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Newsmaker: Madeleine Albright

February 7, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And we go now to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who’s with us for a Newsmaker interview. Madame Secretary, welcome.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Good to be with you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: On this Austria situation, you spoke up – spoke loudly about this on Friday. Have you had any reaction from the Austrian government to your remarks on behalf of the United States protesting this new government?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, our ambassador, Kathryn Hall, went in to see Chancellor Schuessel today, and she’s coming back tomorrow. She will report to me. I think obviously in my own conversations previously with Chancellor Schuessel they would have wished we hadn’t done this, but I believe that it was very important for us to state our views because, no matter what Mr. Haider says, some of the things that he has stated are repugnant to Americans and to many Europeans obviously who have also made it quite clear that it’s difficult to have normal kind of business as usual with the government.

JIM LEHRER: You were sitting here watching the News Summary just now with me when Haider said, what does the United States have – why is the world afraid of me or whatever – what – what’s your answer to him?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think mainly people aren’t afraid of him but people are concerned about some of the things he said, as you pointed out, on immigration policy, on some of his assessments of what really happened during World War II, on some of the things that he’s calling for.

And people are basically concerned about the fact that Austria, that has been a member of the European Union – I got to know Mr. Schuessel when he was foreign minister, and they had the presidency of EU been very much a part of all the values that we’ve been talking about where all of a sudden they have gone into a coalition with some people or members of this Freedom Party who state views that are unacceptable.

The thing Mr. Haider does which bothers me a lot is he says one thing one day, then he apologizes, and then retracts something, then he says something else. And that is just not a serious way to do business.

JIM LEHRER: Is your concern about what he has said, or is your concern that the Austrian government will, in fact, do some things that are repugnant? Is your revolting over his words, or is it a fear about what might happen?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, it think a little bit of both. I think the issue here is that they have gone — the party of Mr. Schuessel has gone into coalition. They have put forward a program, which looks okay. And they have a preamble which states all the right things in terms of how they’re going to behave. I think basically from now on we have to watch all the actions. Haider is going to stay governor of his province, Corinthia, and the members of the Freedom Party that have gone into the government are people that theoretically have a background that is okay.

But I think we’re just going to have to watch. And that’s what we’re doing. I asked Stu Eizenstat, who is now Deputy Secretary of Treasury, but has kept his role as my adviser on Holocaust issues and the President’s, to be in touch with the Austrian government officials that are going to be dealing with some of those issues, and we’re just going to follow it very closely because to have in the heart of Europe sentiments expressed such as those by Mr. Haider are very troublesome.

JIM LEHRER: But as a practical matter, what could the president of Austria do to get you and the European Community and others off their back? What is it… what are the options that he has?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think they can live up to what they said in this document, their party program. And they’re going to inaugurate it officially later this week I think on Wednesday — and then do things to deal with some of the Holocaust issues, and that’s why I asked Stu Eisenstat to get involved in this and then basically work to make sure they abide by the human rights and freedom principles that have been a part of the EU.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re not asking or expecting this government to be dissolved and Haider’s party kicked out of the coalition?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think that’s unlikely, because as one looks at the Austrian politics, if that happens, they’d have to go to new elections, and we don’t know what the results of that would be. I think the problem here, Jim, is they had long negotiations. They tried to put together a different coalition government. I think it’s unfortunate that that didn’t work with the socialists, one that they had had that previously. It’s a tough position because these… the Freedom Party did win an election or won a large proportion of it. And there were really three equal parties. But the bottom line is, is I think it’s very important for people to make clear where we stand. And when a country that has been a democracy and the leader in the EU then takes positions or one of the people within it or the leader of the party, then I think it’s very troublesome. And I think it’s possible that this government will, in fact, abide by what it has to. I have only asked our ambassador to come back here for consultations. She’ll be going back. But we have to watch this very carefully. And the other part I think that is a concern, which is a larger issue, is that there are some signs of other extremist right-wing parties in some other countries in Europe. And I think that we just have to be watchful.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those in Austria and elsewhere who say, wait a minute, the United States is the greatest democracy in the world. And the people of Austria voted for a free election for this Freedom Party, 27% of the people did. That’s why they’re in a coalition. Yet now the United States is saying, no, no, no. You don’t have the right to do that.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Now, I think we – I’ve have said, I think, that we are basically watching what people say and do and that what… the actions here are going to speak very loudly on the coalition. I think that the kinds of statements that Mr. Haider has said even since this coalition was put together are somewhat troublesome in terms of revisions of various activities with Germans when the Czechs and Germans have already made an agreement. So I think he is raising all kinds of questions and issues. And one of the things, Jim, as you look out on the world and movement of peoples, immigration policy and how Europeans handle it is very important. How you deal with minorities is very important. These are the issues we’re going to be dealing with in the 21st century. And we don’t want to have a revisiting of some of the worst problems of the 20th.

JIM LEHRER: But the United States at this point is not contemplating taking further action against Austria, right? We’re going to wait and see. You’re going to wait and see.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Wait and see. And I said we would review this on a — daily, which we are. I’m looking forward to Ambassador Hall coming back. She will have met with Chancellor Schuessel sometime today. She’ll be in on Wednesday. We’ll talk about it, and we will make an assessment, and obviously we will stay in very close touch with the Europeans.

JIM LEHRER: All right. On to Russia and Chechnya. Russian forces are now occupying, now taken over the capital, Grozny. Clearly the Russian leaders have done all of this over the protests of you and the President and other leaders in the western world. Why does Russia not care what we think in this matter?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that… You know, I was just in Moscow.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: And I had a very long discussion with Acting President Putin about this. The Russians see this as a problem basically of terrorism. And we acknowledge the fact that terrorism is a very difficult issue. But they have taken actions which I think go beyond dealing with an issue in terms of very serious action against innocent civilians.

And we have humanitarian concerns. I’ve made very clear our position to the Russians. They see this as something that they feel they must do. We have said to them that there is no military solution to this, that while we acknowledge the fact that there is a problem, the military solution doesn’t work, and we have been talking to them about a political… that they should get involved in a political dialogue.

You stated in the News Summary that the forces, although Grozny has been captured, that they’re moving to the South and the West and to the mountains. These are guerrilla fighters, and I think that one of the things we’ve been saying to the Russians is this may go on. They need to get a political dialogue and resolve what the status of Chechnya should be.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when you said that, I assume you said that to Putin just as directly as you said to me.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Right.

JIM LEHRER: So what did he say in return?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, he basically believes they are doing the right thing, and I really do think, and I have had many conversation also with Foreign Minister Ivanov, I think they’re in denial over this.

They think they have a solution. But for us, we see this as exacerbating the problem, I think creating new breeding grounds for extremists. They need to do something they didn’t do in ‘74 and ‘76, is work on some kind of a political dialogue and an economic way to integrate Chechnya into the Russian Federation.

They didn’t really care enough about what had happened to the people. One of the things I did when I was there, Jim, was to say to them that they needed to allow an international assessment team in to talk about what had happened to the civilians and the refugees. They needed to get involved in the political dialogue. They needed to give accreditation to journalists so that they could go in and we could really know what the facts are, because there’s such a dispute between what they say and what we say.

JIM LEHRER: Are they going to do that?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I’ve been in touch with Foreign Minister Ivanov. They’re looking at it. We were very unhappy over the case of this Radio Liberty and Mr. Babitsky, and hold the Russians responsible for what happens with him.

JIM LEHRER: Now, tell us about your three hours. What did you think of this guy? First of all, let me set the question up. Probably the predominant image of this man in the United States, you know, those who care about this, is here’s a KGB guy who is killing innocent civilians in Chechnya in order to be president of Russia. Now, is that image fair?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: No. I think that it’s obviously much more mixed than that. He is a person who I found… we had a three-hour, really good discussion. We went through issues of arms control, the economy and Chechnya and just kind of general U.S.-Russian relations.

So let me take them one at a time. On arms control, he believes that, same way we do, is that the ABM is the basis of arms control principles, that they’re very concerned obviously about our development, not yet any decision on deployment of an MD system, and we agree in terms of the fact that we should not undercut each other’s strategic deterrent because otherwise we couldn’t do any deep cuts in terms of our strategic weapons.

So we had a basic agreement about that, and I found him frankly more open-minded than I had thought. On the economic issues, he wanted very much to follow through on the things that we want, economic reform, tax legislation, rule of law, try to get it straight with the IMF.

On Chechnya, I’ve just said, he had totally different view. But this is the issue, Jim: I think that the Russian… We have to understand what’s happened here .. is that the Russian people who lived under czars or under communism have been disoriented by all the changes in Russia.

This has been the fall of the Wall and the end of communism has been something that we have been living with as the most exciting thing in our history, and yet for the average Russian, it is very disconcerting. And the buzzword in Moscow is order. And the question is whether Putin will do order with a small o or a capital O.

And the capital O is I think what concerns the people that think about his KGB background. But I think you can understand the small o, and I found him pragmatic. I have thought that we should stop the cycle babble about it. And again– watch what he does. We will be doing that very carefully. But the Chechnya part is disturbing, and I’ve made that very clear.

JIM LEHRER: Did you get the impression he wanted to have a good relationship with the United States? Does he care about a relationship with the U.S.?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Absolutely. I think here we agreed about the overriding importance of U.S.-Russia relations. He said that to me. We probably had about the same talking point about the fact that we need to try to figure out the areas where we can approach things in a common way and where we have differences.

And I was in Moscow because we were actually doing something in common with the Russians, which we are cosponsors of the multilateral track of the Middle East peace talks. And so we can see that there are differences, and they are very evident, but I think both of us see the importance of trying to sort out we can work together.

JIM LEHRER: The bottom line, did you leave that meeting feeling more at ease about him and the possibilities than you did going in?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I found him a very important interlocutor and very pragmatic and a problem solver. But again, we have to see where he’s going. And I must say that the Chechnya part troubles me, because it’s a denial kind of an aspect. On the other hand, his desire on the arms control and on the economy were encouraging. So we’re just going to have to watch his actions. He is a pragmatic kind of a guy, but he is bound and determined on Chechnya, and, as I said, that is troubling.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Madame secretary, thank you very much.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thanks a lot, Jim.