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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Election Year Of Suspicions In U.S., Russia

This is going to be a strange political season. Never before have both Russia and the United States gone through presidential elections in the same year or have the democratic choices of one electorate had quite so much opportunity to influence the other. And from what we have seen so far, this process could get messy.

Now the Americans fear they are being cast in a role as the villain, to enable President Boris Yeltsin and new Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov to appear as staunch defenders of Russian national interests.

The Americans were not initially upset by Primakov's appointment. They recalled him as a sensible chairman of the foreign relations committee in the old Supreme Soviet and a strong supporter of perestroika.

For the Kremlin-watchers in Washington, the most serious development was not the replacement of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev nor the latest round of the Chechen crisis. It was the purge of the remaining liberal reformers, Yeltsin's chief of staff Sergei Filatov and the architect of privatization, Anatoly Chubais.

Nick Burns, the State Department's official spokesman who used to run Russian affairs in the National Security Council, then issued an unusual and public warning that had been authorized from the highest levels. The U.S. government thought it was "absolutely essential" that the Yeltsin government reaffirm its commitment to economic and political reform, or Western financial support was likely to dry up.

That, and some strong remarks about the unbelievably clumsy handling of the latest Chechen crisis, was enough for Primakov to call in the U.S. envoy to the Russian Foreign Ministry to receive a brisk protest.

A climate of bristling suspicion is developing. The Republicans have been growing ever more skeptical of Yeltsin and Russian reform. There is now real worry in Washington whether the presidential elections will proceed as planned in June.

Then over the weekend came Yeltsin's remarks to the Commonwealth of Independent States, suggesting that they had better get their own strategic act together because the West was looking menacing, and the United States and NATO were "continuously strengthening their military potential."

The Clinton administration is now pinning its hopes on Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who visits Washington later this month. He has developed a close relationship with Vice President Al Gore, and is now seen as one of the last, isolated friends of reform and of the West in a Kremlin increasingly dominated by hardliners.

At a Pentagon meeting this week between U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and his British counterpart Michael Portillo, they also discussed the man they have assiduously cultivated as a friend, General Pavel Grachev. Russia's defense minister is seen as another cooler head who might be able to dampen the anti-Western rhetoric in Moscow.

"We understand the political dynamics here, and how important it is for politicians to be seen to be standing up for Russian interests and not doing the West's bidding," commented one senior U.S. policy-maker. "Up to a point, we can suffer in silence. But we are getting to the point where anti-American statements can cause a backlash in Washington. And in an election year, that can get very worrying."