Until recently, Vice President Al Gore yearned to draw attention to his close working relationship with then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin--evidence, aides said, that Gore had the foreign policy stature to be president.
So the vice president’s office issued glossy reports on the work of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. He held briefings for reporters and members of Congress (few attended). He even persuaded Chernomyrdin, a burly ex-Soviet bureaucrat, to join him on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show.”
No longer. With the collapse of Russia’s economy, the souring of U.S.-Russian relations--and the tightening of the presidential campaign--the commission has become a political liability.
Republicans in Congress are demanding to know whether Gore made “secret deals” to let Russia sell submarines and other advanced weapons to Iran. GOP candidate George W. Bush charges that under Gore, foreign aid money “ended up in Viktor Chernomyrdin’s pocket.” And Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) accuses Gore of pressuring the CIA to suppress evidence that Chernomyrdin was corrupt.
The election-season charges are all debatable--and Democrats, not surprisingly, reject them heatedly. Gore’s 1995 “secret deal” on arms sales, they point out, was publicly announced at the time (although some details were not). The charges against Chernomyrdin have never been proven; there’s no evidence that the Russian skimmed any foreign aid funds.
Still, the controversies have allowed Republicans to turn the tables on Gore and challenge the vice president on foreign policy, his supposed strong suit.
“It might be a reason why some people might want to reconsider whether or not he has the kind of experience” necessary for the job, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney said on the campaign trail Saturday.
This week, Republicans in both the House and Senate are holding hearings to press the Clinton administration for more details of Gore’s dealings with Chernomyrdin--and to accuse the vice president of mismanaging Russia policy.
The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, launched in 1993, was meant to spur cooperation on a long list of issues, from outer space to public health. As those projects progressed, the theory went, the overall relationship would improve.
The commission met 10 times from 1993 to 1998 and produced a blizzard of agreements in business, science, energy, the environment and other areas. As Russia’s then-president, Boris N. Yeltsin, became more erratic, the Clinton administration relied on Chernomyrdin, his unimaginative but steady prime minister, as a key partner.
But in 1998, Yeltsin fired Chernomyrdin and Russia’s economy tanked, despite billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund. U.S.-Russian relations went into a chill that has yet to lift.
At his debate with Gore in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11, Bush summarized the Clinton administration’s efforts to aid Russia’s economic transformation this way: “We went into Russia, we said, ‘Here’s some IMF money,’ and it ended up in Viktor Chernomyrdin’s pocket and others’. And yet we played like there was reform.”
Bush’s charge against Chernomyrdin was, by most accounts, wide of the mark. Russians have long charged that Chernomyrdin walked away with millions in 1989 when, as minister of natural gas, he turned his ministry into a partly private company, Gazprom. But those charges have never been proven. And the IMF says it has no evidence that any of its loans to Russia were diverted by Chernomyrdin or anyone else.
Moscow Challenge on Accusations
In Moscow, Chernomyrdin challenged Bush to prove the charges: “I think Mr. Bush Jr. should be getting ready for a court hearing on the issue.” When a television interviewer asked Bush whether he had any evidence that the Russian had taken IMF money, the governor attempted a partial climb-down: “It might not have been; it might have been another [program’s] aid.”
Meanwhile, a Republican-led House committee asked the CIA about another controversy involving Gore and Chernomyrdin: Did the vice president scrawl a barnyard epithet on the cover of an intelligence report?
According to several former CIA officials, Gore reacted angrily to a 1995 agency report that compiled allegations that Chernomyrdin had amassed a fortune in ill-gotten funds. The result, they charged, was a “chilling effect” that discouraged agency analysts from looking into the issue further.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the agency investigated the episode, but it could find no one who witnessed it firsthand.
“I think this is an urban legend,” he said. “To imply that they’ve pulled their punches because of one scatological note is absurd.”
The controversy over Gore’s 1995 agreement with Chernomyrdin on Russian arms sales to Iran may get more public attention.
The deal began with a public promise from Yeltsin in 1994 to phase out Russia’s lucrative arms sales to Iran, a concession the administration had been seeking.
U.S. and Russian officials worked out a specific deal: Russia would make no new arms deals with Iran, but it would be allowed several years to deliver weapons that had already been sold, including T-72 tanks and a diesel-powered submarine.
In June 1995, Gore and Chernomyrdin signed a written agreement that listed the weapons Russia would be allowed to deliver, set a deadline of Dec. 31, 1999, and pledged that the administration would not invoke sanctions against Moscow over the sales.
A 1992 law imposes sanctions against any country that delivers advanced arms to Iran if the president determines that the weapons are “destabilizing.” The law was written by then-Sen. Gore of Tennessee and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).
The fact of the agreement wasn’t secret. Gore mentioned it at a news conference after his meeting with Chernomyrdin. A front page story in The Times described the deal, quoting an official saying the sales would end “in the next few years.”
Administration officials briefed the House International Affairs Committee on the details and mentioned the deal in several Senate hearings.
But the administration apparently did not tell Congress--at least, not explicitly--that Gore had promised not to invoke sanctions against the remaining sales.
“The law requires them to use the sanctions,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has scheduled a hearing on the issue on Wednesday. “It may be their opinion that they don’t want to use the sanctions, but the law requires it.”
Brownback, who has long advocated the use of sanctions against Russia, added: “This is not a law the vice president was ignorant of. It was his own law.”
But administration officials argue that the sanctions law wasn’t triggered by the deal--because the Defense Department said the weapons would not destabilize the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf.
“The stuff they were exporting did not qualify as advanced weaponry under the law,” said Leon Fuerth, Gore’s national security advisor.
Indeed, Fuerth argued, using sanctions against Russia--which would have meant cutting off all U.S. aid and working to block loans from the IMF and other international institutions--would have been disastrous.
“We feared that if we were to invoke sanctions, we would increase the possibility that the Yeltsin era would end with the restoration of Communist Party rule or an extreme nationalist like [Vladimir] Zhirinovksy,” he said.
Some Justice on Both Sides of Debate
The agreement has already been broken--by the Russians, who didn’t meet the 1999 deadline but announced publicly that they intended to complete the remaining deliveries anyway.
“That’s what happens when the administration tells the Russians up front that it won’t impose sanctions,” said a House Republican staff member. “There’s no will to impose sanctions, and the Russians know it.”
A nonpartisan expert, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there was some justice on both sides of the debate.
“The administration was trying to reach an accommodation with Russia on an issue where they simply don’t agree. It was a compromise,” he said. “The sale had already been made. Do you really expect the Russians to call it off? No. So you grandfather in the existing deal and hope you can stop any further deals.
“Now, the administration appears to have overestimated the Russians’ willingness to comply. But imposing sanctions on Russia probably would not have served our larger interests. To use a Russian saying, it would be picking up a rock only to drop it on your own foot.”
Another scholar, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration is right about the military effect of the weapons.
“The violations of U.S. and Russian agreements have been minor, have had little military meaning, and been more technical than substantive,” he wrote in a report issued Friday.
Cordesman, who was an advisor to McCain when the 1992 Gore-McCain law was passed, added: “Political campaigns are a poor time to debate complex military issues.”
Times staff writer Robyn Dixon, in Moscow, contributed to this story.