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Russia And The G-7: Chernomyrdin No Mere Stand-In

Lyon, France; July 1 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin may have been substituting for President Boris Yeltsin at the G-7 summit of major industrial democracies on the weekend. but he did not have to take a back seat to anyone in the gathering of the heads of state of the world's richest, and most powerful, nations.

Even U.S. President Bill Clinton said Chernomyrdin was no mere stand-in. He told a concluding press conference Saturday that the summit communique would not have had "more in it about Russia even if President Yeltsin had been here."

Clinton joined with a number of officials who participated in most of the sessions over the two days Chernomyrdin was in Lyon, France, to say that the prime minister was an "active" and "informed" participant, who brought a great deal to all of the discussions, but particuarly those on world environmental problems and the situation in Bosnia.

The American president said Russia was "an integral partner" in a number of global political situations, including the Middle East peace process and Bosnia's peace implementation military force, led by NATO but including a contingent of Russian army troops.

Chernomyrdin agreed, but told reporters at his own press conference that he pressed to have Russia formally invited in, to have the G-7 officially become the G-8. "We're not begging for the seven to admit us," he said, "we just want to be treated as an equal."

He said that while Russia's economy now has a private sector of around 70 percent, the country is not yet on an equal financial footing with the seven. But he said it is making good, solid progress and is quickly becoming market-based. "We can't be treated as we were before," he told journalists. "The country has a market economy now." He even pointed to a record of new foreign investment in the first quarter of the year.

Chernomyrdin was very upbeat about the prospects for his boss, President Boris Yeltsin, in this week's second round of Presidential elections. He said at one point that he's sure of a Yeltsin victory "150 percent."

As to Yeltsin's health, Chernomyrdin laughed and said Yeltsin is healthy enough to serve another five year term "easily, and another five years as well."

Yeltsin, while away from the summit and resting in Russia, did receive some rather vigorous praise from Clinton.

Clinton said he expects Yeltsin to continue his reforms if re-elected and that the world should "take a deep breath" at the election process in Russia -- "something that has not happened in a thousand years of Russian history," he said.

Clinton said the whole purpose of a democracy is to "create a system in which the people and the rules and laws ... are more important than any one individual. The reason I think reform has a chance to survive now when it always failed before," said Clinton, "is that the Czars never created anything that was greater than they were. And the whole purpose of democracy is to make sure that none of us are indispensable."

Clinton said the legacy of Yeltsin and the other reformers is that "they want all the people in Russia to have the benefits that reform has brought to so many (and) they won't be satisfied until a lot of the people that won't vote for them (Wednesday) feel the benefits that so many feel today."

The U.S., Japan and Great Britain have been opposed to Russia becoming an eighth full member of the summit process, but Chernomyrdin clearly made progress this time in pushing closer to a G-8.