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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Set for Post-Yeltsin Era

While preoccupied with the mudslinging over alleged ethical lapses by the president and house speaker, Washington this week took time out from its own sleaze to focus on Boris Yeltsin's health problems. C-SPAN 2, the cable channel, ran extended excerpts of the State Duma's debate on a resolution to impeach the ailing leader. More significantly, Washington officials sent distinct signals -- for the first time -- that they are preparing for the post-Yeltsin era.

The first eyebrow-raiser came last Sunday from Madeleine Albright, newly confirmed as President Bill Clinton's secretary of state. She said in a television interview that the administration wished Yeltsin well, but that the U.S. relationship with Russia included "other people in the government." In talking up the planned February meeting of the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission, Albright made it clear that chief among those "other people" is the Russian prime minister.

The cat was let further out of the bag Tuesday, when The Washington Post reported that the White House was not sure the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, set for March in the U.S. capitol, would take place as scheduled.

The newspaper quoted a senior U.S. official as stating that Yeltsin, who had just postponed one meeting with Commonwealth of Independent States leaders and another with European heads of state, was clearly "not recovering as fast as one would hope" from last November's heart bypass surgery. The official cited resurgent rumors that Yeltsin had resumed drinking or had additional ailments. Another administration source told the Post that Washington had received unofficial reports that Yeltsin was not sticking to the postoperative regimen prescribed by his doctors.

The day after the article appeared, both the Kremlin and White House went into spin-control. Russian television featured brief footage of that day's meeting between Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin, while Clinton told reporters he had no information "inconsistent with the public statements of the Russian government on President Yeltsin's health." Clinton added, however, that he was impressed by the extent to which Yeltsin had made "appropriate delegations" to Chernomyrdin before and after his surgery.

Despite Clinton's protestations, it is unlikely that the officials were acting on a whim when they made their comments that were hardly a vote of confidence in the Russian president's staying power.

One congressional staffer involved in Russian policy echoed the doubts about Yeltsin, and told me he was waiting to see whether Chernomyrdin would show in Washington for his planned meeting with Vice President Al Gore. The absence of the prime minister, he said, would confirm that a change of the guard was in the offing.

According to The Washington Post, U.S. officials are increasingly worried about Yeltsin's ability to make timely decisions concerning key foreign policy and domestic issues. Indeed, another congressional staffer said that, in recent meetings with Russian officials, he was repeatedly told that progress on a range of issues -- from relations with Estonia to ratification of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty to NATO expansion -- was being held up by Yeltsin's lack of participation.

Despite the problems created by the Russian president's failing health and the prospect of a Kremlin succession, congressional sources on both sides of the aisle said they believed Moscow, having no real means at its disposal with which to oppose NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe, was already resigned to its inevitability.

In this light, warnings this week from Russia's Foreign Ministry and ambassador to the Czech Republic that enlargement of the Western alliance could adversely affect trade relations can be seen as little more than a negotiating tactic.

Last week, Argumenty i Fakty, citing "reliable sources," reported that Russia has been promised around $20 billion in credits and investments for accepting Eastern Europe membership in NATO and $15 billion each for the entry of Ukraine and the Baltic states. The item was headlined: "Into NATO -- For a Bribe."

While these figures may be high, and the horse-trading may perhaps be less blatant, it would not be at all surprising if the hurt feelings created by NATO expansion were ultimately assuaged by the great equalizer -- money.