Bill Clinton photo

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials

December 15, 1993

The Briefing Room

2:46 P.M. EST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me make a few comments about our perception of the early and incomplete election returns that have come in from the Russian elections. With me is my colleague. He will speak to that in some detail. I think all of us who are following these election and have been following them over the last three days would agree that the results are incomplete, they are partial, and they are far from conclusive. My colleague will give you a detailed sense of our understanding of how the vote counting, which, of course, in Russia is by hand, not by machine, is progressing.

Let me just give you a few comments on our reaction to these events and our policy. As the President mentioned, this is clearly -- what we are seeing is clearly a very strong vote of protest. This is not surprising. Before the election, as we tried to handicap it, we felt that the communist and agrarian parties might get up to a quarter of the vote. We thought that at least -- by the end of last week that Zhirinovsky might end up at around 10 to 12 percent. Nobody, I think, at least in our government -- I don't think anybody in the press felt that Zhirinovsky would do quite as well as he seems to be doing.

But it is not surprising that this was protest vote and as the President said, very much a vote, we think, based on economic conditions. And it's worth remembering that over the last two years they have gone through a very difficult economic transition. Living standards have declined. Inflation has been a major problem. Crime has become perhaps the major problem in the eyes of most Russian citizens, certainly in the major cities. And all of these gut issues, these central issues in the campaign, seem to have gone well for Zhirinovsky, who spoke to them, and for the communists, and perhaps not as well for the reformers.

Zhirinovsky and the communists campaigned very effectively, particularly on television. They got their vote out. And so that, I think, could be a number of the reason why we think they have done rather well.

Overall, our view across the board from the President on down, including the Vice President who is in Moscow today -- our view is that these elections have been a very positive development for the Russian people and for the Russian government, but most importantly, for the evolution of democracy in Russia. The fact of the elections themselves, the fact that they were held in an organized and peaceful way three months after the events of early October is -- two months after the events of early October -- is testimony to how far these people have come, the Russian people, in the last two years.

The fact that the Constitution was approved is a very significant fact. It provides what the Russian people and the Russian political system has lacked over the last two years. And that is some structure, some rules of the road that would govern political debate and govern the responsibilities and obligations and how they break down between the executive branch and the legislative branch.

And the constitution and the new Parliament represent two new foundations for a post-Soviet era. And so, I think, in its largest sense, the vote on Sunday and its aftermath represents the passing away of the Soviet era and its major institutions and the beginning of something quite new. And as the President said, it's quite healthy that the Parliament would be a legitimate source of power, perhaps competing power in the future with the executive.

What will our policy be in response to these events? I think it's quite clear that we're going to continue very strongly, privately and publicly, support for Russian reform. And that means a continuation of American economic assistance. It means a continuation of our efforts to lead a multinational coalition in support of their macroeconomic reforms through the IMF and the World Bank and the EBRD.

And, in fact, the lesson for us of this election is that we need to reaffirm and reinvigorate our support for reform. And along those lines, the President sent a letter to President Yeltsin, which was delivered yesterday, and I believe the formal copy delivered today by the Vice President, and that letter set out some of the points that I have just mentioned: the fact that the elections were historic, that the Constitution gives them a boost as they enter this new era, and a solid promise from the United States that we will continue across the board our policies of support.

The Vice President, as you know, met with President Yeltsin today. He also met with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, and he reaffirmed that basic message of support from President Clinton. In return, President Yeltsin was able to affirm for Vice President Gore that the Russian government would maintain a very strong reform direction and, specifically, that the economic reforms would continue, that political reform would continue, that he looks forward to working with the Russian Parliament and looks forward to the debates that are yet to come, and that also, importantly, the main lines of Russian foreign policy and the respect that the Russian government intends to have for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors will be a feature -- a continuing feature of Russian government policy.

So I would just say, based on everything I've told you about what our policy is, about what we've heard from the Russians, we do not intend to engage in any kind of reassessment of our policy. There's no need for that because we remain convinced quite sincerely and quite strongly of the importance of the policy and of its correctness.

And the last thing I would say is that as we go through these inevitable ups and downs in the drama of the evolution of Russian reform, it's going to be important for us to keep our sights on our long-term interests, and the long-term interests we have centrally in supporting Russian reform. We think this is going to be a decades-long process. We've said that for a year now. We don't think it's wise to run or reexamine a policy at the first sign of trouble, and that is why we intend to stick to our current line of policy -- contrary to what you may have read in some of the newspapers this morning -- and that would be support for reform in Russian and for all the other new independent states.

Those are the general remarks I wanted to make. I think my colleague has some remarks specifically on how we are handicapping the Russian elections. And then both of us will be glad to take whatever questions you have.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. What I thought I would do is simply try to give a brief civics lesson on what we understand is going on, and be sure that we're all working from the same base.

First, the election we're talking about here, if we set aside the referendum on the Constitution, is being conducted in three parts. There is an election which is for the upper house of the Parliament, which no one really has much information about at all yet and has received almost no attention. And so, unfortunately, I'm going to be able to say very little about it. But it is to have representatives, two each from 89 what are called subjects of the federation -- what I would put in your terms as Russia's states. These are the political entities which are to be the sort of unit of local government in Russia.

The lower house of the Parliament is being elected in two parts, really two separate elections. The one which is getting all the attention is electing 225 delegates on the basis of party affiliation, according to a proportional representation system. In order to elect anybody, you have to get at least five percent of the total vote. So some of the parties of the 13 who were running aren't even going to be in the Parliament in that basis. And we aren't quite sure who that's going to be yet, but several will not make it above the five-percent line.

Therefore, what we're talking about here -- and which is getting all the publicity -- is how the seats, 225, one half of the lower house -- are going to be apportioned amongst the parties. Now, you've all seen various percentage figures about who's getting what in all this, but we are, frankly, being very cautious about it because there's still some one-third of the vote that has not been given as yet. And that is mainly, as we understand it, from the large urban districts; frankly, the areas where the reformers expect to do better than the others.

The other election that's going on, which is for the second half of the lower house -- another 225 seats -- is done by what are called simply single-member districts. And there it's a winner-take-all proposition. We've had reporting from somewhere between 160 and 175 of those districts. And what we know about that is that the biggest winner in that is a group calling itself independent. That is, candidates who have declared no party affiliation are winning in at least over 100 of them, or have won them. The other winners, frankly, I think are not very meaningful to discuss because we don't know exactly which districts we're talking about yet. But in those, what we see as a phenomenon is that the reform parties are getting at least a third if not more. The communist and agrarian parties are getting maybe a quarter or less, and the Zhirinovsky party is getting almost nothing. Part of that reflects the fact that Zhirinovsky's party only ran candidates in 70 of the 225 districts. So they're not even in the running in a number of those cases.

So what we are looking at here as everybody tries to assess what's coming in and what's happening, is a Parliament in which there are really three separate elections going on. The single-member districts seem to be producing a large block of selfdeclared independent delegates. The other elections seem to be producing large blocks of what we would call supporters of reform and critics of reform, for a lack of a better way of putting them together. And, all in all, there is no assurance that, certainly on the critics of reform side, they are going to work together or necessarily see eye to eye on very much.

In sum, what I think I'm really trying to say to you is that as you look at the sort of percentages of the vote that are being given, remember that it doesn't translate directly into percentage of members of the Parliament. It is quite likely that the biggest blocks in the Parliament, according to my own judgment, are going to be, first, the reformers; second, the self-declared independents; third, probably the communists; and then I think you will get the Zhirinovsky group. And that is really going to be the shake-out of the real power in the Parliament. We have no idea right now, frankly, what the shake-out or the relationships will be in the upper house. That one is a total unknown.

And I guess I would leave it at that in order to take questions.

Q: Are your figures, both figures, independent from the ones officially put out by the government?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are trying to use the ones that are put out in what we consider to be the formal way by the Central Election Commission. And, quite honestly, in Moscow over the last three days, you can get just about any figure you want from somebody. But I -- what I'm trying to give you are figures in which I think we have confidence. There is a large set of figures that are out there in which, yes, maybe they'll be right, maybe they won't. But we just don't know yet.

Q: And how do you explain -- just on the numbers --how do you explain the decreasing percentage of eligible voters that has been put out by the government? You know the total -- this is a Constitution question, not a --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can only give you sort of the explanation that I have heard. First of all, a week ago, I guess they started out with something like 107-plus million. One of the things they did was to say that Checheniya, which did not hold the election at all, was not going to be counted in the process.

Then there was a reduction which essentially they said reflected people who didn't register in the end. That in reconciling the voter lists across -- you had to reregister for the election -- that they were talking originally about figures that reflected where they were in the referendum, as I recall. And then, when they finally compared the figures with what the real registration was, there was a further decline. Now, I can only tell you what I understand they are saying.

Q: The President said during his statement that you need to find a way to make reform affect for the better the lives of the daily people -- people's daily lives. You said there's not going to be a change in policy. But is there some way brainstorming going on, or do you think there will be within the administration to rechannel aid or to find a way that economic reform won't cause so much pain that you get this kind of backlash? Are you thinking about ways to do that and could you share any ideas you might have on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I meant it when I say we are not engaged in a reassessment of our policy. Our policy in a very broad way, as all of you know, is that we're supporting reform forces, we are not supporting forces that are against reform. It's not just a government, it's not just one person, it's reformers throughout Russia.

Now, obviously, what I think has to happen now is that the Russian politicians, reform politicians, have to listen to what people are saying and draw their own conclusions. We are responding in the conceptualization of our aid efforts and their implementation to a reform agenda that has been set out by the Russian government. I'm assuming that that agenda for rapid economic change and a transition to a market economy, integration of that economy into the West, and an opening of that economy to Western private sector trade and investment will not change.

Now, parts of the policy, or subsets of that larger policy, could. And if the Russian government, for instance, decides it wants to put more of an effort into one area versus another, then perhaps someplace down the road in a couple of months we might have a discussion with them about reorienting some of our own aid.

But that's, I think, hypothetical at this point, and I think we're happy with where we are. And I would say the Russian government is happy with where it is in terms of its basic economic direction -- not denying, of course, the fact that there has been a message sent and people have to hear that message, as the President has said.

Q: What is the appropriate posture, apart from policy, for this government toward the insurgents who were elected in such unexpectedly high numbers?

Q: What was the question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question was, what is the appropriate posture for the United States towards those people, maybe new people, new faces, who have been elected --

Q: Zhirinovsky and his group.


I think, generally, I would say we have for some time -- certainly many months -- been making an effort to reach out to different segments of the political spectrum in Russia. Our colleague in Moscow is very much a part of that and can speak to that in some detail.

Obviously, we will want to get to know the new faces in the new Parliament. The Parliament is going to be an important source of power and influence in the political process. We'll want to be connected to it and build bridges to it, as I'm sure our Congress will.

Having said that, you asked about Mr. Zhirinovsky. I would just note that the Vice President did not take the opportunity to meet him this week. And I would just refer you to the comments the Vice President made about Mr. Zhirinovsky's policies. I think the Vice President used the words "reprehensible" and "anathema" to our own belief, as to the direction of the Russian government and Russian society.

So I just can't tell you much about how we're going to relate to him. I can tell you, based on his public pronouncements, including ones yesterday about nuclear war with Germany and Japan, that we don't have a lot of common ground here now. (Laughter.) We're not starting from a very good base. And I think we'll concentrate all efforts, as always, on reformers -- broadly defined.

Q: The President suggested when he was here a short time ago that perhaps the people who voted for this man and his candidates didn't share or even know about a lot of his more extraordinary statements. Is that credible?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the Russian people are fair people. They certainly want to be fair to their neighbors, including the Germans and the Japanese. And I, for one, can't believe that nine out of ten Russians would agree with what Zhirinovsky said about Russia's relations with Germany and Japan, for instance, or about some of his comments about the Russian -- the Jewish minority in Russia.

Q: But is it plausible that such people wouldn't know about those comments?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's certainly plausible, because the campaign was highly -- like many campaigns -- was highly simplistic in the message that was sent. And the message that Zhirinovsky had was a simple message: "You're sick of crime. I'm going to clean it up. You're sick of inflation. I'm going to lower it. You've been suffering economically through this transition. I'm going to fix those problems."

I didn't see in Zhirinovsky's statements a major concentration on foreign policy, although he did speak to that. So I would just leave it, Brit, by saying I very much agree with what the President said: This was a vote on economic grounds. And most Russians certainly, I think, would not agree with a lot of what he's saying.

Q: When you said that those two parties got the other -- got their vote out, that the communists and Zhirinovsky's groups got their vote out, are we to take it to mean that you're disappointed in what Yeltsin did about getting his vote out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No -- I mean, I don't want to speak to that. President Yeltsin did not, as you know, campaign on behalf of any one party. And he campaigned primarily for the Constitution. I think our initial judgment is that some of the parties that have had success had success on television. That would include, by the way, Yavlinsky, who didn't perhaps do quite as well as he thought he might in the polls. But he was a very effective campaigner on television, and really built his base from a very small level to a higher level as the election approached. But I wouldn't want to characterize how we feel about every aspect of the election.

Q: On this question of the pain that the Russian people are feeling, and the President's suggestion that that was the basis of this protest vote -- in the beginning of this administration, there was a lot of talk about the idea of perhaps a social safety net; the suggestion, as well, at the G-7 ministerial that this privatization fund could be used to help workers be retrained or keep hospitals working; as well as the question of a currency stabilization fund, which is essential. At the same time, you say that the Russians have chosen a course of reform; we haven't imposed it on them, but we haven't been willing to release that money. For political reasons we haven't been willing to give a social safety net for fear that congressmen would say our own workers don't have it. And on the question of the leap of faith -- the currency stabilization fund, we said they haven't made enough and deep enough reforms to get that money going. Is it time for this administration to think about being a little more lenient on both of these issues?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just say in response that we start with the assumption that the basic work of reform is for the Russian people to accomplish. What we can contribute, what the Germans, the Japanese, the EU, can contribute is an important contribution, but not decisive.

Now, what we have tried to do over the last year is figure out where we have comparative advantage. And we think, for instance, that our effort on privatization and small business development, technical assistance for commercial banks, and so forth is the kind of things that America does well, given the strengths in our private sector.

If the Russian government, based on this election or based on any other calculation, decides it wants to undertake a major program to buttress the social safety net, we're not necessarily going to be opposed to that, but it's such an enormous task requiring so many tens of billions of dollars that I would think that would primarily be a Russian government project. I would think that the West, including the United States, would stick to what we do best.

Now, in terms of what Russia will do with the IMF, I think it's completely up to the Russian reformers, people like Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin, Fedorov and Chubays to decide how they want to proceed on economic reform. They have a relationship with the IMF, as you know, and what the Russian government has decided with the IMF is that they want to have a convertible currency, but before they get there they have to hit certain targets. The Russian government has agreed to those targets.

And I think our posture would be let the Russian government and the IMF talk to each other. If there's a change we'll respond to it, but right now there isn't a change. So in that sense, Carl, your question is a little bit hypothetical.

Q: But in sticking to those targets or precisely what the pain has been for the Russian people, it has led to this strong protest vote. Isn't it a time for the West and the United States taking the lead to be a little bit more lax and a little bit more lenient so the Russian people don't feel so much pain and feel this need to have a protest vote?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm going to give my colleague a shot at this question, but I just want to say one thing first, and that is that the Russian people, two years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed, almost to the day, made a basic decision that they were going to reject the policies, economic policies, of the past and try something new. I don't think anybody can say whether it's radical shock therapy or gradual reform if it had been instituted on January 1, '92, that it would have been easy or would have been easier. The fact is that Russia now lives in an environment where everybody around it is reforming in Eastern and Central Europe. Russia is reforming. And that transition is going to be peaceful, whether it's shock therapy or whether it's gradual.

The question is how soon do you get to the point where you can begin -- finish the process of tearing down the old structures and begin the process of building up new ones and integrating. And I would think, based on the experience in Poland and the Czech republic and Hungary, that probably the way to do it is the way the Russian reformers have done it.

But you might want to speak to that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wanted simply to make an additional point, and that is I would like to come back again to the more than one election here. It wasn't all a protest. The fact is the public in a rather substantial way affirmed the Constitution, which is a very, very profound and basic change.

If there was any referendum on reform in this election, it was that they decided that they wanted to put in place a new constitutional structure. So that was one vote.

The second vote is all these single-member districts. There is not really an indication to me yet that they have rejected reform or voted anything in the way of a rejection of reform.

The third vote, yes -- I mean, all right, in this party proportional vote, I think there is a protest vote. Some people probably like Zhirinovsky. But the fact of the matter is this is a vote with many interpretations. And I would come back to your question. It wasn't a single vote by voters. They had four ballots. And, frankly, what they did is probably what most voters do. They had their own views about pieces of the puzzle. So I would only ask that people keep in proportion this one vote and consider that others were cast at the same time.

Q: Will the reformers have to form a coalition with the communists in order to have a governing majority in the Parliament?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the answer to that is we can't tell because we don't know what the membership of the Parliament in terms of its political structure is going to be yet, what the blocs will be and what their strength will be.

Q: Why the conflicting signals out of the White House on our policy toward Russia the last couple of days?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me just tell you -- I mean, you heard the President today. You heard the President on Monday and Tuesday at press opportunities. Secretary Christopher has spoken to our policy objectives along the same line. Vice President Gore in Moscow has not been equivocating. He has been holding to the line that we think is generally a positive development and that we're going to continue our policy. Everybody who is making policy in this government and responsible for this policy at a high level, from the President on down, has said very, very consistent things to the press. I can't account for other people in our government who may be talking to members of the press, but some of the comments I saw in The Times and The Post this morning are completely at odds with where I know the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the rest of us working here on this issue at the White House are.

We were not at all surprised by the large protest vote. I told you, in our internal meetings last week, we had the communists and the agrarians at 25 percent of the vote. In fact, we had that several weeks ago. We knew that Zhirinovsky was coming up in the polls. When the results started to come in on Monday and Tuesday, we thought the lesson, the basic lesson that we had to learn from this was that in a very complex political environment where you now have a political spectrum dominated by reformers, communists, fascists and perhaps emerging independents, it's very clear where the interest of the United States lie. And the President spoke to that this afternoon. There's no confusion in our government about that.

And so anybody who is taking a different line with the press, I would just humbly submit is not consistent with the administration's policy.

Q: whether the reassurances you've given us have been giving to the Baltics, Eastern Europe and --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me, I missed the first part of your question.

Q: I'm asking whether you've given the same reassurances to the Baltics, Eastern Europe and the Ukraine? As you know, the Baltic leaders are meeting today --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The same reassurance that we have given to --

Q: Well, that there's nothing to worry about, but you're -- but let's not jump to conclusions. They seemed to be concerned about Zhirinovsky and Russian expansionism, and they've been concerned for some time, and that concern will be addressed in part when the President makes his trip next month. Have you reassured them --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think considering history, it's understandable why some of Russia's neighbors would feel concern about things that Zhirinovsky, for instance, is saying -- so much out of sync with what Boris Yeltsin is saying, by the way. I would only note that we have been in touch, obviously, with the Ukrainian government, with the Baltic governments and with many others. The President has made the withdrawal of troops from Estonia and Latvia a major issue in our relationship with the Russian government. As you know, he met with the Baltic presidents in September. He wrote President Yeltsin on this issue. This issue was raised by the Vice President, was raised at every opportunity when we meet with the Russians. And we're going to maintain that policy. We think the troops should be withdrawn --

Q: in touch since the election?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just finish. Our policy today is, of course, that the troops should be withdrawn through the negotiations with the Russian governments in 1994. We're also working intensively -- and the Vice President and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin spent a lot of time on this the last couple of days -- trying to figure out how we can resolve problems between Russia and Ukraine and how the United States can be helpful in that process.

So I think by our actions over the last couple of days, we've spoken to your question.

Q: You don't see the possibility that this bit of a protest is backlash which might moderate domestic policy could also moderate Yeltsin's foreign policy to at least to the extent of slowing down the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltics perhaps or asserting protection for Russians in the -- near and abroad and other places that have made Russia's neighbors so nervous?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that is why the Vice President specifically raised in his -- our interest in that question was why the Vice President --

Q: no moderating of the past --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Vice President raised this issue today in his meetings with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and President Yeltsin. He received very clear assurances that the outlines of Russian foreign policy, the reform policy of the last two years would continue. But because my colleague has a lot more expertise than I do on this, maybe he'd like to comment.

Q: Could you just clarify -- were those contacts since the election that you spoke about at the beginning of --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the Vice President has been in Moscow since Tuesday night. His meetings with Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were today -- that this issue was discussed today.

Q: You said you were in touch with the Ukraine, the Baltics and others, that was your first --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have been in touch through our embassies, yes, and through, in fact, through contacts here in Washington with the Ukrainian government and with the Baltic governments and with the Polish government.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think what I would say here is that we have detected and we have seen no indication of change in foreign policy, and, indeed, we have been given assurances that foreign policy is to be unchanged. And I think we don't engage in changes ourselves against a hypothetical. I guess that's where I would leave it.

Q: Why do you say with such confidence that the Constitution was approved when the margin seems to be shrinking daily? Aren't you accepting that a little bit on faith?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm giving you what we are told officially by the Central Election Commission. What we've been told as latest figures officially, is that 53% of the people voted in the election, and it was approved by something like 52 or something plus percent. Now, that's adequate. Will it change? It may. But, they are insisting that the -- officially that the Constitution has passed.

Q: Let me ask you about this question -- this concept of a protest vote. Russia is a country, as you know better than the rest of us, with a long history, centuries of history of authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and imperialism, so why should we consider this to be a transitory protest vote rather than an expression of a deeply held conviction on the part of, maybe not 9 out of 10 Russians, but a lot of Russians who believe the sorts of things that Zhirinovsky says.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would go back again to say, first of all, I think there isn't any good answer to that question except that they -- we will have to watch how the expression of the popular mandates and wills is carried out as they proceed not just with this election but further ones. But I would come back to the point that just as they voted for Mr. Zhirinovsky in substantial numbers, they voted for a constitution that has a pretty darn good set of guarantees for the civil and other kinds of rights that directly contradict what Mr. Zhirinovsky is talking about. Now, I think, in short the real point here is it is probably not a reasonable thing to take one vote and decide that it is definitive and so forth. What they have done is give an expression to a variety of sentiments in a variety of areas where the public supports different things. And I think we will watch how this evolves.

Q: I'll be quick. You mentioned the Constitution as something very important, and you've both mentioned the Constitution. Russians have never paid any attention to constitutions in the past. Why should we assume that all of the sudden this one is going to become a bulwark of liberty?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, why should we assume it isn't, would be my answer.

Q: Because it never has in the past --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't subscribe to the genetic theory of people's destiny in this. I think the fact is that there is an opportunity and we have every reason to assume that the Russians have expressed their view and will continue to do so, and they have said, we want to have a more open and pluralistic type of political structure. Now, are there guarantees? Of course, there aren't any guarantees.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'd just like to follow on that. I think it's a very important question, and I think Jim has given you a very good response. But let me just build on it by saying the last two years have been extraordinary years in Russian history and they have tested people. And certainly the Russian reformers across the board have been tested time and again, and every time the political process has produced a situation of paralysis, the resort has not been to authoritarianism, it's been to a referendum, or to a election, or to a decision by President Yeltsin, in this case, to share power with a new Parliament.

So I think the actions of Russian reformers all across Russia in the last two years are the best answer to your question. We have a certain faith that reform is going to continue. That it is, in fact, if you will, the destiny of the Russian people at this point in their history -- terribly difficult, perhaps inconsistent with the past, but we have a faith in it; our policy is built on that.

Q: Isn't it also correct that a lot of the Russian people did not know the essence of the Constitution that they were voting for? So by the same token, if you say they did not know what Zhirinovsky was saying, a lot of them did not know what the Constitution was --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the guardians of this Constitution will be the executive branch and the Parliament -- the politicians. They will be the ones who have to decide whether to respect it or not in the way they assert power. And my very strong sense is that the Russian government -- many members of the new Russian Parliament, not just the reformers but centrists as well, are dedicated to a new type of political system. If they hadn't been dedicated to that, we wouldn't have seen this election. We wouldn't have seen the referendum last April, which put some pretty important questions to the Russian people.

Q: Is it safe to assume the President will not meet with Zhirinovsky as Gore has not.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I can tell you is that the Vice President did not meet with him this week, had the opportunity to do so. The President has not faced that question. We have not put that question to the President, and so it's pretty much a hypothetical question at this point.

Q: But isn't it obvious that he won't? I mean, the Vice President has set that precedent --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just leave my answer where it is.

Q: Could you clarify for us why the President was much less direct in his criticism of Zhirinovsky than the Vice President was? -- President cautioned against overreacting --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that all of us who are familiar with Zhirinovsky's statements and with his actions and beliefs have the same views in this government. I don't think there's any daylight between the President and the Vice President on that one.

Q: But why didn't he use the same kind of language --


Q: Were you surprised -- did you know anything about him before?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, he ran in 1991. He got six million votes in 1991. So we knew about that. We have seen him over the -- our embassy's --

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END3:25 P.M. EST

William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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