President Clinton urged an end to the violence in Chechnya today, but said Moscow's bloody effort to subdue the breakaway region has not diminished his support for friendly relations with Russia.
"It would be a terrible mistake to react reflexively to the ups and downs that Russia is experiencing and was bound to experience all along ... as it undergoes a historic transformation," Clinton told a group of central and Eastern European business and government leaders here.
The war in Chechnya, "terrible though it is, has not changed the nature of our interest," said Clinton, calling for "continued American support for reform in Russia."
"But the violence must end," Clinton said. "I call again on all the parties to stop spilling blood and start making peace."
Administration officials in recent weeks have been laboring to thread a small needle with respect to the Chechen crisis. State Department officials have acknowledged that the Russians have violated international accords and have needlessly killed civilians with a badly executed yet brutal military action. But the administration has not wavered from its view that President Boris Yeltsin remains the best hope for keeping Russia on a path toward democratic reform.
The Cleveland remarks were the most extensive from Clinton on Chechnya in recent weeks -- during which Russian troops have assaulted the center of the regional capital of Grozny -- although subordinates in the administration had staked out similar positions.
Clinton said he was encouraged by proposals for political settlements offered by the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Those proposals deserve to be heard and embraced," Clinton said.
While the costly campaign to bring Chechnya to heel grows daily more unpopular within Russia, the president was unambivalent in reiterating the U.S. view that Yeltsin is correct that heavily Muslim Chechnya belongs to Russia and should not be allowed to go its own way.
"Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation and we support the territorial integrity of Russia," Clinton said, "just as we support the territorial integrity of all its neighbors."
In the same speech, Clinton fired back at critics of the deal aimed at curtailing North Korea's nuclear program, which was reached last fall by administration negotiators. On Thursday, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, testifying on Capitol Hill, charged the administration with attempting to appease untrustworthy North Korean leaders with a $4 billion "carrots only" deal that does not have any "sticks."
Clinton did not mention Baker by name. But he said the administration's "patient but hard-headed diplomacy" produced a deal that "stops North Korea's nuclear program in its tracks," and added that "no critic has come up with an alternative that isn't either unfeasible or foolhardy."
The conference in Cleveland, which has a large ethnic population from central and Eastern Europe, was designed to put Europeans in contact with U.S. firms eager to invest in emerging free-market economies there.
Some participants groused afterward that it was peculiar for the president to devote so much attention to Chechnya rather than to the war in Bosnia -- a crisis of far greater interest to those in attendance.
But a senior administration official said Clinton has stated his views on the Balkans many times, and they had little to do with the conference's goal of promoting trade. Neither does Chechnya, the official said, adding that Clinton's speech was simply the most convenient opportunity to be heard on this subject.
After the conference, an opening in Clinton's schedule gave him a chance take in an impromptu high-fat lunch at Sokolowski's University Inn, a Cleveland cafeteria.
Clinton dined with Sokolowski's regulars and partook of kielbasa, mashed potatoes, potato soup and an apple dumpling. It was a substantial mound of food, Clinton acknowledged, before adding, "But I ran today."
CAPTION: The president called for an end to violence in Chechnya in a speech to a trade conference on central and Eastern Europe held in Cleveland.