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Bill Would Let Russia Work Off Debt
November 14, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) - Legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate committee would let Russia reduce its $3.5 billion debt to the United States by working to limit proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

The proposal can ``generate some benefit to us and ease Russia's financial situation,'' said Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The debt swap idea, developed by Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is part of a foreign security aid measure that won unanimous approval.

Separately, the committee approved, by voice vote, two anti-terrorism treaties adopted by the U.N. General Assembly long before the Sept. 11 attacks.

They are ``critical to the efforts of the United States to prevent, deter and combat terrorist acts,'' Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, told a House Judiciary panel Wednesday that is considering new criminal laws to implement the treaties.

The Senate bill includes additional money for programs that provide international military training and pay for arms for allies. But unlike House legislation approved in May, the Senate also measure offers the debt swap for Russia; it could be in the final bill that emerges from negotiations between the House and Senate.

Under the swap, Russia would propose actions to destroy, secure or prevent the spread of its weapons of mass destruction, many of which are vulnerable to theft or illicit sale. The U.S. president would have to sign off on it before the money Russia spends is deducted from its debt, Biden said.

The effort would be in addition to the approximately $1 billion a year the United States spends to help Russia secure or destroy such weapons, and find legitimate work for former Soviet nuclear and other weapons scientists.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the committee's top Republican, insisted on a provision requiring the president to certify that Russia was ``making substantial progress'' in impeding the transfer of weapons and material to countries that commit or foster terrorism, such as Iran.

Biden said Russia's arms sales to Iran result largely from its need for hard currency to pay foreign debts of some $30 billion.

He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin told congressional leaders Tuesday that he realizes any weapon of mass destruction gained by its neighbors is far more likely to strike Russia than New York City.

Russia is facing a large payment on its debt in 2003. If it cannot pay, it will fall afoul of many international organizations' financial aid requirements, Biden said.

The debt swap plan does not extend to other former Soviet states because Russia assumed the entire Soviet debt, a decision Putin decried Tuesday, Biden said.

A second provision Helms pushed would allow Russia to use as much as 10 percent of the debt swap to promote a free media in Russia.

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