Clinton ends final visit to Russia on wistful note

Sees lost openings, hope for cooperation

June 06, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - His cadence bore a faint sadness, his phrasing bespoke regret, but Bill Clinton's empathy rose to perfect pitch yesterday as he addressed Russia's parliament for the first - and no doubt last - time as president of the United States of America.

Clinton had just concluded a summit with Vladimir V. Putin, the new Russian president, and he seemed to mourn the missed opportunity of yesterday as intensely as he celebrated the possibility of tomorrow.

"We Americans have to overcome the temptation to think that we have all the answers," Clinton said. "We have to resist the feeling that if only you would see things our way, troubles would go away.

"Russia will not, and indeed should not, choose a course simply because others wish you to do so. You will choose what your interests clearly demand and what your people democratically embrace."

And so, he said, Russia and the United States may have deep differences over America's desire to build a nuclear missile defense system, one of the unresolved issues of the summit. But they can develop the kind of relationship that permits honest work toward agreement.

"I know the kind of relationship that we would both like cannot be built overnight," he told parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma. "Russia's history, like America's, teaches us well that there are no shortcuts to great achievements. But we have laid strong foundations."

Clinton sounded grand themes of destiny and fate. He praised Russia for its accomplishments and sympathized with its failures. And he struck a tone rarely heard in the fractious Duma: reasonableness.

He said some of the heady expectations from his first years in office had slowly deflated, that Russians had steadily grown more suspicious of the United States instead of more trusting. In the past year, relations worsened even further, with Russia furious over the U.S. bombing of Serbia and the United States angry over excessive Russian force in Chechnya.

"I know when trying to come to grips with these problems," he said, "the United States and Russia have faced some of our greatest difficulties in the last few years. I know you disagreed with what I did in Kosovo, and you know that I disagreed with what you did in Chechnya. ...

"My question in Chechnya was an honest one and the question of a friend, and that is whether any war can be won that requires large numbers of civilian casualties and has no political component bringing about a solution."

Clinton acknowledged that many Russians, deeply humiliated by their sudden plunge from the status of superpower, came to see the United States as taking advantage of their embarrassment, bossing them around and urging them toward a democracy that came to offer as much corruption and economic bondage as personal and political freedom.

Yet he reached the right note of empathy and respect, so that even conservative members of the Duma began speaking of America with new affection yesterday.

"I would not presume to tell the people you represent how to weigh the gains of freedom against the pain of economic hardship, corruption, crime," he said. "I know the people of Russia do not have the Russia they were promised in 1991."

But, he said, the democratic foundations in place offer the opportunity to develop the kind of nation Russians want for themselves. And he stressed that it takes work and commitment to achieve a better world.

"We must have a sense of responsibility for the future," Clinton said. "We are not destined to be adversaries. But it is not guaranteed that we will be allies. For us, there is no fate waiting to be revealed, only a future waiting to be created - by the actions we take, the choices we make and the genuine views we have of one another and of our own future."

At the end, the Duma deputies applauded, more than politely, less than wildly enthusiastically. Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the Duma's bad boy, was the exception, shouting at Clinton to stay out of Russia's affairs.

But other deputies appeared genuinely touched by Clinton's 45-minute speech.

"There was a sadness about him," said Nikolai Kharitonov, a member of the conservative Agrarian faction. "I don't think he was apologizing, but he didn't seem to be trying to hide his sadness that our relationship has not gone better. In principle, I liked him as a person."

Kharitonov said the deputies rejected Clinton's criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya.

"Chechnya is our own affair," he said.

And most of them had heard more than enough about nuclear missile defense.

"We are sick and tired of all this talk about missiles," he said. "We've been talking about it for 20 years. And we don't need America to give us chicken legs [The United States exports a great amount of chicken to Russia.]. We need technology and investment."

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