- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

MOSCOW. As the bruised but unbowed Arizona Sen. John McCain heads off to New York and California maybe he should ponder coming out with a novel post-Cold War campaign slogan that could boost his appeal to Reagan Democrats. How about, "Vote For Me The Candidate The Russians Like The Least!"
Across Russia's political spectrum from Gennady Zyuganov's communists to Western-tilted economic reformers grouped in coalitions such as the Union of Right-Wing Forces and Yabloko Mr. McCain is the most disliked of the White House contenders the one politicians here hope to see fail in this U.S. election cycle and soon.
His call in January for the International Monetary Fund to stop loan dealings with Moscow until Russia's brutal war in Chechnya is halted is only one of the McCain stances to have rankled. Others include his strong support last summer for NATO's intervention in Kosovo and his readiness to send in ground troops to wrest control of the Serb province from fellow Slav Slobodan Milosevic, if the bombing of Serbia failed to result in Western victory.
And the White House candidate Russians most want to see succeed Bill Clinton? His vice president, Al Gore, who has a substantial fan club here in Russia cheering him on and rooting for him to see off Bill Bradley's challenge and vanquish the Republicans in November although that viewpoint is not shared by the communists or Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the pro-reform Yabloko party.
At one time Mr. Gore, who liked to cite his Russia experience as clear proof of why he should be entrusted with the White House, would have made much of his high-standing in Russian political circles. In the mid-1990s, Mr. Gore took to making upbeat speeches about the excellent prospects for economic and democratic reform in Russia, claiming that the Clinton-Gore administration's slavish policy of support for Boris Yeltsin was a gamble but one paying off.
The vice president has been noticeably reticent about his central role in Russia policy. His five years as co-chairman with then-Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of a commission that became Washington's main coordinating link to Moscow has also failed to appear much in his campaign literature.
Last fall, prompted by the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal and circumstantial evidence that International Monetary Fund donations had been misused by Kremlin officials, Mr. Bradley ahead even of the Republicans tore into the vice president, criticizing Mr. Gore for continuing to support aid for Russia. Mr. Gore's aides fear that he remains vulnerable to attack and the last thing they want to highlight is the vice president's chumminess with Mr. Chernomyrdin, whose name has become in Moscow a byword for corruption. Questions, of course, remain about how much Mr. Gore knew about the Russian's graft and for that matter corruption among Russia's ruling class as whole.
While the Kremlin has been careful in making public comments that could be construed as supporting one U.S. candidate or another, government officials make no secret that they hope Mr. Gore will be the next U.S. president. One reason for their liking of the vice president, they say, is that Mr. Gore is a known quantity, someone they have dealt with closely for several years and who is up to speed on Russian affairs.
That view is echoed openly by businessman and Russian presidential candidate Umar Jabrailov. "He's clued up about Russia-U.S. relations. He would not have to start from scratch on the issue," he said.
Another more disguised reason for the Kremlin's Gore preference is that it believes he is readier to compromise and, in the words of one official, "more understanding of the difficulties Russia faces" in implementing the economic and political reforms much of the West deems necessary. Mr. Gore's critics would no doubt argue that means the Kremlin sees him as a pushover.
Outside the confines of the Kremlin, politicians are more ready to express their assessments of the American presidential candidates. In reply to a question posed recently by the online political magazine Gazeta.ru about who he would prefer to succeed Mr. Clinton, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was highly critical of the Republicans for their "hawkish and highly negative attitude towards Russia." He singled out Mr. McCain as having an "even harsher attitude towards Russia than his party opponent, Texas Governor George Bush."
But the communist chief is not happy with Mr. Gore either because of the Clinton's administration's "firm backing of the Yeltsin regime." He added: "All the current pronouncements by Albright, Gore and company on this issue are nothing more than attempts to save face."
Economist Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the pro-reform Yabloko party and another one of Mr. Putin's election rivals, hardly ever agrees with Mr. Zyuganov on anything but he does concur that the Clinton-Gore administration made a huge blunder in banking all on Mr. Yeltsin and turning a blind eye to Kremlin corruption. And like his communist opponent he maintains that the White House is determined to disguise much that has gone wrong with Russia, mocking the administration's tendency to describe Mr. Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, as a "reformer."
Russian politicians who aren't reform-minded or communist are very clear where their preference lies. Ironically, the party of rabid right-wing nationalist Alexander Zhirinovsky is in the Gore camp. Mr. Zhirinovsky's son, Igor Lebedev, needed only a single laconic sentence to describe where his father's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party stood on the American election: "Gore would be a better U.S. president for Russia."

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