NEWSMAKER: STROBE TALBOTT
JULY 4, 1996
Margaret Warner discusses the implications of Boris Yeltsin's victory in the Russian Presidential elections with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining us is Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who has specialized in Russia affairs in both his journalistic and government careers. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.
STROBE TALBOTT, Deputy Secretary of Defense: Thank you, Margaret, good to be here.
MS. WARNER: How important are these results to the United States?
SEC. TALBOTT: Very important. Russia is a big country. Democracy is a very important cause, an important institution that the United States welcomes to see flourishing around the world, and this has been an extremely good couple of days for Russian democracy and, therefore, for the United States and for the rest of the world.
MS. WARNER: Now, I have to ask you, how democratic can you say these elections were when there was such media, both control and also I gather just cheerleading on the part of the media for President Yeltsin's candidacy? I mean, as a former journalist, what does that tell you about the state of Russian democracy?
SEC. TALBOTT: Russian democracy has come an extraordinarily long way in just a couple of years. Now it's true that President Yeltsin used his incumbency to his own advantage. It's also true that the Communist candidate, Mr. Zyuganov, used the fact that the Communist Party, the Russian Federation, has a huge grassroots organization, by far the best, the biggest, and most complex organization in Russia, to its advantage. But a number of international observers have judged this to be a free and fair election. It was genuinely and vigorously contested, and I think that the Russian people deserve our congratulations for having taken as seriously as they did the chance that they now have to choose their own leader. And this is for the first time in their thousand-year history as a state that they chose the leader of the state.
MS. WARNER: All right. Tell us what you know about the state of Boris Yeltsin's health?
SEC. TALBOTT: I really can't add very much to what the Russians, themselves, have said, including spokesmen for President Yeltsin. As your very good report by Simon Marks at the top of the show indicated, President Yeltsin is receiving advisers. He was back at work in the Kremlin at his desk today. Obviously, we hope that he has a speedy recovery from whatever the problem was over the past week, but I think we've seen plenty of evidence before, and we've seen it again now, that this is a man of extraordinary political and physical resilience.
MS. WARNER: The Kremlin said that his problems the last few days were just related to his having a cold. Do you believe that?
SEC. TALBOTT: We don't have additional medical information, and by the way, Margaret, I don't think it's appropriate for us, i.e., the United States Government, to be speculating, and it would only be speculation on the health of a--of a foreign leader. What is important about what's happened over the past week is that Russian democracy worked. The Russian people had a clear choice between a candidate who represents reform and a candidate who represented the choice of turning back to the past. And by a significant majority, the Russian people chose to follow President Yeltsin into the future.
MS. WARNER: So how confident are you that he is now ready to really take charge? I mean, we heard one of these Russian analysts say he really has to, he can't disappear from view, he really has to seize control of events now.
SEC. TALBOTT: There is every reason to think that he and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin--you, once again, showed it at the top of the show--that President Yeltsin has asked Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to form a new government. They fully understand the magnitude of the tasks that they face, the challenges, and we, the U.S. Government, stand ready to continue a policy of active engagement with them. Vice President Gore will be traveling to Russia in just a few days to continue his work with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, so we're going to keep developing this relationship based on a policy of cooperation and engagement. And where we have differences, we'll manage those differences, but we feel that the results of this election are going to make it possible for us to advance the interests of the American people.
MS. WARNER: Now the defeated Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, said that he expected some Communists would be brought into the Yeltsin government. Do you expect that?
SEC. TALBOTT: I don't want to join in the speculation on that subject. You've had a superb cast of other experts in recent shows, and we'll have some more, I'm sure, today who will venture some opinions on that. All we know is who the President is going to be. He's indicated that Prime Minister Chernomyrdin will remain in that post. These are two men that we know very well and have worked with, and they will now go about making their own political calculations and their own calculations based on statesmanship.
MS. WARNER: You've said a couple of times when I've asked you things that you didn't want to speculate. That suggests that there's been no kind of--has there been any private communication between these two governments, between President Yeltsin and the Clinton administration about what, in fact, this administration can expect from them?
SEC. TALBOTT: I would put it a little differently. You mean, in the last 24 hours?
MS. WARNER: Yes.
SEC. TALBOTT: No, not in the last 24 hours. The Russian leadership has been understandably very preoccupied with the immediate results, of course, of the election, but we stayed in extremely close touch. My boss, Warren Christopher, for example, met with Foreign Minister Primakov in Lyon at the summit meeting of the major industrialized countries just a few days ago. They are in fairly close touch on a number of regional issues where we're working together. President Clinton met with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin also at the Lyon summit. We have important business to do with the Russian government. There hasn't been any real hiatus in that business, and we're going to be moving forward very quickly.
MS. WARNER: All right. Tell me your sense of Retired General Alexander Lebed, the man who came in No. 3 in the first round, who is now the President's national security adviser. First of all, do you know him, and what kind of influence do you think he's going to have?
SEC. TALBOTT: I have met Mr. Lebed, as has President Clinton, incidentally. Mr. Lebed was one of a number of regional and other political figures who met with President Clinton when he was in Moscow during the summit meeting with President Yeltsin in April, this past spring. I don't think there's any great mystery about the new prominence that Mr. Lebed has. He put in a very strong showing in the first round. Obviously, his law and order message has found real resonance with the Russian people, but we do not know what role he will play in the new government because that is only just beginning the process of selecting the new government. He has said some things that we found disturbing and even objectionable.
MS. WARNER: Such as--
SEC. TALBOTT: We have--he's made some comments about religion that we found of concern, and we have spoken out on that subject both publicly and privately. And we've done so at a very high level. But let's--let's see how the government as a whole takes shape, and we will, of course, take full account of Russian policy as we continue to calibrate our own. But the underpinnings of our policy, which had been support for reform, and that means democracy, it means market economics, it means a Russian foreign policy based on respect for other countries, that will continue to be the basis of U.S. policy towards Russia.
MS. WARNER: Do you think that President Yeltsin has won a mandate, a positive mandate to do something and that is to proceed on those paths?
SEC. TALBOTT: Yes, Margaret, I do. Now that doesn't mean that, that the Russian people are unanimous in support for his policies. I think that we have seen in this election evidence that there are still a great many Russians who identify reform and the transition through which Russia is going with hardship. And that clearly is a major challenge that President Yeltsin, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, and others are going to have to face. But the fundamentals I think have received a mandate. This is quite a dramatic difference between the number of votes that the two candidates received.
MS. WARNER: And what do you think his victory gives him in the way of latitude vis-a-vis the relationship with the United States? In other words, do you think it frees him to be closer and more of a partner with the U.S., or do you think, in fact, he's going to feel he has to be more independent of the United States?
SEC. TALBOTT: Well, again, the fundamentals of the relationship between the United States and Russia have been the folly. We have a common interest in controlling and reducing the Cold War era arsenal that exists in both countries and, indeed, controlling proliferation around the world. We have a common interest in working together to solve regional conflicts, that we have a common interest in seeing Russia increasingly integrated into the world economy, and we have a common interest in working on what you might call the 21st century agenda of global issues, and that includes the threats to the environment, terrorism, and proliferation, and I think that part of the mandate that President Yeltsin has received is to continue working in those four categories, and our government is certainly prepared to continue doing that.
MS. WARNER: And your government, as you know, has been criticized by some outsiders as perhaps not pushing Yeltsin hard enough on economic reform, on Chechnya, on NATO expansion. Does his victory give you all more latitude to be a little more demanding if the occasion warrants?
SEC. TALBOTT: I would put it differently. I think that the results of the Russian election that we've seen in the last days should make all Americans proud and supportive of a U.S. Government position of support for reform in Russia because now the Russian people, themselves, have issued their own verdict on reform in that country. They want to see it continue, and they are part of making it continue.
MS. WARNER: So you really think it was a positive vote for reform, not a negative vote against the--more than a negative vote against the Communists?
SEC. TALBOTT: Yes, Margaret.
MS. WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. TALBOTT: Thank you for the chance to be with you.