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Press Review: Relations Between Moscow and Washington

Prague, Jan. 31 (RFE/RL) - Following yesterday's meetings between U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, western press commentary today is focusing on Russian politics and relations between Moscow and Washington.

Britain's Independent today says U.S. officials are seriously questioning Russian President Boris Yeltsin's "health and reformist credentials" in the run up to Russia's June presidential elections. Correspondent Rupert Cornwell writes: "Washington now faces the dilemma it confronted six years ago, as former President Mikhail Gorbachev lost his grip on the dying Soviet Union: stick with a familiar leader...or seek an alternative." Cornwell concludes: "This time all that U.S. officials agree on is that the probable alternatives (the Communists... or the ultra-nationalists) would be worse."

Walter Russel Mead comments in the Los Angeles Times yesterday that Moscow and Washington have both recently said their relationship is "on track, but they (aren't) fooling anyone." He says that at the end of the cold war "Americans and Russians fell in love." But he says that now, "the Russians see that (the U.S. does not) plan... to give them any substantial economic help (and the U.S. sees) Russia's 'Democrats' aren't going to turn Russia into a western country." Mead concludes: "The best the U.S. can do in Russia is stay out...(it) does not have the answers to Russia's problems (or) the money to pay its bills... The Russians will have to find their own way."

A news analysis in The Guardian today says that the Kremlin is seeking electoral support from Russia's regions by striking new power-sharing deals with some local leaders. Correspondent James Meek says that the rulers of the Orenburg region bordering Kazakhstan, and of the Krasnodar region on the edge of the north Caucasus became "the third and fourth regions this year to cut separate deals with the Kremlin for the division of powers." Meek concludes: "Mr Yeltsin and his circle appear content to use the treaty system as a means to secure electoral support... Instead of giving all the regions the same degree of self-determination, Moscow appears intent on handing out tailored packages of privileges and powers."

The Washington Post today turns from Kremlin politics to urge the Russian Duma to follow the lead of the U.S. Senate in approving the Start-II arms reduction treaty. An editorial observes: "There is mumbling in Moscow that Duma ratification will not come easily...there is nostalgia for nuclear arms as instruments of national power and a keen dismay over the growing American interest in missile defense." The Washington Post concludes that "Russia might... take a page from the American book and (ratify) the new treaty with an asterisk -- contingent on American regard for the 1972 treaty restricting missile defense, still the basic text of international nuclear stability."

Phil Reeves comments in Britain's Independent today that Yeltsin may have to make a deal with Russia's ultra-nationalists to beat the resurgent Communist Party in the presidential elections. Reeves says: "It is...likely...that Yeltsin will (face a run-off) against (Communist Party leader) Gennady Zyuganov (and if this occurs), the Yeltsin camp is likely to pressure (nationalist leader) Vladimir Zhirinovsky to call on his supporters to back the president in the second round." Reeves concludes: "The support of the kremlin (would) offer Zhirinovsky many advantages, not the least of which is better access to state television - limelight which the theatrical Zhirinovsky adores" and ultimately perhaps some government positions.

A news analysis in Canada's Toronto Globe and Mail yesterday says that Yeltsin is already winning some nationalist supporters by shifting toward more hardline policies. Correspondent Geoffrey York writes: "The bloody end" to the Chechen hostage-taking crisis two weeks ago, "combined with Mr Yeltsin's decision to dump reformers in his cabinet and replace them with more conservative figures, has begun to shift the base of his public support in significant ways." York says: "His hard-line stand has cost him the suppport of many younger and better-educated voters (but) boosted support among the lesser-educated and working class who usually support Mr Zhirinovsky."

The New York Times says in a news analysis today that Yeltsin has embarked "on a pre-election promising spree that economists say casts new doubts on his committmnt to economic discipline." Correspondent Michael Gordan observes that "during the last two weeks Yeltsin has announced a range of voter pleasing programs, from free funerals... to new student stipends." But Gordan warns: "Russian and western economists say Yeltsin is now engaged in an extraordinary, and perhaps impossible, balancing act... He is trying to persuade disgruntled Russian voters... even as he tries to convince... foreign lenders that he is putting Russia's economic house in order."