Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
5:12 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Sorry we had to postpone this. I hope we didn't inconvenience any of you.
In the midst of all the news yesterday here about the very dramatic events between Jordan and Israel, another dramatic thing happened that was, in essence, overshadowed by yesterday's events in the Middle East, and that was, of course, the agreement in Moscow between Meri and Yeltsin that Russian troops would leave Estonia by August 31st.
As you know, there are two agreements. The first is that Yeltsin said that he would withdraw all of his military forces by August 31st of this year. Second, Estonia agreed that there will be a review process for all of those Russian military retirees who would like to stay in Estonia as residents, and that this process will include oversight from the CSCE. It doesn't guarantee that all the 10,000 Russian military retirees in Estonia will in fact be given residency in Estonia, but it does guarantee them a fair hearing. And I think the presumption is both from the Estonian and Russian side that the majority of these people will eventually get resident status.
I've been told I should mention that this is on BACKGROUND, and I am a senior administration official.
Third, they agreed that the Russians would leave a nuclear sub training facility called Paldiski. They did not agree on the details. The Estonians and Russians continue those discussions today, and I think in a number of days they should have a written agreement that include the details of the departure, the time line for departure, and other factors. But there is an agreement that Russia will leave that facility.
Now, this in my mind was a dramatic set of announcements because up until yesterday morning I think everybody in Estonia -- on the Estonian side, Russian side, those of us who followed it closely here in the U.S. and our friends in Europe, all agreed that yesterday's negotiations would be quite difficult. And I don't think anybody expected that they would result in the agreement that we saw.
Why is that? I think there are two basic reasons. The issues that were at discussion -- the fate of military pensioners and the fate of the Russian troops there -- are issues that ultimately could only be decided by heads of state. And as Yeltsin, I think quite appropriately said, they failed at every level of negotiations until they got to the head of state level, and it was only there where the people had sufficient authority to make the tough decisions which, I think, will be criticized by opponents of these actions in both Russia and Estonia. In fact, we've seen some of that today in the commentary from Estonia.
The second reason is something that Boris Yeltsin also mentioned today to the press; in fact, AFP picked it up. And that is that Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl and other Western leaders had an effect in convincing the Russian leadership that this was a very important issue in our relationship with Russia. And, therefore, what I wanted to do today basically, before getting to your questions, was to outline for you what the role has been over the last 18 months.
The President mentioned at the end of his press conference yesterday in the East Room that this has been one of his most important foreign policy objectives over the last 18 months. And it has been. He raised it as a priority in Vancouver. He raised it in his three subsequent meetings with Yeltsin, including the most recent one in Naples where it took up a good third of the 90-minute meeting. He has written President Yeltsin and the Baltic leadership on many occasions over the last 18 months in this issue. He has made phone calls to them.
Secretary Christopher has been very active with the Balts and with the Russians. And I think it culminated in the President's last trip to Europe, where in Riga he had a very long, very detailed conversation with President Meri and the other two Baltic presidents. He then took ideas from President Meri to his meeting with Yeltsin in Naples and walked Yeltsin through those ideas.
Last week as a follow-up the President wrote a very long and frank letter to Yeltsin about what was at stake here. He also wrote a long letter to President Meri about the need to come to an agreement. Strobe Talbot, who was in Bangkok over the weekend for the ASEAN meetings, had a meeting with Kozyrev. They dealt at length with this issue. There were a number of other contacts last week both from the White House and the State Department with the Estonian and Russian leadership. So very, very active and determined U.S. involvement.
The President also is in touch with the Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on this issue over the last couple of weeks; indeed, over the last couple of months. And both of those leaders were actively involved over the last couple of weeks in trying to push both sides towards an agreement.
To give you another indication of how much this was on the President's mind, when the Russian Speaker of the Federation Council was meeting with Vice President Gore in the Roosevelt Room last Thursday, the President came down to that meeting and made a surprise visit to that meeting. And he raised one issue during the surprise visit and it was the Baltics and it was the fate of the Estonia withdrawal talks. And he made it very clear to the Russian parliamentary delegation that this was going to be an issue that would be at the center of U.S.-Russian relations, and it would be an impediment in that relationship if it was not decided by August 31st.
Now, we also put resources behind the rhetoric. As you know, we have committed $160 million from our aid funds to build housing in Russia for Russian military officers who are withdrawing from the Baltic countries.
Originally, we intended to build all 5,000 of the housing units. This past spring, in an effort to really jump-start the negotiations, we decided to offer half of them 2,500 in vouchers worth $25,000 apiece, so that the Russian officers who are at the focus of the negotiations between Estonia, Latvia and the Russians could leave this summer. And the way it will work is, the Russian officer leaving one of those two countries identifies a house or apartment within Russia that he wants to purchase; he is given a $25,000 certificate by the United States to purchase it. It allows the Russian leadership to move their officers out much earlier on a much accelerated basis than was thought possible.
In addition to that, I mentioned this Paldiski nuclear facility which is still being discussed by the Russians and Estonians -- we have committed, the President has committed $2 million to help the Estonians clean up that facility after the Russians depart. When I mean "clean up," to deal with the environmental consequences of the fact that it was a nuclear facility for many years.
Let me just conclude by giving you my sense of what all this means and trying to place it into a framework for you.
The President mentioned something which I think is most significant when he talked about it yesterday. When the Russian troops depart Estonia and Latvia on the 31st, they will also be departing from Germany. In fact, I believe that Chancellor Kohl and President Yeltsin are going to be in Berlin on August 31st to watch the last Russian troops depart. And that will mark the first time since the end of the second world war that Russian, or the Soviet Union, has not had troops stationed in Central and Eastern Europe. That is a very significant history fact.
President Meri spoke this morning about this being the end of the second world war for the Estonian people. That war began with their occupation as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrap Pact. It has been one of the greatest concerns that the United States has had since the end -- the breakup of the Soviet Union. And our view, to get to my second point, is that these three Baltic nations are looking westward. They are seeking to integrate their futures with Europe and North America. And the essence of our policy has been that we want to help them in that process. It is much easier to accomplish that if they are free of Russian troops on their soil.
I also think that it speaks to a very important international principle at the close of the post-Cold War -- of the Cold War era and at the beginning of the post-Cold War era, and that is that as we deal with the residue of the Cold War, some nations find themselves with troops on their soil. Some nations agree that the troops should remain; other nations say the troops should leave. It's a very important principle for us that if countries want troops to leave their soil, they ought to leave.
In this case, it has been worked out in a very peaceful, diplomatic way. And I think that we would like to commend the Russian leadership for having accomplished this and done it in such a way that now they can begin to build some bridges with the Balts of the future because they must live beside each other in the future.
Q: Yeltsin's statement at the press conference in Naples, his nyet to I think it was Helen's question about are your troops going to leave by August 31st -- that was widely cited in the media anyway as a sort of slap to Clinton, showing some disrespect for Clinton; there they were on the stage. I wonder to what extent that might have fired up the President to write this letter that you said he then wrote to Yeltsin which was very frank -- you described it as being frank. And what makes you think that Yeltsin won't do something unexpected again or maybe expected and change his tune again between now and August 31st?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, on the first part of your question, I can assure you the President didn't take it that way. He had in Naples -- I was in the meeting, was able to observe it -- a very good discussion with President Yeltsin on this issue where they talked about some of the broader issues that I've just mentioned, but also the details of what the President had learned in Riga.
The President saw himself, I think viewed himself in Naples as someone who was trying to be helpful behind the scenes to both sides, because we have a good relationship with the Russian government. We were in no way treating Russia as an adversary in this process, but as a friend. And we have a good relationship with Estonia. He did not take it as a slap. Others may have read it that way, but I don't think it was.
I think the way we read it at the time, and some people may have mentioned this in the press briefing in Naples, was that we were seeing public negotiations or negotiations in public by both sides that week. We saw comments in Riga that were very definitely part of the negotiations, and that's what Yeltsin's remarks were.
Second, President Yeltsin is a man of his word. He has kept every agreement he has made with us over the past -- this administration -- over the past 18 months. He certainly has our trust, our full trust, and we have no doubt that he's going to comply with his commitment and that Russian troops will be withdrawn by the 31st of August.
Q: You said there were still some issues being discussed, including what to do about the sub training base. Is there any chance that this agreement is fragile and that these unresolved issues could torpedo the thing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't believe so. I think the most significant -- I saw a press report to that effect today, trying to make that point. I don't think so at all. Yesterday, you saw President Meri and President Yeltsin stand up and announce an agreement and then sign an agreement, and they committed to it as heads of state.
What remains to be decided are very minor technical details pertaining to the withdrawal schedule from Paldiski. They've made the decision to leave; now they need to agree on the number of months and so forth, the number of people that will be left behind. And so I think this is something that the experts will wrap up on both sides.
Q: What do you think was the effect of the threat contained in this vote by the U.S. Senate on July 13th to link U.S. aid to Russia to Yeltsin's decision on the pullout of troops? Do you think it had an effect, or maybe been an incentive given by the administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it certainly got the attention of the Russian Duma, because the Russian Duma spoke out about it, and also the Russian government. I think that the actions of both the administration and the Congress probably combined to have an effect on the Russian leadership. But, ultimately, if you listen to President Yeltsin's words this morning, it was the letter from Bill Clinton and one from Helmut Kohl that seemed to have had an effect on him.
Each of those leaders, Clinton and Kohl, have very good relationships with him, relationships with trust, and I think both were -- I can speak for the United States -- I think we were able to convey to the Russian leadership that, like it or not, this would be a problem in our relationship if the troops hadn't been pulled out by August 31st.
Q: I understand that Yeltsin called personally the President informing him yesterday, last night informing him of the agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that's not correct. We heard from the Russians, as well as the Estonians, after the negotiations were completed. They were in touch with us with messages for the President. But there was not direct phone call last night. There have been many phone calls about this, but not yesterday.
Q: The Senate passed a provision on the foreign operations bill that ties continued aid to Russia to this troop pullout from these three countries by August 31st. You opposed it in the past. Will this new development make you more neutral toward that Senate version?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would think that if, as we expect, the troops are withdrawn by the 31st, then there will be no need for the amendment, and happily so. And I think the sponsors of the amendment will be the first probably to congratulate both sides on their achievement.
Q: Can we talk about Bosnia if you're finished with this subject?
Q: Can I ask one more question on this? Are you optimistic that the parliaments are going to pass this, I mean, in both Russia and Estonia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there's going to be support, tremendous support for it in both countries. There will also be opposition. There's no question about that. There is an -- both are democracies, and both have opposition parties in their parliaments. And I've seen some press reporting from the opposition in Estonia today, and I imagine there's going to be some opposition from Russia, from the Russian Duma. But my sense is that both governments will succeed in getting these agreements ratified by their legislatures.
Q: Do we know what the Russian intentions are in terms of the latest developments in Bosnia, where it appears that the Serbs have attacked the U.N. convoy and are turning their backs on the agreement? Do we think the Russians are still aboard this proposed peace plan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I wasn't prepared to discuss Bosnia when I came here. I haven't looked at it in a couple of hours, so I just don't want to mislead you, but we can get you an answer to that question.
Q: Do I understand that Clinton and Yeltsin did not talk in the last couple of days on any subject?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They have not talked by phone since the Naples summit. They have been in touch by letter on a couple of issues, not just the Baltic issue but on a couple of issues since then.
Q: What are the other issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we don't always tell everything that we're doing in diplomatic channels. Some of them have to remain confidential.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 5:29 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269409