Leading Article: An unequal partnership

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THE VANCOUVER summit between Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton was another act in the long drama of the West's attempts to help a leader who is locked in a struggle for control of his country. The two players could scarcely have been more contrasting: Mr Clinton, the master tactician, again showing his diplomatic astuteness and mastery of a complex brief, but still untested by any real crisis; and the Russian leader, often (though not in Vancouver) erratic in behaviour, an inept tactician - as demonstrated by his mishandling of a disloyal opposition in Moscow - yet of proven and dauntless political courage.

It has been dubbed the alms control summit. For all Mr Clinton's talk of 'mutually reinforcing steps' and a 'new democratic partnership', and Mr Yeltsin's insistence that aid was an investment that would benefit all, the two presidents scarcely came together as equals. Yet both were aware that spectacular US generosity could prove counter-productive, not just because its disbursement would be hard to regulate, but also because it could strengthen the Russian leader's nationalist opponents who seek to portray him as having sold out to the West.

Too little aid would have looked like a snub; too much might have made Mr Yeltsin vulnerable to his foes in the Congress of People's Deputies. In the event, Mr Yeltsin's description of the agreed assistance of pounds 1bn as 'a large, wise package that will make history' was optimistic. Even as an hors d'oeuvre to the meeting of ministers from the G7 countries in Tokyo in 10 days' time, it was on the exiguous side; and even if some of the food and medical component can be rushed to needy areas, it seems unlikely to help Mr Yeltsin and the reformist cause in time for the referendum on 25 April.

Doubts about the potential effectiveness of aid to Russia will not have been dispersed, either, by Mr Yeltsin's promise to try to discipline the Russian central bank, whose freedom with rouble credits to the military-industrial complex has stoked the fires of inflation; or by the decision to set up a central co-ordinating office in Moscow for Western aid, to attempt to ensure that assistance reaches its targets and is not duplicated.

However aid is handled, it will be hard to prevent a substantial part from being either siphoned off into bank accounts abroad, or cornered by the Russian mafia and sold at extortionate prices. An effective way to maximise the chances of assistance reaching its targets is for Western experts to help to supervise its distribution, not just from Moscow but on the spot. Such paternalistic interference would, however, not go down well with the nationalist fraternity. For other experts, the best way of helping the Russian people directly is by making a start in clearing up the country's vast tracts of severely polluted land.

Russia's second revolution is still young. It will take time for the West to find out how best to help a ramshackle federation with severe constitutional problems that is stumbling towards democracy and a free-market economy. The Vancouver summit was a small part of a process that will be full of optimistic rhetoric - and of real frustration and disappointments.