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Russia: Prime Minister Expected To Renew Cooperation During U.S. Visit

Boston, 23 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin is expected to renew cooperation with Washington next week as he meets with Vice President Al Gore in Russia's first high-level visit to the United States since the war over Kosovo.

The summit on science and technology issues will also be the first since the dismissal last year of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin brought an end to the regular meetings of the group known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. A scheduled meeting in March failed to materialize when former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov cancelled his Washington visit because of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

Despite the long backlog of technical issues between the two countries, the one-day Gore-Stepashin meeting on Tuesday will be too brief for a full agenda of agreements that characterized the Chernomyrdin talks, a Gore spokesman said Thursday. The meeting will touch on economic issues and trade, as well as arms control, the official said.

Stepashin will also address U.S.-Russian trade groups at a dinner Monday night in an appearance aimed at restoring business confidence following the frequent government changes since the ruble crisis of last August 17. A meeting with President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office is also planned.

Although the trip will nearly coincide with a vote on new loans by the board of the International Monetary Fund next Wednesday, an IMF official said this week that no meetings with Stepashin are expected. But if all goes well, the IMF may approve $4.5 billion in new financing for Russia by the time Stepashin returns to Moscow.

The broad assurance of cooperation may be the biggest accomplishment of the Gore-Stepashin meeting at a time when Russia has tentatively moved to restore its broken liaison links with NATO. Stepashin may be eager to portray an image of superpower status and stability, while Gore as a presidential candidate may assume the statesman's role.

But arms control advocates in the United States are demanding some serious and difficult policy decisions from the meeting. Alan Kuperman, a senior policy analyst for the independent Nuclear Control Institute in Washington called for a change in a key plutonium agreement in an op-ed page piece published Thursday by The Boston Globe.

Kuperman told RFE/RL that a 1997 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement to halt Russia's production of weapons-grade plutonium could have dangerous consequences because Russian reactors would convert their operations to use highly-enriched uranium instead.

The two reactors at Seversk, previously called Tomsk, and one at Zheleznogorsk, formerly Krasnoyarsk, would stop producing plutonium, the key fuel for nuclear bombs. But because the reactors also make electricity and steam for local use, they would be kept going with supplies of highly-enriched uranium, which is also a nuclear weapons material. The distribution and transport of the bomb-grade uranium from old weapons and stockpiles represents a major security risk, Kuperman said. Zheleznogorsk also processes the spent fuel from Russian and Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

Small pellets of the highly-enriched uranium can be easily stolen or diverted to bomb programs in other countries. The solution would be to convert the reactors to use low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used in bombs. But Kuperman said the idea is being resisted for political reasons.

Although scientists of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy have supported the conversion to low-enriched uranium, top Minatom officials reportedly remain committed to using an old plant at Novosibirsk, which can only produce highly-enriched uranium. Minatom chief Yevgeny Adamov is expected to travel with the prime minister to Washington.

A more versatile plant at Elektrostal near Moscow could be used to turn weapons material into low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel. But Minatom has stuck to its plan that would allow it to extract some highly-enriched uranium from the fuel even after it is used, perpetuating the proliferation risk, Kuperman said.

In a letter to U.S. arms control groups seeking the change, Gore reportedly agreed to pursue development of the low-enriched uranium alternative but said he has decided to go ahead with the original reactor plan initially, rather than risk losing the agreement. A spokesman for the vice president had no immediate comment. The United States plans to spend $300 million to upgrade the Russian reactors.

The difficulty seems to reflect the high value placed by both sides in avoiding further setbacks. Although the pace of new agreements and the implementation of old ones has slowed since the days of Gore-Chernomyrdin, Russia recognizes that there are continuing economic benefits from keeping cooperation alive.

While Stepashin may wish to show his leadership on his first visit to Washington as prime minister, he is also likely to be wary of achieving major breakthroughs. After Chernomyrdin made headlines with his last trip to Washington in March 1998, President Boris Yeltsin fired him within a matter of days.