THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
TAPED INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
5:16 P.M. (L)Q Mr. President, hello, and let me express my gratitude for your interview.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. I'm glad to do it.
Q And let me start with this question. For the past week and a half, relations between Russia and the West have been complicated by the unexpected deployment of the Russian peacekeepers to Pristina. What was at the heart of the disagreement between Moscow and the West regarding Russia's participation in KFOR? How did you overcome this disagreement?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me say that this entire difficulty in Kosovo has been a great test for the relationship between the United States and Russia, but it is a test, I believe, that both countries have passed -- on your part, thanks to the leadership of President Yeltsin and the work that our foreign ministers and defense ministers have done, the work that Prime Minister Stepashin has done.
I don't know that there ever was much disagreement about Russian participation. I said from the beginning that I strongly felt in order for the peacekeeping force to have credibility and full impact, Russia would have to be a very important part of it. And the agreement we have reached regarding Russian involvement in terms of leadership over the airport and being involved here in three different sectors I think will enable all of us to achieve our objectives: to bring the Kosovars home in peace and security, and to make sure that the Serb minority as well as the Kosovo Albanian majority are both treated freely and fairly.
Q Today, Mr. President, you met with Russian President Yeltsin. What questions did you discuss, and what did you manage to agree on?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, we discussed Kosovo. We talked about what a difficult challenge it had been to our relationship, and we both committed to implement our agreement in good faith in a way that will, I think, reflect credit on the leadership and greatness of Russia and the Russian people, and on those of us who are working with Russia in Kosovo.
Secondly, we discussed the importance of continuing our efforts to reduce the nuclear threat and the threat of proliferation of missile technology. And we agreed to work together on that. Among other things, President Yeltsin said that he hoped that START II would be ratified by the Duma, and that we would begin soon, parallel discussions on START III to take our nuclear arsenals down even more and on the ABM Treaty.
Then, the third thing we discussed was the need to do more to try to support economic development in Russia, to get Russia qualified in the IMF program -- and, of course, that requires some action in the Duma. And I expressed my strong support for IMF assistance to Russia, as well as for help on the Soviet-era debt problem and some other things that can be done, I believe, to boost Russian economic prospects and help the lives of ordinary citizens in Russia, which all of us think is very, very important.
Q Mr. President, let me ask you this. Both in Russia and in the West, the question of Yeltsin's health, President Yeltsin's health constantly comes up. How did you find Mr. Yeltsin today?
THE PRESIDENT: Today he was strong, clear alert, vigorous. He stated Russia's case very forcefully on every issue, and we did what we have done in all of our meetings -- we've now had 17 meetings in the last six and a half years. We had an agenda, we reached agreements, and we committed to go forward. So I would say today, he did very, very well.
He has acknowledged from time to time that he's had some health problems, but in all of my conversations with him about Kosovo and especially today, I found him to be alert and very much on top of his responsibilities.
Q Mr. President, let me ask you about this. NATO's operation in the Balkans has led to manifestations of anti-Western and anti-American sentiments in Russia. What are you planning to do to improve America's image in Russia's eyes, and what kind of specific, concrete steps will you take to improve relations between Russia and the U.S.?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, I hope that this interview will help to some extent by giving me the opportunity to clarify my country's position and our commitment to a strong, successful, democratic Russia, fully participating in world affairs and a leadership role, and fully integrated into Europe in the major economic and political institutions that will be so important to the welfare of ordinary Russian citizens in the new century.
Second, I think that as we work together in Kosovo and as you are able to bring to the Russian people the facts of the horrible atrocities committed against the Kosovars by Mr. Milosevic's forces, the nightmares that are so much like what we saw in Bosnia before the United States and Russia and others went in there, at least perhaps the Russian people will understand what was behind what we were doing. We sought no political or economic advantage, we sought no change in the balance of power worldwide. We were only trying to reverse ethnic cleansing and genocide. And now it is something we are doing together with the Russian forces. So I hope that will help.
And, finally, I think it's very important that we get back to our larger agenda: to reducing the nuclear threat and the burden and -- it imposes on Russian as well as American people -- to reducing the threat of the proliferation of dangerous weapons technology, and to building up the Russian economy in ways that benefit ordinary Russian citizens. These are things that are in the interest of the American people, things we are deeply committed to.
And I believe as we continue to work on these things together, I would hope that the feeling the Russian people have for the American people in the United States will warm up again, because we strongly want our partnership with Russia to endure and to be felt in the hearts of ordinary citizens in both countries.
Q Mr. President, with regard to NATO's operation in the Balkans, let me ask you this -- this question is asked by many people nowadays. Does it not seem to you that the actions of the United States and NATO show some sort of double standard -- I mean, that America doesn't act, say, in the Balkans the same way as it does in Kurdistan or Rwanda and other regions of the world, where authorities are conducting a policy of genocide or national oppression of minorities?
THE PRESIDENT: First, let me say --
Q Will NATO be just as -- I'm sorry to interrupt you --
THE PRESIDENT: Yes?
Q -- will NATO be just as firm with the KLA, for example, as it has been against Serb forces if they try to take over Kosovo or endanger the Serb population?
THE PRESIDENT: The answer to the last question has to be yes, and a strong yes. Our commitment, as I said from the beginning, is a Kosovo in which no innocent civilians were subject to death, uprooting or oppression. Our commitment, therefore, now must be to give equal protection to all the innocent civilian citizens of Kosovo. And I would just note that KLA has agreed now to demilitarize, to give up its large weapons, to suspend any kind of military operations or training, including even the wearing of the uniforms. So we will have to be vigilant, but I am pleased with the progress of that.
And I want to say again, I am committed to protecting all the people of Kosovo, and one of the reasons that I wanted the Russians to come in and first have a partnership is so that the Serbs, as well as the Kosovar Albanians, would feel that the KFOR force was committed to their protection, and that they would all try to live together again. It's going to be hard; a lot of horrible, horrible things have occurred. But we will work with them and we will do our best to help reconcile the civilians who had no role in the wrongdoing, to help them reconcile to one another.
Q And as far as the first part of my question.
THE PRESIDENT: The first part of your question, I have spoken to quite extensively in America. First, America did actually play a very major role in preserving an area of protection for the Kurds in Northern Iraq for several years after the Gulf War. And we have, several times, intervened to try to help protect the Kurds, and will continue to be sensitive to that.
Secondly, I have said repeatedly that the slaughter of the Rwandans, the genocide in Rwanda occurred in the short space of about 100 days, and we were caught flat-footed. I feel terrible that we did nothing. And I would hope that if anything like that develops in Africa again that the United States and Russia, indeed, all the major powers of the United Nations would move aggressively to try to stop it.
We should not countenance genocide or ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world if we have the power to stop it. That's not to say that we can expect all people of all different ethnic groups to always like each other and never even to fight. But when innocent civilians are subject to mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing, if we can stop it, we should.
Q Let me ask you about the role of Russia in the Balkans peace deal more in detail. There are basically two views. Some believe that NATO was forced to turn to Russia for help because only Russia could sit down with both sides and convince Milosevic to accept the peace deal. Others believe that the West could have avoided turning out Russia, and only did so out of goodwill and a desire to preserve Russia's role in the Balkans. What is your point of view?
THE PRESIDENT: I would say there's a little bit of both there. The United States and the other NATO authorities do view Russia with goodwill, not ill will, and we do want and believe Russia should appropriately have a role in the Balkans. But, also, I always believed if we were going to get a diplomatic solution here, we had to have Russia's involvement.
Keep in mind, before the bombing began, for 14 months we worked closely with the Russians to try to find a diplomatic solution in the Balkans, because we knew that Russia's positive influence would be essential. Then, when it appeared that the diplomatic solution might be possible and could bring an end to the bombing and bring the Kosovars home, President Yeltsin was willing to appoint Mr. Chernomyrdin.
He then came to us and made it clear that he would like someone who could represent the rest of Europe in these negotiations, and President Ahtisaari of Finland became his partner. And I believe that the Russian people should be very, very proud of the role, the indispensable role that Russia played in these diplomatic negotiations, and the role of Mr. Chernomyrdin in particular. He and President Ahtisaari did a very, very good job, and it's something that I think is a great credit to Russia and to the people of Russia.
Q And there's probably now one last topic that I wanted to dwell upon. Today is the last day of the G-8 summit. The Western press usually refers to it as G-7-plus-Russia, even though more than a year ago in Birmingham, Russia was officially admitted, accepted to the club of the world leading nations. Is Russia, in fact, a full-fledged member of the G-8, or is it still early to talk seriously about this because of Russia's economic weakness and is the U.S. going to pressure the IMF to provide credits to Russia, and is the U.S. going to help Russia's economy apart from IMF?
THE PRESIDENT: Let me try to answer all of your questions. There is a G-8 now, not a G-7-plus-one. It is a G-8; Russia is a full member.
Q Please do it.
THE PRESIDENT: The communique that we issued today, which covers a wide range of economic and social issues, was fully participated in by Russia. The Russians had a full hand, along with all the rest of us, in developing this communique. And President Yeltsin was at the meeting today when the leaders went over the sections and, in effect, ratified and said we wanted it out there. So I think you can feel quite good about that, and about the fact that there is a G-8 and Russia is a full member of it.
Secondly, you ask about the future and whether we would pressure the IMF to help Russia. The answer is that we have always strongly, strongly supported IMF assistance to Russia. We also strongly, however, support the changes that the Duma has been asked to make in order to give Russia a competitive world economy. Because no matter how much the IMF tries to help Russia, unless your country has made the basic changes that every country must make to compete in the global economy, the private money will not flow into Russia that will really bring it back to the position that the Russian people deserve, and that, frankly, the rest of the world needs. It's very much in the interest of the United States to have an economically successful, strong, prosperous Russia. And I will do everything I can to that end.
And your third question was whether there were things apart from the IMF that we could do to help the Russian economy, and the answer to that is, yes. And I discussed some of those with President Yeltsin today.
I want you to understand that the United States believes that a strong and prosperous, democratic Russia, actively involved with the rest of Europe, actively involved with the United States, actively working together in partnership to solve the world's problems, from terrorism to the threat of weapons of mass destruction, to the need to stop ethnic cleansing -- that this is in our interest. We do this because we genuinely want the Russian people to have a leading role in the world and to have personal prosperity, because we think it gives us a safer world and it's better for the American people.
Q Mr. President, thank you for your time, thank you for your answers, and I wish you good luck.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
END 5:34 P.M. (L)