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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

May 12, 1995

The Ukrainian House

Kiev, Ukraine

12:50 P.M. (L)

MR. MCCURRY: I will make this mercifully short. Let me describe the President as being very energized by this last stop on this trip. He has found here in Ukraine people who are much more optimistic about their future and the leadership much more determined to provide economic security to future generations of Ukrainians.

For those of us who have visited Ukraine in the last two years, it really represents a stunning turnaround in the course of 1994 as the Ukrainian economy struggled with inflation rates that were often as high as 70 percent a month. There was a real sense of a dispirited citizenry. And as many of you could tell from the crowd today that watched the President's speech at the university, the morale here is much improved now and it reflects some of the difficult decisions that the Ukrainian leadership has made, but it also reflects the progress the Ukrainian citizens are seeing in their economy.

And during the course of this coming year, 90 percent of small enterprises are going to be privatized, 8,000 of the largest firms in Ukraine will be privatized. And there's a sense now of a dynamic move towards market economics that the Ukrainian people hope will generate benefits.

Certainly the support of the West, and specifically the support of the United States, has been instrumental, we believe, in creating that new spirit of optimism among the Ukrainian people and their leadership. And it was important to acknowledge that.

The President has done so in a variety of stops in the last day and a half. And as a result of that, as he said last night, and to President Kuchma, and as we have said over the course of the last 24 hours, U.S.-Ukrainian relations now are better than they have been at any point since Ukraine gained its independence.

I won't dwell at any great length on the whole trip other than to say that the President set out for Russia and Ukraine with fairly limited objectives, as you know, and he is satisfied that those objectives have been met. We have worked carefully and deliberately with both the Russian Federation and the government of Ukraine to advance the security interests of the American people. And those interests now are defined in much broader terms than the strategic and military issues that defined the relationship in the past.

Increasingly, in the new world that we live in, the economic interests of Americans as they are put forward can contribute to an overall sense of security. As these countries, formerly communist, formerly totalitarian, formerly dominated by command-and-control economics, make the transition to democracy and market economics, we argue that has the added effect of drawing them closer to the West and thus reducing the security threat that in the past these nations have posed to the United States and to the Western alliance.

So, all in all, the President, looking back on the trip, is very satisfied with the outcome, confident that we have cemented very good relations here in Ukraine that can produce important dividends in the future, and confident that we have now broken free some of the obstacles to addressing the issues that were blocking progress in the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship.

That's a short synopsis of where we are as we head home.

Q: Mike, before the President left there were some people who said the Moscow portion of this trip wasn't a trip he should make, that he shouldn't go to Moscow rather than London or other places in Western Europe, and that he shouldn't go to a summit while the war in Chechnya was going on. Now that it's over and you're getting all this flack domestically, do you think in retrospect they might have been right?

MR. MCCURRY: No, we would reject that notion because the importance of working, as I say, carefully and deliberately with the Russian government to address these serious issues that do sometimes stymie the relationship require the type of face to face meetings at the highest levels that the President had with President Yeltsin. It was clear to us prior to the summit and abundantly clear during the summit that the only progress that can be made right now on many of the issues that trouble the relationship is in working through them directly with the Russian President.

There's no substitute for that type of working meeting that the President held to make progress. And to those who suggest you can't hold a meeting or hold a summit unless you've got a guaranteed result of success, it's not a sensible or a reasonable approach to diplomatic relations.

I'd say at the same time, some people neglect to remember that President Yeltsin, no doubt, had objectives of his own and it was clear that he advanced some things during the course of his meetings with President Clinton that did not necessarily bear fruit for the Russian side. But that is the nature of a relationship that is going to require a lot of careful work as we move through the years ahead, and the President is confident that he, on a number of issues -- on NATO-related issues, economic issues, some of our nonproliferation concerns -- that he's moved discussion of those issues forward in a way that might lead to their ultimate resolution.

Q: Just on the flipside of that question, and also following on something that Tony Lake said yesterday when he suggested that some of the protest by members of Congress about possibly cutting off aid in the future might have triggered responses in Russia that would increase hostility between the United STates and Russia. Do you think that there's a possibility that by making this trip, you put some of these issues on the front burner when they wouldn't have been? And that in a way by coming here at this time the President may have put a strain on U.S.-Russia relations that would not have been there had he not come?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, no. In fact, specifically on the issue -- it's hard to -- summarize that question for me, Rita.

Q: a long question.

Q: President's fault? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Let me try to answer the question in a way that will make the -- answer the question in a way that makes the question more transparent. (Laughter.)

Q: Just louder. It was transparent.

MR. MCCURRY: The question is about those who criticize economic assistance and whether or not raising some issues, as we did in the summit, in the summit itself, exacerbates tensions that exist in the relationship.

Remember that there has been an ongoing discord within the Russian people, as reported to us in the political meeting we had yesterday with 10 of the opposition party figures and regional figures -- that here is a sense in Russia that the West is not committed to the type of reforms and type of hard choices that the Russian people now confront; that in a sense that they have been abandoned and left to sink or swim on their own. There is a sense of mistrust about the West and its objectives.

And there's also, we found, a surprising understanding that there is a debate ongoing in the United States about what role the United States ought to play in nurturing economic and political reform in Russia. We heard several times yesterday that they are very conscious of the fact that there is an isolationist mood in the United States, that there is within the Congress proposals and a discussion of withholding aid. And that causes political leaders across the Russian political spectrum a great deal of concern.

So the comment to address those directly, to have the President reaffirming our commitment to economic and political change in Russia was very important, and we would argue in reducing some of that tension that might exist in the relationship.

And, again, we stress for our own audience at home that we provide this assistance to Russia because it is in our interest to do so. This is not a gift to the people of Russia, this is an important part of helping them make the transformation to democracy that will make our nation and our people more secure.

Q: A number of the critics back home are Republican presidential candidates. How much do you anticipate that foreign affairs and these issues are going to come up within the next 18 months? And how much will they play out on the presidential election cycle?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's impossible or me here now in 1995 to speculate on whether or not Republican presidential candidates generically are going to use foreign policy as a political issue during the course of 1996. If they do so, we will choose to engage in that debate vigorously, because this administration believes it has a very important and good record to defend. Certainly being here in Ukraine today couldn't be a better example of that. What we've been able to achieve on making this world safer, through denuclearizing Ukraine, getting a commitment to reduce the number of warheads once aimed at the American people, and engaging with Ukraine in stimulating the kind of economic change that will produce markets and economic opportunities for American workers and families. Now, that's an important part of the transformation taking place in this world that the Clinton administration has managed very effectively.

So we will engage on that point if that becomes a point. And we'll just have to see whether or not it becomes a dominant part of the political debate in the campaign year next year.

Q: Well, is it your opinion that the comments from Dole and from Lugar are directly tied to presidential politics?

MR. MCCURRY: I have no way of knowing, you know, so it wouldn't be fair for me to suggest that. It would be more appropriate for you to ask them directly.

Q: Mike, yesterday, you criticized Senator Dole for commenting without first being briefed. He took to the Senate floor later to say he had, in fact, been briefed by the Department of State. Does that make his criticism any more justified --

MR. MCCURRY: In the past, the briefings that we make available on behalf of the administration are at a high level. We often have the Secretary of State on the Hill shortly after a trip to meet with the bipartisan leadership and with the Foreign Affairs committees on both sides. And we certainly are willing to do that again.

The discussion -- a three-hour long discussion between the American President and the Russian President, as you can easily imagine, is filled with a great deal of nuance, and with a great deal of texture that is best understood when it's carefully explained. We've done some of that for you, but in the context of briefing members of the Hill, we can tell them even more. And they would better understand what we project now as the future course on some of the issues that many of the members have been commenting upon. So we would welcome an opportunity to engage with them and have that more thorough detailed conversation.

Q: Given the fact that he says he was briefed, to some extent does that make his criticism any more justified?

MR. MCCURRY: We raised several points of concern about remarks from members of Congress yesterday, and the fact that some of them got a headline briefing is not -- doesn't diminish the concerns that we have.

Anything else? Anyone else got anything before we wrap up? We've got to go, Mary Ellen -- yes, last one.

Q: When the President was at Babi Yar, did he meet with Yakov Kaper, a townspeople --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I wasn't there. Mary Ellen, do you know? I don't know the answer to that. We'll have to check that. Some of those staying behind might be able to check that for you.

Q: Mike, can you -- seriously, do you know anything about what he's doing next week when he gets back?

MR. MCCURRY: Next week -- I'm trying -- I have not had a full report back from Washington on the President's program for next week, but there will -- it will be a week in which the budget debate begins to become more fully engaged, and the President will be contributing his ideas to that debate. There will be several events related to that coming up next week.

Okay. See you all back in Washington.

END 1:05 P.M. (L)

William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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