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Russia: Presidents' Summit Raises Few Expectations

Washington, 28 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton plans to leave Washington Monday for Moscow on schedule, ignoring growing rumors that President Boris Yeltsin may soon resign. But the speculation further dampens already low expectations of the approaching U.S-Russian summit.

Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Thursday flatly refused to comment on the resignation rumors. "We have no confirmation and no comment," Albright said.

White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who appeared with Albright at a Washington press conference said it is appropriate that the trip take place, adding "I will not speculate on any other scenario."

Berger said the U.S.-Russian relationship is, in his words "extraordinarily important" and Clinton has a lot of issues to discuss with Russian leaders. He did not mention Yeltsin by name.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said in a television interview Thursday that the U.S. must be extremely careful in Russia's current crisis not to make it worse by doing or saying anything that might question Yeltsin's hold on power. "He is the twice-elected president of Russia, he governs and we are dealing with him, Eagleburger said.

At the press conference, Berger acknowledged that the summit is coming at a difficult time when Russia is preoccupied with its economic crisis and the forming of a new government.

He stressed that the U.S. "is extremely interested in the policy direction the new government takes," saying "if it changes course in any fundamental way (from political and economic reforms), that would be of serious concern to us."

Berger repeated what is fast becoming a Washington litany that it is in the U.S. view important for Prime Minister-designate Viktor Chernomyrdin to quickly organize his new government and take the hard but necessary fiscal measures to stabilize the economic situation.

"Only when and as Russia takes these steps that will rebuild confidence of the markets will the situation stabilize and we can begin to see some reversal," Berger said.

He and other White House officials have made clear that any Russian hopes that Clinton might pledge new financial assistance at the summit will be disappointed.

Clinton is expected to urge Yeltsin to implement the reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund to stabilize the ruble, restore investors' confidence and fill state coffers so the government may begin paying long overdue bills.

Former National Security Council staff director Helmut Sonnenfeldt says the collapse of the ruble and Russia's extraordinary difficulties are pushing other summit issues into the background. But in an RFE/RL interview he expressed doubt that Clinton and Yeltsin can do much to resolve the economic crisis or other problems.

"The expectations are not very promising on most of the substantive issues that ordinarily would be on this summit agenda," Sonnenfeldt said.

Sonnenfeldt, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a private policy research group in Washington, says the U.S. cannot bail out Russia financially, and that money is clearly needed to keep the ruble steady. "Since this overshadows everything's very difficult to see that anything very serious can come out of the summit," he said.

Sonnenfeldt said "there may be some benefits in having conversations but in concrete terms little can be expected on any of the issues on the agenda" -- arms control treaties, nuclear proliferation issues, problems in the Balkans, the Middle East and the subject uppermost in American minds these days -- the fight against international terrorism.

U.S. officials were not pleased at Yeltsin's outspoken condemnation of U.S. strikes at terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan last week and want stronger Russian support on anti-terrorism.

A White House official (unnamed) says the U.S wants the summit to focus on anti-terrorist measures, non-proliferation issues concerning Iraq and Iran, and Serb repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo -- all areas of dispute with Moscow.

Experts point out that in addition to the differences between the two sides, it is not yet clear who in Russia is in charge and who can give valid assurances and guarantees on any given issue.

And then there is the personal predicament of each leader -- Yeltsin and Clinton, both politically weakened with talk of impeachment in their legislatures. Yeltsin is long used to such threats in the Duma. But for Clinton, the pressure to resign because of revelations about his improper relationship with a White House intern, is a painfully new experience.

Both leaders are likely to do their best to make this seventh U.S.-Russian summit a success and boost their weakened standing at home. But the chances of that happening are not very good.