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Russia: Differences Remain After Talks With Albright

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite speculation about a widening rift between their two countries, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov smiled broadly at the end of two days of talks in Moscow yesterday.

At a joint press conference, they assured reporters that differences are to be expected in international affairs and would not spoil the Russian-American relationship.

Albright said that the two sides had agreed on the need for an investigation of recent killings of ethnic-Albanians in Serbia's Kosovo province. But there was no indication the two sides had come closer together on NATO threats to use force to end bloodshed there.

The two sides also reaffirmed the importance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. But there was no clear resolution of Moscow's concerns that a U.S. plan to set up a new national anti-missile defense system could violate the treaty's terms.

There also was no indication that the two sides had moved toward overcoming Moscow's strong objections to last month's U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq.

Despite the positive tone of their joint press conference, Ivanov acknowledged that differences remained.

Earlier in the day, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that Albright had raised the importance of maintaining a 'problem-solving' relationship during a 25-minute telephone conversation with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin remains in hospital receiving treatment for a stomach ulcer.

Rubin said Yeltsin and Albright discussed the stalled START Two nuclear arms reduction treaty and the ABM Treaty.

Judging from the reactions of Russian politicians and press commentators after the first day of Albright's visit, there were considerable frustrations in the Russian capital over U.S. policies. The perception remained that the U.S. is ignoring a Russia weakened by financial crises and political uncertainty.

Yesterday's "Kommersant" daily wrote that "after [Russia's August financial collapse], the Americans became convinced that reforms in Russia were dead. From that moment on, not only has interest in Russia fallen, but Washington's policies [seem to be] aimed at neutralizing Russia."

The daily "Segodnya" wrote yesterday that "past talk about [U.S.-Russian] partnership is gone. But it is difficult to expect partnership, and a relationship between equals, when Russia's 1999 budget is no bigger than that of a medium-sized U.S. state." The daily concluded that many in Moscow "understand this and are [therefore] even more irritated."

In addition to Foreign Minister Ivanov, Albright met on Monday (Jan. 25) with State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov and Moscow Mayor --and probable presidential candidate-- Yuri Luzhkov. She also had a three-hour meeting over dinner with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Early yesterday, Albright met other likely presidential candidates, Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed.

Commentators noted that, despite what was termed the "cordial" atmosphere of the talks, Albright heard a lot of complaints about various U.S. policies from her Russian interlocutors.

Russian politicians, usually divided on other matters, are remarkably united in their common perception that the U.S. no longer considers Russia a major power. The daily "Izvestya" wrote yesterday that "in Moscow political gatherings, anti-American sentiments are now considered more than acceptable....The two countries," the paper added, "are clearly showing a lack of any will to cooperate." Seleznyov and Luzhkov almost seemed to be competing in their efforts to express irritation to Albright over a long list of U.S. policies. The contentious issues included the U.S. bombings of Iraq, NATO threats to use force in Kosovo, and U.S. accusations that three Russian institutes leaked nuclear technology to Iran.

State Duma leaders who took part in Albright's meeting with Seleznyov were quoted by the Interfax news agency yesterday as saying the two sides had "failed to end their differences." The chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs committee, Vladimir Lukin of the moderate Yabloko Party, complained that on all the questions concerning Iraq, Kosovo, Iran and the ABM treaty, Albright "tried to avoid giving clear answers."

A U.S. State Department spokesman quoted by the Reuters news agency said the meeting with Luzhkov, who discussed the same issues with Albright, "was quite cordial. But," he said, "there was little ground given on either side."

There was also probably little ground for maneuvering during Albright's meeting last night with Primakov. Their discussion was said to focus on economic issues.

Albright's visit to Moscow coincided with a review of the Russian economy by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission. Russian officials hope talks now in progress with IMF officials will result in a decision on debt forgiveness or on the release of new IMF funds. First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, Primakov's chief deputy for economic affairs, has repeatedly said the government would use new IMF funds largely to pay off old IMF debts. The IMF decision, expected in the next few weeks, will also be closely watched by other creditors of Russia. A negative outcome could trigger Russia's default on foreign debt.

U.S. officials (unnamed) accompanying Albright told journalists in briefings that prospects of IMF debt forgiveness are not great. The IMF has already described as "unrealistic" the 1999 draft budget that the government has presented for parliamentary approval.

It is unclear whether Albright's latest talks in Moscow might increase Washington's willingness to signal the IMF that the U.S. backs the organization's re-financing of Russia's debt.

At her press conference with Ivanov yesterday, she reiterated the U.S. view that Russia needs to adopt "an economic program and a budget that is realistic, that provides a sense of confidence to various creditors and allows Russia to proceed down the road of a market economy."