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Russia: Clinton Takes Conciliatory Tone With Duma

U.S. President Bill Clinton wrapped up his three-day trip to Moscow today with a speech to the State Duma, the first ever by a U.S. president. Clinton was conciliatory in tone and tried to change the Russian perception that the U.S. is arrogant. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini asks Duma deputies whether he succeeded.

Moscow, 5 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- This morning Bill Clinton became only the second head of state to speak before Russia's lower house of parliament in the Duma's seven-year history. The first was Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, last October -- and the two speeches couldn't have been more different.

While Lukashenka spent his allotted time speaking about himself in the third person and boasting implausibly that the Belarus economy was booming, Clinton was modest and conciliatory towards a floor that has seen many denunciations of U.S. policy. His speech, transmitted live on television, was also addressed to the Russian people.

Extolling Russia's achievements, Clinton noted that the country overcame its 1998 financial crisis without compromising economic reforms. He praised Russian businesses, Russian technology, and even the Russian presidential election, which he called the country's first democratic transition in 1,000 years.

On arms control, Clinton summed up the positive sides of his weekend summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He stressed the importance of two agreements signed Sunday in a ceremony in the Kremlin's Saint George Hall. The two presidents agreed to destroy 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium over 20 years, to prevent it falling into the hands of terrorists or "rogue states." Another agreement creates a common Russian-American observation center that would alert leaders in case of an accidental missile launch -- the first joint military cooperation on such a level.

Clinton also tried to defuse Russian worries over the U.S. desire to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for a limited nationwide missile defense. On this point, the summit did not bring any concrete results. Russia is firmly against the deployment, arguing that it would destroy the mutual vulnerability that is the basis of nuclear deterrence.

But here, too, Clinton sounded appeasing, saying that the decision to build a missile shield was not yet definite.

"I believe we ought to be able to reach an agreement on how we should proceed at each step along the way here, in a way that preserves mutual deterrence, preserves strategic stability, and preserves the ABM treaty. That is my goal."

On Chechnya, Clinton broke with the harsh tone taken by other U.S. officials. The bloody eight-month war has become one of the main points of discord between Russia and the West -- but it is popular with Russians. Speaking to the Russian legislature, Clinton did not dwell on the war, and he used a gentle tone of reproach rather than head-on criticism.

"My question in Chechnya was an honest one. A question of a friend, and that is whether any war can be won that requires large numbers of civilian casualties and has no political component bringing about a solution."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic party, disrupted the proceedings with cries of "shame, shame" when Clinton finished his speech.

Most other Duma deputies, however, were more receptive to the U.S. message.

Vladimir Lyssenko is a deputy from the centrist Russian Regions bloc. He told RFE/RL that Clinton's speech will help to defuse some of the more rabid anti-American sentiments in the Duma by showing that U.S. leaders can be tactful.

"It's very important that the deputies could listen to his arguments. Usually we read some excerpts from newspapers, pieces of [Clinton's speeches] but American positions are usually filtered through our media. And here people could for the first time hear arguments from the person who makes U.S. policy in flesh and blood. And I think his arguments were very friendly and convincing."

Boris Gryzlov is head of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction, the second-largest in the Duma. He was similarly appreciative.

"In principle, the United States president's words today mean that he listened to our statements and that he will look for a compromise."

Both deputies especially approved of Clinton's willingness to discuss the defense missile shield plans further.

On the left flank, however, deputies said Clinton's speech changes nothing.

Communist party boss Gennady Zyuganov criticized Clinton for his optimistic description of what Zyuganov says is a "bankrupt" Russia. He said that he had hoped the U.S. president would assess the situation with more honesty. Vassily Starodubtsev, a leftist deputy, dismissed Clinton's speech as "the expression of the United States aim to dominate the world." He added:

"Everything that was done to this great country to a great people was done -- and they practically admit it -- by the United States. And today, his speech gives me the feeling that we are being treated like a colony."

The head of the leftist Agrarians, Nikolai Kharitonov, said, however, that Clinton's speech at least sounded convincing and peaceable.

"I'd like to believe that his speech won't be only words but will be implemented in concrete actions by the U.S. Congress and by business circles, that is, by all the administrative levers on which Clinton can put pressure during his last eight months."

Many deputies mentioned Clinton's half-apologetic statement on the U.S.'s tendency to think it is always right. Clinton said Russia has the right to make its own choices and admitted, "that Americans have to overcome the temptation to believe that we have all the answers."

Even Aleksei Mitrofanov of the Liberal Democratic party complimented Clinton on his appeal to the Russian psyche and his ability to seem sympathetic. But according to Mitrofanov, Clinton should have played up his own mistakes more, saying "Russians love a repentant sinner."