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Russia/U.S.: Recent Talks Show Persistent Differences

  • Jan de Weydenthal



Prague, 23 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - U.S. Vice President Al Gore met today in Moscow with Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, continuing a recent series of talks between leaders of the two countries.

Yesterday, Gore had several meetings outside Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, while U.S. President Bill Clinton was discussing bilateral problems with Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in New York City.

All these talks were said to have touched on Washington's concern over possible restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, the spread of Russian nuclear weapons technology to other countries -- specifically Iran -- and the fate of the struggling MIR space station.

American concern over religious freedom has been prompted by a recent overwhelming approval in the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) of a bill giving Russia's minority religions fewer rights than they have in other secular societies. The bill makes the Russian Orthodox Church the country's pre-eminent religion, and could be used to prevent other groups from operating freely.

Two months ago, Yeltsin vetoed a similarly restrictive bill, after protests from the United States, the Pope and a host of international human rights organization. The bill was slightly amended since, and Yeltsin is expected now to sign it into law. Neither Gore's pleading nor Clinton's complaints are likely to affect this situation.

There is also little chance that the U.S. concern over suspected proliferation of Russian nuclear weapons could find a sympathetic response from Moscow.

Washington says that Russia has been selling conventional weapons and nuclear technology to Iran, a country seen in the U.S. as sponsoring terrorism. Russia counters that it has not sold anything that could be used to build missiles or nuclear weapons. And it clearly intends to continue this type of exports.

U.S. fears of nuclear proliferation have recently been sharpened by rumors from Moscow that the Russian military has lost track of numerous -- some say more than 100 -- portable nuclear bombs which it produced during the 1970s. Such bombs could be used by terrorists in many volatile parts of the globe. Russia's government has denied those rumors, but the speculations persist.

Finally, with respect to the fate of MIR, the Russians are anxious that the Americans continue their $473 million program to place U.S. astronauts on the aging space station. Gore was reported to have said that the program is being currently reviewed by NASA, and the decision whether to continue it or not will be made only after the review is completed.

In view of the uncertainty, if not a failure, to reach decisive agreements on those issues, other bilateral agreements seem relatively less important.

True, Primakov told Clinton yesterday that Russia would not oppose plans for parliamentary elections set by U.S.- supported Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic for next month. Russia has frequently supported nationalist Serb groups in the past, and it current acceptance of the poll could amount to a major help in NATO-led peace effort in Bosnia.

Also Vice President Gore and Chernomyrdin sign today a series of agreement on economic cooperation and technology transfer.

But none of these cooperative gestures could hide continuing differences between the two countries on important political issues. And those differences are likely to persist in the months to come.
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