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US fumbles its Russia policy

TWO WEEKS after President Clinton visited Moscow to promise aid in return for continued economic reform, the United States is worried that its Russian policy is unravelling. Almost every day has brought news of economic reformers forced to resign. Policies favoured by Washington are dismissed as 'market romanticism' by the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

There may be worse to come. An intelligence analysis says economic problems in Ukraine will lead to its substantial Russian minority trying to secede, provoking a civil war in which Russia might intervene. The liberal president of neighbouring Belarus was overthrown this week.

Some of these concerns are to do with press and diplomatic perception. During President Yeltsin's struggles with the Russian parliament last year - culminating in military confrontation in October - US commentators tended to dismiss as rhetoric the complaints of his opponents about the misery inflicted by reform.

The victory of Communists and ultra-nationalists in the December elections therefore came as more of a shock than it should. It was particularly unwelcome news for the White House because it was trumpeting the success of its Russian policy in late 1993 to divert attention from setbacks in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.

The elections provoke a debate in Washington about policy towards Russia and the former Soviet Union which is still continuing. For the first time American television had in Vladimir Zhirinovsky a personality, flush with menacing anti-US sound-bites, who could be identified as an enemy of reform.

Had the US become over-dependent on Boris Yeltsin? This week Senator Patrick Leahy said: 'I don't want to see us acting towards Yeltsin the way we did toward the Shah of Iran, as though he was the only legitimate political force in the country.' Strobe Talbott, number two at the State Department and the deviser of policy on Russia, denied this, saying the US is supporting the reform process and not a particular leader.

Mr Talbott says he does not believe 'the second Russian revolution has failed, that counter-revoltion has set in, and that Russian reform is a lost cause'. The three central themes of US policy are support for democracy over authoritarianism, a market economy over state control, and a Russian nation state rather than an empire. Mr Talbott, though clearly troubled, said none of these had gone into reverse.

They are all, however, visibly in trouble. And US aid has proved so much less than Russia expected that US leverage on economic and other policies is much reduced.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 16