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DATE=1/5/2000 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=CLINTON-PUTIN NUMBER=5-45181 BYLINE=DAVID GOLLUST DATELINE=WHITE HOUSE CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: Last week's resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his hand-over of power to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the Clinton administration by surprise. And it has touched off debate both within the administration and among U-S Russia experts about the direction the now-acting president Putin will take his country. VOA's David Gollust has this background report from the White House. TEXT: President Yeltsin's resignation on New Year's eve brought an abrupt end to a U-S policy that for years had relied on the personal rapport between President Clinton and his Russian counterpart. It had been apparent that Mr. Putin was a rising star in Russian politics. But his sudden accession to power left the administration scrambling for more insight on a man who on the one hand was a former Soviet K-G-B official, but later a reform-minded city official in St Petersburg. President Clinton hailed President Yeltsin's career when he stepped down last Friday but the next day was reaching out to his successor by telephone and voicing hope they can work together despite differences - notably Mr. Putin's tough line on Chechnya. The President and Mr. Putin had met twice, mostly recently in November in Oslo when they had what U-S officials said was a difficult meeting on Chechnya and arms control. However since the change in Moscow administration officials have been stressing the positive, including Secretary of State Madaleine Albright in an a N-B-C television appearance Sunday: ///Albright actuality/// I think that he is a competent man and we believe that Russia is running according to a rational system. There are lots of people in the government that we work with, and our experience with acting president Putin so far has been good. But again actions are very important. And I don't want to recreate an enemy here. I think it's very important. ///end act/// But the administration's insistence that the change in power was an achievement for Russian democracy is being challenged by U-S policy experts. Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center in Washington, told VOA Mr. Yeltsin's departure in favor of his protege was a "transparent" maneuver to get around the democratic process - and bodes ill for the Russian presidential election in March: ///Saunders actuality/// The way that this election has already been structured through Yeltsin's premature resignation was really a clear attempt to short- circuit the electoral process. We have to remember here that Russia is a presidential system, not a parliamentary system. So it's not a normal procedure for a head of the country to resign early just to make it easier for his successor to be voted into office. ///end act/// Mr. Saunders' concern is shared by Michael McFaul, a senior associate in Russian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says it was a mistake to move up the elections to March and it would be a "terrible tragedy" if - as it appears at this point -- Mr. Putin faces no significant opposition in the March voting. But Mr. McFaul welcomed the Clinton administration's open approach to the new Russian leader, whom he said may prove to be more effective than Mr. Yeltsin in handling a troublesome parliament on economic reform and arms control: ///McFaul actuality/// I think the Administration has handled it right, and particularly Secretary Albright's statement that we don't want to re-create an enemy before we know who it is. I think we need to have an open mind about Putin. Of course his background worries us. Of course what he's done in Chechnya worries us. But he's done other very positive things already as acting President. For instance the people he works with in terms of his economic policy are market-reformers. He's stated that he wants to pass the START-Two treaty. That's a good sign for U-S-Russian interests. I think we need to have an open mind and judge him by his actions, not by his resume. ///end act/// The Nixon Center's Mr. Saunders said he disputes the notion Mr. Putin should be seen as a reformer based on his service as St. Petersburg deputy mayor, which he says was marred by charges of corruption at city hall. But he, too, says the acting president should be judged ultimately by his performance in office: ///Saunders act two/// No one should be considered to be entirely hostage to their past. And I think we should be prepared to approach Mr. Putin with an open mind and judge him on the basis of what he does as Russia's acting president. That means paying a lot of attention to how this election campaign is conducted, whether it's fair or not, how he campaigns, what does he do about Chechnya, if he's elected, what does he do about corruption and some of the other challenges facing Russia. ///end act/// Both Mr. Saunders and the Carnegie Endowment's Mr. McFaul said they are troubled that Russia has been an issue in the U-S presidential campaign, with Mr. Putin and his handling of Chechnya coming under criticism from Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain, and Democrat Bill Bradley. Mr. Saunders says if Mr. Putin is drawn into exchanges with U-S candidates it could lead to what he termed "an escalating cycle of rhetoric that no one particularly needs." (Signed) NEB/DAG/PT 05-Jan-2000 18:46 PM EDT (05-Jan-2000 2346 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .