The Three Stooges had three famously ineffective methods of arranging what to say or do in unison. There was the double-finger poke to the eye; the rapid nose lift; and the skull crusher.

The slapstick antics were hilarious to watch. But as for getting each stooge to follow his brothers, all of the methods always failed.In preparation for President Clinton's summit meeting in Moscow this week with freshly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin, two important Russians have been in Washington.

Andrei Illarionov, Putin's economic advisor, made the trip to persuade the Clinton administration that he's in charge of the Russian economy.

He announced that Russia had received a stunning increase in foreign investment this year of $9 billion - a number he managed to inflate by counting the rise of the Central Bank's reserves.

But by the time he got back to Moscow, Illarionov had been been dumped and given the job of the president's special representative for problems of the Group of Seven industrial countries.

This is the bureaucratic equivalent of the Flying Dutchman - a job of endlessly circling the globe, talking to people about problems that he cannot return home to do anything about.

Meanwhile, Anatoly Chubais, who once was President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff and currently is the head of Russia's national electric utility, went to Washington to persuade the American establishment that he, too, is in charge of the Russian economy.

Chubais has always had friends at the U.S. Treasury and on Wall Street. He has looked after them. They have looked after him. That was reassurance enough for Yeltsin, who counted on Chubais to convince U.S. policy-makers they should think of no alternative and spare no expense to keep him in power.

But Chubais had no influence on the recent selection of the Russian Cabinet; he, too, had no chance of being appointed to it.

The most that Chubais can do is to turn the nation's lights off, but even his threats to do that are no longer credible. His biggest gamble - the drafting of a program of economic reforms by another protege, German Gref - was pigeonholed before it was finished.

Gref himself has been given the liberal economist's equivalent of prison with hard labor. He is now in charge of a ministry where he will be obliged to meet every hour of the day with industry and farm lobbyists.

As Russia's new trade chief, Gref also must defend domestic producers from injury from imports, and from discrimination in foreign markets. Gref must now practice the opposite of what he imagined he was preaching.

Even those officials who were once Chubais factotums, such as new Finance Minister Andrei Kudrin, are now so loyal to the new president that they won't dare protect Chubais when Putin decides his usefulness is over.

For a decade now, every presidential summit meeting between the United States and Russia has included in the communiques it produced a reference to economic reform as the key to American support for what Russia does next.

Russian officials like Illarionov and Chubais have always interpreted the reform code word to mean Washington's support for them in their factional struggles with rivals in the Kremlin and in the State Duma.

The Clinton administration has grown cynical with the code word, privately acknowledging that, even when reform turned into massive corruption, Russia's rulers were still ''ours.''

Now that there is a new man in the Kremlin - and one who is closer to Europe than to the United States - it is too early for the reform code word to mean anything.

Sure, it will be said a dozen times or more this week in Moscow. But it isn't even as persuasive as the double-finger poke to the eye - and it isn't funny, either.

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