President Clinton plans to depart for Moscow on Monday hoping to repair his scandal-stained image while offering comfort - but no aid - for the wounded president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin.
Not since 1974 has a U.S. president gone to Moscow in such a weak domestic position. President Richard Nixon met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in late June of that year as the final chapters of the Watergate scandal were unfolding. The summit meeting gave a fleeting impression of an active president engaged in the international arena, but nothing of substance was accomplished. Five weeks after returning to Washington, Nixon resigned in disgrace.With Clinton beset by the Monica Lewinsky matter and a sickly Yeltsin struggling to manage a country in political and financial chaos, few expect substantial progress to be made on any items on the meeting agenda - arms control, terrorism, regional conflicts and the global economy. The meeting may, however, give each leader a 48-hour respite from their howling constituencies.
Despite the bad timing and poor prospects of the Moscow meeting, administration officials insist that it is in America's interest that Clinton proceed. Administration officials discussed postponing or canceling the summit meeting - before unanimously agreeing on Friday that it should go forward.
Clinton said Friday that he owed it to his beleaguered counterpart to lend moral support in "this dark night."
But House Speaker Newt Gingrich "is very concerned that the president is undertaking this trip without a clear mission or purpose," said Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for the Georgia Republican.
"He is not saying the president should cancel his trip. He is expressing grave concerns about the lack of mission or purpose," Weinstein said Saturday.
Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser, said it was important for Clinton to go "despite the situation - or perhaps, even more - because of the situation in Russia."
Berger said critical work remains to be done on assuring the safety of Russia's nuclear arsenal, on controlling the spread of weapons, on Kosovo and Iraq.
"America has a strong interest in preventing Russia from backsliding and in promoting its stability and success," Berger said.
In Moscow, Russia's interim government said Saturday there will be no return to Soviet-era economic controls, and the hard-line opposition signaled it was ready to compromise with Yeltsin to restore political calm.
"We have already joined the world economy, and there will be no return to the past," acting Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin declared on national television.
His assurances followed days of frenzied negotiations in which the government appeared ready to take drastic actions to halt the country's economic slide, including fixing prices and exchange rates.
Chernomyrdin, in a scripted interview with journalists, pledged to keep the ruble convertible, shore up the wobbly banking system and protect depositors.
"The main thing is to make sure people don't suffer," he said, looking stolidly into the camera. "For this we should use our power, and we will use it as much as necessary. You can be calm. You will get your savings."
Chernomyrdin spent hours Saturday bargaining with lawmakers over terms of a political deal that would give the parliament more power in return for swift confirmation of his nomination.
A major sticking point was whether the lower house, the Duma, would be granted the power to approve or reject Cabinet appointments. Currently it only confirms the president's nomination of a prime minister, not lower-ranking Kremlin officials.
The talks ended without an agreement late Saturday and were to resume Sunday. Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov told Interfax that all sides expect to reach final agreement before parliament takes up debate on Cher-no-myr-din's appointment Monday.
The economy, meanwhile, showed a few signs of recovery. After sharp drops earlier in the week, the ruble bounced back a bit in street sales on Saturday, and demand was high enough that some of the exchange houses ran out of the Russian currency. And despite a lingering feeling of anxiety, most Russians shopped for everything from food to cars.