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Yeltsin's Absence At G-7 May Be Better For Russia

Prague, June 20 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to cancel his participation in next week's summit of the G-7 group of major industrial nations and send Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to Lyon in his place may turn out to be better for Yeltsin and Russia than if he had gone.

Yeltsin announced yesterday that because Russia will be holding the second round of presidential elections in early July, right after the summit, he will stay in Moscow. The Lyon summit starts June 27. One American analyst, Charlie Robertson from the consulting company Hilfe Ltd., said it's a smart move."Yeltsin needs to be getting involved in the election, shaking hands and showing the voters why he's the best. It could even be counter-productive (to be at the summit) if the Communists argued that Yeltsin is closer to (U.S. President Bill) Clinton than to the average Russian pensioner." White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Clinton "fully understands (Yeltsin's) reasons" for missing the summit in Lyon, France. Spokesmen for the other G-7 leaders from France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada voiced similar sympathies. Left unsaid by most was the fact that Chernomyrdin may in fact accomplish more at the meetings -- and certainly draw less negative publicity -- than Yeltsin would. Summit participants remember well Yeltsin's dealing with a crisis back home during last year's summit at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Chechen rebels had taken several hundred people hostage in a hospital and Yeltsin was furious. At one crucial point -- while sitting before television cameras with Clinton -- Yeltsin spoke emotionally about the Chechen rebels, waving his arms wildly in the air. Clinton sat stunned, not knowing what to say. The incident passed, as have some other similar outbreaks, all later explained as Yeltin's particular manner. The last thing Yeltsin -- or Russia -- needs would be to have some crisis, and perhaps another outburst, occur before cameras at the summit in Lyon just before the run-off election back home. As importantly, Chernomyrdin has developed a strong, personal relationship with senior leaders in all the G-7 governments. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns made note of this when he said: "Chernomyrdin is well-known to us and to the other countries and will represent the Russian republic effectively and with distinction." Burns was referring to the bilateral group, now known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, through which the Russian premier and American Vice President Al Gore, have been steering an ever-widening group of officials in Moscow and Washington to deal with the whole array of Russian-U.S. relations. Designed as a kind of collective ombudsman to cut red tape and keep good intentions on track, the commission has now been copied by most other major western nations in their dealings with Russia. Through those commissions, Chernomyrdin has shown himself to be a tireless, effective, and businesslike Russian leader -- conversant with the issues to be discussed at the summit. He's a man western political leaders have become comfortable with, a known commodity. Chernomyrdin may not be as gregarious in public as Yelstin, but at affairs like the summit, he will be in his element. Yeltsin gains by showing he tended to business at home while sending an able representative to deal with world leaders. The main disappointment has been expressed by the Metropole Hotel in Lyon, a four-star hostelry which entirely refurbished its fifth floor for Yeltsin.The hotel constructed a presidential suite in his honor. The hotel says it even had two refrigerators ready to hold Yeltsin's food and special supply of vodka.