Washington, 21 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A top official at the U.S. State Department says America should give Russia its full support during the transition to democracy and urged members of Congress to work with the administration of President Bill Clinton to improve American-Russian relations.
Special Advisor on the Newly Independent States Stephen Sestanovich made the comment Wednesday in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing examining Russian foreign and domestic policy.
But Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), who chaired the hearing, told Sestanovich that many members of Congress are concerned about Russia's restrictions on religious freedom, resistance to U.S. influence in Europe, and the dangerous proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Gordon says that after an initial period of euphoria in the relationship, U.S.-Russian relations have become increasingly defined by differences instead of shared goals.
Sestanovich faced some tough questions from other senators at the hearing on Russia's new religion law, its policy in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the transfer of missile technology to Iran.
Sestanovich says the U.S. is "acutely aware" of the difficulties facing the relationship, but adds that President Clinton considers U.S.-Russian relations a top foreign policy priority.
He adds that despite the problems, the U.S. must encourage Russia to continue development of a free market economy and democratic political institutions.
In order to advance these interests, Sestanovich says the Clinton administration has outlined a four-part strategy in its relations with Russia:
-- To seek to reduce the threat to the U.S. and to international peace posed by weapons of mass destruction.
-- To support democracy and respect for human rights, including religious freedom.
-- To strongly support Russia's continuing transition into a modern market-based economy, coupled with Russia's integration into the world economy.
-- To seek a Russia cooperatively engaged with its neighbors and integrated into Euro-Atlantic and global communities.
Sestanovich says it is critical for the U.S. Congress and the administration to work together in solving the difficulties that arise in the relationship. But Sestanovich says he is worried about an unraveling of bipartisan support for a unified approach toward relations with Russia.
Explains Sestanovich: "I would be less than candid if I did not acknowledge that this bipartisan consensus is under very severe stress. In the face of these challenges there are plenty of people...who have begun to question whether these are in fact realistic aims for American foreign policy in 1998."
Of particular concern to the Clinton administration, says Sestanovich, is a Senate bill expected to be voted on this week that would impose sanctions on foreign companies or institutes that help Iran develop or acquire ballistic missile technology.
The bill would directly affect Russian companies and agencies that have been said to have sold or leaked sensitive information on the technology to Iran.
The legislation would require the president to report to Congress on every firm or government that has passed to Iran missile technology since August 1995, and then impose economic sanctions.
The bill is said to have strong support in the Senate. A similar measure easily passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. President Clinton is expected to veto the legislation.
Sestanovich says the U.S. should give the new Russian government a chance to implement a new and tougher non-proliferation program. He adds that Russia has already taken three major steps toward a more effective policy.
First, Sestanovich says he believes Moscow has accepted the gravity of the matter and has renewed its determination to fix it. Sestanovich says recent speeches by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko are firm reiterations of Russia's commitment to stop the spread of missile technology.
Another positive step, says Sestanovich, was the signing by former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of an executive order strengthening Russia's export control system and giving the Russian government broad powers to stop transfers of goods and services to foreign missile programs.
The third most important step, says Sestanovich, is the formation of a bilateral group set up by Russia and the U.S. to work with Russia's export control officials and help them strengthen their policies and procedures.
Explains Sestanovich: "Our goal is a Russian export control regime that is rigorous and meets western standards. The actions the Russian government has taken put it firmly on the right track."
Sestanovich says that if sanctions are imposed on Russia at this time, it would be "profoundly counterproductive" toward stopping the transfer of the technology to Iran.
Sestanovich says he is greatly encouraged by the composition of the new Russian government.
Explains Sestanovich: "The top echelon of this new team represents something we have never seen before in any Russian government...This modern, progressive outlook should serve Russia well."