advertised aid parcel: up to dollars 1.6bn ( pounds 1bn) of assistance targeted at ordinary Russians in the form of medical supplies, more food, know-how assistance, help for rehousing surplus military personnel, and 'seed-corn' aid to boost privatisation and free enterprise.

But all has been carefully structured to seek no new money from a recalcitrant Congress and a deeply sceptical US public. Most important, no one can say whether it will make a difference. 'What happens next, I don't know,' said Mr Clinton. 'But we have to give it our best shot.'

Indeed, thoughout his 30 hours in Canada, Mr Yeltsin has been stalked by the vicious, unresolved power struggle in Russia. It is from Moscow that the decisive verdict will come, on whether the Clinton package has achieved the exquisite balance required. 'Too little is not very good,' Mr Yeltsin said with habitual candour, within minutes of his arrival. 'But too much could also be bad, because the Communists can target us, and say we are enshackled by the West.'

So much in Washington-Moscow summits has changed. Arms control, the cynics remark, has become 'alms control': how much can and should be provided for a mendicant Russia. Once 'a walk in the woods' meant a vain and furtive attempt in the early 1980s by senior Soviet and US arms negotiators to strike a deal on medium-range nuclear weapons. This weekend in Vancouver it was the leaders themselves strolling in fitful sunshine, before their first one-on-one session on Saturday afternoon.

Not that discord has vanished entirely. Each side raised what George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman, called 'irritants' in the relationship. For the Russians, this meant continued discrimination under curbs on hi-tech exports from the West which date from Soviet times, and the lingering annoyance of the Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions, in retaliation for emigration curbs on Soviet Jews which today hardly exist.

For the Americans, the ostensible concerns were Moscow's failure to pull out troops from the Baltic states, tensions with Georgia, and - most immediately relevant - Russia's perceived failure to pull its weight against Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. But in this new era of 'partnership and co-operation', such complaints are comparative pin-pricks.

This was a summit about economics, not security issues and defence. If the clouds in the Vancouver sky spilled over into the discussions on the ground, they surrounded the precise effects of the aid package. Russians and Americans know full well that for all the careful crafting for maximum immediate effect, they are but a drop in the ocean of Moscow's requirements.

Can this first help really make a psychological difference before Russia's referendum in three weeks' time? Will the West soon at last start delivering the really big money - perhaps as much as dollars 30bn - free of conditions which could delay its disbursement indefinitely?

Mr Clinton's generic assurances are one thing. The next gatherings of the Group of Seven will show their true worth: 'Here, we are trying to prime the pump for Tokyo,' cautioned one senior official. 'If anything big happens, it will be there.' It remains to be seen whether the rich industrialised nations are ready to drop objections to Russian entry into world markets for arms and nuclear equipment, for which it can at least earn desperately needed hard currency off its own bat.

But the personal rapport the two men established this weekend will be a crucial factor in the outcome. 'I like Yeltsin,' the US President is said to have confided after their first encounter on Saturday. 'He's a fighter, not deterred by long odds.' But what has this clever but untried young President truly made of this quintessential Russian - at once earthy and remote, both reforming democrat and imperious autocrat, so accident-prone yet brimming with raw courage?

The Americans, however, have concluded Mr Yeltsin is their man, and that on balance he is likely to survive - at least in the short term. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, put it most bluntly: 'There is just no one else in Russia that comes close as someone we can put our faith in.' Bill Clinton has accepted the logic of that position.

More than 40 years ago, Harry Truman was accused of 'losing China'. Whatever else, this Democrat is determined that his Republican foes will not be able to brand him 'the man who lost Russia'. If that forces Bill Clinton into an almighty battle to persuade a sceptical public and Congress to dip into its pockets, then so be it. Which is merely another way of saying Vancouver was the summit which had to succeed.

Yeltsin needs power, page 20

(Photograph omitted)