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U.S., Russia Cite Discord at Summit
By Ann Devroy and Fred Hiatt
MOSCOW, MAY 10 -- President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin revived efforts to construct a new security system for Europe but made little substantive progress on a range of other disputes during a summit that began and ended today in sober tones.
At a joint news conference concluding their meeting, Clinton claimed progress on what he called "thorny difficulties and complex matters." Both leaders, reporting on three hours of talks with few concrete accomplishments, stressed that the U.S.-Russian relationship is now solid enough to withstand and manage such open disagreement.
Yeltsin agreed that Russia will soon join Clinton's Partnership for Peace security initiative and that the two countries will work out ways to allow the development of "theater defense" anti-missile systems. He said Russia would not sell a gas centrifuge to Iran, in response to U.S. concerns that the equipment would further an alleged Iranian effort to develop nuclear weapons.
But Yeltsin made clear that Russia intends to go through with the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, pending further study of the issue. And the two presidents ended their talks with continuing sharp differences over NATO's expansion to the east and Moscow's continuing effort to crush separatist rebels in the southern region of Chechnya. Sidestepping open confrontation, they agreed to discuss their disagreements further at a meeting of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries in Halifax, Nova Scotia, next month and, Yeltsin said, at the United Nations in the fall.
"Even after the summit, differences on a number of issues have not disappeared," Yeltsin said. "The important thing is that we seek to address these problems while maintaining a balance of interest. . . . "
"We will have differences," said Clinton, adding that the two nations are "managing matters which can be managed in a relationship that is quite good for the world and that has made us all safer."
Today's summit, focusing largely on security issues and little on economic or political reform, reflected the changed climate in U.S.-Russian relations, which have moved from the euphoria of the immediate post-Soviet period to what U.S. officials call a more businesslike, pragmatic tone. Rising nationalism in Russia, mirrored by a growing suspicion in Congress of Russia's intentions, made it difficult for either side to give ground.
In a post-summit speech to students at Moscow State University, Clinton acknowledged the difficulties of the transition from Communist rule -- including crime, corruption and impoverishment -- but also praised the nation's progress and urged Russians not to give in to nationalist extremism or intolerance.
"The answer is not to back away from democracy or to go back to isolation," Clinton said to a generally enthusiastic audience. "The answer is not to go back to defining your national interest in terms that make others less secure. The answer is to stay on this course. . . . In the midst of the pain, I would urge you also to see the promise."
Clinton, in outlining summit accomplishments, announced that Yeltsin has agreed to move ahead on the Partnership for Peace. The military cooperation plan between NATO and its former Warsaw Pact rivals was put forward by the United States 16 months ago as the first step toward a post-Cold War era security system in Europe. Officials said Yeltsin agreed to sign implementing documents by the end of May, an action that will launch separate security talks between Russia and NATO.
But officials said the Russian leader did not budge from his adamant resistance to NATO's expanding to the east to include former Soviet Bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. One official said Yeltsin spent the first 40 minutes of discussion insisting that the United States slow down the process for expanding the alliance.
The two leaders seemed even further apart on Chechnya, a breakaway region 1,000 miles south of Moscow where Russian troops have been waging a brutal offensive since Dec. 11. During their news conference, Yeltsin first compared the rebels Russia is facing in Chechnya to the terrorists who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City and then denied that military activity is taking place there.
"There are no hostilities underway in Chechnya right now," Yeltsin said. At virtually the same time, the press service for Russian forces in Chechnya was reporting that Russian troops had killed 38 Chechen "militants" and destroyed 11 vehicles and nine "fire nests" on Tuesday, with one Russian killed and 11 wounded.
Clinton responded that "the civilian casualties and the prolongation of the fighting have troubled the rest of the world greatly."
Clinton urged Yeltsin, at their meeting and in his subsequent speech, to end the fighting. "Continued fighting in that region can only spill more blood and further erode support for Russia among her neighbors around the world," Clinton told the students.
On another disagreement, Russia's sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, Yeltsin strongly disputed the U.S. contention that Iran seeks the technology to develop nuclear weapons rather than for peaceful energy production. But he agreed to withhold key equipment that was reportedly part of the deal -- gas centrifuges that could enrich spent nuclear fuel to weapons-grade material -- and to submit the reactor sale to further review.
One U.S. official called the review, to be conducted by a commission led by Vice President Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, "at least a small step to ensure this is not a fait accompli." But a spokesman for Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry said work at the Iranian reactor site will continue in the meantime.
The transfer of nuclear technology to Iran, a country termed a terrorist state by the United States, is an explosive issue in Washington. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said last week that nothing less than cancellation of the $1 billion deal will satisfy the president, and many congressional Republicans have said such a sale would be calamitous to U.S.-Russian relations and to the fate of aid to Russia under consideration in Congress.
Yeltsin lectured his news conference audience on U.S. threats over such issues as the deal with Iran. "We're not afraid of threats," Yeltsin said. "We never react to threats."
Clinton and Yeltsin did settle another thorny issue involving Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran. An agreement to limit such transactions to contracts already in the pipeline, and a clear understanding of what those contracts involve, will open the door for Russia to enter an international group established to limit the spread of destabilizing conventional weaponry, U.S. officials said.
Unlike the six prior Clinton-Yeltsin meetings, which allotted considerable time to economic reform issues, officials said today's session was devoted almost entirely to security issues. It offered few of the lighthearted images of past meetings or euphoric statements of new eras of partnership.
Instead, the leaders plugged away at complex pieces of their security agenda. These included contentious arms control issues that have alarmed analysts and some members of Congress, who fear that the treaty structure developed during and since the Soviet era is in danger because of Russian intransigence or a desire to remilitarize. Some Russians, on the other hand, accuse the West of unfairly taking advantage of the country's weakness and impoverishment to impose unfair arms-control limits.
Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, for example, has threatened to abrogate a treaty on conventional-force limits signed by the Soviet Union. The treaty sets limits on the number of tanks, combat aircraft and other equipment European nations can base in certain areas, and Russia maintains that because of new, post-Soviet borders, the treaty cries out for revision.
Yeltsin said today that Clinton had agreed with Russian claims that restrictions on its "flank limits" should be changed. "We believe some modifications are in order," Clinton said. "We are supporting the Russian position there."
But U.S. officials said afterward that Washington still expects Russia to comply with the terms of the treaty, which would require withdrawing several hundred tanks from the northern Caucasus region, including Chechnya, by November. Only next May, at a planned review conference, would the United States be prepared to support Russian calls for modifications, the officials said.
Clinton said the two presidents had reached agreement on another potentially sensitive arms-control issue, the U.S. desire to develop theater missile defense systems. Moscow has charged that such systems could endanger the longstanding Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Without coming to terms on specifics, the two leaders agreed that theater defense could be defined in a way that could keep the ABM treaty intact. Both presidents also agreed to push for ratification of the START II arms-reduction treaty in their respective legislatures, Clinton said.