Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
MR. MITCHELL: Good morning. Briefing today on the Vice President's forthcoming trip on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission will be [name deleted] to the Vice President and the Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; and [name deleted] who is the Senior Director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs. It will be senior administration officials, BACKGROUND ONLY briefing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're going to leave for this in the afternoon, late in the afternoon of tomorrow. We will be working in Moscow from roughly 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon on the 14th through something like 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon their time on the 16th. And then we'll head back for Washington.
This is the fourth meeting of the commission, which you may know, alternates back and forth between Moscow and Washington. The commission was established shortly after Vancouver, the first U.S.-Russia summit in the course of the Clinton administration. And the guiding idea was to try to make sure that areas of cooperation, specific areas of cooperation especially in fields of economics, science, technology and so on that were agreed to, would be executed, and that obstacles that arose to these would, to the extent necessary be handled by a high-powered commission headed by heavyweight officials of both governments -- in this case, the Vice President and the Prime Minister of Russia.
The structure of the commission has evolved over time. More committees have been set up by joint agreement when it was found that the system seemed to be working. And presently, it consists of the Business Development Committee, which is headed by Ron Brown; the Energy Commission, which on our side is headed by Secretary O'Leary -- there is an equivalent Russian opposite number in each case -- the Defense Conversion Committee, which is headed by Secretary Perry; the Environment Committee, which is headed by Carol Browner from EPA; S&T Committee, which is headed by Gibbons, the Director of OSTP here in the White House; NASA -- or, rather a Space Committee, which is headed by Dan Goldin on our side. And we are starting up a new health committee, which was agreed to the last time there was this meeting -- a meeting of the GCC here in Washington, and it will be headed by Donna Shalala.
The committee, on the one hand, is deeply into nuts and bolts operations. And the longer the clock runs on it, the deeper it gets into the details that make or break business deals, that signal to American investors that the time has come to show a keen interest in Russian -- that either sustain or delay the schedules for joint research projects and so on. However, when you look at it in the aggregate, it is a very important force holding the U.S. partnership together.
Obviously, it's a force that depends on a track record of success. So far, I think we've got the track record, but it also depends up on a growing sense of intimacy and mutual understanding between large parts of the governments of both countries, which have become ever more aware of how they think, what their regulations are, what their laws are.
It's also clear that the Russian Parliament is a real player in this, and that, in many ways, they can determine the destiny of enterprises that are started up at the government-togovernment level and pursued through this commission through the legislative process on their side.
I think I should stop there. That's giving you a pretty good thumbnail sketch. We will be releasing specific details of what's on the agenda and what's been accomplished on the other side of these meetings when we actually know what we have got nailed down. But let me try and answer your questions.
Q: The obvious question is how the recent tensions that have arisen in foreign policy between the United States and Russia would affect these meetings.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My colleague has already risen from his seat because we anticipated this, but the answer to that question I think I can take. And it is, we're not expecting that they will. The kinds of issues that we engage in in the commission are clearly in the mutual interest of both countries. And we think that there is probably a desire on the Russian side to proceed with these things. If there are disagreements, they're going to be disagreements that are specific to a given topic on the agenda rather than reflecting any particular bumps that there might be in the overall relationship.
Would you agree?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just add briefly to what my colleague has said by telling you that we have a very strong relationship with Russia. Now, in the last couple of weeks people have focused on the fact that we do have differences, some on Bosnia, some on NATO expansion. The same day those differences were aired in Budapest on NATO expansion we were able to work with Russia to sign the START I treaty into force and to agree to a CSCE peacekeeping force for Nagorno-Karabakh -- a disagreement we had had for more than two years that President Clinton and President Yeltsin have been able to settle.
So I think that the backdrop of the Vice President's visit is we have a very strong relationship. The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission itself is the expression of that; the fact that we now have seven different bilateral working groups underway, working very practically day to day with not a lot of fanfare and press coverage, at the really important things in the relationship. So we go to Moscow with a great deal of confidence that the relationship is still on track, that American national interests are still engaged, and that we have the right policy to secure them.
Q: Well, wasn't the President stunned by the lecture in Budapest that -- and surprised that they're so anti-NATO at the moment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There have been a lot of conversations preceding Budapest between Secretary Christopher and Minister Kozyrev. There have been an exchange of letters between the two Presidents. I think we were surprised, perhaps, by the tone of the address, but not by the substance. There are substantive problems that need to be worked through, and we're confident that we'll be able to do that.
Q: Could you characterize the letters, what the President's letter said to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we normally don't do that. We rarely do that, and I'd prefer not to today.
Q: What does it portend? What does it mean?
Q: Just in the context of the strong relations that you say we still have with the Russians, how do the letters lend themselves to that statement, if at all?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not going to get into what was in the letters because they're private communications between two leaders. I will say that our agenda on NATO is focusing now on something very practical. Russia is a member of the Partnership for Peace. Russia is deliberating now on whether or not to sign the implementing documents that would create a work plan for them in Partnership for Peace. And we are confident that, after a series of discussions on this issue that will take place in the next couple of weeks, in the next month or so, that they will choose to sign those documents. And so we're confident that we can ride through this current difficulty.
Q: Will Gore be seeing Yeltsin on this, or anything else?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's possible. But as you know, it appears that President Yeltsin has had minor surgery, and that this is supposed to keep him essentially sidelined, and we've been told that that period will cover the time when the Vice President is in Moscow. However, it's really up to him. And if he feels well enough to have a meeting, then the Vice President would be delighted and prepared for it.
Q: Before the President's ailment, had there been a meeting scheduled tentatively or permanently?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. There have been discussions about this possibility, but nothing had been booked, and so, consequently, nothing is being taken off the books. And we'll just simply have to wait and see how he is feeling.
Q: I realize your agenda is not out, you're going to be putting it out, but can you give us a little more detailed idea of what -- in the context of the commission, what Gore and Chernomyrdin at these particular meetings will sit down and do? Is it like an action list of problems they have to make decisions on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I can describe that. Forgive me, my head is so saturated with the details after spending days looking at the books, meaning the briefing books, that it gets hard to prioritize. But I'll try and give you a sense of what a typical meeting might cover and how it's structured.
The whole commission, consisting of the U.S. side plus their Russian opposite numbers, will be hooped around a long table with a backup staff behind them in Moscow with full translation. The agenda shows specific times set aside to discuss each committee. When the time for discussion on what has been going on in the committee comes, either the Vice President or Chernomyrdin will introduce the meeting and then the actual -- with some general remarks -- and then the actual committee heads will proceed to give a report on what they have been doing. And in essence, it is a joint report in which they have been working on together, delivered jointly to the Prime Minister of Russia and to the Vice President of the United States.
And these reports will indicate where on the agenda pending actions they have been successful and where there are hangups. And there will be some discussion as to how to get past the hangups either through ongoing discussions in side rooms or in the aftermath as we go on beyond this session.
Typically, there is an effort at these meetings to hand off issues that are completed or nearly completed into the cycle of presidential meetings between the President of the United States and the President of Russia so that the things tend to interact.
Typically, to give you an idea of what would be on the agenda of one of the committees, if you took, let's say, the Energy Committee on -- its agenda would be bifurcated -- they deal with nuclear and nonnuclear energy matters. Under nuclear, for example, they would be talking about the state agreed-to and ongoing efforts to improve the safety of older types of Russian nuclear reactors, power reactors. They would be talking about plans to retire from plutonium production several Russian nuclear reactors. They would be talking about efforts to improve nuclear accountability in a very detailed way.
On the non-nuclear side, they would be talking about specific energy legislation; they would be talking about the state of agreed bilateral programs to work on energy conservation, on analysis of the environmental consequences of certain forms of energy production and on certain kinds of joint research that relate to energy. That's a very fragmentary list.
Q: All the Cabinet people will be there with --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All the people I named, yes -- well, some will arrive on the second day. Secretary Brown will be coming in on the second day from a meeting elsewhere in Europe. Secretary Perry will be coming in on the second day from a meeting elsewhere in Europe. But when their subject is discussed, they will be at the table.
Q: When you're talking about these specific nuclear issues, is there a possibility with these specifics that something could come up like the North Korean scenario where the U.S. negotiators would offer something to replace some of these graphitebased plants that they have, some of the more dangerous plants, to build light water reactors? Is that a possibility? Are you talking about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Do you mean in exactly the same way as in the North Korean --
Q: Not exactly, but is the scenario similar? Is there something going on --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: More likely we would be working with them, let's say, to help finance specific engineering studies that look to different ways of replacing the present type of nuclear reactor that's now producing plutonium, for example.
Q: And the U.S. would help finance that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have ways in which we can help that. But the larger costs are things that we're going to discuss with them, but the United States is not signaling to them that we can handle that kind of cost. It will have to be done in some other fashion.
Q: Is there any indication that the Russian government is distracted by the developments in Chechnya?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not as I stand here before you. I mean, literally, I don't think so. I think the people we're meeting are specialists in their field with Cabinet-level briefs, and they're going to be focused on what they've been negotiating over these last couple of months with their opposite numbers.
Q: Does the U.S. have a reaction to what's happening in Chechnya?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, the President gave you, I think, our reaction yesterday, and it is that we continue today to follow events there rather closely. There have been a number of developments today. We obviously look upon this as an internal affair of the government of Russia for all Russians. The province in question is part of Russia, and one must keep that in mind. We have talked to the Russians about our hope that bloodshed can be minimized, that the use of force can be minimized, and that they might be successful as they, I think, want to be successful in negotiating an end to this conflict and not ending it with force. The President covered this yesterday, and that is really the extent of our remarks.
Q: Who have been the people on either side that -- you said you've talked to Russia. Who in the U.S. has talked to who --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our Embassy in Moscow, of course, is in daily contact with the Russian government on all issues, but this one has been handled by the Embassy in Moscow.
Q: Do you know if the peace talks began?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not -- I don't know for sure. I've seen conflicting press reports, as I think you have, this morning. I've seen press reports of military action outside of Grozny, and also press reports that the Chechens are interested in a diplomatic dialogue. Those are just press reports; it's hard to know how to weigh them.
Q: This military action -- that's one of the reasons so many Americans are still skittish about doing business in Russia. When Ron Brown holds his session at the meeting, will this be a major topic, the fact that American businesses are still somewhat uncertain about doing business because -- just because of this and other difficulties in doing business in Russia? Is that a part of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think -- I'd be surprised to find that what's going on in that corner of Russia is a major factor in the thinking of American business about Russia in general, or various places in Russia where we know their interests to be concentrated.
If you're an American oil or gas company your interest is focused on where you think the oil and gas is and what kind of business you think you can do with the Russians to get at it.
Q: Speaking generally because of the uncertainty in Russia, American businesses are skittish about going there and investing. Will that be a topic of discussion when you go?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, broken down into the specifics, as in we need a bilateral investment treaty; where is the Russian legislative process in course of getting that settled. We need more transparent regulations, we need tax laws that are clearer to outside investors; where are those? There have been joint U.S.-Russia meetings on tax law and energy law which have formed joint recommendations. What is the Russian government's attitude toward these recommendations, and how about implementation? So it gets down very, very -- to the very fine grain of what would interest the businessman about doing business in Russia.
Q: Will there be any business representatives making this trip?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With us? No. We'll be meeting, as always, with U.S. people who are doing business in Russia. But what we're taking with us are Cabinet-level people plus the necessary staff.
Q: What will be the reason for those meetings be? What will the purpose of those meetings --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Touching base with the -- that is the reason, to touch base with them --
Q: To see what their concerns are?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Each time we've had one of these meetings, whether here or there, there's always been a period of time when people have been brought in and given a shot at directly expressing to the Vice President what kind of success or problems they're encountering. And, of course, Ron Brown has been very active in Russia personally, and so has Secretary O'Leary, and for that matter, also Secretary Perry, whose actual brief in the commission is defense conversion, which is an industrial matter.
Q: Is the tightening up of Yeltsin, this, what seems to be almost a new attitude -- is that the result of the rise of nationalism, or is he trying to contend with critics at home, or what's his problem all of a sudden?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not sure I accept the premise of the question that there is a basic problem here. President Yeltsin is someone who confronts a great many problems at home, as he would be the first to admit -- economic problems, social problems, political problems. He is doing his best, obviously, to try to overcome them. I cannot really speak to that part of the question. You'd have to ask him or a member of his staff. I can speak --
Q: I would like to ask him --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can speak to another question, though, and that is, what is the state of our relationship. And I have been a little bit surprised to read in the press lately articles to the effect that somehow the relationship is plummeting downwards. That's not the view of anybody in this --
Q: You're surprised by that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm surprised. I'm surprised, because I think we've got to have a rather mature attitude about this relationship and a mature and pragmatic set of expectations about this relationship.
My colleague has described to you a relationship that has many, many dimensions. And a lot is going right in that relationship. Of course, two countries the size of the United States and Russia, with our respective world roles, also have problems. But we are rather calm. We're going to work through the problems. We are absolutely committed to our policy of engagement with Russia, support for Russian reform. We think it's in our basic national interest.
So as we go off tomorrow to Moscow, we do with some anticipation, but it's optimistic anticipation that the Vice President will be announcing a number of agreements that will take the relationship forward and that we will take on the problems in the relationship on Bosnia, on NATO expansion and other issues, and we'll deal with them. And I would wager that in a couple of months, we'll have something good to report on the NATO expansion issue.
Q: Would you say these reports are overblown?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I certainly think they're overblown.
Q: What do you think is going to be good about it, that Yeltsin will accede to our goals?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, the United States has a basic national interest in the success of reform -- democratic, political and economic reform -- in Russia. If you measure Russia's progress on both counts against where the situation was a year ago when the Vice President was there, a year ago next month when the President was there, certainly Russia is a more stable country than it was a year ago today. It is a country that has gone far down the road of economic reform -- much farther than a lot of us thought it would go a year ago last January when we were in Moscow with President Clinton.
And so, we think that the status of reform is actually quite good in Russia. The status of our relationship is also quite good. We have some problems, but we will work through them, and we'll keep a measured view of them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have a question for you folks. I steer clear of very detailed discussions of what's going on because of time limitations, but when we get back, would it be of interest to you to go through a more detailed discussion of what was really on the agenda?
THE PRESS: Yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Then I'll work with our press people.
END 12:03 P.M. EST
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/269418