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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the State Department" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to State Department officials.

William Joseph Burns, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, led an online discussion regarding the recent G8 Summit hosted by Russia and related issues on July 18, 2006.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia, William Joseph Burns
William Joseph Burns
U.S. Ambassador to Russia

Event Date: July 18, 2006

Luke from East Highland, CA writes:

How will the growing threat of a nuclear-capable, Islamist republic in Iran effect Russia's own war on terrorism against Chechen rebels? Does the Russian government share the same worries about the dissemination of nuclear technology to terrorists as our own government?

Ambassador Burns:

Good question. Nuclear terrorism is an increasing danger for both Russia and the United States. Neither of us have any illusions about what's at stake. If the terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001 -- or those who carried out the brutal attack in Beslan in Russia in September 2004 -- could get their hands on nuclear materials, they'd try to use them against us.

With that in mind, President Bush and President Putin announced in St. Petersburg a couple of days ago a new Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. You can get more details on the State Department's website (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/69016.htm), but basically the idea is to strengthen control of nuclear materials and improve international cooperation. Given our history and our capabilities, the U.S. and Russia have a unique responsibility to show leadership in the nuclear field. We've made a lot of progress over the last decade in tightening security at our own installations, and expect to help Russia complete security upgrades at its nuclear installations by the end of 2008. The danger of nuclear terrorism is not going to go away, and this is one area in which U.S.-Russian partnership can really make a difference.

Arseny from Philadelphia writes:

Are there any efforts underway in the Russian Federation to constructively decrease anti-Semitism and other nationalistic movements?

Ambassador Burns:

Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance are not unique to Russia -- but there's no doubt that they're a serious problem here. Earlier this year, I saw firsthand how dangerous this can become when I visited one of Moscow's main synagogues just after a knife attack on several members of the congregation by a young Russian extremist.

President Putin himself has recognized the importance of this issue. He has spoken out publicly against anti-Semitism and intolerance, most recently at the World Summit of Religious Leaders in Moscow two weeks ago, just before the G-8 leaders met in St. Petersburg. Other senior Russian governmental and religious leaders have also begun to emphasize this theme more actively. In any society, that kind of strong, sustained public leadership is really important to marginalizing, and ultimately defeating, extremism.

Joshua from Claremont, NC writes:

With China becoming a model for expansive economic growth, while having little or no substantial democratic reform, what impact will this have on a Russia struggling to keep up on the global economic stage and become an open, democratic society? In other words, is the Chinese example going to encourage countries to focus on economic growth at the expense of democracy and could this still be a positive development?

Ambassador Burns:

I don't pretend to be an expert on China, but I don't think you can sustain modern economic institutions without eventually building modern political institutions. The same rule of law that is essential to long-term economic growth, and to becoming a part of the global economy, is also the basic underpinning for a democratic political system. That doesn't mean that the process is neat or easy or automatic. It doesn't mean that Americans have all the answers for how other societies figure out how to build modern economic and political institutions. But it does mean that no society can indefinitely ignore the reality that open institutions are the best way to realize the full potential of their citizens.

In Russia, there has been remarkable economic growth over the last few years. While the gap between rich and poor here is still too big, a middle class is beginning to emerge. That is a trend that simply didn't exist when I last lived and worked in Russia ten years ago, and it holds a great deal of promise for the future. The emergence of a tax-paying, politically-engaged middle class is not going to happen overnight in Russia, any more than it does in other societies. It's not a magic cure for all the serious problems that Russia faces today, from corruption to demographic decline. But it's the core constituency for the kind of institutions that protect people's interests in fair economic competition and good governance.

One practical step that President Bush announced in St. Petersburg to support long-term economic modernization in Russia is the creation of the "U.S.-Russian Foundation for Economic Advancement and Rule of Law." The White House web site has more details (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/07/20060715-4.html), but the concept is to take proceeds from the very successful U.S.-Russia Investment Fund, which over the last decade helped dozens of small- and medium-sized Russian companies get off the ground, and use them to endow a foundation which will support business training and entrepreneurial skills among the next generation of Russians. That's a very good investment in Russia's future, as well as our own.

William from Washington, DC writes:

Mr. Ambassador, there is great concern in the NGO community about the increasing rollback of democracy in Russia and laws that detrimentally effect religious communities and NGOs. What is the US doing to support the rights of NGOs and religious communities in Russia? Will the Russian government view the G-8 summit as tacit western approval of these democratic rollback policies?

Ambassador Burns:

You're right to note that there's a lot of concern in the NGO community in Russia about the new NGO law, and especially about how it will be implemented. President Bush heard some of those worries from a group of young Russian civil society leaders with whom he met in St. Petersburg on July 14.

President Putin told another group of NGO representatives at the "Civil G-8" conference in Moscow in early July that that he did not seek to constrain the role of civil society in Russia, and promised to consider amendments to the NGO law if its application became a problem. Like many other governments around the world, the U.S. will keep a careful eye on implementation of the law, and urge that it not be used to make life harder for NGO's who already contribute so much to Russia in areas ranging from education to health care to human rights.

The U.S. also keeps a careful eye on the well-being of religious communities in Russia, just as we do in other parts of the world. A delegation from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom visited Russia for a week just before the G-8 Summit, and met with a wide variety of religious and governmental leaders. The Commission will be making recommendations to the Administration and the Congress about what more we can do to encourage additional respect for religious freedoms in Russia.

Scott from Chelmsford, MA writes:

Mr. Ambassador, I work for a company that exports to customers in Russia. What is the Russian government doing about corruption within the Russian customs agencies? Many times our customers complain that it takes some 'dealings' to get product through the importation process into Russia. What role is our government playing to promote fair trade within Russia?

Ambassador Burns:

Public opinion polls frequently show that corruption is among the biggest concerns on the minds of Russians today. President Putin highlighted the issue in his "state of the nation" address last May, and since then has taken several steps to remove allegedly corrupt officials, including in the Federal Customs Service. Corruption is a serious and growing problem here, much bigger than it was in my last experience in Russia a decade ago. It's going to take a lot of strong leadership and hard work to make a significant dent in the problem.

There are many, many American companies that are doing very well in Russia today. The potential for greater trade and investment is enormous, but corruption can sometimes be a real drag on taking full advantage of those opportunities. We've been conducting a wide range of programs, through the U.S. Customs Service and other U.S. Government agencies, to help Russia improve its anti-corruption efforts. We support training programs for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and other projects aimed at promoting budget transparency and competitive procurement.

One of the most effective ways to promote fair trade with Russia will be finally achieving Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). After intensive negotiations over the last week, before and during the St. Petersburg Summit, we're very close to a bilateral WTO agreement with Russia, one of the last hurdles to Russia's formal accession. Our two lead negotiators have said that we ought to be able to sign a mutually-beneficial bilateral agreement in October. That'll be a very good step for both Russia and the United States.

Reem from New York writes:

How did the situation in the Middle East affect the G8 summit?

Ambassador Burns:

The Middle East occupied a good deal of the discussion among the leaders at the G-8 Summit. Having spent much of my own diplomatic career in that part of the world, I know how central those issues can be. With strong leadership from President Bush and President Putin, the G-8 heads of state were able to hammer out a clear statement outlining what is required to end the crisis in Lebanon, as well as in Gaza. They also talked about practical steps that each of us can take in the coming days, including travel by senior officials to the region, and the importance of a consistent, unified message. In that sense, it was natural for the G-8 leaders to take advantage of the St. Petersburg Summit to develop a coordinated approach on a major, breaking crisis -- even as they dealt with the formal agenda items on energy, health and education.

Lisa from Oklahoma writes:

What exactly does a U.S. Ambassador do? How do they protect, and/or represent our nation's interests to other nations?

Ambassador Burns:

A very good question. I'll try to give a short answer, rather than rattle off a whole long list of responsibilities.

One of the best stories I can recall about the basic mission of an American Ambassador involves former Secretary of State George Shultz. As the story goes, Secretary Shultz used to call new Ambassadors into his office, stand next to a large globe, and ask them to point to "their" country. Invariably, most of the Ambassadors would put their finger on the country in which they were about to start work. Secretary Shultz would smile, put his finger on the United States, and remind them that "their" country, and the focus of their mission, was America and the protection of its interests and values.

Accomplishing that mission involves a lot more than dealing with foreign government officials about policy issues, important as questions like Iran or North Korea or the Middle East are. It increasingly involves contacts across the whole range of another society, through which we try to explain what America is about and better understand what's on the minds of people in other societies, inside and outside governments. I learned quickly during my last tour in Russia in the mid-1990s, that you can't understand this country if you spend all your time in Moscow, anymore than you can understand the United States sitting inside the Beltway in Washington, DC. You have to get out and see people across the vastness of Russia, which spans eleven time zones and a huge variety of circumstances, from the newfound wealth of Moscow to the poverty of villages in Siberia. In an era in which anti-Americanism is on the rise, there's no substitute for engaging directly with people, giving them a chance to vent and criticize, and explaining what America stands for and how we can find common ground.

Another big responsibility for American Ambassadors, especially in this post-September 11 age, is ensuring the safety of Americans overseas. My colleague in Beirut, Jeff Feltman, is doing that right now, and it's always a major concern for any U.S. Ambassador.

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