President Boris Yeltsin returned Saturday from his talks with President Clinton in Helsinki to criticism that Russia gained nothing from the meeting and warnings that ratification of the START II strategic arms accord will depend on whether Yeltsin finally lobbies for it.
Clinton said in his radio address in the United States Saturday that the summit is “leading the world away from the nuclear threat.” But Russians said the potential for further progress in reducing strategic nuclear weapons rests on whether Yeltsin can summon the political will to do what he has not yet done - persuade Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, to approve the 4-year-old treaty.
In Helsinki, Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to begin a new round of strategic-arms negotiations, START III, to significantly reduce the levels of nuclear weapons. But their joint statement in Helsinki said those negotiations would begin only after START II takes effect.
The START II nuclear-arms-reduction treaty was signed by Yeltsin and then-President Bush in January 1993 and was ratified by the U.S. Senate last January, but it has made no headway in the Duma, where Communists and nationalists are the largest factions.
Yeltsin told a news conference in Helsinki, “I expect that the State Duma will make a decision based on my advice.” However, backers of the treaty in the Russian parliament have complained for a long time that Yeltsin’s support was practically invisible. They repeated Saturday that unless he makes a concerted effort to overcome opposition in the parliament, the treaty will continue to languish.
“What we will really need is a real promotional campaign. Until now we haven’t had this kind of campaign,” said Vladimir Averchev, a legislator from the centrist Yabloko bloc who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Yeltsin’s long illness and the distractions of the presidential campaign last year have left the strategicarms accord low on parliament’s list of priorities. Even those members who support ratification have bemoaned the lack of support from Yeltsin’s administration in answering critics and explaining how it would affect Russia’s weakened defense forces.
Yeltsin promised last year to get the treaty ratified by April, but then nothing happened. When then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry came to the Duma last October to make a pitch for the treaty, he ran into a buzz saw of opposition.
The START II treaty provides for between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads on each side. The treaty requires dismantling the more-dangerous multi-warhead missiles, which the Soviet Union had deployed. But critics say Russia now cannot afford to build up to the maximum level of single-warhead missiles that would be needed to remain on a par with the United States. The lower levels being discussed for a new treaty - between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads - would be easier for Russia, but the United States is insisting the START II treaty be ratified before new, lower levels are negotiated.
Moreover, the START II treaty has become enmeshed among communists and nationalists in a parliamentary backlash to NATO expansion. Yeltsin and Clinton remained deadlocked over NATO expansion at their talks but agreed to keep working on a NATO-Russia charter. Yeltsin dropped his earlier demand that the charter be legally binding.
“Yeltsin got what he deserved: a complete no,” said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. “The impression was as if he was summoned by the master who listened to him first and then said, ‘The decision has already been taken.’ ” Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in last year’s presidential election, said Yeltsin “got it in the backside from his friend Bill.”
Another Duma member from Yabloko was also critical. Mikhail Yuryev told the Interfax news agency that “the enlarged NATO will be directed against Russia.” He said Russia must “re-examine its foreign-policy priorities” and “start to gradually form … new blocks to oppose NATO,” suggesting Russia look to Iran, India and China as allies who “dislike the West.”