Bob Strauss Learns How To Say `Rolodex' In Russian

Every three weeks or so, a stocky young Russian in a gray suit appears at the entrance of Spaso House, the stately mansion of the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss cordially welcomes him and leads him to a sitting room decorated with art of the American Southwest. Over a couple of bourbons--the young man's favorite drink--they relax and hash over politics, power, and business. Often, the 73-year-old ambassador offers kindly advice to his 36-year-old guest. And just as often, Strauss pushes his own agenda: speeding up U.S. investment in Russia.

To those who know him as one of Washington's most ubiquitous political operators, it is no surprise that Bob Strauss has become fast friends with Yegor Gaidar, the acting Prime Minister of Russia. Strauss has long demonstrated a penchant for finding the center of power and pitching his tent nearby. His courtly blend of Texas charm and inside-the-Beltway savvy routinely disarms on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Now, it is working in Moscow, too.

Many career diplomats scoffed when President Bush appointed his Texas buddy to the ambassadorship last summer: How could Strauss, who speaks no Russian and has had no formal training in Soviet affairs, adequately represent America in Moscow? A year later, though, Strauss has emerged as a forceful U.S. advocate, drawing on decades of experience as dealmaker, Democratic Party Chairman, U.S. Trade Representative, and Middle East envoy. Strauss has become a friendly tutor to Russia's new democrats as they struggle internally and scour the world for economic aid. In return, ties to Gaidar and Russian President Boris Yeltsin are smoothing the way for U.S. business interests in Russia.

Since July 14, Strauss has been in Washington lobbying Congress fiercely for something he deems vital to both sides' interests: the Freedom Support Act, which would unleash the U.S. portion of a $24 billion Western aid package for Russia. While he preaches that private investment is the long-term solution to Russia's problems, he also argues that the country needs quick aid to stabilize its economy and currency. "We have to stand with them now, if we are going to make partners out of them," he says. His strong position irks some Bush officials. Several fear Yeltsin is too volatile and wonder how much stock the U.S. should place in him.

QUIET INFLUENCE. Strauss's special skill, though, is balancing accommodation and persuasion. He is, after all, a Democratic party honcho working for a Republican President. He arrived in Russia just after last August's coup but quickly solidified friendships with both Yeltsin and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Thanks in part to Strauss's agility, there was nary a hiccup in U.S.-Russian relations when Yeltsin took over.

Since the radical economic reforms began in January, Strauss's influence has quietly spread through the Russian bureaucracy. These days, midlevel officials ask him to argue their case with Gaidar over dinner. Meantime, Strauss is already starting to court a trio of conservative ministers Yeltsin recently brought into his government to accommodate the less reform-minded among his constituents, even though many Westerners label the three as reactionaries. "Moscow is a small company town just like Washington," he says. "Everybody knows who is having dinner with everyone else every night."

In his new world, Strauss has become something of a political guru to the Russians. Gaidar decided to attend the recent economic summit in Washington only after Strauss told him he would be a "damn fool" not to because of his heavy work load. "I told him `Yegor, you be on that damn plane and go to Washington, even if you just sit around,' " Strauss says. Likewise, everyone knows that Strauss coached Yeltsin before he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in June.

Such close ties may give some Bush officials jitters, but they also pay dividends: Strauss has successfully lobbied to change punishing Russian tax laws regarding foreign investors. He has also begun to help close deals that had languished in the impenetrable Russian bureaucracy. Last December, Conoco Inc. formed a joint-venture to invest up to $3 billion to drill oil near the Arctic Circle. But then the government decided to tack a $6-a-barrel tax on oil exports, making the project uneconomical. Strauss went to work on Yeltsin, Gaidar, Russia's Committee on Foreign Investment, and the Ministry of Energy--or, as he puts it, on "every living son of a bitch." By mid-July, Conoco had won an exemption from the tax. Strauss "was instrumental," says James Tilley, a Conoco official in Moscow.

When he arrived in Russia, oil was one area Strauss wasn't supposed to touch. His own investments in Texas oil and gas--and those of his Texas law firm, Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld--would make his advocacy look like self-dealing. "But after I had been here about a month, I called Washington and said if I can't talk about oil and gas, I'm going home," recalls Strauss. "I got a waiver of that conflict." It helped that he put much of his $13 million in assets into a blind trust while he's in Moscow.

GETTING RESTLESS. Not that Strauss talks only oil: He has a full agenda of lobbying items before the Russians (table). "I am trying to convince the people who handle Russian economic affairs that capital to be invested is like a beautiful woman. It has a lot of suitors." But he's also careful not to patronize. As he points out the inadequacies in the Russian investment climate, he shares anecdotes about American bureaucracy and the frequent tussles between the U.S. President and Congress. "The trick is not to preach and talk down to, but to visit and talk about our own failures and frustrations and what happened to us in the last couple of hundred years," he says.

Even as that formula takes hold, Strauss is planning to quit Russia. He readily admits that Moscow's 18-hour workdays are "damn hard." In New York during the Democratic National Convention--where he stopped on his way to lobby for the aid package--he looked drawn as he sipped water instead of his signature tumbler of whiskey. "I'm tired," he said, noting that he misses friends, family, and Maryland's Laurel Race Course--a favorite haunt on free afternoons in Washington.

If he succeeds in pushing the aid package through Congress, Strauss will likely be home before Inauguration Day. He will have helped lay the groundwork for a new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation, and that's enough. "He recognizes that we'll need somebody who's better at executing the plan than putting it together," says friend John White, former Democratic Party chairman. The question is, who will Gaidar turn to for whiskey and political advice?

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