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Words of Support and Accords Complete U.S.-Russia Summit

By Peter Baker and Sharon LaFraniere
The Washington Post

President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin wrapped up a gloomy two-day Kremlin summit Wednesday with declarations of enduring mutual friendship but without agreement on how to prevent this nuclear-armed former superpower from sinking further into economic turmoil.

As the ruble plummeted another 18 percent and a senior Yeltsin deputy fretted that the country was adrift because of political instability, the only agreement on the economic crisis to emerge from private talks was that the United States would not come to Russia's rescue.

"We are not saying that we count solely on the support from the outside, no," Yeltsin said at a joint news conference where both leaders were somber. "One more time I will reiterate this: No. What we need from the United States is political support to the effect that the United States is in favor of reforms in Russia. This is what we really need and then all the investors who would like to come to the Russian reformed market will do so."

Clinton stayed focused on the heal-thyself theme he has emphasized since arriving here Monday, again lecturing the Russians about the need to remain committed to market-style reforms and resist a return to greater state control of the economy. "How long it will take to get better depends a lot more on you and what happens here than anything else we outsiders can do," Clinton told a Russian reporter, "although if there is a clear movement toward reform, I'll do everything I can to accelerate outside support of all kinds."

Unlike past summits that produced landmark agreements that helped reshape the world, this year's meeting yielded just two arms-control pacts aimed at sharing information on missile launches and shrinking stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium. Differences over Kosovo, Iraq, NATO and other contentious issues were papered over or left unresolved.

The summit showcased two politically weakened world leaders, hobbled at home by domestic problems that have drained their political capital and distracted their attention. Clinton Wednesday found himself on foreign soil once again trying to explain why he misled his country about his extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, while Yeltsin played host without a working government in place and only acting ministers to meet with their U.S. counterparts.

Yeltsin triggered renewed concern about his condition by appearing dazed at one point during the news conference in the Kremlin's domed Catherine Hall, where the two leaders enjoyed a ceremonial dinner Tuesday night.

Asked if he might accept someone other than acting Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin or if he might dissolve the State Duma if the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament refuses to confirm him again as it did Monday, Yeltsin paused and stared blankly for a long time before finally speaking.

"Well," he said, "I must say, we will witness quite a few events for us to be able to achieve all those results." Then he stopped, with everyone waiting for him to say more. After another awkward pause, he turned to his press secretary and said, "That's all."

A surprised Clinton joked, "That's my answer too." But after the U.S. president finished speaking a few moments later, Yeltsin's aide called an abrupt end to the news conference after just three questions each from U.S. and Russian reporters.

The news conference originally was supposed to feature four questions from each side, but White House press secretary Michael McCurry said Yeltsin's staff changed plans just before the event began.

U.S. officials later said they believed the odd performance by Yeltsin was not a mental lapse but instead a tactic to avoid answering the question. Officials who participated in meetings with the Russian leader over the past two days said he seemed to them to be in better shape than they had feared. While acknowledging that he appeared stiff and halting, U.S. officials said Yeltsin was alert and engaged in the meetings.

"I have more confidence now than before I came here," said a senior administration official involved in the discussions. "He ain't quitting. I would be very surprised" if Yeltsin succumbed to pressure to resign. The official said Yeltsin was determined not to trade the power of his office in order to get his government installed, as Duma opponents have demanded.

Still, Clinton aides were careful not to pronounce Yeltsin fully fit. Asked if he believed the Russian leader was completely capable mentally and physically, McCurry said, "I didn't say that," then hastened to add that he could not discuss the administration's "confidential assessments."

While Yeltsin publicly stated his commitment to economic reform during Clinton's visit, privately he and Chernomyrdin made clear that they are considering precisely the types of economic moves the United States has warned against, including printing new money to rescue failing banks and instituting new price controls, according to U.S. officials.

Yeltsin insisted that the last session of the summit Wednesday involve just him and Clinton without their top advisers. Having already agreed on the early-warning pact on missile launches, Yeltsin unexpectedly proposed that the two nations locate a joint center for detections on Russian soil, which Clinton quickly agreed to.

Beyond that, they did little to narrow their differences over other security issues, such as the START-II strategic arms pact that remains bogged down in the Duma. In a passing reference, Yeltsin again denounced NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe as "a blunder" and "historic error."