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U.S., Russia Dismiss Rumors Yeltsin WOn't Attend Meeting

The Washington Post

The U.S. and Russian governments moved Thursday to dismiss speculation that President Boris Yeltsin may not be well enough to attend a previously scheduled summit meeting with President Clinton in March to discuss Western plans to expand the NATO security alliance.

Speaking on the first day of a two-day meeting with Vice President Al Gore, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told reporters that he expected that the U.S.-Russia summit will take place in "late March." The meeting was originally planned for Washington, but U.S. officials said the location may be moved out of deference to Yeltsin's health.

U.S. officials said they viewed the Gore-Chernomyrdin talks as an opportunity to give a new impetus to U.S.-Russian relations, which have been without much direction in the past six months as the result of Yeltsin's heart surgery and prolonged absence from the Kremlin. Vital decisions need to be taken in both Moscow and Washington over the future of the relationship prior to July, when NATO announces its expansion plans.

In Moscow, a Yeltsin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said Russia may be ready to take part in a five-nation summit meeting proposed by France and Germany for April to discuss the plans for NATO enlargement. He said a final decision would depend on "how well prepared" the meeting turned out to be.

With political uncertainty continuing in the Kremlin, the Clinton administration has attached special importance to the twice-yearly meetings between Gore and Chernomyrdin, a stolid Soviet-era bureaucrat who has emerged as Yeltsin's favored heir apparent.

U.S. officials make little secret of the fact that they regard the 59-year-old prime minister as the best bet for providing Russia with a stable political transition, in the event that Yeltsin fails to complete his five-year-term as president. Officially, Washington has kept its distance from the man who has emerged as the de-facto leader of the Russian opposition, Gen. Alexander Lebed, who is viewed by the administration as a potentially dangerous political maverick.

The Clinton administration is urging Russia to radically reform its tax system, ratify a bilateral investment treaty, and negotiate arrangements for sharing oil revenues with Western partners.

U.S. officials are also attempting to resolve several bilateral disputes over the export of Russian technology to countries such as Iran, Cyprus and India. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns Thursday described the Russian record on non-proliferation as "mixed," and urged Moscow not to go ahead with a proposed project to sell nuclear technology to India, given a 1992 embargo of India by the world's leading nuclear suppliers.