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It’s just as well Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov will appear for his meetings in Washington next week clean-shaven.

A recent history of the human face came to the conclusion that, at least in the earliest systems of human government, men with beards did well, because it was thought they could negotiate better, conceal their real feelings, and get away with telling more believable lies.

But since 1991 there have been few beards on the faces of Russian officials. The goatee that former Central Bank chairman, Sergei Dubinin, used to display never improved the credibility of his claims. The moustache on the face of Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov hasn’t made him more believable either. It’s a fitting symbol of the half-truths he’s in the habit of uttering.

The impoverishment of Russia’s taxable income, the size of its debts, the depth of its corruption, and the lack of political alternatives to deal with the situation — these are the topics which Primakov is bringing to the table in Washington. He isn’t going to hide them behind the false beards that used to work so well, when Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, Victor Chernomyrdin, Anatoly Chubais, and Sergei Kirienko performed their negotiating tricks.

Until now, only German Chancellor Schroeder has acknowledged that there can be no solution to Russia’s income and debt problems without political stability; and that only Primakov can deliver that. Of course, the German price is that Primakov must continue to promise eventual repayment of the massive Soviet-era debt. If that were forgiven, as most Russian officials would like, it would impose an embarrassingly heavy burden on Germany’s banks and taxpayers.

The Clinton Administration has been trying hard to look in another direction, ignoring the German sensitivity on the debt question, and aiming instead to use the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as leverage for forcing Primakov out of office.

The problem with making IMF lending contingent on Russian “reform” the wooliest fake-beard of them all is that Russian public opinion,the balance of power in federal parliament and the regions, and the authority of the state prosecutor and state auditing chamber have finally converged to say one thing: no alternative Yeltsin or the Clinton Administrationcan come up with is credible in the fight to rid Russia of corruption.

Primakov’s growth in the polls has come from the perception that he’s not wearing a beard on this issue. So widespread is this perception that he is capturing voters from the Communist column, from the Moscow base of Mayor Luzhkov, from the intelligentsia that favours Grigory Yavlinsky, and from law-and-order charismatics like General Lebed.This support is powerful enough that, if it isn’t checked, it would likely sweep Primakov to election in the first round of the next presidential poll.

The problem the Clinton Administration has been studying for weeks is how Primakov has managed to achieve these political gains through a winter that was forecast to be catastrophic economically — without a single wheat kernel, pork-chop, or Bush’s leg from the U.S. or Europe having arrived for hungry Russians to feed on.

Even if Primakov assures the IMF that he will devote an even larger share of revenues to paying the country’s debts, at the expense of the welfare and incomes of the voters, he’s already demonstrated he can enhance his popularity in a way none of his predecessors could. The trick is simple. He has convinced Russians that he’s clean, and that he’s determined to rid the economy of its dirt, starting at the top where everyone has known all along it started.

Thus, Primakov has thrown the famous tradeoff of 1996 back into the American beards. If the choice today is between corrupt leadership and economic misery, does the Clinton Administration still favour corruption as it did before? If it does, Primakov can reply that, so long as he is in charge, Russians will put up with more IMF-ordered spending cuts, lower real incomes, more cash for Russia’s foreign creditors, in a word more misery; because Primakov’s clean-up campaign allows reason to believe that the stealing will slow down, and one day stop.

That’s the message that was conveyed when the Procurator-General Yury Skuratov reemerged this week, with a renewed mandate. The more obdurately the Kremlin campaigns for his removal, the more it incriminates itself politically.

What does this mean for Michel Camdessus, the little barber the Clinton Administration employs at the IMF to give Primakov a haircut every month?

Camdessus is incapable of dealing with the policy choices Primakov has now put on the table. It will be much easier for Camdessus to go along with a scheme of debt deferment, debt sharing, and rescheduling. That could be dressed up to look like it’s a new IMF loan. But the Clinton Administration and the IMF don’t want to give Primakov a presidential endorsement yet so long as there is still time for Yeltsin to find an alternative.

In fact, if new IMF, World Bank and Japanese funds are agreed, they aren’t likely to add up to more than Primakov has promised to pay back to the IMF this year.

Every dollar Primakov nets over the $4.7 billion Russia should repay the IMF this year will be a contribution to his election in Yeltsin’s place. Every dollar that falls short of that figure is an inducement to Yeltsin to fire him. Even journalists with beards can do this arithmetic.

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