Pesky problems follow Gore at meeting in Bor Vice president pursues answers on Mir, religion in rainy Russian woods

September 23, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DOMODEDOVO, Russia -- Poor Vice President Al Gore. He made his way to a quiet spot in the woods here, far from a Congress shouting about soft money and special prosecutors, and all he got were more problems.

Just before he arrived, the Russian Duma passed a law on religion that infuriated congressmen back home. The law virtually enshrines Russian Orthodoxy as the state religion and places severe restrictions on Protestants and Roman Catholics proselytizing here -- many of them Americans with powerful friends in Congress.

When Gore got here, he discovered that visas were being held up for U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, either because of antipathy toward their work on Russian soil or because of a particularly obstinate bureaucracy.

Then the sky began falling. He was supposed to find out, with the help of the head of NASA, whether the Mir space station was safe for American astronauts. Just then, the Mir main computer went out for the third time in three days.

Bad timing.

Gore came to this peaceful place an hour and a half south of Moscow for the ninth meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, established by President Clinton and President Boris N. Yeltsin after their 1993 Vancouver summit. Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin were put in charge of the group.

It was originally intended to negotiate the details of high-level policy decisions regarding taxes, technology and defense conversion issues. But it soon came to serve as the body that would try to keep general relations from exploding.

Gore is also trying to find out whether reports are true that Russian defense plants are helping Iran build ballistic missiles. His job is to make it clear that states such as Iran, regarded as menacing in the United States, should not be able to acquire the kind of technology that could be used for nuclear weapons.

All these questions and more were being discussed behind closed doors, into the night. Today, Chernomyrdin is expected to give a news conference and discuss any resolutions to the concerns the two sides have about each other.

But yesterday, no answers were clear. It was cold and rainy.

And there was Gore, sitting in Bor.

Bor, which means pine woods, is the name of the government house of rest here.

"I'd like to thank you all very much for coming out to talk with Gore at Bor," the vice president told American reporters gathered in the house of rest's library. His aides, who had valiantly and continuously referred to the complex as Pine Trees, cringed at the use of the word Bor in the same breath as Gore.

"I tried to shield you from that, Mr. Vice President," one said.

"I figured I'd leap first," Gore said.

That was his last leap yesterday. He then became cautious.

What would the Russian government do about the religion bill approved by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament?

"I've tried very hard to explain exactly why we Americans feel so strongly about this," Gore said. And American experts were evaluating it to determine if it was by any chance less onerous for American missionaries than it appeared.

Gore sounded sympathetic to Chernomyrdin, who has a recalcitrant Duma to deal with.

"Yes," he said, "We frequently talk about the Duma -- and about Congress. But he's got it tougher than President Clinton and I do."

Gore also sidestepped questions about Russia's relationship with Iran, and whether it was exporting dangerous technology there.

"We've spent a considerable time discussing Iran," he said. "We've agreed to share information and work closely to prevent Russian missile technology from reaching Iran or any other rogue state."

On the Peace Corps issue, he said Chernomyrdin told him that the visas were denied because Russian law requires an organization to sponsor any visa applicants, and the organization that sponsored the Peace Corps had quietly died in a bureaucratic shuffle.

"The prime minister said it would be solved," he said. "We're going to follow up on it."

As his answers wore on, it began to appear that he might return to congressional scrutiny on fund raising with a new perspective.

He mentioned perspective several times, as if he understood the political problems that were driving the Russians to cause the Americans problems.

Apparently, the Russians have come to admire this approach.

In a briefing last week, Nikolai Drozdov, the executive director of Russia's part of the commission, said the Russians expected the work of the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission to have ramifications well into the next millennium.

Gore should be pleased with Drozdov's perspective. He said Gore is sure to be the Democratic Party's choice to run for president in 2000.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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