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Russia: Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission Tackles Range Of Issues

Washington, 10 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- From the sticky issues like Russian missile technology going to Iran to non-controversial issues such as expanding medical care for children, the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission will tackle them all at its 10th meeting today and tomorrow in Washington.

Officially, it's the U.S.-Russian Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, chaired by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Springing from the 1993 Vancouver summit of President's Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, the binational commission quickly grew from dealing with narrow scientific and technical issues to becoming a major conduit for handling matters as broad as the relationship itself.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry says the commission has "proved its utility in the past and will again as we deal with a host of very complicated issues that are sometimes at dispute in our bilateral relationship."

In addition to the two days of commission meetings, Chernomyrdin is expected to meet with Clinton at the White House Wednesday.

One of the touchier issues to be dealt with is American concern that Russia is selling missile technology to Iran. Chernomyrdin told reporters upon leaving Moscow Monday that no nuclear or missile technology had or would be transferred to Iran.

The New York Times quoted senior American officials as saying that during the meetings, the U.S. would offer Russia the opportunity to expand its lucrative business launching foreign satellites if it made sure no technology went to Iran. But foreign affairs spokesman for Gore, Jonathan Spaulder, says this is nothing new. "Expansion of the U.S.-Russian commercial space cooperation requires only that existing commercial plans be allowed to unfold free of concerns related to ballistic missile proliferation."

A 1996 agreement signed by Gore and Chernomyrdin puts some limits on Russian launches of foreign commercial satellites, but since then U.S. firms -- including Lockheed-Martin and Boeing -- have become involved in a joint venture with Russia and Ukraine in a sea launch venture that may require a review of the complicated formula used in the 1996 pact.

That is a subject Gore, Chernomyrdin and some other commission members will be discussing later in the week when they travel to California to visit computer technology and aerospace industries.

But first in Washington, the commission will deal with a variety of other difficult issues, including Russian concerns that U.S. markets are not yet fully open to Russian goods.

In that same vain, the U.S. is concerned about local taxation in Russia which is being applied to some American assistance funds going to local entrepreneurs. The problem, says a senior U.S. official, is shown by the Russian citizen who opened up a meat processing plant partly with capital raised from an American grant. That person may be forced into bankruptcy because local authorities are trying to collect taxes several times higher than the grant itself.

On a much broader scale, U.S. officials say there will be discussions about pipeline routes for Caspian sea oil. The U.S. favors "multiple pipelines," including one through Russia, but does not want any going through Iran.

A senior official told reporters last week there is a lot of "misunderstanding" on this issue because of U.S. support for a trans-Caspian line running from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

"There are clearly sufficient oil resources in the Eastern Caspian to justify both the (Russian) route as well as other routes that could come out from the region," the official said.

The commission is composed of 21 senior Russian and American officials, including the Russian ministers of Agriculture and Food, Foreign Economic Relations, Health and Medicine and Science and Technology and the American cabinet secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Health and Human Services. The heads of both the Russian and American space agencies, the environmental agencies, and top defense officials from both countries.

On Thursday, Chernomyrdin and Gore and some of the others travel to California for two days of meetings and visits. The prime minister leaves for Moscow Friday evening.