Russian President Boris Yeltsin phoned President Clinton yesterday to deny involvement in corruption and to complain that people with "political motivations" were exploiting a widening financial scandal to damage the relationship between the two countries, White House officials said.
Yeltsin's assertions of his and his government's innocence came in the wake of new reports that a Swiss prosecutor has documents suggesting that a Kremlin contractor paid tens of thousands of dollars in bills for credit cards in the name of Yeltsin and his two daughters.
Yeltsin initiated the morning call with Clinton, beginning the hour-long session with what White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger called a "lengthy presentation" in which he said allegations of widespread high-level corruption and overseas money-laundering were in part an invention of people with "political motivations in his own country."
As for new allegations that the Russian leader was personally benefiting from suspected bribes, Berger said, "Yeltsin denied those reports."
Other officials familiar with the call said Yeltsin did not mention the case of the Swiss-based contractor specifically but was making a more general point about the political origins of the corruption charges. "In both countries, we are being used for political purposes," said one administration official, paraphrasing Yeltsin's message to Clinton.
After nearly a half-hour, the call between Clinton and his beleaguered Russian counterpart pivoted to arms control and other subjects. But it was a revealing sign that the money-laundering issue would take up so much of the conversation. The issue is daily undermining Yeltsin's government, which once enjoyed a reformist reputation, and threatens to limit Moscow's ability to receive new assistance from international financial bodies. It also is posing problems for Clinton and Vice President Gore, who are being criticized by Republicans for investing too much confidence in Yeltsin and for not being vigilant enough with earlier evidence of official corruption in Moscow.
Briefing reporters, Berger said the problem of financial corruption has been a long-standing issue for the United States in its dealings with Russia. But he portrayed Yeltsin as offering reassuring words to Clinton.
"He indicated that they, the government of Russia, would cooperate with these investigations," Berger said. A delegation of senior Russian law enforcement officials is coming to Washington on Monday to meet with Justice Department officials about the corruption and money-laundering issues.
The question of possible personal involvement by Yeltsin, described in a Washington Post article yesterday on the Swiss investigation, is in some ways peripheral to the other corruption controversies that have shadowed the U.S-Russia relationship in recent weeks. For months, federal prosecutors have been investigating a suspected money-laundering scheme involving billions of dollars in Russian money being funneled through the Bank of New York.
White House officials said they only learned of this probe a couple of weeks ago, after a report in the New York Times. In addition, an inquiry is underway into the misuse of International Monetary Fund money and how the Russian central bank managed its own offshore accounts.
According to U.S. officials, Yeltsin told Clinton that he supported passage of a law to help combat money-laundering. Yeltsin in July vetoed such a bill, but he told Clinton it was because he had concerns that the bill as drafted was unconstitutional and that he hoped to sign a new deal.
While Yeltsin repeatedly voiced his resentment that corruption allegations were being raised by opponents for political reasons, Berger said Clinton responded that "it's very important to deal with these on the merits and cooperate" with investigations.
Official Kremlin descriptions of the call, which Yeltsin requested on Monday, echoed the U.S. reports--with the Russian government accenting the motives of critics and warning that the larger relationship between the United States and Russia was being undermined by the controversies.
Yeltsin was quoted by the Kremlin as telling Clinton that "Russian-American relations should not be held hostage to internal political battles."
Yeltsin also said, according to the Kremlin statement, that "the unleashing of noisy campaigns does not contribute to mutual trust."
The Kremlin did not say if Yeltsin had addressed the allegations that he and his family took bribes from a Swiss construction company.
The two presidents also discussed the strategic arms and anti-ballistic missile treaties. Yeltsin was also reported to have raised the issue of "international terrorism." While details were not provided, this may be a reference to Russian fears that Chechen rebels are receiving aid from Islamic militants around the globe.
According to the Kremlin, Yeltsin told Clinton that a group of Russian law enforcement officials is being sent to the United States "to work interactively with their American counterparts on issues related to a number of publications that have appeared in the U.S. media in recent times."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said earlier in the day that the delegation would be led by the deputy director of the Federal Security Service, Sergei Ivanov, and include the Interior Ministry and tax police representatives.
Correspondent David Hoffman in Moscow contributed to this report.