RUSSIAN CASE CLOSED

RUSSIAN CASE CLOSED

he U.S. Export-Import Bank last week approved a $490 million package of loan guarantees for the Russian oil sector to buy U.S. equipment, closing the book on a controversial and less-than-clearcut case where Washington's policy objectives came far too close for comfort to trade.

The action followed a decision by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright March 31 to lift objections that blocked the deal three months ago.The incident appears to have been concluded without serious damage to any quarter. But it should in no way serve as a template for future actions.

At the center is a package that consists of two loan guarantees. One, for $198 million, is for ABB Lummus Global of New Jersey to modernize a refinery owned by a subsidiary of Tyumen Oil, one of Russia's top five oil companies, near Moscow. The other is for $292 for exports of oil-field equipment and services by Halliburton Energy Services of Texas and two dozen other U.S. suppliers to rehabilitate a Tyumen oil field in western Siberia.

The Clinton administration blocked the loans late last December, saying it had long standing concerns about the case that included the protection of shareholder and creditor rights and the openness of a bankruptcy proceeding. That case saw BP Amoco lose a fight with Tyumen for control of another Russian oil company.

To put the loan package on hold, the State Department cited a measure called the Chafee Amendment, saying that it allows such action ''on the basis of national interest.'' In fact, the amendment does allow that. But the examples it uses to illustrate issues of national interest include human rights, international terrorism and environmental protection - not, reporters pointed out, issues like business transparency and the rule of law.

At the same time, the Clinton administration was markedly unhappy at Russia's unrelenting blitzkrieg against a rebellion in Chechnya. More to the point, it was under intense pressure at home and abroad to do something to express that displeasure in a concrete form that could help rein Russia in and stop the bloodshed.

And that's when the administration invoked the Chafee Amendment and blocked the loans. Officials scrambled to deny that there was any connection between Chechnya and Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees. They said the Chafee Amendment may not include business examples in its list of illustrations, but clearly covers such ground.

In Secretary Albright's opinion, a spokesman declared to reporters at the time, ''our national interest does include serious concern about the rule of law in Russia that we believe was open to question, given the nature of the bankruptcy proceedings that had taken place before this loan came forward.''

But the timing of this convergence of Chechnya and export promotion made claims of coincidence sound tinny. And the danger of mixing politics and trade is more than sufficient to make business jumpy about anything that smacks of it.

Likewise, it must be noted that the administration's decision to lift its objections to the loan guarantees came at another important moment. No, the Chechnya carnage isn't over. But Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia on March 26; five days later, Washington cleared the way for the loan guarantees. It was not hard to see why the notion that the administration had switched to a carrot from a stick popped into many minds.

Officials called the timing here a coincidence, too, though a spokesman noted that Putin recently ''has made clear public statements recognizing the importance of protecting investor and creditor rights, and the role they play in creating a welcoming climate for foreign and domestic investment.''

But the decision to lift the objections was made for the same kind of reasons they were imposed in the first place, he said: narrow, business-related reasons, not broad political ones.

He said the administration has reviewed the case closely, and various issues have been clarified to its satisfaction. Tyumen has been privatized; issues involving the bankrupt company are being worked out. Moreover, the administration is talking with Moscow to underline ''the need to address weaknesses in Russia's legal framework that led to abuses in this case.'' And the administration also made the point that it had an overall concern about the rule of law, he added.

So the objections were lifted, and a few days later the loan guarantees were approved. The CEO of Tyumen, Simon Kukes, hailed them, adding that they would ''create thousands of jobs in the United States and Russia'' and help ease Russia's way into the world economy. The case appears closed.

But questions still echo. Certainly there are valid concerns about the rule of law in Russia, but there should be more productive ways to express them. And the suspicion that trade was being used as a political tool is too strong to ignore.

Washington should know by now not to mix international politics and international trade. It produces a volatile compound that satisfies neither aim - making little headway toward the political goals, taking business from U.S. trade interests and giving their competitors free rein. It is, in short, as ineffectual as it is counterproductive. And Washington should remember that.