Washington, 10 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States reacted quietly Monday to the latest change of government in the Kremlin, saying Washington expected to continue a good relationship with the Russian government.
White House National Security Council press spokesman David Leavy told reporters that the U.S. works "with Russian ministers based on policies, not personalities." Leavy said President Boris Yeltsin's decision to dismiss Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and replace him with Vladimir Putin does not dictate a change in U.S. policy.
Stepashin visited Washington two weeks ago for the meeting of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission, which the Russian prime minister co-chairs with the U.S. vice president. Stepashin met with Vice President Al Gore, and the two promised new talks on arms control and renewed efforts to increase trade and investment.
Stepashin was fired after only three months in office. It was also the fifth time in the past year and a half that Yeltsin has replaced the prime minister. However, despite Putin's relative anonymity internationally, the White House said: "We know Mr. Putin well, ... we've dealt with him on Kosovo where he was constructive."
Leavy said National Security Adviser Samuel Berger had briefed President Bill Clinton on the latest developments. He said he did not know if any high-level contacts between the administration and Yeltsin's government had occurred since the firings.
Leavy stressed, however, that it was "important that Yeltsin reaffirm his intention to hold Duma elections on time in December."
At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin said it was not the business of the U.S. to pass judgment on political developments in Moscow. He said:
"It is the prerogative of the president to choose the premier. President Yeltsin's actions are consistent with the constitution. It's now up to the Russian Parliament to consider the candidacy of President Yeltsin's nominee. We understand that this candidacy will be debated next week.
"We have focused our policy on the policies of Russian reform and the policies of the Russian government, not the personalities. We do have some experience with Mr. Putin and have a constructive relationship with him. We note that President Yeltsin also signed a decree reaffirming his intention to hold Duma elections on schedule in December. Our two governments and two presidents have laid out a clear agenda for our bilateral relations to focus on arms control, economic reform in Russia and nonproliferation, and it will be important for us to follow up on these in the coming weeks."
Rubin noted that many countries change governments frequently and he cautioned reporters against blowing the Kremlin change out of proportion. Rubin said Putin has indicated he will keep the cabinet in place, including Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Brookings Institution scholar and Moscow expert Helmut Sonnenfeldt said it is difficult to predict what effect the latest government shakeup will have in international affairs. In an interview Monday with Radio Liberty, he said:
"What's the effect? It's very hard to say. Except everyone is going to be guessing as to who will get what job and what the strategy of this government is likely to be. So, yes, it has an effect but it's very hard to be specific about it."
Reaction from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was similar. The institution said nothing has changed in its relationship with Russia.
A spokesman who did not want his name used said the IMF, in his words, deals with issues and not personalities. He said the dismissal of Stepashin will have no effect on the IMF policies toward Russia.
On July 28, the IMF approved a 17-month stand-by credit for Russia of $4.5 billion to support the government's economic program for the coming financial year. The credit will be disbursed in seven equal installments of $640 million. The first installment has been released.
The IMF says the remaining installments will depend on completion of quarterly reviews by IMF experts and on Russia's meeting performance standards.
Sonnenfeldt said the government change may delay progress on Russia's economic issues. He said:
"We've been through a rather rocky time. Whether this will make it more rocky or less rocky, who knows? They've got economic issues, they just got another IMF tranche and they are haggling with the Paris and London clubs. So all of these issues, I guess, are going to be on hold until this thing settles down and you actually have people on the job."