U.S. & Russian lawmakers meet amid growing tensions
In the beginning, it was all smiles as Russian and U.S. Foreign Affairs Committees met for a ground-breaking first ever public meeting. With both countries facing a wide range of challenges, this session focused on democracy and human rights, frozen conflicts, strategic stability, and economic issues.
“Whether it's stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, cut to or reversing global warming, stopping the spread of disease internationally, or the alleviation of poverty – all of those issues are better served by better cooperation and better communication between Russia and the United States,” stressed Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House.
Despite the initial pleasantries and talks of furthering cooperation, the meeting soon turned into a heated debate as Russian and U.S. lawmakers aired out their differences on the Iranian nuclear issue, the CFE treaty, and Kosovo.
“Russia can either be with Europe and the United States on the basis of the United Nations resolution of a brutal ethnic cleansing at long last being rectified or it can stand on its own,” Congressman Tom Lantos noted.
The current most contentious issue between Russian and the U.S soon reared its head – that of missile defense. The Americans want a European base but Russia has offered to share the use of an early warning radar in Azerbaijan.
“By the assessment of experts the reasoning for this system and specifically a threat form Iran is not convincing. Five, six, seven thousand kilometer radius weapons that could hit Europe from Iran do not exist and the way we see it in the next 15-20 coming years will not happen,” believes Konstantin Kosachev, State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman.
Recent remarks by Congressman Tom Lantos, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee overshadowed the meeting. Raising eyebrows in Russia, Lantos compared President Vladimir Putin to the cartoon character Popeye the Sailorman. Following the joint hearings, Congressman Lantos backed off from his original statement.
“With energy prices moving from nine dollars to over seventy dollars, there was a sudden infusion of billions of dollars of cash which made the Russian position far more assertive. The analogy I indicated was to the power that you get when you have an influx of billions of dollars of unexpected income,” Tom Lantos stated.
“We regret the fact we have had to deal with interpretations of statements by Mr Lantos and his colleagues ahead of our visit,” Konstantin Kosachev emphasized.
The joint House-Duma session generated a lot of buzz around Washington as a full house of spectators watched lawmakers air out their differences at a time when tensions between Moscow and Washington are at the highest point since the cold war. But despite differences in opinions, in the end lawmakers agreed further dialogue and more such meetings would be beneficial to both countries.
This historic first-ever open inter-parliamentary meeting is very timely for all involved – not only did lawmakers from Russia and the U.S. address their differences but they also laid out the groundwork for the upcoming meeting between President Bush and President Putin in Maine, early next month.