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Moscow Trip Called Nice But Irrelevant
By Fred Hiatt
MOSCOW, JAN. 15 -- President Clinton left Moscow this morning after successfully playing a duet of partnership with President Boris Yeltsin during their first Moscow summit. But the dominant theme of Russian politics this week, like a discordant bass line beneath that duet, was of nationalism and resentment of the West.
As a new parliament convened, it became clear that the debate over Russia's future has shifted and that every politician, from Yeltsin ally to Yeltsin foe to Yeltsin himself, now feels the need to sound the motif of Russian greatness and superpowerdom. And while Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton favorably impressed many on a personal level, ordinary Russians and many politicians alike dismissed the summit as pleasantly irrelevant or worse.
The rising nationalism could, at worst, sour relations with the United States, persuade Ukraine not to cede its nuclear weapons despite an agreement signed here Friday and endanger the fragile independence of many of Russia's neighbors.
Whether it will have such effects is still far from certain. Many Western-leaning Russians seemed to be raising a flag of reasonable nationalism this week precisely to undercut the newly powerful ultranationalists who would seek to restore Russia's empire.
Moreover, resentment of the West was far from unanimous. Many people seemed captivated by Clinton's Phil Donahue-style performance on Russian television Friday afternoon and said they wished their political leaders would similarly talk to them instead of lecturing them from above.
Clinton himself sought to enter the debate during his television performance by telling Russians that greatness depends on democratic and economic achievements, not on military strength.
"I believe that the greatness of nations in the 21st century will be defined not by whether they can dictate to millions and millions of people within and beyond their borders," the U.S. president said, "but instead by whether they can provide their citizens, without regard to their race or gender, the opportunity to live up to the fullest of their ability."
But many Russians seemed in no mood to listen to American advice. "We don't need any tips," Nikolai Travkin, leader of the centrist Democratic Party, said curtly.
"We don't need any help from the West," agreed a 70-year-old woman as she watched Mrs. Clinton's motorcade with her granddaughter, Dashinka, 4. "We're God-loving, hard-working people. And whatever people say, we didn't live badly before perestroika," the economic reforms that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian resentment of the West often mixes old, Cold War propaganda with new frustration at what seems to many here a sudden impoverishment and loss of status. In the same breath, many Russians will dismiss the United States as a fading superpower -- and then berate it for not delivering as many billions of dollars as Russians believe themselves entitled to.
In a typical commentary this week, the pro-Communist newspaper Pravda said the United States' only goal is to claim the position of "solitary superpower" while forcing the "disarmament of its former enemy number one." The article then complained about the "insultingly small sum" the West has provided to build housing for Russian servicemen and their families.
Russian television reported in an evening broadcast this week that Washington sent Russia $1.5 billion in aid last year -- less, the commentator complained, than either Israel or Egypt had received.
Such resentments found eloquent expression in parliamentary elections last month, when the ultranationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky emerged as one of the most powerful in the new Duma, or lower house.
But what became strikingly evident this week is that Zhirinovsky is far from holding a monopoly on the nationalist message in the new political scene. A little-known ultranationalist fell only a few votes short of winning the chairmanship of the Federation Council, or upper house, which analysts had described as far more centrist than the Duma.
And when a Yeltsin ally and deputy prime minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, emerged after three ballots as the chamber's chairman, his first pronouncement was a nationalist warning to Japan not to expect the return of several disputed islands in the North Pacific. Indeed, the new climate in Moscow may have dashed all hopes of resolving the long-standing territorial dispute that has soured Russia-Japan relations. A Foreign Ministry working-group session on the problem was postponed to an unspecified date.
There were other signs that the new mood could soon have an impact on policy as well as rhetoric. Military commanders sent out new orders to Russian troops still based in the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, ordering them to respond with gunfire to any provocations. Yeltsin told the Federation Council -- in an opening-day speech laced with references to Russia's greatness -- that Russia considers itself "first among equals" in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the organization of former Soviet republics.
Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, in a commentary in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said Russia should oppose Clinton's Partnership for Peace plan, which would extend NATO ties to Eastern Europe.
"The U.S. is still undecided what role it may play in the new Europe, but in the meantime it is laying its hands on anything that looks available," Gorbachev wrote. "We should tell our American friends: Such behavior aimed at a unipolar world can only sow irritation in Russia."
The nationalism also has expressed itself in ethnic relations within Russia, where between 80 and 85 percent of the population is ethnic Russian and more than 100 other nationalities make up the rest. Human rights groups have complained that, after decades of at least official non-racism, open discrimination against dark-skinned people from the Caucasus region has become acceptable.
Eduard Rossel, a Federation Council member from Yeltsin's home town, Yekaterinburg, felt the need to address the issue by discussing his status as an ethnic German during his speech seeking the chairmanship of the Federation Council. The chairman, he said, should be rossiyanin, but not necessarily russkii -- a Russian citizen, not an ethnic Russian. Rossel lost badly in the chairmanship vote, although not necessarily for nationalistic reasons.
Opposition politicians in Ukraine cite growing Russian nationalism as reason enough not to give up their nuclear weapons. Governments in Central Asia fear new restiveness among their ethnic-Russian minorities. The Baltic republics have announced they will oppose Russian membership in the Council of Europe until Russia withdraws all its troops and promises not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
Amid all this, Yeltsin seemed eager to seize the nationalist high ground, portraying himself as the defender of a great Russia without giving in to demands for sharp changes in foreign policy.
"They are all reflecting the change in public mood that was evident in the election," said political analyst Andrei Kortunov. "Yeltsin too is adjusting his statements. He's not going to change his strategic positions, but rhetorically, he wants to make sure Russia has its own interests."