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Russia: Congressional Report -- Clinton Partly Responsible For Economic, Political Decline

For years, U.S. President Bill Clinton's Republican Party opponents in Congress have been accusing him of conducting a poor policy toward Russia. Now they have issued a report -- less than seven weeks before America's general election -- that details their harshest criticisms. Clinton and some fellow Democrats respond by accusing the Republicans of merely playing partisan politics. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 21 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A report by the U.S. Congress says President Bill Clinton is in large part to blame for the political and economic troubles that Russia has experienced in the past eight years, and that Russians distrust America more than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

The 209-page report says the Clinton administration did not seize an opportunity to help Russia change from an adversary to a political and economic ally of America, just as the U.S. did with Germany and Japan after World War II. The report was commissioned by Congressman Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Instead, the document said, Clinton threw vast amounts of money into Russia's central government and focused its attention on the country's central leaders -- particularly Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle -- and ignored members of the Duma, who have regional credentials.

The commission's report also criticized the Clinton administration for maintaining relations with some Russian officials even after they were suspected of involvement in corrupt practices. The report paid particular attention to the country's former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Anatoly Chubais, the former finance minister who is now the head of Russia's electricity utility.

Congressman Christopher Cox (R-California) -- the chairman of the panel that issued the report -- says that from the standpoint of America's self-interest, the U.S. may have lost the opportunity to have a powerful alliance with Russia. At a news conference where he released the report, Cox said:

"They [Russian leaders] sought in their formal foreign policy -- in their foreign policy concept published in 1993 -- what they called a strategic partnership with the United States and a close alliance -- an alliance with the United States. That is no longer their aim. They have formally withdrawn that from their foreign policy concept this year. And one of the reasons is the loss of confidence in U.S. advice and the loss of respect for the U.S. position as identified by our association with corruption."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded to the report by saying the U.S. has successfully helped Russia reduce its nuclear arsenal, establish a civil and criminal legal system, and privatize 75 percent of its economy, among other things.

"We would like to think that our [Clinton administration] contributions to building civil society, to helping entrepreneurs, to helping destroy nuclear weapons -- that these have been valuable not only to the development of Russia but also to the American people."

Boucher said he would not address what he called the political aspects of the report. This already had been done by the White House and Clinton's political allies.

The panel that drew up the report was composed entirely of members of the Republican Party. Clinton is a Democrat, as is his vice president, Al Gore, who hopes to be elected on November 7 as Clinton's successor.

But during the nearly eight years of the Clinton administration, Gore has presided over U.S. policy toward Russia and the other nations of the former Soviet Union. He even serves as co-chairman of both the U.S.-Russia and U.S.-Ukraine Bilateral Commissions.

These positions were supposed to have given him a foreign policy advantage in his run for the presidency. Instead, Gore's political opponents have used news of corruption in both Russia and Ukraine to attack him.

On Tuesday -- the day before the report was released -- a group of Democrats in Congress suggested how important it views the report by writing a letter to Speaker Hastert denouncing the document as a partisan political exercise. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said the same at a news briefing the same day.

Cox rejected the notion that the report was politically motivated. The congressman pointed to the severe decline in the Russian economy over the past decade, and said the Clinton administration did little to help. In particular, he cited the decline in Russia's health care. He noted that most medicines -- imported into Russia from the West -- are too expensive for Russians and therefore are unavailable. This, he said, contributes to a deathrate in Russia that exceeds the country's birthrate.

"These are horrible, bad facts that are not Democratic or Republican problems, they're American problems that we hope to attend to. And as the majority party in Congress, we have a policy that we are putting forward here."

Christopher Arterton is dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. He says he has no doubt that the congressional report is political.

"It sounds to me like the timing of this particular document is -- people certainly have an eye on the electoral clock."

But Arterton stressed in an RFE/RL interview that the Democrats' reaction -- given before they had even read the report -- was equally politically motivated.

"Of course the effort by partisans on the other side to say that this is pure politics is an effort to undercut the integrity of the report, or the legitimacy or the credibility of the report, and it in itself is a partisan act."

Arterton said it is not always possible to draw a line between governing and running for office. He says members of Congress clearly have a right to point out what they honestly believe are the errors of their political opponents -- even if they run the risk of being accused of practicing partisanship.

But that, Arterton added, is the very nature of a democracy, and it is up to the people to decide which politicians are acting in good faith.