Ever so carefully, the Clinton administration is distancing itself a bit from Boris Yeltsin - just in case.
The Russian president's abrupt and drastic shake-up in the Kremlin left U.S. officials stressing they support reform over any particular individual. The clear implication: If Yeltsin gives way to a successor, that person could enjoy U.S. support provided he promoted the twin goals of capitalism and democracy."For us, it has always been true that policy matters more than personality," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Monday.
The shake-up last Sunday, in which Yeltsin restored former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to that post, served as "a reminder of the volatility that exists in Russian domestic politics," McCurry said on Martha's Vineyard, the island off Massachusetts where President Clinton was on vacation. "We are well aware of that."
The upheaval left American officials hesitant to pledge their unqualified support to Yeltsin's leadership.
Still, Clinton intends to go ahead with his planned Moscow summit next week, one that is programmed to give him some access to Yeltsin's political foes and possibly a chance to address the Russian people.
Clinton was expected to telephone Yeltsin Tuesday, a White House official said, allowing the president a better chance to size up the situation for himself.
Having experienced Yeltsin's rocky rule, administration officials took comfort in his restoration of Chernomyrdin as prime minister.
While not a zealous reformer, the experienced bureaucrat is a known quantity in Washington, especially to Vice President Al Gore, with whom he has mapped economic cooperation.
Still, the reasons for the latest shake-up were not entirely clear to administration officials. It may simply be a mark of a troubled leadership groping for a successful political formula.
The shake-up and recall of Chernomyrdin may reflect an effort by Yeltsin to reach out to the State Duma, the Communist-led lower house of parliament, which had condemned the Russian president in an emergency session.