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Russia: U.S. Ambassador Discusses Bilateral Ties, Press Freedom, Chechnya

Alexander Vershbow assumed his duties as U.S. ambassador to Russia last summer. The 49-year-old Vershbow formerly served as director of the State Department's office of Soviet Union affairs and most recently as the U.S. ambassador to NATO. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Vershbow discussed current U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of last week's Moscow summit.

Moscow, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a question-and-answer session with journalists from RFE/RL's Russian Service, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow was asked to explain how the U.S. now sees bilateral ties following last week's summit meeting in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush.

"The two presidents used a lot of positive language to describe the relationship. Certainly, we see the relationship now based on a very comprehensive partnership, not only against common threats, but [also] in support of common goals and common values. I sometimes say that we're becoming allies. And I think in Rome -- at the NATO-Russia summit -- President Bush described the possibilities for the new NATO-Russia Council as Russia becoming an ally of the alliance. So I think that we should be thinking very optimistically about the direction of the relationship, because more and more our interests coincide, whether it comes to Russia's integration in the world economy or dealing with common security threats," Vershbow said.

Journalists then asked Vershbow to explain what the word "ally" means in Russia's case and how Russia differs from more traditional U.S. allies.

"We have many different allies around the world. I think, in the case of the relationship with our traditional allies like the United Kingdom or France or Germany, there is a long historical record of working together on the basis of shared commitment to democracy, to human rights, which goes beyond the tactical alliance that we had with the Soviet Union during World War II. I think the relationship with Russia has that kind of potential, because Russia is now building a democracy. It is still a work in progress, but more and more our countries are guided by the same values. And I think President Putin has clearly decided -- not on the basis of sentimentality, but on the basis of an analysis of Russia's interests -- that closer alignment with the West makes sense for the long term. So we may not have achieved the level of the alliance that we have with Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder, but over the next five or 10 years, I think that that is really a possibility," Vershbow said.

Asked to give details of what negotiation issues might join more traditional concerns like strategic balance, Vershbow said the agenda is now shifting more and more toward economic and trade relations between the U.S. and Russia.

"What for me is most striking about this summit is that it marked a real shift from the traditional agenda, in which the focus was on strategic military relations, to a new agenda with very different accents. There are still important security problems, but these are now centered on issues like international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, [and] regional conflicts, where Russia and America approach the problem on very similar bases, as partners with shared interests. So we are no longer managing a competition, we are now joining forces to solve common problems. At the same time, the agenda is now shifting, more and more, toward economic and trade relations and increasing contacts between our societies. This is a sign also of normalization. With Russia's economic recovery, Russia is becoming a very attractive market for American companies and Russia is becoming a global player in the international economic system. So I think this summit also identified what would be becoming more and more the central piece of future summits, namely expanding our trading and economic relationship," Vershbow said.

RFE/RL then asked why neither Putin nor Bush used the summit to address issues of concern like press freedom in Russia and the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Journalists asked whether the U.S. stance on the Chechen conflict changed in the wake of 11 September.

"I think that these are still very important issues to the relationship, because if there's going to be a true alliance between our two countries in the future, it does depend on Russia living up to the values of democracy and human rights in deed and not just in word. President Bush did discuss these issues privately with President Putin. Chechnya was discussed in their private session at the Kremlin, and of course there was a discussion of the importance of independent media during a session with representatives from the various dialogues that the two presidents initiated last year. President Bush did, at the Kremlin press conference, also underscore the importance of the free press in building a durable democracy in Russia. So, I think, though the focus of our discussions in these issues is private, he did underscore in public just how integral the free press is to the long-term health of our relationships. We do, of course, see some problems in this area and many U.S. spokesmen, including myself, have voiced concerns about the saga of NTV and later of TV-6, and we're perhaps even more concerned in recent months by the pressure on independent media in the regions," Vershbow said.

"Back to Chechnya, for a second. We're, of course, in a common fight against international terrorism with Russia. But President Bush made it clear that in fighting terrorism one has to do a better job in protecting the rights of the civilian population in Chechnya. We remain concerned about undisciplined behavior by Russian troops and by the lack of accountability for those who have committed abuses against the civilian population. We think that only makes it harder to find a political solution. And a political solution is the only way to get out of the impasse that now exists in Chechnya," Vershbow said.

Vershbow said the United States will continue to talk about the conflict during private talks with the Russians and it will continue to express its points of view about the issue publicly. The U.S., Vershbow added, will try to make clear that, "as a friend of Russia," it would like to see "a solution that ends the violence and preserves the integrity of the Russian Federation."