Revolving-Door Government in Russia Tests US Statecraft Though Relations Continue, Progress Lags on Long-Term Issues Like

By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Revolving-Door Government in Russia Tests US Statecraft Though Relations Continue, Progress Lags on Long-Term Issues Like


Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Every time Russia's increasingly erratic president, Boris Yeltsin, abruptly fires his government, a surprised United States plays down the impact on relations between the world's largest nuclear powers.

The latest Kremlin upheaval, the fourth since March 1998, is no different, with the Clinton administration insisting that it remains business as usual. "I don't think we should blow this out of proportion," says State Department spokesman James Rubin.

Many analysts agree there is no need for alarm as the end of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and the resolution of feuding over Russia's peace-keeping duties in Kosovo have ended the most recent tensions.

Yet they dispute contentions that Mr. Yeltsin's dismissal of Sergei Stepashin on Monday as prime minister will have little impact on US-Russia ties, which remain of critical importance in global affairs despite Moscow's diminished post-cold-war stature.

The new turnover means it will be even more difficult for the White House to pursue a long-term strategy of working for a stable, democratic Russia because its interlocutors are again rotating.

Mr. Stepashin's replacement after three months in office by Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence official with little policymaking experience, makes it less likely there can be progress on issues, from nuclear-arms control to Iraq to economic reform.

"It's really hard to get anything done in a place that keeps changing foreign ministers, defense ministers, and prime ministers," says Sherman Garnett, a Russia expert and dean of James Madison College, at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "That is an enormous challenge."

Agrees Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington: "There is a rare possibility for a pragmatic dialogue on important issues. But there is no possibility to make a breakthrough in the relationship."

Furthermore, these analysts say, given Mr. Yeltsin's proclivity for dumping his prime ministers without notice, Mr. Putin's fate is itself uncertain. There is no guarantee he will not be canned should he fail to protect the political interests of Yeltsin and his inner- most circle of lieutenants, which many experts see as the reason for Mr. Stepashin's dismissal. Beyond that, there is little chance Russians will follow the deeply unpopular Yeltsin's urging that they vote for Putin as his replacement in next summer's presidential election.

Putin's own ambition to succeed Yeltsin, and his preoccupation with fighting between Russian troops and Islamic guerrillas in the southern republic of Dagestan, will also ensure that his attention remains focused on domestic matters, not foreign policy.

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