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Russia: Yeltsin Shake-Up Meets With Muted Reaction In U.S.

Washington, 25 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's startling decision again to fire the prime minister and recall his predecessor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has met with a muted reaction in Washington, sweltering in the hazy heat of late August.

President Bill Clinton, vacationing in the cooler seaside climate of Martha's Vineyard in the state of Massachusetts, let it be known quickly that he plans to travel to Moscow next week as planned for a September summit with Yeltsin.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry confirmed to reporters Monday that there is no consideration of a delay or change in the trip.

Russia's floundering economy had been expected to dominate the summit talks and McCurry made clear this still will be the case.

He said the U.S. is strongly interested in seeing economic reforms go forward in Russia.

"We will continue to press that message vigorously," McCurry said, adding that "policies matter more than personalities."

He said the U.S. hopes Russia's new government will take the urgent steps necessary to deal with the financial crisis, adopt measures to reassure the international financial community and set the country on the path towards economic growth.

The U.S. emphasis on the importance of continuing reforms has a familiar ring.

Top Washington officials made similar statements every time Yeltsin made a major personnel change in his government -- most recently in March when he sacked Chernomyrdin, ostensibly for "lacking dynamism and initiative," and replaced him with the young reformist Sergei Kiriyenko.

U.S. officials, seem cautiously pleased at Chernomyrdin's return as Prime Minister, viewing him as a known quantity with an aura of experience and stability.

McCurry pointed out that Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore have "a very good relationship growing out of the work they did together on the (U.S.-Russian) Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission."

He said "the likelihood that they will pick up that working channel is quite high" after next week's summit.

Gore and Chernomyrdin had a telephone conversation Sunday and Gore also spoke separately with Kiriyenko.

State Department spokesman James Foley said they both reaffirmed the determination of the Russian government to proceed with the reform program.

Foley Monday expressed confidence in the ability of 60-year-old Chernomyrdin, a former Communist Party bureaucrat, to deal with his country's enormous economic problems.

Foley said "Chernomyrdin faces daunting challenges but has the knowledge, ability and political acumen to move forward with economic reforms in Russia" and that "he has a record of commitment to reform and understands the problems facing Russia and what needs to be done."

Conspicuously absent in U.S. official statements was any comment on what the government shake-up means for Yeltsin's position. Foley repeated that thus is an internal Russian matter, but one that the U.S. is following very closely.

Presidential spokesman McCurry did not voice strong U.S. support for Yeltsin as was customary in years past.

McCurry said the government change is "a reminder of the volatility that exists in Russian domestic politics."

He said the U.S. has known for a long time that "President Yeltsin faces a very complicated international dynamic."

Some independent analysts were more outspoken. Dimitri Simes of the Washington-based Nixon Center, a private, foreign policy research group, said in a press interview that Chernomyrdin's return will make it easier for the U.S. to begin disengaging from Yeltsin. "There is (now) a safe alternative," Simes said.