US Steps Back from Partnership with Russia Economic Tumult and Yeltsin's Decline Prompt US Officials to Make Stern Warnings

By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

US Steps Back from Partnership with Russia Economic Tumult and Yeltsin's Decline Prompt US Officials to Make Stern Warnings


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


It was to have been a partnership that would make the world a safer place.

But the Clinton administration's grand vision of helping transform Russia into a free-market democracy with which it could work to ease international tensions and consolidate the new global economy has vanished.

With President Boris Yeltsin's authority ebbing and his people facing a winter of food shortages amid deepening economic tumult, the United States is being forced to rethink relations with Russia. Its size and atomic arsenal hold profound implications for the security of the US and its allies. Mr. Yeltsin and his team of youthful pro-West reformers were driven onto the political sidelines by the economic collapse in August. Now Yeltsin's new health problems have compelled him to hand many of his responsibilities to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and raised the possibility that he could be forced to resign before his term ends in 2000. "There is a general fear that we are at the beginning of the crisis and we don't know who will be in the Kremlin" in a year, says Russia expert Michael McFaul of Stanford University in California. But recent speeches by senior US officials show that concerns over Russia's struggle to shed its communist legacy run deeper. In a worst-case scenario, Russia, spanning two continents and 11 time zones, could break into smaller, nuclear-armed states as regional strongmen move to restore order after a collapse of Moscow's authority. Another scenario has Russians opting for authoritarian rule in hopes that a firm hand in the Kremlin could end political and financial chaos, crime, corruption, and corrosion of global power. Last Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administration's point man on Russia expressed such apprehensions at Stanford University. He slammed Mr. Primakov for retreating from reform and warned that "economic decline carries with it the danger of political drift, turmoil, and even crackup." Assessments of Russia's future are bleaker than at any time since Yeltsin embarked on his Western-style reform programs in 1992. "We cannot say that Russia will emerge from its difficulties any time soon. Nor should we assume the worst, for there are still plenty of people in Russia who will fight against turning back the clock," said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an Oct. 2 speech in Chicago. But, she added, Russia's emergence as a stable, free-market democracy after more than 70 years of communism is "an open question." Cooperation continues The administration is eager to continue working with Moscow on security issues of shared concern, such as terrorism, arms control, and securing Russian nuclear materials from theft. Anxious to help millions of poor Russians through the winter, the US agreed last week to provide 3. …

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