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Who Struck Whom on Reform

Americans decry abrupt Russian turnaround, but reformers say the betrayal lies in Washington

THE shift in Russia's economic reform policies, accompanied by the resignation of the two key reformers in the government, has prompted outcries from Washington.

Reformer Yegor Gaidar left the government only a day after President Clinton concluded a summit here, during which Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly declared that radical reform would continue. The Clinton administration, embarrassed by events, subtly suggests it was betrayed, perhaps even deceived, by its friends in Moscow.

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But viewed from this snowy, gray capital, this is a case of ``back-stabbing'' by the supporters of reform in the United States. At best, some here suggest, the Americans are engaged in a willful act of self-deception about the realities of Russian political and economic life. From this perspective, the government formed by Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin is precisely what the Clinton administration asked for.

Vice President Al Gore arrived in Moscow a mere three days after the Dec. 12 parliamentary election, in which the reformers were soundly beaten by Communists and extreme Russian nationalists. Mr. Gore pronounced that the election results were the consequence of a protest vote by the Russian people against the hardships associated with economic reforms. He launched into an attack on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and other international agencies for imposing too harsh conditions on their loans to Russia and for holding back aid that Western governments had promised.

These views were echoed within a day by Mr. Clinton and by Strobe Talbott, the ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union and the architect of the administration's Russia policy. Mr. Talbott told reporters that the lesson of the election was that reforms should be shifted to provide ``less shock and more therapy.''

Talbott later retreated under fire from the US Treasury Department, where there is wide agreement with the view of Russian reformers that the problem here is too little, not enough ``shock.'' The Treasury and the IMF agree with Mr. Gaidar and his Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov that it is the failure to toughly control inflation that has undermined reforms. Talbott strongly endorsed this view before Congress on Jan. 24.

But the damage had already been done. The Clinton officials' remarks had already clearly influenced, if not shifted, the course of a fierce political struggle within Russia.

Those comments were greeted with glee among a wide range of Russian politicians who have been mounting an attack on radical reform from its inception in January 1992. Indeed, the fiery chairman of the former parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who now sits in a Moscow prison, used to regularly assail the government for following the inappropriate formulas of the IMF and call for ``more therapy, less shock.''

The wing of the Russian government led by Premier Chernomyrdin, which includes forces linked to the ``red directors,'' as the managers of huge state-run enterprises are known, has also long embraced these views.

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Was Talbott, and the president and vice president whom he advises, ignorant of these political realities? If so, his credentials as ``Russia expert'' look suspect from the perspective of many here. If not, the Clinton administration encouraged the Chernomyrdin camp and their political allies to move in the direction they most decidedly have taken.

It is understandable then that when Mr. Fyodorov met with reporters to announce his resignation from the government, he had some particularly sharp words for Talbott, and by extension, the Clinton administration. ``He actually stabbed us in the back,'' the young economist said.

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