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Russia: Election Results Meet With Disparate U.S. Reactions

White House and State Department Spokesmen in Washington Monday hailed Russia's weekend parliamentary elections as a further sign democracy is taking hold in the country. But one Russian analyst RFE/RL spoke with said he foresees little reason to expect change as a result of the poll. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams in Washington reports:

Washington, 21 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Playing up the positive, White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart today said Russia's weekend parliamentary elections were a "win," no matter the eventual overall outcome.

Lockhart's comments to reporters came as preliminary results show two pro-reform blocs making electoral gains that could allow them to displace the Communists as the State Duma's (Lower House) dominant political force.

Lockhart said Russia's weekend poll -- the third parliamentary elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- shows democracy is becoming better engrained in Russian political practice.

The message was much the same at the U.S. State Department, where spokesman James Foley hailed the Russian parliamentary vote as a "very positive development" on the whole:

"We believe its important these elections took place as scheduled. We believe that the parliamentary elections set the stage for the very important presidential race next June. We think both these elections are key milestones in Russia's post-communist development. The fact of the matter is that elections are becoming routine in Russia; democratic elections. There's also a further process of consolidation and further movement away from the very long undemocratic past."

Foley also noted the heavy turn-out as a clear sign Russia's people are attached to the notion of choosing their political leaders and institutions.

Foley said the United States is now awaiting final, official results, in order to better assess what the complete Duma might look like and how it could politically act. At the same time, Foley took advantage of the moment to convey a forward-looking message to Russia's incoming political players:

"We believe the strong showing by the Unity and Centrist blocs suggests that the new Duma may turn out to be less ideological and also more pragmatic than its predecessor. We certainly hope that it will be more responsive to the needs of constituents on a range of bread and butter concerns."

But not everyone is as "positive" about today's unfolding electoral outcome. Case in point -- James Goldgeir, who told RFE/RL the parliamentary elections only served to solidify what he called, "more of the same."

Goldgeir, who is the Acting Director for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, said he therefore foresees little chance for change in the already strained US-Russia relationship.

"Well, its been tense and the underlying factors that make it tense are not going to go away. I think that's really the best that can be hoped for, even with changes in certain political forces and this talk about the rise of a reformist bloc in parliament in relation to the Communists. We have a time of Presidential elections in both countries (US and Russia) and it is NOT a time for moving forward if you will. Nothing major is likely to happen until both those elections have taken place and we have two new Presidents."

Goldgeir says the big issues the U.S. cares about -- such as the war in Chechnya, arms control, or better rule of law to promote western investment -- are little likely to change. And in some instances, Goldgeir said, things may even worsen. He cited Chechnya as a probable example.

"Why would you (Russia) respond to U.S. complaints if you are gaining politically from this war and in fact (if) ignoring claims only adds to your stature. And the big prize is the Presidency and that's where (Vladimir) Putin and (Yuri) Luzkhov and (Yevgeny) Primakov and those other folks have their eye."

Goldgeir, is in agreement with many western commentators in one regard. He said Sunday's Parliamentary elections did nothing if not ensure that Putin is the leading candidate for next Summer's Presidential election in Russia.

What is not as clear are the specific intentions and policies of the new "Unity" party endorsed by Putin. And that, says Dimitri Simes -- President of the Nixon Center -- a non-profit foreign policy think tank -- is cause for caution.

"I think we have to be very careful to send Putin the right messages. We should not alienate unnecessarily, we shouldn't engage in burning bridges on Chechnya. At the same time, I think we have to be very determined and clear to demonstrate to the political and business establishment in general that we are not ready for another Russian terrible King."

Simes, who made the comments at a round table discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in his one and only meeting with Putin he came away with the impression of a very determined and articulate man. But Simes said he could not speak to the issue further, other than to advise that Putin is still, as he put it, "a great unknown."