WASHINGTON — 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.