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Russia: Washington State Officials Prepare To Welcome Stepashin

Bellingham, Washington, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in the U.S. Pacific coast state of Washington are planning an elaborate welcome Sunday for Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who will make an overnight stop in Seattle en route to Washington, D.C., for a meeting Tuesday with U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Stepashin will be the guest of honor at a dinner to be jointly hosted by Washington Governor Gary Locke, Washington Secretary of State Ralph Monro, and Washington's two U.S. senators, Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Slade Gorton. Stepashin is expected to speak on regional economic cooperation before an audience heavily weighted toward Pacific Northwest business and trade leaders.

Carol Vipperman, president of the private Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation, is helping to coordinate the prime minister's agenda. She told RFE/RL that Stepashin is expected to arrive in Seattle around midday Sunday after a series of meetings in the Russian Far East.

Vipperman says Stepashin is to meet with executives of Boeing, the world's largest airplane maker and aerospace concern. Boeing is involved with Russia in such major continuing projects as the International Space Station and Sea Launch, the oceangoing satellite-launching enterprise based in California.

She says Stepashin is also to meet with executives of Microsoft, the world's leading computer-software company. Both Microsoft and Boeing have their headquarters in the Seattle area.

Washington state is a leading American trade partner of Russia. It has continued to maintain trade relations despite Russia's financial collapse last August.

In announcing Stepashin's visit, Secretary of State Monro recalled the early days of the state's initiatives toward the Russian Far East and China. He said "we were establishing relationships while others were laughing at us for being in Russia and China." Washington state maintains its own trade offices in both countries, largely due to the efforts of Monro.

President Boris Yeltsin last year honored Monro for his efforts by bestowing on him the Russian Order of Friendship, Russia's highest honor for non-citizens.

In announcing Stepashin's visit, Governor Gary Locke portrayed the preparations as underscoring the state's long-standing trade and cultural ties with the Russian Far East. Locke noted that Stepashin is the highest-ranking Russian leader to come to Washington state since Yeltsin's historic visit to the Seattle area five years ago. It also will mark Stepashin's first visit to the United States since being appointed prime minister last May.

Governor Locke said he is "delighted that Prime Minister Stepashin has chosen Seattle as a destination on his trip to the United States." He said, "We look forward to showing him the best that Washington has to offer, and we hope to discuss our trade and investment relationships with the Russian Far East."

Vipperman says Stepashin also will be briefed on the efforts of a special bilateral working group that concentrates on fostering increased trade and investment between the U.S. West Coast and the Russian Far East.

Vipperman's staff at the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation provides the secretariat for this group, which now is known as the U.S. West Coast-Russian Far East Ad Hoc Working Group. The group has undertaken a number of programs to improve trade relations between the two regions. These include streamlining customs procedures and developing a new trade route from the U.S. West Coast to China through the Russian Far East.

Vipperman says the Russians have expressed interest in duplicating this regional model in linking up other parts of the federation with other parts of the United States. One such linking, she says, could be the St. Petersburg area with the New England states on the U.S. East Coast.

The West Coast regional group operates under the umbrella of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation. This is the bi-national body originally co-chaired by Vice President Al Gore and then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and now by Stepashin.

Stepashin will be accompanied by a delegation that is expected to include a number of cabinet ministers, governors from the Russian Far East, and Russian journalists.