US, Russian Leaders Try to Calm Jitters
Officials insist the reformist parties will have a strong, balancing presence in parliament
SENIOR US and Russian officials joined hands yesterday to try to reassure the world that fascism was not about to engulf this vast land following the elections last Sunday.
Visiting US Vice President Al Gore Jr. and Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin insisted at a joint press conference yesterday that the Communists and extreme nationalists, despite their strong showing, would not be able to dictate Russian policy. The two men were eager to calm jitters caused by the remarks of extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party emerged as the largest vote-getter in the election.
``It is not the case that fascists and communists have taken over Russia or its new parliament,'' Mr. Gore said. He cited the latest numbers which purport to show that reformists parties will have a strong, balancing presence in the parliament, including a large number of independents elected.
Mr. Chernomyrdin warned against ``hasty conclusions, especially those based mostly on emotions.'' When the new parliament is in place, he said, ``and we define the lineup of forces ... I'm sure we'll be able to sort out everything.'' The Russian premier, who seems likely to retain his post, pledged that the election result ``is not going to affect in any way our relations with the United States.''
Gore, echoing statements made earlier this week by President Clinton, argued that the nearly one in four Russian voters who cast their ballots for Mr. Zhirinovsky had been expressing frustrations over the collapse in living standards associated with economic reforms rather than endorsing his extremist views.
``It is simply not true that all or even most of the people who voted for Mr. Zhirinovsky's party were voting for fascism,'' Gore said.
The attempt to calm fears is understandable given the huge stake both governments now have in their relationship, underlined by an extensive set of agreements signed yesterday by Gore and Chernomyrdin on everything from joint space exploration to defense conversion. Mr. Clinton is due to arrive here on January 12, a day after the new parliament opens, a visit now far more politically perilous than it was before the Dec. 12 vote.
So it was not surprising that both Gore and Chernomyrdin also stressed the continuity of reform policies by the government of President Boris Yeltsin, now buoyed by passage of a new Constitution which gives the president considerable powers over those of the parliament. Passage of the Constitution ensures that ``Russia will remain on a democratic path,'' Chernomyrdin argued.
``Yeltsin and his government are up to the challenge of working with the new parliament,'' Gore said. ``I found the Russian leadership in a positive, determined, and confident mood. They are committed to moving ahead with democratic and economic reforms.''
A US official accompanying the vice president reported that in his private conversation with Mr. Yeltsin on Wednesday, the Russian leader offered his own conclusion on the election results by saying that he needs to sell his policies more effectively to the people.
US officials are laying stress on seat numbers, also being pushed by Russian government officials, that show Russia's Choice, the leading reform group, with the largest single bloc in the 450-State Duma, the lower house of the new parliament. These new numbers are based not only on the half of the seats awarded proportionally on the basis of votes for parties, which Zhirinovsky clearly won, but on the half won through single-seat districts where Zhirinovsky's candidates, largely unknown people, did far less well.
But even the most optimistic version of those results, clearly leaked by government circles through the Interfax news agency and awarding a large number of independents to the reform column, adds up to only 152 seats for pro-reform parties, far short of a majority.
And the number of independents put in the Russia's Choice column is unconfirmed. ``I just don't know where they get their numbers from,'' comments Mikhail Schneider, an official with Russia's Choice, ``and I am the person who is in charge of summing up the results.''
Those figures show that the Communist Party and its close allies, the Agrarian Party and Women of Russia (both largely composed of former Communists), actually command the largest bloc with 143 votes. If they ally with Zhirinovsky's party, they fall only a few votes short of a clear majority of the State Duma.
On key economic reform issues, such as privatization and government support for state-run industry and collective agriculture, the centrist parties, with about 43 seats, are on record as opposing the government's policies.
Finally, unity among the four pro-reform parties is barely existent. The second-largest reform party, led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky, has refused entreaties to join Russia's Choice in an open ``antifascist coalition'' opposing Zhirinovsky.