After summit, Clinton chats with Russian people


MOSCOW - They showed the beginning of the official summit on the news last night - two presidents, each with the requisite entourage of advisers and translators and note-takers and secretaries of state, purposefully striding into the gilded and heavily embossed czarist splendor of a Kremlin hall, preparing to get nowhere on nuclear missile defense systems.

The other summit started several hours later, after President Clinton complimented President Vladimir V. Putin on the clarity of their disagreement and said farewell. Clinton was driven to a nondescript Moscow building. A man with a head of long, anarchic hair sat Clinton down at a plain table in front of a large bull's-eye. The Russian people were ready to ask questions not normally included on meeting agendas.

"What kind of toothpaste do you and your family use?" one man demanded, sending his question by Internet from Khanty-Mansisk in deepest Siberia.

That question was destined to go unasked and unanswered. Aleksei Venediktov, the man with the wild hair and news director of Ekho Moskvy radio, skipped past it as he answered phone calls and waded through hundreds of questions sent to the station's Web site:

Sitting with Clinton in front of the station's logo - the bull's-eye - he passed along one of the questions about the prospects for Hillary Rodham Clinton's political career.

"Are you ready to return to the White House as a husband of the president, being sort of the first mister?"

Clinton laughed loudly and said, "Who knows what will happen?" - after Vice President Al Gore wins his two terms.

Many of the questions were personal and lighthearted. "Can you drive a car?" "What do you like to play best on the saxophone?" "When did you last have cash in your hands?" "How did you earn your first dollar?" (Cutting lawns, age 9.)

Others touched on the substance of the summit. Some showed antagonism, others admiration, and many of them revealed a devastating loss of confidence.

Their questions resonated with a sense of being diminished, and an accompanying fear that the West would exploit that weakness. One caller asked if the United States regarded Russia as a Third World country.

"No, no," Clinton said. "Russia was badly hurt by the recent economic crisis and by some problems in the transition from a command and control, Communist economy to a market economy. But it is a country with a vast and impressive array of science and technology achievements, incredibly well-educated people, and the capacity, I believe, to see a big growth in per capita income very quickly."

Freedom of the press provided another dark undercurrent to the questioning. Toward the end of 1998, officials tried to close Ekho Moskvy for fire code violations.

Venediktov managed to fight off the attempt, which he called a pretext to silence the station. Last month, the offices of Media-Most, which owns Ekho Moskvy and the independent television channel NTV, were raided by masked tax police wielding submachine guns. Media-Most said that, too, was an attempt at muzzling a free press.

"Have you ever had a desire to shake a journalist real strong?" Venediktov asked. "And if you've had such feelings, how did you manage to control them?"

As Venediktov pressed him, Clinton replied: "I think it's fair to say that no one in modern history in our country has had either more negative press or more painful press than I have, but I still think, on balance, as long as you get to answer, the people have a chance to get it right."

No questions came up on the air about Chechnya, a major issue in Russia's relations with the West. Although human rights organizations have offered extensive documentation of rapes and executions carried out by Russians in their prosecution of the war, Russia has consistently denied such charges, insisting that it is conducting an anti-terrorist operation.

And despite much talk here of a rising anti-Americanism, the most common complaint against the United States was the difficulty of getting a U.S. visa, even for tourists eager to see America.

"Why are you so afraid of my daughter Natasha?" asked Vladimir Blenoi of Moscow. "Why won't you give her a visa?"

Russian delegates to an Alcoholics Anonymous convention in Minneapolis complained that they were turned away as untrustworthy.

Clinton never got to the visa questions. It was time to go. But off in cyberspace, Sergei from Novosibirsk lingered with his own poignant question.

"How can I get American citizenship?"

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