Bush may ease tense Russia

by Kathleen McDermott | 11/14/00 6:00am

If the Russians could sneak their votes into the Palm Beach County ballot boxes, Bush would snag the lead, according to Thomas Graham, Jr.

Graham, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations and a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained to a packed crowd at the Rockefeller Center last night how the Russian press had taken a field day, debating which United States presidential candidate would be more beneficial for Russia.

And the consensus, according to Graham -- Russia has "always liked Republicans better."

Graham had originally planned his speech around "Russian Relations in the Next Administration," "naively believing that there would be a president," by this point, he joked.

But it was not until a last minute question that he answered exactly how Bush and Gore might differ in their policies toward Russia. For the most part, Graham focused on a more general discussion of improving U.S.-Russian relations.

Under the Clinton administration, relations between the two countries have gone from bad to worse, he said.

When Yeltsin came to power, the United States tried to "trade symbolism for substance" in its dealings with Russia, he added.

Continuing to invite Russia to important meetings and treat the country as a major world player, the United States' policy failed to recognize Russia's changing role on the world scene, Graham said.

Such a policy fueled resentment, with many feeling that the U.S. was manipulating Yeltsin and in the process undermining Russia.

And while some had hoped recently-elected President Putin would positively transform the relation, "those hopes were dashed," Graham said.

With the two countries now more dissimilar than ever and struggling to find common items of discussion, "beefing up this agenda" will be the biggest challenge for the new administration, he said.

First on the agenda, according to Graham, is rebuilding the trust between the two great nations. "Forget the pretense that Russia is still a strategic partner" and give the relationship a more honest assessment, Graham said.

In addition, Graham urged foreign policy makers to be conscious of Russia's limits to engage diplomatically. Although facing serious "economic and psychological issues," the country can join the United States in important, smaller projects, such as the international space station or public health efforts to combat AIDS, he said.

Only by beginning with lower expectations, searching for overlapping interests, and recognizing the limits of the changed relationship can the most benefit be derived, Graham said.

And as far as which presidential candidate would travel a smoother road to success, Graham places his bets on Bush.

"Bush won't have to answer to the past eight years," Graham said. Distancing himself from the Clinton administration, Bush could more clearly articulate expectations for a new U.S.-Russia relationship.

Under Bush, Russian domestic policies and governmental organization would be left alone to focus more on broader issues such as human rights, Graham said.

Bush "won't propose programs or tell the Russians how to go about things."

Gore, on the other hand, would face a natural tendency to look back to the efforts of the Clinton administration in Russia, Graham said.

Although Gore could move in the same direction as Bush, he'd face a much harder time and slower process, he added.