Washington, 5 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore will begin holding discussions in Washington this evening at the start of an intensive four days during which they will be alternately wearing two very different hats.
This evening, they will be the personal representatives of their presidents, focusing on what both sides say will be the extremely important role of preparing an agenda for the planned March summit between Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton.
During parts of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they will switch to their roles as co-chairmen of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, popularly known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission. They will lead the large group in its semi-annual discussions on literally hundreds of cooperation projects, from space to business development, going on between Moscow and Washington.
Attention is particularly focusing on their agenda-setting talks for the Yeltsin-Clinton summit and the possibility that the Russian-U.S. disagreement over the future of NATO may be approaching some significant breaking point.
Chernomyrdin, in an interview with the "Washington Post" newspaper before leaving Moscow, said the expansion of NATO eastward could undermine democratic reforms in Russia and fuel extremist's demands for a return to armed confrontation with the west. He added a demand that NATO agree to change from a military organization to a political one which would not treat Russia as a threat or enemy.
White House and State Department spokesmen in Washington Tuesday reiterated NATO plans to go forward with the expansion, inviting several Central European states to begin the process of joining the alliance at the next NATO summit in Madrid in July.
But White House spokesman Michael McCurry added that the United States believes it is "very important" that there be "appropriate relationships between NATO and the Russian Federation." And senior administration officials, speaking to journalists on condition of anonymity, emphasized U.S. desire and flexibility to work out a European security arrangement that includes Russia.
"We know we are both moving into uncharted historical territory," said one official. "There are no rules for how to do this, but on the other hand, standing still is not a solution."
Another senior administration official added that even though the United States and its NATO allies are moving ahead on a "substantive document, perhaps to be called a charter" to define the new security arrangement in Europe, the United States wants Russia included.
"The bottom line is that Russia can have, and we believe should have -- depending on its desires and will -- a very substantive role in creating quite a different and quite stable security structure in Europe," said the official.
Both officials said the United States has been strongly emphasizing in private meetings with senior Russian officials -- especially in the recent visit to Moscow of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott -- that "there is no intention on the part of the United States or of NATO, to exclude Russia from the evolving security arrangements in Europe." One official added that there is a stress on "evolving because we see NATO as a part of that evolution and we see Russia as very much a part of that evolution."
The official said there is hope in the Clinton administration that the discussions between Chernomyrdin and Gore will provide a break-through in getting people "to see past their fears" and see things as they really are. "We have to see past the illusions," added the official. "NATO today is not the NATO that existed during the cold war -- it is already a fundamentally different and restructured organization that is in the process of seeking its own redefinition."
Would the U.S. then be willing to consider Chernomyrdin's suggestion of turning NATO into a political organization, asked one reporter? "That's for the Vice President and the Prime Minister to talk about," answered the U.S. official.
The officials emphasized American "flexibility" on the date of the summit tentatively planned for March in the United States but said Washington is anxious for the two presidents to meet. With Russian and American elections now having been held, and Yeltsin having gone through heart by-pass surgery, say the officials, there has been "some slowing" of what the United States would like to see happening. It is time for the two leaders "to take stock of what has been accomplished and what we can do over the next four years and try to get that process moving foward," said the official.
Less glamorous will be the meetings of the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission, but officials say it could produce a number of important steps foward, including a new agreement on a schedule for the international space station. There have been some delays in the delivery of Russian components for the station and some pressure has been seen to shift those supply contracts to Western firms. But U.S. officials say they have had "personal" assurance from the Russian prime minister that Moscow will properly finance the production.