Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos
The Briefing Room
4:55 P.M. EST
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Good afternoon. This is a statement from President Clinton.
The United States supports the historic movement toward democracy and free markets in Russia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin is the leader of that process. As Russia's only democratically-elected national leader, he has our support, as do his reform government and all reformers throughout the Russian federation.
President Yeltsin proposes to break the political impasse in Russia by letting the Russian people decide their future. We were encouraged to hear him say that civil liberties will be respected. We also welcome President Yeltsin's assurance of continuity in Russia's foreign policy. We will work to maintain the close relations between our two countries.
The President looks forward to his summit meeting with President Yeltsin in Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th, and we will continue to work in concert with our allies to support those in Russia who wish to further reform.
What matters most is that Russia is, and must remain, a democratic country moving toward a market economy. That is the basis for a continued U.S.-Russian partnership and for a better and more prosperous future for the Russian people.
Q: How do you describe President Yeltsin's decision today? Was it a coup, in your view?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not going to get into characterizing, beyond saying the President -- as President Clinton said, that he supports the movement toward democracy and free markets in Russia. We can't characterize all the specifics.
Q: then, is his move undemocratic?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: President Yeltsin has proposed to allow the Russian people to decide. That is what democracies do.
Q: George, did the White House have advanced knowledge that President Yeltsin was going to do this? And, more importantly, did the White House suggest to Yeltsin that he do this?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The White House certainly didn't suggest to President Yeltsin that he take any action. I believe there might have been some consultation by Mr. Kozyrev with other -- with the U.S. and other countries -- earlier today.
Q: The Russian constitutional court is calling this illegal, and the Russian Vice President also seems to be describing it as illegal. Does that concern the United States that perhaps this could be an illegal action?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There's no question that there's a political impasse in Russia. President Yeltsin has proposed to break that political impasse by taking it to the people. That is appropriate in democracies.
Q: these actions may be outside the constitution.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That is not for us to decide, that's for the Russian people to decide.
Q: George, do you think it's safe for President Yeltsin to leave his country for a summit in April?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We look forward to having the summit with President Yeltsin.
Q: How does this step today complicate your efforts to get the G-7 and the Congress to approve additional assistance for Yeltsin?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think it reinforces the need for us to continue to do what we can to support the reform process. And Secretary Christopher is in the process right now of consulting with our G-7 allies.
Q: Is this step good, or is it bad for the United States.
Q: George, will you try to rush anything in now in light of what's happened today?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We are in continuing consultation on the G-7 process, and we expect that will continue as it has over the last several days.
Q: Nothing specific in response to today?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We have nothing specific to announce now.
Q: Are there still plans to meet with Kozyrev this coming week?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe so. Nothing's changed.
Q: Is it a political gamble for you all to wait until April 25th before considering whether to change your policy?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think this is about politics. I mean, we support the process of reform in Russia and we are looking forward to meeting with President Yeltsin and we are looking forward to continuing to consult with our G-7 allies to further that process.
Q: George, any prediction on the referendum? What the results will be, or by a wide margin?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, I can't do that. I can't predict things here.
Q: George, are you considering that be internal security in Russia -- that it could be an unstable, dangerous situation at this point?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Excuse me on this.
Q: That this could be a dangerous, unstable situation in Russia?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, we are closely following the situation. Obviously, there is an impasse here. President Yeltsin has proposed to break the impasse by going to the people. But we're watching it closely.
I just want to point out one thing, just to -- when I said Prime Minister -- Mr. Kozyrev informed us there was no consultation. I thought I was clear on that, but I just want to be extra clear -- there was no consultation and clearly no clearance of anything like that.
Q: When did he inform you?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Exactly. In Serbia today. I don't know that exact time.
Q: Has the President spoken to Yeltsin?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No.
Q: Will he?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think he sent him a message along the lines of his statement.
Q: Yeltsin seems to be pretty much isolated right now. He has been condemned -- been condemned by his own vice president, the court, the constitutional court, the general prosecutor, who have called the move illegal or null and void. How do you see his position right now? Is it a big concern for you, for the President?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We continue to follow it closely. There is an impasse; there's no denying that. President Yeltsin has proposed to resolve it by going to the people.
Q: How strong do you think his position is right now? He seems completely isolated.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that that's true, but we can just say that there is a movement toward democracy and reform in Russia. President Yeltsin is the leader of that reform. We will continue to support that.
Q: You don't think he is isolated?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We believe that President Yeltsin embodies the reform process, is the leader of the reform process. We support that process.
Q: George, is your support of him unconditional? What if he fails and the country becomes seriously destabilized?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't get into hypotheticals like that. We support President Yeltsin and the reform process.
Q: George, has the U.S. sent any signal of certain things that it could not tolerate and continue to do business with Yeltsin if he takes certain steps?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, those are hypotheticals that we haven't addressed. The statement today stands on its own.
Q: George, is it your view, whether it's constitutional or not, the impasse was such that this is something Yeltsin, in fact, had to do?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I can't characterize his needs, except to say that we support the process.
Q: George -- the nuclear control?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Nothing's changed as far as I know.
Q: Is he looking at alternatives? Is that one reason that he felt that he --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's not for us to comment on alternatives, except to say we support the process of reform.
Q: How does it change your plans for Vancouver?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We look forward to going to Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th, and we expect to.
Q: What will you bring with you that might be different that might be different than what you would have brought otherwise?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we've been engaged in the process with our G-7 allies of putting forward a package of reform, of coming up with a package of reform. I don't know that anything has changed specifically in the package.
Q: was told that Kozyrev was supposed to meet with Christopher this week, early this. Is that still on or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: It's still on?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As far as we know, yes.
Q: George, does this make it safer for Yeltsin to leave the country and go to the summit without a lot of fear that there's going to be a coup, he'll get rear-ended in some way?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that it has any impact one way or the other on that.
Q: Did Kozyrev give you any idea of how the Congress might retaliate? Do they feel they have the power to impeach?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that that was discussed. Clearly, the Congress can speak on its own, but I don't know that there was any specific discussion on that.
Q: Do you have any idea how the congress would react or what steps they might take?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. No.
Q: George, has the administration been in touch with the members of Parliament or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know if there's been any direct contact. We've seen the same reports that you all are reading.
Q: What happens if he loses the referendum? What happens then?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, it's a hypothetical and I just can't discuss it this time. Right now, he's proposed that he takes it to the people. That is appropriate in a democracy and that is something we support.
Q: Do you have contingency plans in case it happens?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's nothing I can comment on.
Q: George, can you tell us about the President's meetings today? Who did he meet with in the White House? Who has he reached out to in Congress and elsewhere to discuss it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There are calls now going out to members of Congress. He has discussed, obviously, the situation with his National Security Advisor, Tony Lake; his Secretary of State Warren Christopher; Strobe Talbott; Sandy Berger; his entire national security staff.
Q: They meet together, and in the White House?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There were some meetings together. I can't speak for every specific moment. U.N. Ambassador Albright is also here.
Q: speak to? Did he talk to someone directly this morning?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I believe the briefings were in Russia.
Q: Your representative?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: With our representative, yes.
Q: So, George, when you say that you support the process of democracy, then you are saying that, in effect, not legally shutting down the Congress, but basically going around the Congress, establishing the presidential rule, it's part of the democratic --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's be clear on what hasn't happened. President Yeltsin has not dismissed the Parliament, he has not imposed presidential rule, he has not suspended civil liberties. He's proposed taking this to the people.
Q: As I understand, it established a special rule, which means that if the Congress took a step against him he would say that that is illegal, that nobody should follow that.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't comment on all the specific edicts, except to say that President Yeltsin has proposed to break this impasse by taking it to the people.
Q: What's your sense of where the Russian military is in this situation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We haven't heard anything changed.
Q: Is it your knowledge they're still under Yeltsin's control?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We have no information to the contrary.
Q: Is it ambivalence? Is it what?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I mean, President Yeltsin's declared the plebiscite for April 25th. I don't think that I can comment on where the Russian people are from inside the Beltway.
Q: But surely you would have had to have gotten some sort of intelligence feel, obviously, or else --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I'm not going to comment on intelligence.
Q: The President met earlier this week with the head of the constitutional court that's now ruling this action illegal. What was the -- who asked for that meeting, what was the purpose of it, what --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe that the head of the court was visiting several people in the United States, including the President. I'm not certain where the specific request came from.
Q: Did anything come out of that? Did the court tell the President they wouldn't accept this, or did the President tell the Court that he --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know -- not that I know of. Again, this was before any of this happened, and I think they just had a general discussion of the situation in Russia.
Q: Will you give us an update on the war and our participation in it -- Europe?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The war in Europe? Why don't we finish questions on Russia first, and then I'll come back. Any more on Russia?
Q: George, is this step a positive one as far as the United States is concerned?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I'm not going to get into characterizing the specific steps, except to say that we support the movement for democratic and economic reform in Russia.
Q: And my follow-up is, is any increased state of alert involved for any U.S. military forces?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. Not that I know of.
Q: Has the President consulted with any foreign leaders today?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not certain that he's had any conversations yet today. I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. But I don't think that he has -- I believe that Secretary Christopher will be sending a message to our allies.
Q: How did you learn about this?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe that first, this morning, he was consulting with National Security Advisor Tony Lake.
Q: What is the message that Christopher --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: You said Christopher is sending a message?
Q: He's sending a message to Yeltsin, or will send a message to Yeltsin?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I said that Secretary Christopher is sending a message to our allies. The President is sending a message to President Yeltsin.
Q: Any package of aid?
Q: Secretary Christopher said earlier this week that the principal U.S. contacts with members of Parliament would be through congressional delegations. Does the President think those should go forward, those sort of meetings, and how important are they in the face if Yeltsin should lose?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I can't look into the future, but we are now consulting with members of Congress, talking to members of Congress, and there's no change in any plans right now.
Q: You would encourage them to go ahead with those meetings? I think there are some sort of interparliamentary things that were going to occur.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We certainly wouldn't tell the Congress not to go if they were inclined to go.
Q: Are the mechanics of this referendum clear at all to you? Do you know what will constitute a --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I think it's too early to tell exactly, so we just know of an April 25th date.
Q: Who are the others they'll be talking with?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't have the exact list, but the staff will be consulting with the members of the leadership and the foreign affairs leadership.
Q: Secretary Christopher is supposed to go to Chicago on Monday to begin discussing the administration's position in regards to Russia -- Russia aid. Is that speech still on?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As far as I know there's no change. You can check with the State Department.
Q: Secretary Christopher's messages -- what is he going to be conveying to the allies, some message of reassurance? You said he's --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, essentially the message that the President has given to the American people today.
Q: Will any package of aid be announced by the administration before the referendum?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I don't think I can announce anything until the President's ready to announce it. But he said he looks forward to meeting with President Yeltsin on April 3rd and 4th.
Q: Does it, in fact, heighten the need to move those forward more quickly and to make them more generous?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I can't characterize the package except to say that we've been consulting intensively with our allies on the appropriate response to the situation in Russia.
Q: Is it fair to say that the administration will do everything it can to make sure that President Yeltsin is successful on the 25th of April?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's fair to say that the President supports the process of reform, believes that President Yeltsin is the leader of the process of reform.
Q: And the best chance to have that reform continue would be for Yeltsin to be successful?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: President Yeltsin is leader of the reform and we support that. We support him in that.
Q: So the Russian people can expect aid from us before April 25th?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I didn't say that. I said that we were in the meeting with President Yeltsin in Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th, and we expect to announce packages of support. I don't have a specific date, but we are working on a package of support. That was already in the President's budget.
Q: Did Prime Minister Kozyrev notify or inform the United States before or after Yeltsin went on television in Moscow? And were there any extra details provided to the White House that were not in Yeltsin's speech?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, there wasn't direct contact with the White House, it was with our representatives in Russia. And it was just a general characterization.
Q: Before or after?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Before.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 5:05 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269366