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Russians To Attend GOP Convention

July 20, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! To Philadelphia, that is.

Seeking to improve relations with the Republican Party and learn how to build a political party, emissaries from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political faction plan to attend the GOP nominating convention later this month.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who is arranging the trip, said the group will be led by Boris Gryzlov, head of the pro-government Unity group in the Russian State Duma.

``They want to cover both bases,″ Weldon explained. ``I’ve told the Russians, don’t put all your eggs in either party’s basket.″

``My concern was that Putin was too closely identified with Clinton and, if that continued to happen, Russia could become a whipping boy in the presidential elections,″ he said.

In Moscow, Gryzlov’s office said he plans to leave July 26 for the GOP convention with a small delegation of Unity lawmakers. Gryzlov’s aide, Alexei Sigudkin, declined to discuss the purpose of the trip, except to say ``it was the initiative of the American side.″

The visit is just the latest overture by Putin allies in Russia to reach out to the Republican Party in the midst of the U.S. presidential election.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met in April with presumptive GOP nominee George W. Bush. The two discussed foreign policy and Russia’s concerns about a U.S. missile defense shield that the Texas governor supports.

More recently, a Russian delegation visiting Washington dropped by a fund-raiser for Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

``They were very pleasant, very nice and very interested in the (political) process,″ said Andrew Duke, a spokesman for Hayes.

Such overtures in a presidential election year are common. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin met with Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, striking up a friendship that lasted through most of Clinton’s presidency.

One Russian expert said the visit to Philadelphia is part of Moscow’s effort to better understand Republicans’ view on U.S.-Russia relations amid conflicting messages.

``They are being told by senior Clinton administration officials that Republicans are going to be harsher on Russians than the current administration,″ said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Security in Washington.

``I think they are quite confused about Governor Bush, about the Republican Party and the Republican Congress in particular. And from that standpoint, for the Russians to have a dialogue with the GOP party is a service not only to the party but also to foreign policy,″ Simes said.

Tim Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the Republican National Convention, said about two dozen other foreign delegations will attend the event under an exchange program the GOP has with ``like-minded parties in other nations.″

Democratic officials said they were unaware of any plans for Russians to visit their convention in Los Angeles. Vice President Al Gore is well known in Russia after spearheading much of the Clinton administration’s dealings with the country the past seven years.

Weldon long has held an interest in Russia and meets frequently with the country’s political leaders. He supports a missile defense that Moscow opposes, but also has pushed for U.S. funding for a private mortgage program for Russian citizens.

Weldon said the nascent Unity faction was essentially created to bolster Putin’s presidency and its leaders are interested in learning how to make it a lasting presence on Russia’s often turbulent political landscape.

He said he hopes to introduce Gryzlov’s group to leaders in both parties, from Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor, John F. Street, to GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

``I don’t want it to be partisan,″ he said. ``I want it to be educational, and in so doing further their understanding of democracy.″

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