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Chernomyrdin, Gore Say Russian Reforms Here To Stay

Washington, Jan. 31 (RFE/RL) - The sixth semi-annual meeting of the Russian-U.S. cooperation group, known popularly as the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission, ended its two-day meeting in Washington Tuesday with 30 agreements and joint statements.

But at the final press conference, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were mostly asked about Russia's political future and whether it will continue on the path of economic and political reform.

"There will be no turning back," intoned Chernomyrdin even before the questions began. "Russia will not stop in its pursuit of reforms and will not change course."

American journalists, in particular, repeatedly asked whether the recent removal of so many reformers from the government was a foreboding thing or whether Chernomyrdin's comments two days ago that certain "corrections" would be necessary meant reforms were doomed.

The Prime Minister said President Boris Yeltsin will soon announce some changes in the "social aspects" of the reform program, but he reiterated that basic reforms will remain on course.

Vice President Gore added his support. He said: "The reform program in Russia has always been two steps forward and one step back." He recalled that the departure from the government two years ago of Yegor Gaidar had prompted the western press to proclaim the end of reforms in Russia. "But in fact," Gore said, "there has been even more impetus to continue."

Other journalists asked about the upcoming Russian presidential elections. When asked if reforms might be discarded following the June 16 ballot, Chernomyrdin merely laughed and replied: "We'll make the right choice. Don't you worry."

Chernomyrdin and Gore repeatedly pointed out that the work of the commission, while anything but headline grabbing or glamorous, was the nuts and bolts that makes the broad range of U.S.-Russian relations expand.

There were no earth-shaking pacts signed at this meeting of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation. The commission was set up by presidents Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in 1993 as a vehicle to iron out the wrinkles, at the highest levels, of a rapidly expanding relationship.

But there were many small, significant steps. After signing a joint statement on environmental initiatives, for example, Gore and Chernomyrdin exchanged a set of spy satellite photos and other data collected by the intelligence agencies of each nation. The data were about of Yeysk Air Force Base in southern Russia and Eglin Air Force Base Florida in the southern state of Florida.

In the past, such information would have been considered top secret. But the exchange marked the use of military and intelligence information for environmental purposes. Gore announced there would also be an exchange of huge amounts of oceanographic data this summer to mark the beginning of the first Russian-American joint navy oceanographic survey.

Gore said: "We found that we had better pictures of some of Russia than they had, and they had better photos of the U.S. than we had."

There was agreement to amend the U.S.-Russian pact on International Trade in Commercial Space Launch services, which will greatly expand Russia's ability to participate in commercial space launches, a major objective for Moscow before the session began.

The U.S. did not get the major concession it was seeking from Moscow - the reduction or removal of import tariffs on commercial aircraft and parts like jet engines shipped into Russia. But the talks are not over yet. "Stay tuned for an announcement," Gore said.

Agreements and statements signed ranged from efforts to deal with crime against business, developing more small business involvement in Russia, improving the exchange of information on food safety measures to pushing ahead on seismic cooperation.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank, also known as Eximbank, announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a framework for financing U.S. equipment that would modernize Russia's forest products industry.

The pact is similar to the Russian Oil and Gas Framework Agreement which so far has provided more than $900 million in financing for equipment purchases to update the Russian oil and gas sector.

In the area of trade promotion, the U.S. Commerce Department has agreed to open a new Business Information Service office in Moscow to assist Russian companies wanting to do business with the United States.

The next meeting of the commission is scheduled in Moscow in June. "The week after the (presidential) elections," noted Chernomyrdin. "That's our plan and I think that's what's going to happen."