Two Leaders' Troubles Loom Over Summit
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 31, 1998; Page A01
The last time they got together, they were physically battered, one recovering from heart bypass surgery and the other relegated to a wheelchair by a knee injury.
As they meet again Tuesday, nearly 18 months later, it is their political health that is in need of intensive care, with each facing a domestic crisis that threatens to end his career prematurely, albeit for drastically different reasons.
The first summit between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin since their March 1997 meeting in Helsinki features a reunion of two world leaders who since then have been deeply wounded at home, their political authority so sapped that they can barely advance their own agendas, let alone help each other. While Clinton braces for possible impeachment proceedings following his confession that he lied to the country about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, Yeltsin tries to deflate speculation that he will step down in the face of political and economic disarray.
"These two guys are going to be like two corpses getting together, and I don't see how either of them can do anything for the other," said Priscilla Johnson McMillan, a historian affiliated with the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.
"Kosovo? Iran? NATO? . . . Nothing that these two presidents could talk about means anything to the Russian people," said a former administration official who specialized in Russia. "Neither has any political capital that can benefit the other."
Never have U.S. and Russian leaders convened in such a mutually weakened state and, as Clinton prepared to depart Washington this afternoon, aides held out little hope for substantive progress. With a new Russian government under construction, agendas were still being rewritten and even the place settings at the negotiating table remained uncertain for what promises to be the most unpredictable summit since the Cold War.
The personal dramas involving two besieged politicians obscure the stakes involved. With its economy on the verge of collapse, Russia faces a critical moment in its passage to democracy and, despite the Third World quality of its dilemma, remains the only country besides the United States with the capacity to destroy the world in a nuclear hailstorm.
Summits with Russian leaders have measured the strength of an American president in times of trouble before.
Richard M. Nixon traveled to Moscow in the summer of 1974 and failed to obtain broad arms control agreements, as advisers complained Watergate hampered his negotiating position just weeks before he resigned. Ronald Reagan managed to develop a new relationship with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev despite the distractions of the Iran-contra scandal.
With his domestic agenda buried in Congress, Clinton has found comfort as he traveled abroad extensively this year and took advantage of the presidency to turn attention to his role as the world's preeminent leader. His historic journey through Africa in March and his tough-talking visit to China in June were both declared triumphs and provided respites from talk of subpoenas and sexual escapades.
The world stage may not provide such relief this time, given the gravity of Russia's turmoil. "He may think this is going to be a nice way of distracting attention from his own problems, but I think the risks are much greater than the opportunities here," said Peter Reddaway, a Russia scholar and political science professor at George Washington University.
Moreover, Reddaway said, "His weight in international diplomacy is undoubtedly reduced by his troubles at home and this is very unfortunate. It will be a hardship in Russia. There's no way of avoiding that."
While hardly asked about Lewinsky in Africa or China, Clinton almost certainly will face questioning on the subject in Russia during a Wednesday news conference with Yeltsin, the first opportunity for reporters to interrogate him since he told the nation that he "misled people, including even my wife," about his affair with the former intern.
Advisers considered canceling the news conference but decided there was no practical way to do so, and the president has resisted recommendations that he speak out on Lewinsky again before leaving to offer a more contrite apology and defuse some of the political tension. Eventually, White House officials concluded he would be confronted with the situation in Russia one way or the other and are hoping that a sex-and-lies scandal will pale next to the economic collapse of a major power.
"There's such a world of difference between Yeltsin's situation and Clinton's situation," said a senior White House official. The president's political troubles "seem small in comparison to the very real problems Yeltsin is dealing with."
But just being seen with Yeltsin poses its own dangers. In Washington, critics charge that Clinton has invested too much in Yeltsin and his "often unpredictable and apparently irrational style of governance," as House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) put it. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said, "The failure of the Clinton administration to cultivate relationships with a variety of other political leaders in Russia will cost the United States dearly in the coming weeks."
Similarly, experts warn that associating himself with Yeltsin will exacerbate anti-American sentiment in Russia, where many people blame their economic problems on the United States and its embrace of a corrupt and ineffective government.
Yeltsin's problems are of a far different stripe, although both can trace their recent severity to the same pivotal date. On Aug. 17, when Clinton testified to a federal grand jury and later made his admission on national television, Russia devalued the ruble, breaking the promise Yeltsin made three days earlier that he would not do so.
When the ruble fell off a cliff, Yeltsin's political standing went with it. Even before the devaluation, Yeltsin was held in low esteem by the Russian people. His poll ratings were regularly in single digits. His frequent absences, health problems, the war in Chechnya, economic deprivation and tolerance of corruption and chaos had eroded Yeltsin's grass-roots support.
But despite popular discontent, Yeltsin had, until this year, been able to keep Russia's influential elites in check. Often, he was the final arbiter of disputes among the various power centers of the new Russia, such as the financial-industrial clans. Since none of the rival groups enjoyed a dominating position, Yeltsin's presence served to keep them all off guard.
It was also the case that Yeltsin had no clear successor, so for a long time, the elites were loath to undercut him because they did not want to see early elections.
What has changed is that Yeltsin seems to have lost much support among these groups in the upper strata. The Russian economy has been on a downward slide since last October, and the money problems have squeezed many of the elites Yeltsin once looked to for support.
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Yeltsin has been lost at sea. "He is left without his political base, without his allies, even his family," she said, referring to recent reports that relatives were urging Yeltsin to resign.
Yeltsin is regularly and roundly criticized in much of the press, which is largely owned and controlled by industrial and financial magnates. His reported infirmities and television appearances are viewed with a jaundiced eye, like those of the aging Soviet leaders.
Yeltsin's problems are deep and enduring. Despite Kremlin denials, there are persistent reports that he suffers from an unspecified illness that causes him to pass through periods of disorientation and alertness. His decisions seem unpredictable, even impetuous.
The about-face on the ruble and the surprise reappointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister have seemed to underscore once again his lack of stability.
"If Yeltsin specifically set himself a task to undermine his reputation, he couldn't have come up with a better idea than to swear three days prior to the devaluation that it will not take place," wrote Yelena Tregubova in the newspaper Russky Telegraf. "There's no argument about one fact: It was the president that came under devaluation."
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political consultant and former member of parliament who worked on Yeltsin's 1996 reelection team, said after the Chernomyrdin appointment that "the Yeltsin era came to an end," in part because Yeltsin delegated authority to Chernomyrdin that he had not given him in the past. Nikonov said people "have fewer grounds than at any other time to trust Yeltsin's instincts" in appointing someone.
Mikhail Gorshkov, a sociologist, told reporters recently that his public opinion surveys show that confidence in Russia's leadership has tumbled to where it was after the violent confrontation with parliament in October 1993. "After the October 1993 crisis, 91 percent of the country's people described the situation in the country as a crisis or disaster," he said. "And today, nine out of 10 Russians assess the situation similarly.
"We are talking about an all-time low of public confidence in the government and all the ruling structures," he said.
Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada in Moscow, said the meeting will be the "summit of two lame ducks." But "if the American duck is lame in one leg," he added, "the Russian duck is a total non-flier."
Baker reported from Washington, Hoffman from Moscow.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company