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U.S. Aid to Russia to Shift Toward Immediate Benefits

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration, scrambling to help Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin keep his job, has decided to shift the focus of U.S. aid to Moscow toward short-term projects that will yield immediate, tangible benefits to ordinary Russians, senior officials said Wednesday.

The goal of the new approach is as much political as economic: to convince the Russians that capitalist economic reform is a good thing -- and that Yeltsin is still preferable to his conservative opponents.

"For most Russians, up until now, economic reform has meant nothing but hardship," said a senior official. "If they ask the question, `Are we better off than we were four years ago?' the answer is `No.' We want to change that."

"We're looking up the Russian equivalent for `It's the economy, stupid'," the official added, echoing President Clinton's unofficial campaign motto.

Clinton aides have been working on a new aid package reflecting the change in goals, to be unveiled at the president's summit meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 3 and 4.

Among the measures under consideration are emergency shipments of pharmaceuticals for depleted hospitals and pharmacies; a program to provide new housing for Russian army officers returning home from Germany and Poland; new ways to finance grain shipments, especially of livestock feed to ease a meat shortage; and financing for equipment to restart idled oil and gas wells.

The new package may also include proposals to help Russian defense industries convert to civilian use -- an idea aimed partly at wooing some of the powerful leaders of those industries into the reformist camp, officials said.

Officials refuse to say how much money Clinton will propose to spend, because he has not decided himself, beyond an already-proposed increase in direct aid from $417 million to $700 million.

But they say the amounts will be substantial.

"I think the Russians will be very pleased, because there will be real money and it will move quickly," one official said.

"Some of it is just freeing up money that's already in the pipeline," the official added.

As part of a drive to sell the idea of increased aid, Secretary of State Warren Christopher plans to give a speech in Chicago next Monday explaining the administration's commitment to Russia. Clinton himself may also schedule a speech on the issue soon.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev is expected to visit Washington on Tuesday to brief Clinton on Yeltsin's political situation and prepare for the summit.

The focus on a short-term, political target for the aid is unusual -- and could prove controversial.

Aides acknowledged that they do not know whether short-term actions from Washington can have much effect on the political climate in Moscow, but said they felt there was little choice but to try.