MOSCOW -- Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, hoping to smooth U.S.-Russian relations in advance of a critical trip to Washington next week, intensified efforts yesterday to win ratification of the stalled START II missile treaty.
The Communist-dominated Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, opened the way Monday to renewed debate on the treaty but set no timetable. In a prime-time television interview, Primakov said ratification of the pact is essential to Russia's long-range security and relations with other countries.
Primakov's message was aimed at securing votes from balky lawmakers. But analysts said he also is seeking to boost his leverage with U.S. officials before departing for Washington next Tuesday in an attempt to secure urgently needed loans from the International Monetary Fund.
"One of the things that Primakov wants to do is to show that he can deliver certain things that the administration finds useful," said Thomas Graham, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The START II treaty, a top priority of the Clinton administration, went into a legislative deep freeze late last year amid fierce anti-American rhetoric after U.S.-led airstrikes against Iraq. Over the last several months, relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated to their lowest point since the Cold War.
But, with nearly all of Russia's political factions unified behind the government's efforts to secure more IMF money, members of the Duma council effectively agreed Monday to allow debate on the pact. A letter from President Boris Yeltsin requesting ratification will restart the process, and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov hinted that the debate could be scheduled later this week.
"The ratification process has moved from dead center," Sergei Prikhodko, a Yeltsin deputy, told Ekho Moskvy radio. There was no guarantee that Duma members would ratify the treaty before Primakov's Washington visit, but, said Prikhodko, "Let's be optimistic."
The treaty, signed by Yeltsin and President George Bush in January 1993, will cut nuclear stockpiles in both countries by half, to about 3,500 warheads on each side by 2007. The treaty has been ratified by the U.S. Senate but has met prolonged resistance in the Duma, where opponents claim it will further erode Russia's military muscle.
Primakov, who has professed his support for the treaty since becoming prime minister six months ago, said in the interview on ORT television that Duma ratification "really will determine the further course of developments in the world arena and the further relations between us and many countries."
He clearly hopes to win ratification before his U.S. trip, which is shaping up as one of his most critical assignments as prime minister. The five-day visit, which will include meetings with Vice President Gore, is aimed at persuading the IMF to unfreeze a loan package of more than $22 billion granted to Russia last summer.
The IMF blocked a $4.3 billion installment after the country plunged into financial crisis after the Aug. 17 devaluation of the ruble.
The willingness of Duma members to reconsider START II underscores the desperation of political leaders as they try to reopen the IMF pipeline. Without the next installment, Russia will default on billions of dollars in foreign debt, including past loans from the IMF, and sink deeper into its financial quagmire.
A victory on START II, said Graham, the Carnegie associate, could enhance Primakov's domestic bargaining power. Though not tied to IMF negotiations, ratification would bolster sagging U.S.-Russia relations, said Graham, "and improve the overall climate in which his request for money will be considered."
Aiming to remove another major irritant in relations with the West and unlock valuable contracts to Russia's hard-strapped nuclear institutes, Russia has offered to curtail nuclear cooperation with Iran if Washington ends sanctions against two leading Russian nuclear research centers, according to the New York Times.
Senior Clinton administration officials said that Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeni Adamov had presented the plan to American officials last week and that the two sides were trying to hammer out an agreement before Primakov's trip.
Russia already is planning to build several nuclear power reactors at Bushire, Iran. While American officials object to that project, they are even more worried that Russia also will provide Iran with heavy water and graphite reactors, which are especially useful in producing plutonium for nuclear bombs.
Those fears led the United States to impose sanctions in January against the two leading research centers: the Scientific Research and Design Institute for Power Technology, also known as Nikiet, and the Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology.
Pub Date: 3/17/99