|NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW WITH U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA THOMAS PICKERING|
February 1, 1996
The Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was in Washington this week for meetings with President Clinton and other U.S. officials. Security issues were among the chief topics. Jim Lehrer discusses the current situation in Russia with U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, welcome.
THOMAS PICKERING, U.S. Ambassador, Russia: Thank you, Jim. Nice to be with you.
JIM LEHRER: First, on the prime minister's visit, was it a success from the U.S. point of view?
AMB. PICKERING: Yes, I think, in fact, it was a success from both points of view. This is a very, very important commission. It covers a wide range of activities, many, many projects.
JIM LEHRER: This is the commission that he and--
AMB. PICKERING: He and Vice President Gore chair, and the commission was able to solve some high-profile problems, but even more important, was able to continue some very very important work in a wide number of areas, everything from business to agriculture to health to space.
JIM LEHRER: Now what about the--on a higher level than that, in his conversations with the President and others about, about the status of his government there? How did he explain the replacement of, of reformers with hard-liners and all of that?
AMB. PICKERING: Mr. Chernomyrdin said in private on that subject what Mr. Yeltsin and he had been saying in public. They've said watch what we do; we're committed to keep the reforms moving; we are committed to keeping things on track; we're changing personnel; we did that two years ago; we kept on track two years ago, so give us a break and let us prove to you that we're going to keep things on track. And I think the President and Vice President are not gullible people, not naive people, but they said, well, you did it two years ago and clearly you deserve continuing support as long as you keep on that track toward reforms, democracy, and integration of Russia with the world community, things that President Yeltsin has said he is for, and so we will, we will obviously watch closely, maintain steadiness, keep our eye on what's going on, and give the leaders--after all, their democratically elected leader, President Yeltsin, of a country striving for democracy, give the leaders the benefit of the doubt, and see what they do, but actions in this case always speak louder than words.
JIM LEHRER: But the words being spoken by, I assume, by you in Moscow before he got here, and by the President and the Vice President after he arrived were words of concern, were they not?
AMB. PICKERING: Well, we're, of course, concerned. We're always concerned about what's happened. After all, look at the history of the last 40 years, and look at the place of Russia in it, and look at the potential of Russia for the future. One has to look obviously at the security implications of the future of Russia, and have great implications for us, so in a sense, it should be true, a watchword, that we're always concerned and watching very carefully about what's happening in Russia and where it's going to go because of the vital interests of the United States in its security, in its prosperity is closely tied to Russia. That's been, of course, the huge benefit of this dramatic change that's taken place in Russia in the last four years. And it has been traumatic, and it has been significant, and there are clear signs and evidence that it is continuing and that after elections in Russia Mr. Yeltsin follows this practice. He, he looks around, he sees folks that he thinks probably are either not pulling their oar any longer or that for domestic political reasons need to go, sometimes very good people go, like Mr. Chubais, Mr. Kozyrev; nevertheless, he does that.
JIM LEHRER: Kozyrev was the foreign minister--
AMB. PICKERING: Former foreign minister. Mr. Chubais was in charge of much of the economic planning and much of the economic stability.
JIM LEHRER: Both of them were reformers.
AMB. PICKERING: Clearly. And put new people in their place and certainly we can, as we always do, micro-examine the personalities under the stereoscope of historic and--the microscope of history and come up with our own conclusions. The press, of course, in Washington leaps to that. One finds as you move away from Moscow and toward Washington everything is simpler here; everything is blacker or whiter; everything is easier to see.
JIM LEHRER: But you already knew that, didn't you, Mr. Ambassador?
AMB. PICKERING: Yes, I did, but every time I come back I'm amazed at the capacity that Washington and New York and the press have of improving your capacity in that direction.
JIM LEHRER: Let me be very specific in that very regard. Primakov, the man who was appointed to replace Kozyrev, when that was announced, speaking of the press, William Safire, columnist for the "New York Times," wrote that his appoint, Primakov's appointment should send "a chill through the West." Did you feel a chill?
AMB. PICKERING: I did not feel a chill but I certainly had an opportunity to see Mr. Primakov and had an opportunity to ask him questions and had an opportunity to be part of a conversation in which he explained his objectives and his policy. Clearly, however, with Mr. Primakov, as with anybody else, the issue is not only what they say, which at this stage I can tell you is reassuring, the priorities in American policy are there, but clearly what they do and how they carry it out, and we have to be realistic about our policies with Russia, just as we have to be steady and objective in that policy.
JIM LEHRER: Let me explain for those who the name Primakov doesn't immediately come to mind, he, of course, was the head of--
AMB. PICKERING: I thought it had already become a household word.
JIM LEHRER: Well, just in Safire's column and other similar places, but he was, of course, head of the new KGB, the intelligence service.
AMB. PICKERING: The foreign side of your--
JIM LEHRER: The foreign side of that.
AMB. PICKERING: --intelligence service.
JIM LEHRER: And he is known to be not--if not anti-American, certainly not pro-American, not pro-West. He's also known to have argued strenuously against what the United States did in the Gulf War and, in fact, tried to save Saddam Hussein, so this is the man you went to see when he was appointed foreign minister.
AMB. PICKERING: This is the man I went to see. This is the man who was head of the Russian Oriental Institute, a Russian Arabist, a man who grew up in the Middle East, a journalist, somewhat--
JIM LEHRER: I left out that he's been a journalist too.
AMB. PICKERING: I'm not his defender because, in fact, he doesn't need a defender. At this point, he needs to pursue steady and careful policies. He's lined those out. He's said he wants to solve some of the big problems around Russia's periphery. Russia needs chance. The other important thing is that Mr. Primakov is the steward of Russian foreign policy. Mr. Yeltsin is the architect, and I think it's important to keep that in mind, and--
JIM LEHRER: So Yeltsin--
AMB. PICKERING: --Mr. Primakov has been a close worker in his past in whatever incarnation he's had, including I believe in his work in the intelligence service, lately for Mr. Yeltsin, in the past for other leaders, and so I would expect a strong stewardship on Mr. Primakov's part.
JIM LEHRER: But to be specific here again, the policy under Yeltsin and under Kozyrev in particular was to have a good relationship with the West. The movement was all in that direction, would you not agree?
AMB. PICKERING: I believe it was, although, as you might know, since 1993, Mr. Yeltsin and others had been even more, I think, strong in their articulation of what they call Russia's interest.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. National.
AMB. PICKERING: National interest. Nationalism, and I think they distinguish themselves from Mr. Zhirinovsky, the radical nationalist, if I can call him that, and others by attempting to articulate Russian national interest. That of course has been an important innovation in Russian policy. I don't think that necessarily something we need to be afraid of. I as the American ambassador have an absolute obligation to the President and the people of the United States to articulate American national interests in Russia. The, the problems aren't that we are locked in eternal combat, but we have differences, and we need to work and explore those and to bring those together, and I believe Mr. Yeltsin has pursued that kind of a policy.
JIM LEHRER: But just in simple terms, do you have the feeling that Primakov is going to, part of his agenda is going to be to establish the independence of Russia from the big bear of the--no, we're not the big bear--what are we--well, the big, the big world power of the United States and--
AMB. PICKERING: I stay away from animals; it's an election year.
JIM LEHRER: You're exactly right. You're correct. But for political, internal political reasons in Russia, it makes sense for Russia to not be that--to appear to be that cozy with us.
AMB. PICKERING: Mr. Yeltsin, since 1993, has pursued that policy that he's pursued, a strong articulation of Russian national interest, so I don't see this as a huge departure, but I can tell you Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Chernomyrdin, and Mr. Primakov have put emphasis on the relationship with the United States and their relationship with western countries and, indeed, the early visits that took place were West Europeans to see Mr. Primakov, made a point, I think, of doing that, but he also put emphasis on Russia's periphery, not an irresponsible policy. I would think he's got problems in Russia's periphery, and he will certainly want to help resolve those. Russians are also very interested in bringing these countries together again, they say not as the old Soviet Empire but in a customs unit and an economic relationship, but clearly that can't be done without the cooperation freely given, we believe, of the, of the other countries. And some of them have different views on this, but it's a--it's a policy that the Russians will have to evolve. It's a policy clearly--we will not want to see people forced back into something like the Soviet Union, but if there is a mutual gain and if the United States has still the access to the markets and relationships, then some coming together in an economic sense, in a customs sense might well make the--be valuable and mutually beneficial all the way around. It shouldn't be excluded.
JIM LEHRER: Big story of today, Mr. Ambassador, from Russia, which we reported in the News Summary a while ago was this one million person strike of the coal miners in Ukraine and Russia. That's a serious matter, is it not?
AMB. PICKERING: It's very important. The miners of course played a very important role in Mr. Yeltsin's rise to power. They are a significant factor in Russia. Their strike, I think, marks an increased need for attention, as Mr. Yeltsin's articulated it to things like wage arrearages, fair return. There have been a lot of people, including the miners, who've suffered. I had an opportunity to visit Vorkuta, the center of the Arctic gulag built around coal mines, a tough, tough place to live and very tough people, but they were suffering. And that was a year ago, in that horrible place, trying to pull coal out of the Arctic, so it is an important issue, and I believe Mr. Yeltsin in his statements about trying to make up wage arrearages and pension arrearages had very much his, his eye on that, as he has his eye on the elections coming up, although, as you know, he hasn't announced yet.
JIM LEHRER: But the report--we'll get back to that in a minute--there's no doubt that he's going to run, is there?
AMB. PICKERING: I don't believe so. I've felt that for a long, long time, and I think it only remains for him to articulate his final decision now.
JIM LEHRER: Is there a serious democratic alternative candidate to Boris Yeltsin?
AMB. PICKERING: There are. Mr. Yavlinsky is a very important candidate.
JIM LEHRER: Tell us about him.
AMB. PICKERING: Talking about him, I want you to know--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
AMB. PICKERING: --and be absolutely sure that we are not picking candidates.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
AMB. PICKERING: You and I are here talking about candidates.
JIM LEHRER: Your function as a reporter now.
AMB. PICKERING: My function as an observer perhaps.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Okay.
AMB. PICKERING: But Mr. Yavlinsky is an attractive young man; he played an important role in Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, designed the so-called 500-day program, his party got a little less than 10 percent of the popular vote for the parliamentary elections that took place in December. He was one of the four parties that passed over the 5 percent threshold, so he plays a role in the, in the new parliament, and has been an attractive candidate around Russia, and has some popularity. He's definitely running on a democratic and reform platform.
JIM LEHRER: If Boris Yeltsin decides to run, and now I'm going to ask you to play political pundit--if Boris Yeltsin does decide to run again, is it possible, probable, or fill-in-the-blank that he would be reelected?
AMB. PICKERING: I think that that's a very tough call, and you have to, of course, not entice me to play ex-Ambassador either. You have to recognize that I have a function--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
AMB. PICKERING: --to perform for the President I haven't been relieved of yet and don't intend to. But I think it's, it's an election in which he will play a very, very important role. If, as you say, and we say, he makes that announcement to run, a lot will depend on the kind of campaign he conducts, a lot will depend upon what happens in the next six months, which is clearly very difficult to foresee and despite the fact that the polls all say his popularity ratings are down, I think it would be a serious mistake to rule him out as an important candidate. He has a health problem. We all know that, and he would be and Mrs. Yeltsin the first, obviously, to have to make the tough decision as to whether they could sustain that.
JIM LEHRER: But he has always been referred to as whatever else he is, even by his enemies, have always called him the master politician, which is what you're saying, don't count him out--
AMB. PICKERING: He is. He is a man who works best under pressure and stress, a man who has shown his best qualities as a democratic leader at the time when the situation seemed bleakest and worst.
JIM LEHRER: And he is--how would you summarize quickly his attitude toward the United States right now and toward you, toward communication with us?
AMB. PICKERING: Well, I think--
JIM LEHRER: Wanting to hear what we had to say.
AMB. PICKERING: His attitude has been consistent and steady all along, that he sees Russia as a state which has a major role to play in the world, that the model for major roles is in the West and in the sense that we're open societies, we're free societies, we're democratic societies, we're societies based on the fact that cooperation gets you a lot further than confrontation, that he has wanted Russia to play in that role. Russians want to be seen as part of the world community, not isolated and cut off, and pushed away.
JIM LEHRER: And if he can only get money to the miners and the other people, then everything would be moving much better.
AMB. PICKERING: Well, we're all--we're in the midst of an electoral campaign and obviously he's identified that as a serious problem and miners today have made their statement on that issue, so that's an issue he will really have to address, and I suspect he will be.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much. Good to see you.
AMB. PICKERING: Thanks, Jim.