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Russia: U.S. Says Stay On Reform Course

Washington, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- America's response to President Boris Yeltsin's unexpected wholesale change of government sends a clear message to Russia -- that the U.S. is concerned with policies not personalities, and will continue to support any pro-democracy, reform-minded government in Moscow.

Top U.S. officials, from President Bill Clinton on down to Vice President Al Gore, the State Department and congressonal leaders, responded Monday to Yeltsin's announcement, saying they expected Russia to remain on course for democracy and a free market economy.

President Clinton was asleep on a plane en route to Africa when Yeltsin announced he was firing all his ministers. Clinton was informed when he woke up and told reporters after landing in Ghana that he hopes the general direction of Russia's policy will remain unaffected.

White House officials said they had no advance notice of the move but had been aware for a couple of weeks of rumors about a pending change of government and continue to closely monitor developments.

State Department spokesman James Foley said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plans to meet tonight (Tuesday) with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the German city of Cologne and would have an opportunity then to discuss the implications of the change of government in Moscow.

Primakov, who has been asked to remain temporarily on the job, was quoted as saying at a Moscow press conference Monday that he expects to be reappointed Foreign Minister.

U.S. officials were of the same opinion, noting that only three of the fired ministers were told not to come to work -- Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

From the U.S. point of view, Chernomyrdin's sudden departure is not alarming but is a bit upsetting because of his solid working relationship with U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Gore acknowledged that in a brief statement Monday, saying he has worked closely with Chernomyrdin for five years and they accomplished a great deal for the benefit of both their peoples.

Gore said he and Clinton "will continue to work closely with the Russian government to build a peaceful and more stable world, support Russia's aspirations for reform and a prosperous and democratic future, and deepen our engagement with the people of Russia."

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former National Security Council staff director, said Chernomyrdin's departure also represents the loss of a comfort factor for Washington.

He said in an RFE/RL interview that: "with Yeltsin's repeated illnesses, people (in Washington) had come to feel relatively comfortable that Chernomyrdin would at least temporarily succeed him and there would be an orderly transition until a new presidential election. That factor is gone now, however young and vigorous and capable Chernomyrdin's successor will be."

Out of government, Chernomyrdin is expected to fade. Analysts are not sure what he will be doing for the presidential election in the year 2000, but they say the reshuffle has greatly reduced Chernomyrdin's own chances of putting together a successful campaign to run as a presidential candidate.

Sonnenfeldt, now a foreign policy scholar at the private Washington-based Brookings Institution, attributed Yeltsin's reshuffle in part to a desire for fresh young political faces and a generational changeover of his administration.

Russia's new acting prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, aged 35, fits the bill and is known and liked in Washington.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials have had conversations with Kiriyenko in Moscow and in Washington earlier this month when he accompanied Chernomyrdin to a meeting of the U.S.-Russia Cooperation Council, the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.

The senior official said Kiriyenko is regarded as a strong reformist and "the U.S. has good ties with him," But there is uncertainty in Washington as to how long he will remain in office.

Analysts point out that under the Russian Constitution, the State Duma will have to approve a new government and would be unlikely to accept a reformer of Kiriyenko's caliber. They say Yeltsin may have to negotiate some compromises to get the Duma's approval or risk a confrontation and call new parliamentary elections. As one observer put it " the most interesting part of this reshuffle is still ahead -- what Yeltsin will do about the Duma."

Until the situation clarifies, U.S. officials remain cautious, stressing, as Foley did at the State Department that U.S. policy towards Russia does not depend on personalities and is based on common interests. The U.S. looks forward to working with the new government, he said.

Giving the first formal U.S. reaction to the government changes in Moscow, Foley said the U.S. has worked productively with the Russian government to support Russia's transition to a democracy and market economy and help it integrate with regional and global institutions. He said this will remain U.S. policy.