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Analysis From Washington - Russia's Neighbors On Russia's Problems

Washington, 28 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Russia's immediate neighbors -- the 11 former Soviet republics and the three Baltic states -- appear confident the ongoing political turmoil in Moscow will not have a negative impact on either their internal development or their bilateral relations with the Russian Federation.

Some even have suggested that the return of Viktor Chernomyrdin might bring Russia some stability, allow it to recover from its current crisis, and thus make it possible for relations between Moscow and their countries to improve.

But a few have indicated that they are concerned that Moscow's problems could become theirs either directly if Russian politicians try to exploit nationalist themes or indirectly if Western governments and investors decide that the entire post-Soviet region is now at risk.

Such a range of judgments would not surprise anyone if it came from the neighbors of any other major country going through difficulties. But it undoubtedly will surprise many who still think of the post-Soviet region as a single unit and who believe that the leaders of all the countries there still focus first and foremost on Moscow.

Across the region once occupied by the USSR, presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers reacted calmly to Boris Yeltsin's decision to bring back Chernomyrdin as prime minister and the latter's willingness to cooperate with communists in the Russian parliament.

The statement of the Kyrgyz president's press secretary on Monday was typical. Kanybek Imanaliyev said the change was "Russia's internal affair," a statement echoed in Tajikistan and other Central Asian capitals.

And Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis reflected the views of most when he said the change in government in Moscow will have no impact on Russia's relationship with his country.

The return of Chernomyrdin, the Latvian leader said, is "in no way linked to relations with Latvia." And he pointed out that at the present time, whatever some citizens of his country may think, "Moscow is least of all thinking about Latvia."

Most leaders were inclined to put an even more positive interpretation on developments in the Russian capital. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he hoped Chernomyrdin's return would enhance stability in Russia, something he said was now "crucial for everybody" but "especially for Georgia."

Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi said he believed that Chernomyrdin's "experience and influence will help overcome the severe financial crisis" in Russia. He expressed confidence in the future of Russian-Moldovan relations on the basis of their development during Chernomyrdin's earlier tenure as Russian prime minister.

And Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said he was confident Chernomyrdin has the skill to "stabilize the situation" in Russia, a development that would promote the continued expansion of bilateral ties "in the right direction for the benefit of our peoples."

But in the midst of this generally upbeat set of assessments, there were some who indicated that the problems in Russia might spread to their own. In contrast to his president, Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs was one of those. He suggested that the deepening of the economic crisis in Russia could lead to problems for Latvia.

That conclusion, Birkavs said, is a reflection of the fact that "Russia unfortunately uses Latvia in its domestic political games." But even he said that Moscow now faces so many domestic problems that it is unlikely to focus its attention on any of its neighbors anytime soon.

And others expressed concern that Russian political and economic problems could have a serious impact on Western assessments of their countries. Among those taking that position was Estonian President Lennart Meri.

In remarks on Tuesday, Meri said he did not believe that Chernomyrdin's appointment would have a negative impact on Estonian-Russian relations. But he indicated that the devaluation of the ruble and the declines in the Russian stock markets could lead some in the West to draw more sweeping conclusions about the region.

In every case, at least some of the confidence reflects the requirements of diplomacy. But equally if not more important, this confidence also reflects the extent to which these are 14 independent and very different countries, significantly less dependent on Russia now than they were only a few years ago.