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CAMPAIGN ’96: THE U.S.’S COY CAMPAIGN STRATEGY

3 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

AS SPOKESMAN FOR THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, NICHOlas Burns has had a lot to say recently about Russia, and his comments haven’t always seemed to add up. First he says we do, and then we don’t.

Two weeks ago, when Communist Party chief Gennadi Zyuganov launched his campaign for the presidency, Burns made this comment to Time: “I think that Zyuganov is fooling the Russian people. His economics are fake. They would send Russia down the tubes to ruin.” Burns has made a number of similar statements about Zyuganov, and has praised Boris Yeltsin. Yet he also claims that the State Department is not taking sides in the Russian presidential campaign. Shortly after making the “down the tubes” comment, Burns said, “You are not going to see us get involved in this election. It would be stupid, and it would backfire.”

The diplomatic bafflegab reflects how hard the U.S. is trying to boost reformist politicians in Russia without specifically endorsing them. On one hand, the Administration is convinced that the U.S. has a big stake in who wins the election. On the other, it is aware that it is unseemly to tell the citizens of a great power how to conduct their own affairs; moreover, doing so could lead to a backlash against the very candidates the U.S. favors. That double bind has tightened considerably in recent weeks as newly declared candidate for re-election Yeltsin performs dismally in the polls.

The Administration has made no secret of whom it wants to see win: Yeltsin or one of the other liberal candidates, such as reformist politician Grigori Yavlinsky. But is the White House working to promote these candidates? Well, er…”What we will say to the Russian people repeatedly is not that you should vote for this candidate or that candidate,” explains Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. “That’s their business. What we can do is say, ‘Here is what the U.S. believes in; here is what the U.S. stands for; here is the kind of world that we hope Russia will work with us to build.’ But Russia can do that only if it maintains a fundamentally reformist course.”

While not overtly backing individuals, the U.S. is still willing to promote the reform process. For the past three years it has openly poured millions of dollars into Russia to nurture a democratic political culture. The instruments of this effort are dozens of quasi-official agencies that help Russia’s pro-reform parties train workers in campaign tactics such as recruiting volunteers, raising money and conducting opinion polls. It is significant that the aid is offered only to reform parties: no help for communists or ultranationalists.

Last week brought another indirect sign of U.S. sympathies in the election. The International Monetary Fund gave initial approval to a $10.2 billion loan to Russia, benefiting Yeltsin at a time when his government is strapped. The decision had the strong backing of the U.S., which wields powerful influence at the imf. In April Clinton will give Yeltsin another boost by holding a meeting with him when members of the G-7 economic conference pay a visit to Moscow. That event, and the other moves with respect to the Russian election that the Administration will make between now and June, should follow the pattern already set-no endorsements, but lots of symbolism and hints. The U.S. has a horse in the race, but it doesn’t want to be spotted cheering.

–By Kevin Fedarko. Reported by Dean Fischer/Washington and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow

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