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“I never did understand the difference between a cannon and a culverin,” the Empress Catherine II once said to one of her generals.

“There is a big difference,” he replied, “which I will now explain to Your Majesty. The cannon, you see, is one thing, while the culverin is quite another.”

“Ah,” said Catherine the Great. “Now I get it.”

When President Bill Clinton is replaced next year — as more certainly than President Boris Yeltsin, he will be — there may be a States policy towards Russia. But then again there may be no difference but the words.

George Bush Jr. has sig nalled what may happen by retaining Condoleeza Rice, an academic and former National Security Council expert on Russia, as his advisor. She has recently announced what amounts to a cautious but strong departure from Clinton policy.

For the first time in American politics, there is an acknowledgement that corruption inside the Kremlin is the single most important problem facing Russia. Regarding the Russian presidential election, Rice said: “I would just like to see the Russians find someone who is not corrupt, who is not on the take personally.”

The evidence of Russian straw-polls — most notably, ex-prime minister Yevgeny Primakov’s continuing popularity as a presidential candidate — has become a buzzword in American electioneering. Of course, it’s too late to save Primakov from the Clinton Administration’s encouragement of his overthrow, though perhaps not too late to encourage his return to politics.

What was wrong with Clinton’s policy in Russia, according to Rice, was that it was “too involved in Russian internal politics, trying to prop up Yeltsin.”

It remains to be seen how much candidate Bush makes of Clinton’s, and his successor Vice President Albert Gore vulnerability to several charges Rice has the evidence to sustain. One such charge is that Clinton and Gore conspired to corrupt the Russian presidency by secret funding arrangements that personally and collectively benefitted the President, his close aides, and officials. It is now known this corruption extended to stealing International Monetary Fund loans. It is also suspected that Clinton, Gore, and their subordinates suppressed or ignored warnings and evidence of this corruption from US intelligence and other sources.

It is also charged that Clinton and Gore, on the particular advice of Strobe Talbott, conspired to topple the Russian parliament in March and again in September of 1993; and the Russian government between September 1998 and May 1999 and that Clinton and Gore intend to further threaten Russia by expanding Albania in the direction of Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria; by toppling the Milosevic regime in Serbia; and by intensifying the pressure on Russia’s borders from NATO-associated neighbours, and within Russia’s borders from covertly financed, pseudo-Islamic “liberation” organisations.

Despite the hints from Rice, Bush isn’t likely to go as far as to blame Clinton and Gore for criminalising the Russian state. But Rice’s advice so far is for Bush to attack the Clinton-Gore strategy of further NATO expansion, which intensifies Russia’s isolation.

Rice is already acknowledging that the Clinton-Gore policy has directly caused a sharp rise in anti-Americanism among Russians. Perhaps Bush will publicly see the same cause in the new assertiveness of Russia’s military leadership.

Rice has also hinted that the Clinton-Gore policy of backing corruption in the name of reform will end, if Bush wins the American election.

“Real economic reform,” according to Rice, might take “a generation. It seems to me that things are so broken now, the ability to do anything for the long term of the economy looks to be lacking.”

That’s a real slap in the face of those erstwhile reformers, the young Russian courtiers of Washington, like Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Boris Fyodorov, and Sergei Kiriyenko. When an influential voice in the entourage of a popular American candidate starts his presidential campaign off with an attack on every asset the Clinton Administration thought it had created in Moscow, a serious political change could be in the wind.

And even if presidential campaign talk in the US can never be quite so serious, the threat from Rice and the Bush candidacy is that Kremlin fundraisers may not be able to count on American or IMF money for their presidential race, as they did in 1996.

No Washington payoffs — now that would be a revolution in Russian politics!

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