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Gore-Chernomyrdin: First Post-Election High-Level Meeting

Washington, July 12 (RFE/RL) -- Next week's meeting of the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission in Moscow is seen from Washington as a milestone in U.S.-Russian relations -- a time to reinvigorate Russia's commitment to economic and political reforms, begin to put its commercial house in order, and reinforce American thinking and concerns on major political and foreign policy issues like Chechnya and NATO expansion.

The U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation -- it's formal name -- meets Monday and Tuesday in Moscow for its 7th semi-annual session under the chairmanship of U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, with a broad agenda of Russian-American relations ranging from cooperation in science and space to improving the business climate.

But U.S. officials have made clear it is also an important chance for an even broader-ranging high level review of political and economic ties, especially in the wake of the presidential election which the U.S. views as a watershed event for Russia.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott says the election was not the final test, however. "Reform is a work in progress, a very difficult work in progress" and the Clinton administration views the Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting as a "valuable mechanism" for senior American and Russian officials "to roll up our sleeves and get to work together," he said.

Talbott told the U.S.-Russia Business Council in Washington Thursday that the focus will be on three areas -- security, regional cooperation, and economics and trade.

To underscore the U.S. view of these meetings, Gore is taking a plane-load of senior American officials, including four cabinet secretaries, two agency heads and dozens of policy level officials and experts from throughout the U.S. government.

Not technically a part of the commission meetings, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry and a number of senior State Department officials will be holding discussions with their Russian counterparts on security -- moves to further reduce nuclear stockpiles, end nuclear testing and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and on regional cooperation -- ways to expand Russian-U.S. cooperation in Bosnian peace-keeping to other areas.

At the same time, Gore is expected to convey to Chernomyrdin U.S. concerns over the renewed fighting in Chechnya and warnings that, in Talbott's words, a return to full military action there would be "a disaster" for Russia and it's hopes for successful reforms.

Similarly, Gore is to attempt to once again reassure the Russian government that the expansion of NATO is n-o-t directed against Moscow, but is a mechanism for reuniting all of Europe in a security mechanism that can work with Russia.

The commission itself will focus on the third area of American concern -- the development of economic, trade, and business ties.

Talbott says the "fate of Russian reform in general hinges upon what happens to Russian economic reform in particular." He says, in fact, that the "increased security, stability and prosperity that millions of Russians called for with their votes last week will remain out of reach if Russia does not succeed in the transition from a command system to the open market."

U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor will coordinate discussions within the commission on a broad range of economic development and trade issues. A senior official in the Vice President's office (unnamed) says that business development is in fact "a key issue" of the Moscow meetings.

Talbott says Russia has made good progress in setting up a climate for business, but that it must now get serious in reforming taxes, cutting restraints on the energy sector, and fighting commercial crime -- especially ending the epidemic of crime and corruption.

"Widespread lawlessness in Russia today constitutes a major threat to public confidence in government, a threat to reform, and a threat to the political fortunes of reformist politicians," says Talbott.

The Gore-Chernomyrdin commission will also be dealing with de-nuclearization and nuclear safety issues, with U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary following up with Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov on initiatives started at the last meeting in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, will continue her work with Russian Minister of Health and Medical Industry Aleksandr Tsaregorodtsev on medical cooperation programs, including special programs on diphtheria and diabetes, two particularly troubling problems for Russia recently.

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Carol Browner will be following up with her Moscow counterparts on a number of environmental programs now underway between the two countries, including cooperation on the arctic ice shelf and in forestry in the Russian far east.

The administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Daniel Goldin will be conducting sessions with Russian space officials on the rapidly expanding cooperation between the two space agencies.

The senior official in the U.S. Vice President's office says the meetings are an "important opportunity to reaffirm the continuity of the U.S.-Russian relationship."