Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 1

Kiev Meetings May Matter More Than Moscow

Three events will dominate the post-Soviet states during the week ahead: the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of V-E Day in Moscow with the Clinton-Yeltsin summit immediately following, the increasingly bloody battles in Chechnya, and President Clinton’s visit to Kiev on his way back from Moscow. The first of these has been carefully scripted, the second is by definition unpredictable, and the third–to the surprise of many–may turn out to have the greatest impact.

Each of the three events now planned for Moscow–the V-E parades and receptions, anti-government demonstrations, and the Clinton-Yeltsin summit–bears watching for what it will tell us about Russian intentions and Russian realities

With regard to the first, the Yeltsin government hopes that the V-E day commemorations will achieve three goals: generate Russian patriotism and support for a regime that has not yet been able to deliver on many of its promises, drown out what the Yeltsin regime views as the "noise" of Chechnya and anti-government demonstrators, and remind everyone of the wartime alliance between the USSR and the Western powers as a possible pattern for the future.

But even in the case of the celebrations, Moscow is likely to be disappointed: Not all the world leaders who have been invited will be there, and some who are coming–such as Germany’s Chancellor Kohl, French President Mitterand, and British Prime Minister Major–will not be going to the parades. No one will be able to followMoscow’s wishes and ignore Chechnya even if the Chechens do not launch a spectacular attack somewhere on that date, and all may be affected by the demonstrations that various opposition groups–communist and democratic–have planned. And reminding Russians of their victory in World War II may be a good policy, but the plethora of red Soviet flags that the Duma has insisted be hung and the picture of Stalin on a new Soviet stamp that the Russian government has issued may make a deeper impression on Westerners than the quickly spruced-up streets of Moscow. Moreover, the intense media coverage of the event–despite the probability that little news will actually occur there–has served to remind everyone that Stalin’s Soviet Union was not always an ally of the West, that the Soviet dictator had helped Hitler and turned to the West only after Hitler turned on him.

The alternative demonstrations planned by communist and democratic groups may be even more instructive, although Russian media are certain to give them less space. The size of these meetings, who speaks, and the possibility of analogous meetings in other Russian cities will be a useful barometer of the Russian political climate. Moreover, other events, planned and unplanned, in the Baltic countries, Belarus, and Ukraine will remind the world of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, even as Moscow spokesmen seek to dismiss these activities as the works of supporters of fascism. The suspicious explosion at the Latvian synagogue on May 6 will likely be used as exhibit A in such presentations.

The second event in Moscow–he summit between Yeltsin and Clinton–is unlikely to do more than mark the deterioration of the Russian-American relationship. Both American and Russian commentators and even officials are suggesting that the meeting will ratify the end of the honeymoon that President Clinton had portrayed as a central success in his foreign policy. Because the United States has few resources that it is prepared to use to influence Moscow–it is not giving Moscow much aid and is unwilling to oppose Russian requests for World Bank and IMF monies–and because Yeltsin is likely to gain political points from opposing the Americans, much real progress on the key issues of NATO enlargment, IMF debt rescheduling, or further arms control talks is unlikely. Instead, the two presidents are apt to portray their meeting as a success simply because it happens, and President Clinton is likely to claim that he has convinced Yeltsin not to go through with Moscow’s plans to sell some of the nuclear equipment it had offered to Iran. An ironic end to a summit that took place only because Yeltsin in January thought such a meeting would help him overcome domestic and international opposition to his policies in Chechnya.

And Chechnya–the uninvited guest at the Moscow celebrations–will still not go away. The fighting will continue next week as it has every week for the past five months. That and the continued lack of news about the whereabouts of Fred Cuny, the well-connected American relief expert who has not been heard from since April 9, will guarantee that the Chechnya story will be part of every news dispatch and embassy cable from Moscow. What will happen on May 9-10, however, is very much an open question. One Chechen military commander said he would set off "fireworks" on that day, a statement that implied there might be either a dramatic attack on Grozny or terrorist attacks in Russian cities. Chechen President Dudayev first reportedly said Chechen fighters would mark the Moscow commemorations with a "night of the long knives" and then he and his commanders indicated that they would mark it instead as a day of mourning with a cessation in the fighting. Given the guerilla nature of the Chechen forces,. some violence is likely; moreover, it is not impossible that there might be some Russian-sponsored provocations to generate Russian and foreign distaste for the Chechen cause.

President Clinton’s brief visit to Kiev may turn out to have the greatest longterm consequences. Although there are no pressing agreements to be signed, Clinton’s meetings with Ukrainian President Kuchma will underscore US support for Ukraine’s new reform program, Washington’s cooling relationship with Russia, its greater willingness to stand by the other post-Soviet states, and the new political fact of life that an American president cannot go only to Moscow when he visits the former Soviet region. The Ukrainians can be expected to exploit the meeting to highlight each of these points even though they are unlikely to get as much public support from the American delegation as they would like. But even so, the second–and generally neglected–summit of the week will signal a major departure in the US approach, one certain to gladden many in Eastern Europe and anger others in the Russian Federation.

This is the third visit to the Ukrainian capital by an American president–the first in August 1991 was marked by President Bush’s infamous "chicken Kiev" speech in which he urged the Ukrainians not to pursue independence and the second in January 1994 by President Clinton led to the signing of the trilateral agreement between Moscow, Washington, and Kiev on the withdrawal of strategic nuclear weapons systems from Ukrainian territory. The upcoming meeting in Kiev will have a very different tone, and thus point to a very different future.