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Russia: Prime Minister Charms Officials On First Stop Of U.S. Tour

Bellingham, Washington State; 26 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin's visit to the United States is off to a strong start if the warm welcome he received during his first stop on the West Coast is any indication.

Stepashin, who flew into the Seattle area on Sunday, is visiting the United States to boost relations after they recently fell to a post-cold war low during NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

The Russian premier, on his first visit to the United States since he took office in May, hopes strengthened US-Russian ties will help win badly needed US aid for Russian farmers and airlines. He is also is expected to discuss a long-simmering steel trade dispute between the two countries during his three-day tour.

He is due tomorrow to visit Washington, D.C. where he will meet with US President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and other top officials.

So far, Stepashin has shown himself to be an engaging ambassador for his country. He charmed Washington state officials in a series of meetings he held after arriving Sunday afternoon from the Russian Far East with a delegation of Russian officials and reporters.

Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who spoke with our correspondent at a reception for Stepashin in Seattle on Sunday night, said he was pleased by the prime minister's promise to foster greater trade between the U.S. and Russia -- and especially between Washington state and the Russian Far East. Stepashin promised at the reception to work to simplify customs procedures between the two countries.

Munro also said he and his Washington state colleagues found Stepashin "very friendly." He described the Russian premier as "a fresh face on the Russian scene."

Munro, who is a longtime booster of US-Russian trade, is a strong proponent of a plan to develop a new trade corridor from the North Pacific, across the Russian Far East, to northern China.

Stepashin may have chosen to start his US tour in Seattle precisely because he could be certain of getting a good hearing here. The city is the headquarters of the West Coast Ad Hoc Working Group, whose intent is to foster cooperation between the US and Russia. Its members include officials of the Russian Far East and the Pacific Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California. The group operates under the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, which is jointly chaired by Stepashin, as Russian prime minister, and Vice President Gore.

While touring the Seattle area on Sunday, Stepashin visited the facility of US aerospace giant Boeing. The facility, some 55 kilometers north of Seattle, assembles wide-body Boeing 767 passenger jets, which are now part of the Aeroflot fleet. Stepashin expressed delight at Boeing's increasing use of Russian technology and of Russian titanium in its new aircraft.

He also noted that Boeing, Russia and Ukraine are among the partners now assembling the International Space Station. They are also working together on Sea Launch, an ocean-going satellite-launching venture that is now preparing its first commercial launch.

In downtown Seattle, Stepashin visited the landmark observation tower, the Space Needle. From atop the high tower, the prime minister could see Russian fishing vessels undergoing upgrading in the city's shipyards lining the Puget Sound, which connects the city with the Pacific ocean.

Stepashin capped his day Sunday with an official reception at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle. There, Washington state elected officials, headed by Governor Gary Locke, hosted the prime minister and his party at a dinner attended by executives of some 100 companies already doing business with Russia or wishing to do business there.

In a speech at the Sunday night gathering, Locke emphasized the "long-term nature of the relationship" between Washington state and Russia, in cultural affairs as much as commerce.

From Seattle, Stepashin is due to continue on to the east coast, where he will address U.S.-Russian trade groups Monday evening at a dinner in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, he is to discuss science and technology issues with Vice President Al Gore. The Gore-Stepashin meeting will mark resumption of a dialogue that ended with last year's sacking by Yeltsin of former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who had previously worked with Gore in developing the bilateral group.

A meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office also is planned.