This week, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin will meet here with Vice President Gore and President Clinton, both of whom are eager to patch up differences with Russia that emerged during the Kosovo war. Although Stepashin is expecting the approval of a new $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and is expecting to receive a warm welcome at the Clinton White House, rumors circulate in Moscow that he will not last. Stepashin, 47, who became prime minister in mid-May, admits he's aware of the rumors, but no one--except perhaps Stepashin's patron, the politically capricious Boris Yeltsin--can predict the Kremlin's next move.
On the eve of his first trip to Washington, Stepashin sat in the Russian "White House" and spoke expansively about his intent to repair the U.S.-Russia relationship during an interview with Newsweek contributing editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth. Excerpts follow:
What do you hope to achieve in your meeting with Vice President Gore?
I had a number of telephone conversations at a difficult time with the vice president during the Kosovo settlement. I had the impression that the vice president and I understood each other, although we were speaking through interpreters.
There are two tasks I hope to accomplish during the visit. The first is to get to know Gore. I believe good personal contact can be helpful in solving difficult questions. Second, we're going to discuss economic matters such as [Russian rocket] launches [of U.S. satellites] and steel quotas. Then we will discuss the reconstruction of Kosovo and Yugoslavia. I would [also] like to find out what the vice president thinks about the ABM and START II [arms control] treaties.
How much damage has Kosovo done to the U.S.-Russia relationship?
No doubt, serious damage has been done. However, I believe that our relationship is stable and can't be shattered even by the war in Yugoslavia. We should draw lessons from Yugoslavia: If we are partners, and we are serious partners, we should respect each others' positions and strive for compromise before military action begins. . . . At the moment, we are at an impasse. We are very concerned with NATO enlargement and expansion.
The administration has linked an increase in the number of Russian launches of U.S. satellites to a cutback in supplies of missile and nuclear technology from Russia to Iran. Has Russia stopped supplying Iran?
Nobody has proved that it is Russia who supplies missile technologies to Iran. . . .
Obviously, the United States has sanctioned companies here, so the United States [must] believe Russian entities continue to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.
The more restrictions that are placed on Russia, the more difficulties there are for investments to come to Russian markets, the more our companies--in order to survive--will seek any outlet to market their goods, even using shady deals.
The trade relationship between the United States and Russia is uneasy. Russia wants to sell more steel in the U.S. market, and America wants more access to Russian markets for aircraft. What solution do you see, and when is Russia going to join the WTO [World Trade Organization]?
We shall join the WTO. The only problem is the date of our entry. I've mentioned already the problem of steel exports. I should not hide [the fact] that U.S. restrictions dealt a serious blow to our steel market. I would like to note that Vice President [Gore] has supported me. But I understand that the president and vice president must take Congress and the steel lobby into account now that elections are coming up. I also want to raise the issue of the aerospace industry--I am going to Seattle to visit Boeing and will discuss cooperation.
Rumors are swirling that you won't last long as prime minister. Is there any truth to the reports? Do you plan to be a presidential candidate? Who is seeking to undermine you?
If I give you an open and frank answer, I would be sacked immediately. A joke. Of course, there are such rumors, and in a situation of political instability with elections coming up, such rumors are inevitable. I don't pay much attention because I have been in politics for 10 years and have learned to ignore such rumors. What is most important is how one's colleagues and family feel. . . .
As for the presidential election, there are many candidates for the job, but the balance of forces will be clear after the elections to the parliament in December. At that time, we shall probably know who the president will support. If you want to ask who I will vote for, I will not cite a name but I will cite two criteria: First, it must be a person who will not lead us backward and second, I would not want this person to be of pension age.
Will you be a candidate yourself?
It is too early to say now.
Would you rule out being a candidate for the presidency?
I'm 47 years old and I have no plans to retire.
Did the military or the president order the Russian troops to march into the airport at Pristina [Kosovo] without NATO's knowledge? The foreign minister said he was unaware of the action. Were you?
I believe the episode can be explained by a lack of coordination between our military and NATO.
It's reported that General [Anatoly] Kvashnin [chief of the Russian general staff] was in charge that night.
Kvashnin is a very disciplined general and would never make a decision like that himself.
Without the president or yourself ordering it?
I am the prime minister, not commander of the armed forces. Of course, the president is the commander in chief.
President Yeltsin has spoken openly about banning the Communist Party. What do you think of the idea?
I would take a different approach to this question. It's not a matter of banning or not banning the Communist Party. It is a question of any big political party like the Communists complying with the constitution. [They must not] talk about toppling the government or fan ethnic tensions by their electoral rhetoric. This is a serious concern for us. There are other ways to influence political parties--through the Ministry of Justice, the prosecutor's office and the courts. All these levers will be actively used.
I understand that the IMF board will soon grant Russia the loan it has been seeking. Will you be able to meet the general conditions the IMF has laid down for Russia?
Mostly, the loan we are getting from the IMF will be used to repay our debt to the organization [the IMF]. On the other hand, the World Bank will provide additional loans for the reconstruction of the coal industry and for other programs.
Only one year after [last August's] default, we've already gotten real results in industry and agriculture, despite the drought. [We've made progress] in restructuring the banking system and in containing inflation. I am fully convinced that between now and the end of next year, Russia will not see any major economic and financial shocks because of the work of my government. Our primary task for the long-term is developing a free and attractive investment climate.
What about the ongoing war in Chechnya? Are you trying to contain the war from spilling over into Dagestan? Do you see a threat to Russia?
We are trying to stop the strife from going not only to Dagestan, but also to the Stavropol region. We are working every day on this.
The most important thing is to improve economic conditions there. There are many Chechens without work or shelter. We should make sure that gangsters do not use the idea of independence as a cover for their crimes.
The problem of Chechnya's constitutional status [it is part of the Russian federation, though effectively independent] is complicated. We are now preparing a meeting between Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and President Yeltsin. I am personally engaged in this.
You know I fought in Chechnya. . . . NATO partially repeated our bitter experience when they conducted airstrikes against Yugoslavia and Kosovo. I believe it is an unproductive idea to defend human rights with weapons.
People say that corruption and organized crime are huge problems in this country. What can you do about it?
I won't deny that there is a problem with corruption and organized crime in Russia. However, it is exaggerated by the media and the politicians. The most important problem is economic crime. A special department has been set up in the Interior Ministry to fight money laundering. And we have very good relations with the American law enforcement agencies including the FBI and [FBI Director] Louis Freeh. We cooperate on drug smuggling and organized crime.
In conclusion, I would like to convey my deep condolences to the Kennedy family. Russians are very nostalgic about the Kennedys. And we are very sorry that such a good young man died so senselessly.