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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Russia Was Clinton Referring to?

There was an air of unreality about U.S. President Bill Clinton's reaffirmation Tuesday of his belief in Russia's unwavering commitment to reforms, as though he had been stuck in a time warp that left him quite oblivious to what has been happening here in the past few weeks.


Clinton's message was simple. Russian reforms, he said, are "firmly moving forward" and he sees no evidence of change. The subtext to that statement was equally simple: We have built a high-profile foreign policy around the person of President Boris Yeltsin, and, just months before presidential elections in both countries, we are not about to change tack.


Yeltsin, after his 40-minute telephone conversation with Clinton on Friday, made a disarming show of delight at this decision on Clinton's part. He said he and Clinton were "friends," who remained "loyal" to each other, and indeed were on a "second honeymoon."


Small wonder that Yeltsin was over the moon. After sacking virtually every liberal remaining in his cabinet, announcing budgetary decrees that promise an end to the policy of fiscal austerity and crushing a terrorist attack in Dagestan with an embarrassing show of brutality, he could hardly feel certain of Washington's reaction.


True, there is little sign that kind words from Washington will help Yeltsin's re-election campaign, but they will not hurt. Nor will the $9 billion International Monetary Fund loan that Clinton pledged to support.


Of course, Clinton knows exactly what has been happening in Moscow. Nor was his decision to back the IMF's loan necessarily wrong. It is the language of the exchange, tailored to imminent elections in both countries, that made it so absurd.


Yeltsin is now radically changing course. In between denials for Western consumption, he says he is changing course, and he acts accordingly on a daily basis. Why? In order to seize the initiative from the Communist Party, which won a sweeping electoral victory last December. Indeed, by the time presidential elections roll around in June, there may be little to choose between Yeltsin's electoral platform and that of his Communist rival.


The important point, and the only fact that might save Clinton's position from plain foolishness, is that the economic course taken by any president after June 16 will be based on the policies -- now so disparaged and unpopular -- that have gone before. The price liberalization and privatization of the past few years have left a mark on Russia that will never be erased. And this is the sole meaning of the otherwise ridiculous notion, so often tossed around, that the course of reforms is "irreversible."