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Russia: Retreat From Reforms Only Prolongs Pain

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 2 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. officials and American analysts warn of more pain ahead for long-suffering Russians seeking a way out of the current economic crisis but say a retreat from democratization would make the future worse.

This is expected to be a dominant theme at today's concluding summit press conference, although the summit talks this morning were to focus on foreign policy issues and the signing of two agreements to limit the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Tuesday, on the first day of the U.S.-Russian summit, discussions between President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin focused mostly on what to do about Russia's tottering economy.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a CNN interview at the end of the day that in several hours of talks, Clinton "delivered a very strong message about the need to stay with a reform program, understanding that it is not easy...and that the Russians are the ones that have to make the hard decisions."

That was also Clinton's message outside the Kremlin. He told students at Moscow State University that Russia is at a critical point in its seven-year journey from socialism to democracy, and that he does not believe there are any painless solutions.

"Indeed an attempt to avoid difficult solutions may only prolong and worsen the present challenges," Clinton said.

He urged Russians to support strong fiscal discipline, to pay taxes and to reject a return to "failed policies of the past."

U.S. officials confirmed to reporters at the summit that Yeltsin told Clinton some government functions may have to be strengthened and that the U.S. recognizes Russia will seek its own solutions to its problems.

But Clinton in his remarks to the students emphasized that most of the difficulties are the same for any country making the transition from a command economy to a free market and democracy. He urged Russians to strike the right balance between state power and the rights of citizens.

As he put it: Russians "must have a state that is strong enough to control abuses -- violence, theft, fraud, bribery, monopolism. But it must not be so strong that it can limit the legitimate rights and dreams and creativity of the people. That is the tension of creating the right kind of democratic market society."

In Washington, some analysts were critical of Clinton's message. Susan Eisenhower, chairwoman of the Center of Political and Strategic Studies, a private policy group, said that if Clinton lectures the Russians about discipline and difficult choices no one will listen.

She says in a commentary published Tuesday in the Washington Post that the situation in Russia is more complex than a simple financial collapse and that the current crisis is also about a power struggle between Moscow and the outlying regions and disparate constituencies that could splinter the Russian Federation.

Other analysts said it will be hard, and perhaps impossible for Russians to accept that more reforms that will bring them more suffering are necessary to overcome the economic crisis, or to recognize that things will get worse in the long term if they abandon the path of reform.

Most American experts believe the Russian Duma will confirm Prime Minister designate Viktor Chernomyrdin in office eventually after the current power bargaining process has run its course.

RFE/RL's Paul Goble says the real question is what does Chernomyrdin's appointment mean -- how much power will Yeltsin have ceded and how much power will the other major Russian factors have gained?

These questions may be asked but are unlikely to be answered at today's joint press conference where both the U.S. and Russian chief executives are expected to make much of the military agreements they plan to sign and the strength of the uneven partnership between their two countries.