Yeltsin lifeline can't ensure a poll victory

THE emergency meeting of the foreign and finance ministers of the Group of Seven industrialised countries called to discuss aid to Russia came on the initiative of three men: French President Francois Mitterrand, US President Bill Clinton and former US President Richard Nixon.

The US$21.4 billion (HK$165 billion) package ratified by the ministers cannot, at first sight, be said to be too little. If US$15 billion in previously agreed debt relief and US$7 billion in unused loans are added in the total package, it adds up to an impressive-looking US$43.4 billion.

Yet it has come almost certainly too late if its main objective is to secure the political survival of the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.

That objective would have been better served if there had been speedy and thoughtful implementation of the US$24 billion package agreed at last year's G-7 summit. Since there wasn't (part of today's projected $43.4 billion includes money carried over from the $24 billion) Mr Yeltsin's future rests entirely on whether or not he is able to win majority support at the Russian referendum on April 25, and whether, thereafter, he can shore up his position amidst the almost daily turmoil of Moscow political manoeuvring.

Russian voters in the referendum, and in any subsequent Russian presidential or parliamentary elections, may note that Mr Yeltsin is belatedly garnering substantial Western financial aid. But it seems highly unlikely that aid from Tokyo will quickly translate into tangible political evidence for Russian voters that it is worthwhile supporting the current Russian reform programme.

Instead, Mr Yeltsin's survival depends upon his skill at persuading the people that their current economic hardships are both inevitable and in a good cause, and that his pursuit of foreign aid does not mean he has sold out Russia's soul to foreigners, as his conservative and nationalist opponents often allege.

The US$21.4 billion Tokyo package could be of value to Russia if Mr Yeltsin and his reform programme, manage to survive.

The fact remains that the Group of Seven has behaved towards Mr Yeltsin in almost exactly the same way as it did with former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, but aid to Mr Gorbachev was forthcoming only after his power was on the wain.

Given this strategic error, it would have been better if a special aid-to-Russia summit, as proposed by Mr Mitterrand, was taking place now, rather than the compromise of a foreign and finance ministers' meeting.

Japanese attacks on the Mitterrand idea illustrate the diplomatic limitations of modern-day summitry, as politicians become obsessed with form rather than substance.

Group of Seven summits have become a status symbol for host nations rather than meetings to co-ordinate political responses, strategy and tactics.

THIS concern is particularly felt by the Japanese, for whom G-7 summits are a reassurance that they are accepted by the Western world as an equal partner.

Japan's long-held stance that Russia should had back control of the islands which comprise the Northern Territories, has long-irritated Bonn - by far the largest aid-giver to Russia. German-Japanese relations have deteriorated as a consequence.

Now the Japanese have budged slightly in their posture, and the West generally has decided to display more urgency towards the Russian problem. Credit for this should be largely given to Richard Nixon.

It was Mr Nixon's efforts that galvanised former president George Bush to hastily cobble together the US$24 billion package. But after that, there was far too little follow-up.

To his credit, Mr Clinton quickly took heed when, two months ago, Mr Nixon forcefully reminded him, in some well-timed articles and speeches, that continuing failure to take proper account of Russia's difficulties would be fraught with unhappy domestic consequences.

Mr Nixon also tartly suggested to the Japanese that the claims to return territory, no matter how just, should not take precedence over the security of the West as a whole.

In the end it was Mr Clinton, rather than G-7, who held an emergency summit with Mr Yeltsin. While Mr Clinton still occasionally talks as if foreign affairs is regrettable time-off from more pressing domestic concerns, the President set a good example by involving himself in the aid-package planning which preceded the recent Vancouver summit.

The Japanese have budged from their strict islands-for-aid posture to the point where Mr Yeltsin is even talking of visiting Tokyo before the G-7 summit in July.

There are good reasons for the Japanese shift. For one thing, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa heads for Washington today to visit Mr Clinton, and he will not wish to add to the tensions in Japan-US relations with a negative posture on the issue of aid to Russia.