Russia Today
Clinton and Putin off to 'good start'

WASHINGTON, Jan 2, 2000 -- (Reuters) President Bill Clinton told Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call on Saturday that U.S.-Russia relations under Putin's leadership were "off to a good start," the White House said.

During a 10-minute conversation, both leaders acknowledged differences over Russia's military offensive in Chechnya and other issues, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.

Putin also reaffirmed a commitment to democracy in Russia, Lockhart said.

The two leaders spoke Saturday for the first time since Russian President Boris Yeltsin surprised the world on Friday by resigning and handing over power to Putin. Yeltsin vowed afterward that Russia would remain on a path of democracy and market reform.

"The president (Clinton) said that he thought that - given Yeltsin's statement yesterday - that they were off to a good start and this was encouraging for the future of democracy in Russia," Lockhart said.

"The president reaffirmed his commitment to the partnership between the United States and Russia (and) said that obviously there were issues where we disagree and have concerns, in particular Chechnya."

But Clinton told Putin the two countries have much in common, Lockhart said, "and he reaffirmed his willingness to continue to work to build strong relations and build a strong relationship with the acting president."

Putin also mentioned policy disagreements, Lockhart said.

But he quoted Putin as saying the two leaders had had "good meetings" in the past and that they were always together on what Putin called the "core points."

"He reaffirmed his commitment to the core value of democracy," Lockhart said. "He said the most important thing here is that we develop good relations between the U.S. and Russia because that's good for both of our peoples."

Clinton has met Putin twice since Yeltsin promoted Putin to Prime Minister in August. Yeltsin's resignation solidified Putin's hold on front-runner status ahead of presidential elections scheduled for March 26.

At their last encounter, in Oslo in November, Clinton and Putin sparred over Chechnya and U.S. aims to amend a 1972 treaty banning missile defense systems - issues that remain sources of tension in the U.S.-Russia relations. Putin yielded little ground.

U.S. officials describe the new Russian leader with words such as "serious," "studied" and "in command."

Earlier on Saturday, Putin underscored his commitment to Russia's Chechnya policy by paying an unexpected morale-boosting visit to Russian troops in Chechnya.

Putin gave soldiers hunting knives and told them their main objective was to keep the Russian Federation intact.

Lockhart said Putin and Clinton had no specific discussion regarding an early meeting between them, but they both said they looked forward to getting together and staying in touch.

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