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2 LEADERS ARE COMRADES IN DISAPPOINTMENT

Historians of our odd times are likely to note the strange fact that, only a few years after the end of the Cold War, the leaders of the United States and Russia had more in common with each other than either did with any other world figures.

Emerging from political cultures that could hardly be further apart, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin seem to be running in close parallel in their careers.Like Clinton's America, Yeltsin's Russia is doing better in many respects than is commonly thought. But Boris, like Bill, hasn't received much credit for the achievement.

The U.S. economic rebound since 1992 is the envy of most of its industrial rivals.

In its own way, Russia's economic turnaround during the past several months has been even more spectacular: The ruble has steadily strengthened; the once-ubiquitous queues in front of grocery shops have vanished (there is plenty of food on the shelves now); people are better dressed, and there are far fewer beggars on the streets of Moscow and other big cities.

Altogether, the market economy has suddenly started working - and not just for the privileged few and the racketeers.

But no one lauds Yeltsin, any more than Clinton is praised for America's economic record during his watch.

If the two presidents normally display strong empathy whenever they meet, it may be because they're aware that both are unloved politicians with an apparently limitless capacity for attracting disdain no matter what they do.

Yeltsin may or may not run for re-election next year. Clinton seems sure to. Yet both are widely regarded as essentially lame-duck leaders whose ability to influence events at home and abroad is virtually nil.

Hardly a day goes by without one or more European newspapers pointing out that "real" political power in America is now firmly in the hands of the congressional duo, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.

Yeltsin is invariably pictured as a floundering figurehead whose authority, like Clinton's, has become more nominal than real. His Gingrich or Dole is Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister.

Unlike the House speaker or the Senate majority leader, Chernomyrdin is technically his president's political ally. But nearly everyone in Russia thinks he is merely marking time before taking over the reins completely. Meanwhile, he, not Yeltsin, is generally viewed as the one who counts when the chips are down - as, for example, in dealing with the repercussions of the Chechen war.

Internationally, it's fair to say that Clinton has less genuine influence and prestige than any U.S. president in living memory.

Yeltsin is held in less esteem by his global peers than was Mikhail Gorbachev even after it had become clear the last Soviet leader was on his way out.

There's a generational difference between Bill and Boris - Yeltsin is nearly 20 years older - but it is hardly noticeable.

Both are politicians from the sticks. Yeltsin first came to notice as Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk in Siberia which, in Russian terms, is something like being governor of Arkansas.

Both men are burdened by personal weaknesses that became public knowledge soon after their rise to prominence and have served to weaken the public's trust in them.

Both made it to the top against great odds through a convincing demonstration of political flair. But then somehow they lost it.