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CNN Late Edition

Russians Go to Polls to Vote for New President; Pope Departs Holy Land, Message of Peace and Reconciliation Remains

Aired March 26, 2000 - 12:20 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Wherever you are watching from around the world, thanks for joining us, for this special LATE EDITION. We'll get to our guests shortly including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but, first, let's check in with CNN reporters, covering the hour's top stories from around the world.

We begin, here in Moscow, where voters have been casting ballots all day for the presidential elections.

CNN's Steve Harrigan is over at the central election commission headquarters here in Moscow, where they have been counting ballots. Steve?

STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this room was empty for most of the day, an election that many people, accused of being dull and empty has suddenly gotten a touch of excitement. The question now is whether acting Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the 50 percent mark or not. That is the key figure. If he gets 50 percent, he is the president of Russia. If he falls short of 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off three weeks later. Now, if you can take a look over here at the screen, they just brought them down now, but basically they have released some results from Russia's far east. I just want to caution you, that this is just a preliminary result just based on really 7 percent of the vote, but it gives an indication of how things might go for the rest of the night for Mr. Putin.

The election committee says Mr. Putin has 45 percent of the Vote. His nearest competitor, Gennady Zyuganov has 30 percent of the vote. This is a little closer than many people thought it would be. But once again, it is just based on 7 percent of the vote, that vote coming in the far east. Just one more note, some possible trouble for Mr. Putin ahead, in the capital, based again yet on a very small percentage of the vote, it shows liberal reform Gregory Yavlinsky getting a high percentage of the vote, getting 20 percent of the vote. That could cut into Mr. Putin's lead. So basically what we are seeing now really are preliminary results, exit polls are saying both sides, perhaps Mr. Putin will get 50 percent, perhaps he won't. We are getting conflicting data, but basically what up until now has been a dull election, suddenly has gotten a little bit exciting. Wolf?

BLITZER: Steve, if there is a runoff on April 16 between the number one and number two candidates, presumably, that would be Vladimir Putin and the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. What do the polls say in a two-man race like that, what would be the result?

HARRIGAN: In a two-man race it is clear from the polls at this point that Vladimir Putin would be the overwhelming victor in that race. Mr. Zyuganov, a communist, gave Mr. Yeltsin a close battle four years ago, but really his support has declined. Some of the liberals now running have cut into Mr. Putin's votes. A two-man race would definitely favor Vladimir Putin. That would happen three weeks from now. But really Mr. Putin had wanted to win on this first ballot. He wanted a clear mandate from the voters. Many predicted he would get the 50 percent mark. If he fails to get that, it's a real setback for Vladimir Putin. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks, Steve Harrigan, reporting live from Moscow. And of course, as this program continues, indeed as the day here on CNN continues, we'll have the very latest results on the elections here in Russia.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, as we saw on CNN and CNN International, Pope John Paul II has now completed his week-long historic visit to the Middle East.

CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief Walter Rodgers is standing by with an update.

Walter.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf. The last day of the papal pilgrimage, a six-day pilgrimage in the Holy Land was spent at the epicenter of the Middle East conflict. Pope John Paul XI -- John Paul II ending the six days here in Jerusalem, a center -- a city which is of course disputed between Arabs and Israelis.

Now of course the most dramatic moment of the day occurred when the pope went to the Western Wall, the so-called Wailing Wall. There the pope went to apologize again for the sins of Christianity toward the Jews over the last 2,000 years. It seemed a moment of closure and a historic turning point, the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics praying. And the pope himself atoning at this, the holiest site of Judaism.

Unthinkable scenes. Just a few years ago, Pope John Paul II fervently asked forgiveness on behalf of Christians for 2,000 years of Jewish suffering.

Keeping with tradition of course, the pope placed a message in the wall, his hand shaking. The pope's message being, again, asking for forgiveness for the sins of Christianity for the pope.

After that meeting at the Western Wall, the pope -- actually shortly before that meeting at the Western Wall, the pope had another meeting with the mufti of Jerusalem, the chief Muslim authority. That was an encounter between two men, head of the Roman Catholic Church and the leading Islamic cleric here in Jerusalem, the Islamic cleric stating Islam's claim to Jerusalem, saying that for 1,500 years, Islam has been bonded to this city. If this papal pilgrimage had a central theme, it was brotherhood and the fraternity of man. And like the New Testament parable of the sower and the seed, it remains to be seen whether the pope's prayers will fall on stony ground or whether they bear much fruit.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Walter Rodgers, our Jerusalem bureau chief reporting on the pope's visit.

Thanks.

There's important news elsewhere around the world in this day. In Geneva, Switzerland, President Clinton has been meeting with Syria's Hafez al-Assad, trying to jumpstart those Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

CNN's senior White House correspondent John King is in Geneva, and he joins us now.

John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the two presidents and their delegations met for three and a half hours earlier today here in Geneva. They are in a break now. An administration source is telling CNN that during the break President Clinton plans to call the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, to bring him up to speed on the discussions this morning. During that break, some negotiations, or at least discussions, continue. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meeting with her counterpart, the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al- Sharaa. The expectation is that the two presidents and their delegations will get back to the bargaining table a bit later.

Mr. Clinton last saw President Assad at the funeral of King Hussein in early 1999, but they spoke only briefly. It has been five and a half years now since they last sat across from each other at a table. U.S. officials and Israeli officials taking just the fact that Assad agreed to come here as a sign he is ready now to do business in the stalled Israeli peace negotiations.

The issues are quite familiar. Syria wants back all of the Golan Heights territory seized by Israeli in 1967. President Assad also wants Western economic aid.

Israel wants very clear and specific security guarantees if it gives back the Golan Heights, and also of course wants access to the water of the Sea of Galilee.

Because the outlines of a deal are so clear, U.S. officials say the main missing ingredient is simply trust and whether the leaders are prepared to make this deal.

Now U.S. officials telling us they expect no breakthrough here in Geneva, but they do hope that President Assad will return home, Secretary Albright will go to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Barak. They're hoping that within a week or two, an announcement can be made that those talks -- which broke off in January -- can resume. Wolf.

BLITZER: John King, reporting from Geneva, thanks. And of course, while President Clinton has been deeply involved in the negotiations the peace process in the Middle East, he's also keeping one eye on the elections here in Russia, as is secretary of state Madeleine Albright. A short while ago I had a chance to speak with the secretary, she was in Geneva.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (on camera): Madam Secretary, thanks so much for joining us on this special LATE EDITION. First of all, give us please, your assessment of Vladimir Putin.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, he is obviously a very complicated man who has several strands to his background, but as we see him now, he is being very pragmatic, he is dealing with Russia's problems, and we're going to have to watch his actions very closely, and carefully. He's showing that he's interested in some serious economic reforms. He has been open to discussion about arms control and nonproliferation issues, which have major importance to us, but we continue to be very concerned about the campaign in Chechnya. He speaks about it, a lot in terms of the problems of terrorism, which obviously every country has to deal with. But we are concerned about the displaced people and some of the terrible humanitarian consequences of the Chechnya campaign.

BLITZER: Is it your sense, though, that this is a leader of Russia, that the Clinton administration, the United States government, can work with?

ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all let me say that we work with leaders of various countries that have been selected by their people. That is the job of any government. And we will not only work with him but obviously work with other members of the Russian government, and then various other people throughout the system. When I met with Vladimir Putin as acting president, I found him pragmatic, smart, on top of his brief, somebody who is a Russian nationalist, but someone, I think, that we can and must work with.

BLITZER: There's been a lot of attention focused on his KGB background the fact that he was a KGB agent in Germany during the height of the Cold War. Is that an element that Americans and others in the West should be concerned about, that he was overly influenced, perhaps, by that KGB background?

ALBRIGHT: I said one point that we had to kind of stop with psych babble about him. He clearly has background with the KGB, but we have to watch his actions. The Russian people are calling for order, you're there now, and you know that. They feel that they've been through a fairly chaotic situation, in my mind, the question is whether it's order with a small or a capital O.

I think that we have to obviously watch his actions. I'm somewhat concerned about the fact that there has not been access by the press to Chechnya, and some of the issues to do with the media, and with there are concerns, but I think that on the whole, what we see here is a leader who wants to be able to organize Russia in such a way that Russia can play its designated role in the international system. We prefer to have a Russia that we he can work with, that has a sense of responsibility, about how the international system needs to operate and be stabilized.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" in an editorial today says that there is some question about his commitment to democracy noting that he is quote, ambivalent about press freedoms, something that you just raised in the course of your comments. And others here in Moscow are telling me they also wonder how committed Vladimir Putin is to democracy.

In your assessment, how committed is he?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think we're going to have to see, he certainly uses all the right vocabulary and he talks about the importance of having the support of the people. I think it's a mistake to prejudge him. It looks as though he is going to win this election, it's historic that the Russians are having such an election, that there is a transfer of power and a democratic constitutional way that the people of have gone to the polls, that they are expressing their views, and I think that it's very important for the United States to be realistic about Putin and about Russia, but I don't think we should pre-judge him in the way that some of the comments are, I think we've just got to see what his actions are. His words are okay, but we have to watch his actions.

BLITZER: A lot of Russians say they like Vladimir Putin and that his popularity has increased in recent months because of the crack down in Chechnya, what many outsiders here see as a brutal campaign, a devastating campaign with an abuse of human rights in Chechnya. How much of an impact does that policy, the Russian military policy in Chechnya, and we've all seen those devastating pictures, of what's been going on over there, how much of an impact will that have on U.S.-Russian relations?

ALBRIGHT: I think it will have impact, I think the people that I have spoken with, are concerned about the kinds of things that are happening in Chechnya.

You know, Wolf, I you left the president's trip in India in order to come to Geneva to give a speech before the Human Rights Commission. And among the various things that I criticized, that -- throughout the world that we felt were not up to snuff in terms of human rights, was certainly Chechnya. It is very much on our minds. We believe that there have been excesses. We have called for the possibility of international -- an international observer presence there, the international Red Cross, the Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, should be able to go in. There should be investigations and transparency there.

So clearly, Americans are troubled; Europeans are troubled. And I think that while Mr. Putin and many of the Russian people agree with his campaign, we do not believe that there is a military solution to the problem of Chechnya. We hope very much that very quickly now, after his election, that there will be a political dialogue that will resolve the issues in Chechnya.

BLITZER: Many of Mr. Putin's associates here in Moscow -- I have been here the past few days -- have raised questions about George W. Bush's statement that the United States, if he were president, would, if necessary, unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty, the anti-ballistic missile Treaty, in order to build a defense missile shield in the United States. They say that would severely rupture U.S.-Russian relations. What do you say about that?

ALBRIGHT: Well, he believe that the ABM treaty is central to the arms control regimes that we have had up till now. And we also think that it can be adjusted and amended in a way that if the president should make the decision, to deploy the NMD, that the ABM treaty could be adjusted in a way to make that possible. And, the ABM treaty has been amended before.

So abrogating it is not something that the Clinton administration is favoring. What we are favoring is, if the president decides to deploy the NMD, to have and amendment, an adjustment of the ABM to be able to suit that.

BLITZER: On an issue that many Americans see as -- many American officials see as a source of great concern, Russian cooperation with the Iran in the development of Iran's nuclear reactors. How serious of a problem is this? And is this a step that could help Iran develop a nuclear bomb?

ALBRIGHT: We have been very concerned about the transfer of technology to Iran. The nuclear reactor -- that peaceful uses is something else. But we are very concerned generally about the transfer of technology, the proper export controls, and we have been having discussions with the Russians about transfer of technology. That has been a concern and they have taken some steps which we believe are useful but more steps are necessary. It has been an issue of concern for us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just ahead, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discusses prospects for peace in the Middle East and more.

LATE EDITION from Moscow, will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION from Moscow. Now, more of my interview with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who joined us from Geneva, Switzerland.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (on camera): Madam Secretary, on the situation in the Middle East, the two tracks that the Clinton administration is pursuing in the peace process one involving the Israelis and the Palestinians, the second, you're in Geneva today with president involving the Israelis and the Syrians. Which of these two tracks has a greater success -- a greater chance of success during the remaining months of the Clinton administration?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I'm not going to make that bets on that, we are doing everything we can to get a comprehensive peace, the president and I and others have invested a tremendous amount of time in this. Ambassador Ross has gone back and forth many times, as you know, to work on both tracks, and we also want the track on Lebanon to work. We have been working on a comprehensive peace, and the talks on the Palestinian track at expert level are going on now, outside of Washington.

We are here in Geneva today, because President Clinton believes that it's important to meet with President Assad to assess needs and policies. We've been talking to Prime Minister Barak, for many, many times, and so now we've been trying to get the parties to bring their positions closer together on the Israeli-Syrian track, and we will continue to do that. And we're going to try, as we can, on all tracks, but as you know, Wolf, it's very hard. The people themselves have to make the decision, we can facilitate and we can ask questions and we can try to make assessments, but the parties themselves have to make the hard decisions.

The president, in a conversation yesterday, said on the Syrian track, that the distance is short but the walk is hard.

BLITZER: When you say the walk is hard, I was in Geneva in 1994 covering President Clinton's meeting then with President Assad and as you will remember, there was great disappointment that President Assad at that time did not utter the words that many administration officials had hoped he would utter, has there been a shift, a serious substantive shift in Syria's attitude towards peace with Israel, that you think could result in the kind of breakthrough that you've been pushing for?

ALBRIGHT: Well, again, I don't want -- I think we have to be he realistic about this. These two countries have been at odds for a very long time, on the other hand, the Syrians did come to the talks at Blair House in Shepardstown, and in my conversations with President Assad, he has indicated that he would like to find a solution, so has prime minister Barak.

And so, what we're doing, is trying to see how we can be helpful in bringing them together and trying to reduce the distance between them. But again, one thing that I've learned, Wolf, is not to predict success on any of these talks. They're very difficult. Each has it's dynamic. The president is putting a lot of effort into this, but there's no guarantees here, and all we can do is really try and see what the attitudes and needs and positions are, which is why the president is meeting with President Assad.

BLITZER: Madam Secretary, on another issue that is of great concern to many Americans, namely the price of gasoline, as you know the OPEC oil ministers are meeting in Vienna tomorrow to discuss whether to increase production which presumably would result in a decrease in the price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

Many Republicans have criticized the Clinton administration's policy of in effect they say, begging these oil ministers, friendly oil states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, to go ahead and increase production. Is it unseemly, is their criticism justified?

ALBRIGHT: Definitely it is not justified. I mean, what we've been doing is consulting with the producing countries in order to try to get a way for them to make a decision to stabilize prices that would be suitable for consumers as well as the producers. I think this is the way things are done, and they obviously make their own decisions. But it's important to get those prices stabilized.

BLITZER: Do you think they will be stabilized ad a result of the OPEC meeting in Vienna?

ALBRIGHT: Always hopeful, but it's hard to tell. Again, they have their meeting tomorrow, we'll see how it comes out.

BLITZER: All right, and we'll all be watching.

Madam Secretary, thanks so much for taking some time from your busy schedule. Good luck in your peace efforts in Geneva and beyond.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And later when we come back, the Russian response to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. I'll speak with a man many people here in Moscow believe may be Russia's next prime minister: Mikhail Kasyanov. And after that, on this election day here in Russia, we'll have an exclusive interview with the former president of the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev.

LATE EDITION from Moscow continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION, live from Moscow.

One of the main challenges facing the next president of Russia will be to bring stability and economic improvement to Russia.

Joining us now is a close associate and ally of the acting president, Vladimir Putin: the deputy prime minister and finance minister of Russia, Mikhail Kasyanov.

Mr. Kasyanov, welcome to LATE EDITION. Thank you so much for joining us.

MIKHAIL KASYANOV, RUSSIAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: (OFF-MIKE)

BLITZER: You heard the reports, the initial reports. Now that all the polls are closed in the 11 time zones of Russia, it may be that Vladimir Putin, the man you support, your close friend and associate, may not win on the first ballot. What does that mean to our viewers watching in Russia and all over the world? KASYANOV: Right now, it's already clear that elections taken place, and there is no question of validity. Right now the question, as you correctly just mentioned, that whether Mr. Putin would win in the first round or in the second. But it's already clear that majority of Russians given the award of confidence to Mr. Putin, for they voted for the stability and improvement in the economy.

BLITZER: And would it be a setback, though, personally, for the acting president if he were forced to go into a runoff on April 16?

KASYANOV: I think that is not problem with this, and Mr. Putin continues to be acting president and the prime minister, and nothing could change the situation, and the policy of current cabinet continues and necessary steps will be undertaken.

BLITZER: And if he were to run against the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, you have no doubt who would win that election.

KASYANOV: Today is already first -- the first results of elections show that majority -- at the moment only far east, the voters (ph) have been calculated -- have been calculated, and it's clear that more than 45 percent Mr. Putin already got.

BLITZER: All right. Let's move on and talk a little bit about what Secretary of State Albright said in our interview with her just a little while ago. She did express some concern. She of course hopes that there will be a strong, good relationship with Russia and acting President Putin, but she did express concern about democracy in Russia, the commitment of President Putin and his associates to pursue democracy. Should she be concerned?

KASYANOV: I don't think, so because all associates of Mr. Putin, they are clearly devoted to democratic -- further democratic changes and improvement of those fundamentals which already exist in Russia, and of course market reforms. And that's why I don't think they should be any concern in this area.

BLITZER: And the point that she cited, one of the concerns was the seeming -- the crackdown, if you will, on the news media, on the press, the move away from press freedoms. Is that a problem here?

KASYANOV: There was no press on the press, that's why -- that's simply pre-election, the pre-election -- or election complaint. And of course it's -- in every country, happens some difficult cases and relations with press, with media.

BLITZER: She also expressed concern the way Russian -- the Russian military has conducted the war in Chechnya. The pictures we see -- and you've seen them here on Russian television -- devastating pictures, and a lot of our viewers around the world have a hard time understanding why President Putin's government, the military, went in with such force in the Russian Republic of Chechnya.

KASYANOV: Because those rebels and those bandits in Chechnya, they prepared themselves for long periods of time for such a battle, for such a terrorist acts, et cetera. And that's why it's appeared to be much more difficult for forces, for army forces, to undertake those operation there.

But it's clear -- and all Russians supported this action in the Northern Caucasus, in Chechnya.

And of course, the timeframe, which given -- and all those armed forces, they are not speeding up the process so that not to create a larger, larger exposure -- I mean large exposure on the civil population there. That's why -- that's why such difficult or strong actions there they directed only for those rebels.

BLITZER: But it doesn't appear to be over with yet. The fighting continues even though there have been statements coming out of Moscow that it's all but over. It is seems going on.

KASYANOV: There was no such statements that everything finished. Of course that the major part of operation already in the hands, but there should be of course unnecessary undertaking in the near future and then of course political solution of the problem.

BLITZER: And you agree, that one of the reasons President Putin, the acting president, has been so popular is because of his forceful stance in Chechnya.

KASYANOV: Because of the strong desire to finish this danger for Russia. For Russia, for Russian constitution, for Russia's territorial unity and that's why that is important that Russians feel themselves stronger in this area.

BLITZER: Many observers here in Russia have pointed out that acting President Putin in the course of the campaign did not really unveil specifics about his economic agenda, his policy agenda. If he wins the election whether it's today or April 16th in a runoff. If he does become the next president of Russia, and by all accounts he will, what will be the first steps, the first economic steps? You are the finance minister, you are a close associate, that he will take to try to strengthen the domestic economic situation here in Russia.

KASYANOV: Mr. Putin already mentioned several directions in this area. Of course, to undertake appropriate and clear understandable steps, in creating better investment climate. It means, that first of all, to eliminate those contradictions in legislation which exist now which prevent national and foreign investors to invest more, and to operate in Russia more effective.

And secondly, of course, tax regime. In this area there should be a new tax code, should be adopted by Duma. Government already prepared this new version of tax code which would ease tax burden and would be he more fair. Several taxes would be eliminated. That is everything goes in direction of creating much more attractive investment climate.

BLITZER: And as you know, if Russia is going to attract those investors from around the world, they include people from the United States, but, in the recent year with the expansion of NATO to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the war over Kosovo in the Balkans, there has been a serious strain in U.S.-Russian relations. Where do you see this relationship between Washington and Moscow moving in the next year?

KASYANOV: That is exactly, unfortunately for those reasons you have just named, therefore, the sources of I would say not improving further relations in the economic cooperation with the United States. Of course for Russia, the United States is one of the major partners in the West, that is why is that is important for us.

And everyone realizes that in the nearest future, of course by joint efforts with U.S. administration we should undertake better conditions for improvement and expansion in this area. Of course trade issue continues to be the most sensitive. Russians would like to believe that the United States would take a decision to recognize Russia as a favorite nation in trade.

BLITZER: OK. Mikhail Kasyanov, thank you so much for joining us on this very important day in Russia, Democratic elections held throughout the 11 time zones of this huge country. Thank you so much for joining us.

KASYANOV: Thank you, my pleasure.

BLITZER: Thank you. And when we come back we will get the response from a Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, California Congressman Chris Cox. He will join us. He is here in Moscow observing these elections. LATE EDITION from Moscow will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to this special LATE EDITION live from Moscow.

The Russian people have spoken, their election has now been completed. We are standing by for election results, but there is news elsewhere around the world, including in Geneva, Switzerland, where President Clinton has been meeting with Syria's president, Hafez al- Assad, senior White House correspondent John King is in Geneva with update, John?

KING: Wolf, those talks have resumed here in Geneva just a short time ago, Presidents Clinton and President Assad and their top advisers, back to the negotiations, that after a brief break. They met for three and a half hours earlier. Now during the break, the president had hoped to speak to the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. They were unable to complete that call, however, because the prime minister was at the ceremonies marking the Pope's departure from the holy land, so the president will reach out to Prime Minister Barak later in the day.

The discussions underway again, as we said, the expectations we're told by U.S. officials is that President Clinton will return to Washington tonight, there had been some talk that perhaps he would stay overnight, the expectations also is that there will be no announcement out of here tonight that the talks between Israel and Syria will resume, but U.S. officials are hopeful there will be such an announcement in the next week, perhaps maybe two. Part of the reason no announcement here is the politics. Prime Minister Barak has been criticized back home for negotiating with the Syrian foreign minister, a big plus for him that Assad is at the table now, but if there is to be announcement of resumed negotiations, it would come from Syria and Israel, not Syria and United States. Wolf?

BLITZER: John King reporting from Geneva.

Here in Russia, the polls are closed and the election results for the presidency are coming in, CNNs Steve Harrigan is over at the central election commission headquarters, here in Moscow, Steve.

HARRIGAN: Wolf, those early numbers are still coming in, even now as we speak, as you can take a look at the screen there, we've had some figures from the Russian far east. The numbers are good for Vladimir Putin, but maybe not good enough to win in the first round, based on just very preliminary results, we've seen about 7 percent of the vote, tabulated in Russia's far east that gives Mr. Putin 45 percent, his nearest competitor the communist Zyuganov, 31 percent.

Of course, the goal for Mr. Putin, all along has been to win in one round, to do that he's to get at least 50 percent of vote. So far, the early numbers are not showing that, this is going to be a long night here in Moscow, what was once a dull race has suddenly generated some excitement to see whether Mr. Putin can win in one round, or whether he will have to go into a runoff three weeks from now.

BLITZER: Steve Harrigan, reporting from the Moscow headquarters of central election commission. Of course, we'll back to you throughout this program, indeed throughout the rest of the day here on CNN, and CNN international.

Meanwhile, Congressman Christopher Cox, a member of the House Republican leadership, has been sent here to Moscow by the House speaker Dennis Hastert, to get a firsthand sense of what's going on, on this important election day to assess the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Congressman Cox, he joins us nowhere in Moscow. Always good to have you on our program. Congressman.

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE SPEAKER'S ADVISORY GROUP ON RUSSIA: Good to see you here.

BLITZER: Well, you've seen the results that seem to be coming in at this point, what is your take on what has happened on this day here in Russia.

COX: Well there's not much question about the outcome, the only question as you put it is whether or not it's going to be done in one round or whether there will be another round next month. But, I visited some of the polling places today, it started out a snowy day in Moscow, and turned into a sunny afternoon and now a chilly even. The turnout seems to have been at least as high as it was in December, and probably it will get much higher than that. There's not much question, also, I think, about the fairness of the balloting, the mechanical part of the voting here. There maybe some question about how it's tabulated, and there's certainly a lot of questions being raised about the media's role in this Russian election. The closeness of the major television to the Kremlin, is a source of great deal of criticism, not only from the other candidates but from the international media as well, and I think that that criticism is well aimed, it's going to be an important job for Vladimir Putin when he takes over as president in his own right, not just acting president to put some distance between himself and oligarchs that control that all too friendly media so that the institutions of free press already well rooted, I think, as a result of Boris Yeltsin's work here in Russia are -- taking root So that the institutions of a free press, already well-rooted, I think, as a result of Boris Yeltsin's work here in Russia are -- taking root all the way from the bottom to the very top.

BLITZER: Well, you're an expert on Russia. You've been watching this country for many years, going back to an earlier life that you had. Was this a free and fair election to the best of your information?

COX: Well, with the caveats that I just made, I think we can say that is true. The United States has plenty of access to polling information, some of it sponsored by the United States government, to test public opinion. And there is not much question that Vladimir Putin is out in front of these other candidates and that is what the election is telling us today.

BLITZER: OK. Let's get to the man himself, Vladimir Putin. You are a member of the House Republican leadership in Washington. Do you feel comfortable with Vladimir Putin becoming the president of Russia?

COX: Well, of course, none of us in Washington -- none of us across the country in the United States, knows any more than people do here in Russia. And as you know from your interviews conducted on the spot, many Russians are asking themselves the same question. What kind of a person is Putin? He has a KGB background, but he also has a background with Anatoly Sobchak, who was the reformist mayor of St. Petersburg. Which side of him are we going to see? He talks about a dictatorship of law. That's an interesting combination of words. Will it be law supporting order or will it be just the order part?

These will be big questions that I think we'll get some answers to very quickly, because the first thing we can expect President Putin to do now that he has been elected, is to name his own people. He is going to give away some of the direction that he is headed in as a consequence of naming his own people. He is also going to be presenting his own legislation to the Duma, and he has to deal with taxes and corruption.

He has talked about bringing his KGB compatriots in and retooling them for law enforcement to get after organized crime, whether that can be made a success, I think will also be knowable reasonably early on. So we'll know a lot more and the United States needs to take things as we find them, not as we wish them to be. But if it turns out that all the rhetoric is backed up by action, then there is a promising future indeed. If on the other hand, his dark past comes to the fore, then we'll have to be very much on our guard.

BLITZER: You heard the deputy prime minister and the finance minister Mikhail Kasyanov who was just on this program, make a pitch for international investment, American investment in Russia, to help stabilize this economy, improve the economy. He certainly is a free market oriented politician here in Russia. Is that the prevailing sense that you get that you can't turn back the clock, to the so- called badod days of communism in the Soviet Union.

COX: Well, I have had an opportunity to talk with him informally and he of course is expected to be the next prime minister, I think it is a good thing that there are people in Russia talking about the importance of global trade and international investment. Russia desperately needs outside capital, but the reason that Russia does not presently have more in the way of outside investment that is it lacks the rule of law. It is hard for Americans to imagine a country without enough lawyers, but the lack of solid legal institutions here, supportable property rights, supportable investment rules, is bottom line the reason that we don't have more investment capital here that would help jump-start the Russian economy. That is one of the big jobs he will face as prime minister; that is one of the jobs that Putin will face as president.

BLITZER: How big of an irritant in U.S.-Russian relations is the war in Chechnya?

COX: Well, the war in Chechnya plays 180 degrees opposite beyond Russian borders. What it has done in this election, Putin has ridden the war in Chechnya to victory essentially. It has been a defining issue for him. But the brutality with which that campaign has been conducted, the lack of any outside observation for the preservation of human rights in Chechnya, the way journalists have been treated, notably Andrei Babitsky, with whom I met yesterday.

All of these are black marks in the eyes of the world community, and so I think he is going to have to make amends if Russia is going to be able to again get back to good standing with international community including the international investment community. Capital flight away from Russia is directly related to the way the media is treated here and the way that Russia is perceived on the world stage.

BLITZER: You heard Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on this program. Do you believe the Clinton administration has a good game plan ready to go to deal with Russia, in the coming months?

COX: Well, the game plan that we have been following over the last many years certainly hasn't avoided the results. Now I don't know that you can blame U.S. policy for what has gone wrong here in Russia. But certainly U.S. policy has not been enough to stop all these bad things from happening.

Notably, the United States has embraced Russian reform by simply cutting a big check, some $20 billion through the IMF since 1992. And because little more was done than that, that money found its way rather quickly into the hands of the oligarchs and indirectly underwrote organized crime.

I think we need to go far beyond dealing at these very high levels -- such as we have done through the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission and the Gore-Primakov commission that succeeded it -- and start to recognize that since 1991, Russia has been a democracy, and democracies can relate to each other in a variety of ways, including commercially, and we don't have to make summitry the centerpiece of our bilateral relationship.

BLITZER: You support Texas Governor George W. Bush to become the next president of the United States. And as you know, he has raised the possibility that if he were president, in order to build a defense missile shield to protect the United States and allies, if necessary, if the Russians refuse to revive -- to revise the ABM Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, he would unilaterally change it.

Now many Russian officials here are telling me that would seriously, seriously strain the relationship. I'm sure they're telling you the same thing in the course of your conversations.

COX: Well, as you know, Russia right now is focused on ratification of START II. The United States Senate has already ratified that START II agreement, and Russia, we hope -- having postponed in the Duma for five years -- will also ratify that.

It is focused on the reduction of offensive weaponry, and if it succeeds and is put into force, will wipe out an entire class of U.S. missile, the Peacekeeper MX missile.

By focusing on reducing offensive arms in this way, I think we have a great deal in common with the Russian security planners.

At the same time, I think we can partner with them in dealing with the threats that we have and that cause us to want to have a defense.

Those threats do not come from the Soviet Union anymore. We're talking about threats from rogue states, from terrorists groups and so on, many of which may threaten Russia itself.

So I think that there is a future for defensive arms planning as well as reducing those offensive arsenals.

And a START III is very much in prospect as soon as the Duma ratifies START II so that we can further reduce both U.S. and Russian offensive forces.

BLITZER: OK, Congressman Christopher Cox of California. Nice to have you joining me here in Moscow. Thanks for joining us on this special LATE EDITION.

COX: Happy to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And when we come back, we'll get a different perspective from the last leader of the former Soviet Union: a special interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, coming up when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION from Moscow. Just a short while ago, CNN's Mike Hanna had a chance to speak with the last man who led the former Soviet Union, the former president Mikhail Gorbachev.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): All right, President Gorbachev, thank you very much for joining us. Today, millions of Russians going to the polls, to freely elect the leader of their choice. Is this the democracy that you envisioned, is this the democracy that you hoped for?

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, FORMER RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: The elections have taken place, and as I was coming here, it was reported that 54 percent of the people have turned out to vote, and that is good. But, still, I think it is too little. The Yeltsin era is over, we thinking how we can pull ourselves out of this difficult situation, and therefore, it was very important for more as many people as possible, to take part, but so far, I think not too many have taken part, just 54 percent. It is good that the elections have taken place, but I'm a little -- I'm quite concerned that the political activity, the civic activity is rather weak. And, that is a cause for worry.

HANNA: Do you think that Vladimir Putin is the right person to be leading Russia at this particular point in history?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, as they say, every country has what it has. And, the personal situation in Russia today is that at this time, when by making a transition from the Yeltsin era to a new time, Putin is the one. Putin is the person. One can understand that so far as Putin is concerned, the old team, the old system, the oligarchs, who used Yeltsin and of whom Yeltsin relied are hoping that Putin will make sure that nothing much changes, or if things change, they change in a quiet time.

They think Putin comes from their time, so to say, but people who vote for Putin even though they know Zyuganov and Yavlinsky, people who vote for Putin, hope that this is a person who will be able to unite people, who will be able to bring together a team that will revive Russia, that will help Russia recover. People are hoping. People are voting their hopes, if Putin does not live up to those hopes, and people see that he is working with the same kind of entourage that he is still -- that he continues to make life cozy for the corrupt officials and other corrupt people. If things don't change, well, then disappointment, disillusionment will come very quickly, and it will be a very severe disappointment.

HANNA: To what extent do you think that Vladimir Putin's election would affect relations with the United States?

GORBACHEV (through translator): It is true that I think that Russia's policy will be more realistic, that there will be fewer statements of strategic partnerships, that Boris Yeltsin liked so much, he keeps saying we are strategic partners. We should be just normal partners, and we should find ways of harmonizing our interests. Our interests are different, but they have a lot in common. And maybe it is not a program on which I could speak in detail about the possibilities for our cooperation but those possibilities do exist. Russia is potentially a strong country, economically, politically, militarily. Today it is weak, but it will recover.

HANNA: The U.S. Secretary of state Madeleine Albright has expressed concern about the conduct of Russian soldiers within Chechnya. What is your opinion of this, of the -- do you believe that the Russian soldiers are open to criticism? Do you believe that the secretary of state has any right to criticize this conduct?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, I think that given our relationship and given the fact that we are looking at each other, we can criticize, we can ask questions.

But what was really amazing to me is that during the first war in Chechnya in '94 and '96, when all of political parties and the democratic media in this country all factions in the parliament and all groups of public opinion were against the war, the West was generally silent, including the United States.

Now when the situation is different in certain respects, I'll tell you, we today are reaping the whirlwind from the mistakes of Russia's policy toward the Caucasus, and specifically toward Chechnya. Too many mistakes were made, and as a result, we have this situation.

HANNA: President Mikhail Gorbachev, still a very busy man, thank you for joining us on this election day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: CNN's Mike Hanna with Mikhail Gorbachev.

And just ahead on this special LATE EDITION from Moscow, we'll turn to the week's other big story: Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the Holy Land. We'll talk about what happened with a man who traveled with the pontiff, Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro.

LATE EDITION from Moscow continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Pope John Paul II celebrating mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem earlier today.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION, live from Moscow. A short while ago as seen here on CNN, the pontiff completed his week-long historic mission to the middle east. Before the pope left Tel Aviv, I had a chance to speak with his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, I began by asking him what the pope considered to be the high point of the visit.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOAQUIN NAVARRO-VALLS, VATICAN SPOKESMAN: It might depend on the point of view. But, certainly, the timing points at least judging from the coverage in the Israeli press was the visit of the Holy Father to the Yad Vashem monument on the shore, to the other coast.

BLITZER: And that was because, of why? The visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial what symbolism did that have as far as the pope was concerned?

NAVARRO-VALLS: There were many different elements. Of course, there was a personal biographical element in that, because on that occasion, he met some of the survivors of the camps -- extermination camps. And those survivors were born in the very same city in which the pope was born in Poland.

BLITZER: What did the pope try to accomplish during this historic visit?

NAVARRO-VALLS: The first one was a personal pilgrimage -- a personal pilgrimage to the holy land. The second one was an ecumenical aspect, that this relationship between Christians in the area who are divided because even though the church was born here in Jerusalem, and was born united, now there are different churches and not only one. So good relationship with all the Christian non- Catholics. The third element, was to stress the inter-religious dialogue, especially between the three monotheistic religions. That is Christianity, Jews, and Muslims.

BLITZER: Does the pope believe, sir, that he did accomplish something in bringing these people of three different religions a little bit closer together this week?

NAVARRO-VALLS: The pope has expressed and what I think is an a original idea, which is, the role of the three religions represented here should be higher and more active in the process of peace. For him is a kind of a scandal to see maybe minorities who in a way use the name of their religions as an excuse for making war, instead of making peace. When we Christians, Jews, and Muslim have certain things -- I would say even many things -- that we can share and that actually we share together.

Among other things, they believe in only one god. I can say that the pope even this morning when he was speaking in a private meeting with the highest Muslim authority in Jerusalem, a mufti of Jerusalem, he asserted very clearly that point, the same way a couple days, he stressed that point in his meeting with the two chief rabbis in Jerusalem. And the reaction from all the parties were very positive to that.

BLITZER: Dr. Navarro-Valls, thank you so much for spending some time with us, on LATE EDITION. We deeply appreciate it.

NAVARRO-VALLS: Thank you for your interest. Thank you. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls just before the pontiff left Israel. For our international viewers, Inside Africa is coming up next. For our North American audience there is still another 30 minutes of Late Edition from Moscow. We will go 'round the table with Steve Roberts and Tucker Carlson in Washington, Susan Page in Geneva and Rowland Evans here in Moscow. And much more when LATE EDITION continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome to LATE EDITION from Moscow. Time now for our LATE EDITION roundtable. Joining me from Washington: Steve Roberts, contributing editor for "U.S. News and World Report"; and Tucker Carlson, political writer for "The Weekly Standard"; and in Geneva, Switzerland, Susan Page, White House bureau chief for "USA Today." She's traveling with the president.

And with me here in Moscow: CNN's Roland Evans, the host of CNN's "EVANS NOVAK HUNT AND SHIELDS."

And I want to begin with Roly Evans, who spent the last several days here in Russia.

Roly, tell us what has happened in Russia on this election day with some historic perspective. You've been a visitor to this country many, many times.

ROLAND EVANS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, this is one of the more exotic elections. Not just in Russia or the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union. Anywhere in the world that I've ever seen, tremendous interest in the fact there is an election, yet everybody knows who's going to win: Vladimir Putin has already won. The question now, however, is whether he got a -- whether his turnout exceeded 50 percent of the total number of votes. That makes a difference psychologically, because if it didn't, if he didn't, Putin is going to have to go back to the voters in April, and that's not going to be -- it's going to be easy for him, but it's going to tend to impede his forward motion.

Now I spent the day in a town of 120,000, about 100 miles from Moscow called Clean (ph), and I have never seen such well-mannered, such well-behaved and such ardent voters. They turned out early, they voted, and most of them, believe it or not, that I talked to voted for Putin.

BLITZER: Steve Roberts, if there's a 50 or 55 percent voter turnout, there's 108 (sic) registered voters eligible voters here in this huge country, that's a pretty good turnout compared to what happens in the United States in the presidential election, too.

STEVE ROBERTS, CNN COMMENTATOR: It sure is. And you know, Mikhail Gorbachev told you he was rather disappointed that only 54 or 55 percent turned out. And you have a sense that the Russian people understand that even though the outcome was pretty much foregone, that this is an important moment in terms of changing power and in terms of developing their Western connections.

And I thought the interview you had with the future prime minister, likely prime minister, talking about opening to the West, I think it's going to be easier if Putin does have a widespread, popular mandate.

BLITZER: Tucker Carlson, there are a lot of young people around Vladimir Putin. He's only 47 years old. He's younger than Al Gore, he's younger than Bill Clinton, he's younger than George W. Bush. And the possible next prime minister is in his early 40s. These are all young individuals, well educated, who seem to know what they're doing. What is your sense of this whole future Russian movement as we see the contradictions unfold?

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, apparently polling shows that the older you are in Russia, the more likely you are to support communist candidates, and support drops with age. So, I mean, that makes sense, that he would have a lot of young supporters.

I think it's remarkable there's an election at all. I mean, here's a country that's in poor shape economically, that has, you know, a standard of living and life expectancy that in some ways is almost Third World. And yet things seem to be rolling along smoothly. You know, it's sort of like the Iowa caucus, it is amazing, considering what the alternatives are.

BLITZER: Susan Page in Geneva, you're covering President Clinton's talks today with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, but I'm sure that many of the president's aides are also watching very carefully what's happening here in Russia. What are you hearing? What's the mood over there about the almost certain election of Vladimir Putin to succeed Boris Yeltsin?

SUSAN PAGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, the White House, indeed, expects it to be the ultimate outcome. And there's some business they'd like to conduct with the newly elected Russian president, if possible. It's likely that President Clinton will try to meet with him this spring, perhaps in a summit in Moscow.

And they'd like to see that if you can get past the war in Chechnya and get some reassurances that he will pursue economic reforms, they'd like to negotiate some modifications to the ABM Treaty that would permit the United States to go ahead with research and development of anti-missile defense technology.

And they'd also like to see ideally a negotiated framework for a new strategic arms reduction pact. That's only going to be possible if Putin turns out to be a relatively strong leader, and one that's interested in doing business with the United States.

BLITZER: OK, Rowland Evans, put on your little analytical cap over here and tell us what you see Vladimir Putin doing in the coming months as initial steps on the domestic front and the international front?

EVANS: That's a great question and the idea of strong leadership, which we were just told about has been very important. Certainly is at the root of what Vladimir Putin is trying to do.

The question here is very, very delicate. Is he going to go after the oligarchs who have amassed huge, and in many cases preposterously illegal economic power. Or is he going to let them float along, (OFF- MIKE) the number one among this group of very rich Russians. Is his great friend and benefactor. Nobody knows the answer to that. Second, is he going to keep attacking the press. Now, he claims he hasn't attacked the press, but in fact Gusinski (ph), another oligarch who has television outlets and newspapers, has been taking pot shots all through the campaign at Vladimir Putin, and he is paying for in economic harassment right now.

So, if he goes after the press and he does not go after the oligarchs, it's not going to go down well with the United States Congress and it's not going to go down well with Western Europe. He must address the economy. That certainly will be one of the principle first objectives, but as Gusinski told me yesterday, everybody knows he has good economic advisers, but nobody knows what his policy is, and Wolf, I'm not going to guess that one.

BLITZER: And he's been rather shy in discussing any of those policies in the course of this so-called campaign which has been a rather mild campaign here in Russia. Steve Roberts, there's a lot of interest here in Moscow on the next administration, whether it be George W. Bush or Al Gore and I get a sense speaking to a lot of Russians, not only who support Vladimir Putin, but others who are critical of him. They are worried about George W. Bush, they think he might be a harder liner than Al Gore as far as U.S.-Russian relations, need they worry?

ROBERTS: Well, he's a harder liner in terms of the campaign, but you know, it's easy to be critical when you don't have a responsibility. Al Gore has an asset, which is that he has experience. Christopher Cox, Republican, mentioned two commissions that Al Gore has been in charge of, so Gore has a legitimate way to claim that he has the experience, which is an enormous asset. With experience means having to defend a record. George Bush doesn't have a record, he doesn't have any experience, it's a vulnerability, but he also has the freedom to criticize and he is going to try to play on some uncertainties in the United States, but what he says during the campaign is not necessarily how he would act as president.

Look at Ronald Reagan, I was with Reagan during his historical visit in 87 to Moscow. Reagan started out calling the Russians an evil empire, he wound up being very cooperative with Mikhail Gorbachev. That's what power does for you.

BLITZER: Tucker Carlson, when George W. Bush was on Evans-Novak, Hunt and Shields in January, listen to what he said about U.S. policy in a Bush administration towards Russia. He said, "it's important for our country to say to the Russians that we understand what you're trying to do, but there are some international norms which you have violated by bombing Russian women and children or Chechen women and children. You've stepped over the bound." That seems to sound very similar to what we heard Madeleine Albright say on this program only a little while ago.

CARLSON: Well, sure, I mean, people especially those who read carefully what's going on in Chechnya are, of course, appalled and of course Putin has been one of the prime voices for dealing vigorously with the Chechens, but I think there are also probably some encouraging signs. I mean, Putin is sort of thought of as this anti- Western or at least not the most pro-Western candidate, but he was asked a couple of days ago who are your heroes, who are the world leaders you look to and he named two. He named Charles DeGalle and Ludwig Earhart (ph) of West Germany, two leaders who helped after the Second World War bring their European countries back sort of and get them back on their feet again. It seems like a fairly pro-Western overture and a good sign generally.

BLITZER: All right, we have to take a commercial break, but when we come back, more of our LATE EDITION round table. Susan Page is in Geneva covering President Clinton's talks with (OFF-MIKE) of Syria. We'll talk about the peace process of the Middle East and the Pope's visit to the Holy Land when LATE EDITION from Moscow continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to this special LATE EDITION from Moscow. In addition to the Russian elections there's important news developing in the Arab-Israeli peace process. President Clinton continuing his talks at this hour with Syria's President Hafez Al-Assad in Geneva. Earlier today the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority President Yassar Arafat were on ABC's "This Week," and they spoke about the important opportunity right now to advance the peace process.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EHUD BARAK, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: And the moment of truth has come. We are negotiating with them for almost a decade and it is time for a decision.

YASSER ARAFAT, PRESIDENT OF THE PALESTIAN AUTHORITY: There is now a chance to finish what we had started with his excellency President Clinton in the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Susan Page in Geneva, you are there. Update us on what is happening in these Israeli-Syrian -- excuse me, the U.S.-Syrian talks, President Clinton's meetings with Hafez Al-Assad?

PAGE: They met for close to four hours and then they took a short break. They've come back and are meeting again. The White House says President Clinton still plans to return to Washington this evening. But they hope that when they get home they have the ingredients in place for a resumption of those stalled talks between Israel and Syria.

You know, there is really a sense here that President Clinton is a lame duck. Syria's President Assad is an elderly man and ailing in poor health. And that this is sort of a last chance to get these talks really going before the U.S. administration changes and this opportunity is lost. So there is high hopes here that they will come out with an agreement that those talks will resume. We know the general ingredients that a peace plan would -- that would comprise a peace plan, that that will get done and get done in relatively short order. Although with the middle east you never want to be too certain that things are going to work out the way you plan.

BLITZER: Roly Evans, you're an old middle east hand. You've been covering this story for a long time and you are in fact, one of those few reporters who actually interviewed Hafez al-Assad right here on CNN. Give us your sense: is this the last opportunity right now to see this historic breakthrough between the Israelis and the Syrians? At issue, of course, the future of the Golan Heights?

EVANS: Wolf, absolutely not. There are going to be chances and chances. But I agree very much with the fact that this is the best chance that we have had. And I interviewed al-Assad on television, as you mentioned, four years ago in Damascus. I had lunch in Washington this past week with a member of the Israeli cabinet who convinced me and really did a good job in convincing me that the Israelis and Barak particularly really intends to get a peace of Syria. And I believe after four hours there and knowing what Clinton wants as his legacy as a peacemaker in the middle east and what Assad has to have because of his health, I believe there's going to be a breakthrough. I really do. I really hate to make a hard prediction but I believe that.

BLITZER: All right. Steve Roberts, you've covered the middle east for a few decades yourself. You know this story about as well as anyone. Is there this opportunity right now? Is this a really golden opportunity for a breakthrough, an historic peace agreement that would not only encompass the existing treaties with Egypt and Jordan but throughout the region?

ROBERTS: I think it is. And it's not just because President Assad is ailing and wants to leave a legacy. President Clinton also focusing on this issue. You saw how frail Chairman Arafat looked in that clip. He's toward the end of his career too and he wants to end on a note of finishing the business of making peace with the Israelis. And Prime Minister Barak was elected on this platform and sees this as his historic mission.

So you have four leaders all at a moment in their careers when this is a top priority. You also have a new king in Jordan who also is eager for progress here. So I think all of the forces are aligned.

BLITZER: Tucker Carlson, if in fact President Clinton does in fact score this historic agreement between the Israelis and the Syrians and completes the agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, does that do a lot to change his legacy, eight years as president? CARLSON: I'm not sure if it changes it. It certainly burnishes it. That would be an impressive achievement. I do think, however, that some of the credit would have to go to Barak, having been elected, as Steve said, partly on a platform of bringing about peace. No, but I think there is no way around it. That would be an undeniably impressive achievement if Clinton were able to broker something like that.

BLITZER: All right, Tucker Carlson and Steve Roberts in Washington, Susan Page traveling with the president in Geneva, and Roly Evans here in Moscow with me.

Thanks for joining us for our LATE EDITION roundtable.

And up next: Bruce Morton's last word on Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They had no one when Boris Yeltsin took power and the Soviet Union collapsed who could say, oh, yes, free markets, voting, I remember that stuff. They had to start from scratch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is Russia's past threatening its future as a democracy?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Time now for Bruce Morton's last word on why Russians are still struggling with democracy and free enterprise nearly a decade after communism's collapse.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MORTON (voice-over): Russia, of all the old Soviet countries, seems to have the hardest time developing a free market and turning into a democracy. As you might expect, there are reasons for that. The main reason may be that no Russian now alive has any memory of how those things work.

The communists came to power in 1917, which means there has been no free economy, no democracy, for 83 years. Other Eastern European countries -- Poland, say, or what was Czechoslovakia -- had free economies in the 1920s and '30s, until they were overrun in World War II. Many had democratic governments for all or part of that time.

Even in China, despite the West's exploitation of the country, markets functioned.

Russia went straight from the czars, who were dictators, to the communists, who were dictators, too, straight from the czars who oversaw an almost pre-industrial agricultural economy to the communists who thought Marxism and nationalizing everything would actually work.

So they had no one when Boris Yeltsin took power and the Soviet Union collapsed who could say, oh, yes, free markets, voting, I remember that stuff. They had to start from scratch.

And along with no tradition of democracy was a tradition they did have of the strong man, the strong leader, (SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN), in Russian -- czar, commissar, whatever.

And now they're turning to a former spy. Not a gentleman CIA chief like ex-President George Bush, but a working KGBnik. Be a tough biography in America, for sure.

And yes, they have rampant crime, mobs of Muscovite mafiosi and businesses that can't compete, undergrounded space program, and many other problems. And the West probably has to try to help, partly because it's just too many people to leave stewing in political and economic anarchy and partly for a much more selfish reason.

(on camera): Russia is still full of nuclear missiles, and surely it's in the West's interest to encourage a stable government that will keep those under lock and key instead of a shambles in which some Russian crook or other gets a hold of a couple and says, OK, West, what's London worth? How about New York?

Sure, given the technology, they might miss. But what government could take that chance?

I'm Bruce Morton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks, Bruce.

And when we come back, we'll reveal what's on the cover of this weeks major news magazines in the United States.

LATE EDITION from Moscow -- we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Time now for a look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines in the United States.

"TIME" magazine chronicles "The Pope in the Holy Land" with John Paul II on the cover.

"Newsweek" has "The New Middle Age: A Boomer's Guide to Health, Wealth and Happiness," with Doonesbury on the cover.

And on the cover of "U.S. News & World Report," "Lady Liberty Has the New Rules for the New Market: How to Invest in Hot Stocks."

That's your LATE EDITION for Sunday, March 26. Be sure to catch us again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon eastern for the last word in Sunday talk. And tomorrow night, I'll be reporting on the world today live from Vienna, Austria, where the OPEC oil ministers are meeting to determine oil production.

And coming up at 2:30 p.m. Eastern, that's in one half hour from now, a closer look at acting president -- acting Russian President Vladimir Putin when CNN's Jonathan Mann hosts a special edition of "INSIGHT" from St. Petersburg, Putin's home town.

For now, thanks for very much for watching, enjoy the rest of your weekend.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Moscow.

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