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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal   Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Interview on NBC's "Meet The Press" With Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell
Washington, DC, January 2, 2000
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State, January 3, 2000
Blue Line

MR. RUSSERT: With us here in Washington, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Welcome. You just heard our conversation.

Do you believe that Boris Yeltsin resigning, accepting immunity from criminal prosecution, setting the election date in Russia in March rather than June is undemocratic?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: No. I think that, actually, what has happened is they have done this transfer of power in a democratic, transparent way. We have to remember the great role that President Yeltsin played. I mean, he was the first democratically elected president of Russia. He has abided by a variety of democratic principles and I think that this transfer of power to an acting president is something that we believe has taken place democratically, moving the elections up or things that happen in other societies.

I think what is very important here though is that the democratic aspects of what Yeltsin has done need to be continued. We were quite encouraged by a speech that Acting President Putin made in the last 48 hours in which he talked about the importance of freedom of expression, of association, of press and his dedication to a rule of law. We are going to be watching, obviously, very carefully.

There are kind of two strands, I think, to Acting President Putin. You described the KGB part and Mr. Yakushin did. But also we have to remember that he has been a prime reformer. He was deputy mayor in St. Petersburg under Sobchak and took a lot of steps that indicated his interest in economic reform and we are going to be looking for actions in terms of economic reform and perpetuation of the rule of law.

MR. RUSSERT: His first official visit, as I mentioned, was to Chechnya, giving hunting knives to the Russian military. His popularity in Russia is based largely on his execution of the war in Chechnya. Aren't you concerned about that?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, he's riding a tiger in this. I think there is no question. I mean, he has based a great deal of his style on what is happening in Chechnya and the fact that he went there. But I think we believe that there is a very dangerous aspect to this in terms of quagmire and that he needs to develop some kind of an exit strategy.

We have argued for a long time that the only solution to Chechnya -- and one can't say that the Russians don't have a problem in Chechnya; they clearly do. But that there can only be a political solution to this. There have been some negotiations with a variety of Chechen leaders. We have urged them, as have other European allies, to find a political solution. That is the only way they are going to make this work.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the Russian Government has committed atrocities in Chechnya?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think what has happened is they have, in fact, taken wanton action against the civilians. We understand that they do have a problem with terrorists and I think that if we had had three apartment buildings blown up in Washington as they did in Moscow, and they do have concerns about terrorists. But what we have criticized them for, as have the Europeans, is action against innocent civilians who have been pushed out of Chechnya and really a lot of them have obviously died.

MR. RUSSERT: Why were we so surprised by Yeltsin's resignation? We never got a heads-up.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, there were lots of rumors about it and there have been for a long time. But, as Mr. Yakushin said, the Russians themselves were surprised. I think that Yeltsin has always been a man of the bold move and seizing the historic moment. But obviously there have been rumors for some time about it but everybody was surprised, as they've said.

MR. RUSSERT: The fact that Putin is a KGB agent, former, 16 years, uses words like "dark-skinned people must be annihilated, find them in the latrine and kill them." How tough of a person is he?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, I also do not know those quotes. But let me just say this: He is a tough person. I have met him with the President. He is somebody that is very determined, action-oriented. I think we are going to have to watch his actions very carefully. But, as I said, there are these kind of two strands to him and I think that actions we will be watching. We believe that it is very important to have this productive relationship with the Russians.

I have spoken to Foreign Minister Ivanov so many times in the last weeks and, basically, we talk about the importance of cooperating on a number of issues that we agree on, we disagree on others. But I think we have got to be really careful here, Tim, not to recreate an enemy. You asked Yakushin about a cold war. We are not expecting that. We have a lot of issues that we have to work in common. The arms control agenda is a huge one.

Nonproliferation is a major issue for us in the 21st century and the Russians need to be a part of that, they need to ratify START II, we need to move on to START III, where there would be reductions. We need to deal with this issue of NMD and the ABM. So we have a large agenda with them and we are going to be working it.

MR. RUSSERT: You just heard any modification of the ABM in order for us to build a missile defense system apparently is not something the Russians are going to go along with.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, at this stage, they are not eager about that. But we have negotiations going on. My deputy, Strobe Talbott, has been very much involved in that. He will continue to be. I will be. We believe also in the centrality of the ABM treaty.

But we also are looking at new threats and the NMD system is not directed against Russia; it doesn't threaten them. We are concerned about the threats from states that are acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

MR. RUSSERT: We will build it, the missile defense system, with or without Russia's approval?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, the decision hasn't been made. The decision to deploy is something that the President would be making later in the summer. But that decision has not been made. It will be based on whether it works and whether it suits our security needs and whether it is useful to the United States in dealing with the threat.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you comfortable with Vladimir Putin being in charge of Russia's nuclear arsenal?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that he is a competent man and we believe that Russia is running according to a rational system. There are lots of people in the government that we work with and our experience with Acting President Putin so far has been good. But, again, actions are very important and I don't want to recreate an enemy here. I think it is very important.

MR. RUSSERT: Will President Clinton go to Russia to meet with him?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that has not been determined but they have spoken on the telephone and we are all in contact all the time.

MR. RUSSERT: We have to take a quick break. We will come back and talk more on the world's hot spots. And then our political roundtable about Iowa and New Hampshire, Millennium resolutions, a lot more coming up right here on Meet the Press.

(Commercial break.)

MR. RUSSERT: And we're back.

Joining me in the questioning this morning, NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

MS. MITCHELL: Thank you. Good morning. Happy new year, Madame Secretary.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Happy new year to you.

MS. MITCHELL: You talked about freedom of expression in Russia. Why are we ignoring the fact in China that China has been rounding up tens of thousands of people because of their religious beliefs?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We are not ignoring it; we have made many statements about it and continue to say that we cannot have a completely normal relationship with them so long as they have this kind of very bad human rights record and have made very clear that what they are doing with the Falun Gong and other religious leaders and people of conscience is unacceptable.

MS. MITCHELL: But we don't punish them. We don't link trade or economic policies to their human rights abuses. Yet while we continue trading with China, we continue the embargo against Cuba. Why do we continue that embargo when we treat China in this very different fashion?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I think it is very important, at the dawn of the 21st century, to understand the importance that China has played and will continue to play as the most populous nation and with huge and important power in Asia. We have a complex relationship with them; we will continue to do that.

We believe it is very important for us to have trading relations with them. Bringing them into the WTO, I think, has been a major accomplishment of the Clinton Administration in this last year. And also dealing with them on issues of proliferation, where their record has, I think, been improving and is very important to us. And, therefore, we have that kind of a relationship with them.

Cuba, the law of the land is an embargo. We believe that it is very important to try to expand the space for the people of Cuba to be able to have some freedom away from the government. That is why we have taken a whole set of measures to try to make sure that more people can travel to Cuba from the United States for humanitarian reasons, that they are able -- more people can send remittances. They are different countries in terms of Cuba being 90 miles off our shore and that the embargo is the law of the land.

But the China issue is so important because they are the growing power of the 21st century and it is essential for us to engage with them on a multitude of levels, not forgetting our own principles.

MS. MITCHELL: One of the big irritants right now between Cuba and the United States is the fate of a six-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez. When I was in Cuba recently, Fidel Castro told me that he thought Bill Clinton really wants to return this child but is hampered, for the moment at least, by the politics of Florida. Is that the case?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: No. I think that what is happening here is the Immigration, the INS service, is the one that is making the determination and they are in the process of dealing with what is obviously a very hard decision. This child cannot be made a political football and that is where President Clinton, as we all, are.

MS. MITCHELL: If the father can prove that he is the proper parent, the custodial parent, and since our laws do say that biology should -- the biological parent should have the child if he can prove that he is the proper parent -- and, by all accounts down there and by our interviews with him he is -- then should the child be returned if the immigration officials believe that he should be returned?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that we are waiting for a decision from the immigration people and the question is who speaks for the child. That is what they are looking at and this is a decision that INS is making.

MS. MITCHELL: But if they make that decision, that the father should speak for the child, do you believe that the child should go back to Cuba?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I am not going to state what my personal views on the subject are. But the INS is making the determination and we will do what -- the way they come out on this.

MS. MITCHELL: And do you think that decision will be made soon or will this be allowed to drag on endlessly?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I have a sense that this decision will be made within the near future. Nobody wants us to drag on. It is clearly a very difficult issue and the child -- I think we do all have to think about the child and that he can't become a political football.

MS. MITCHELL: You are going to be involved in very crucial talks tomorrow on the Middle East. Israel, Syria, a lot at stake. The President has been quoted telling associates that he believes there could be a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Syria in 90 days. Is that really possible?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: First of all, I think we've got to see what's happening tomorrow in context. It really is a remarkable time. For 50 years, we have been dealing with how Israel is recognized within its region. We've had peace with Egypt since the '70s and then with Jordan. And now having an agreement with Syria would really put a very important -- place another keystone or the keystone, I think, in many ways, into this thing as we are dealing also with the Palestinian issue, which is at the core. So this is a very big deal.

But we are all going into this with open eyes. I mean, this is a huge historic opportunity. Talks of this level have never taken place between Syria and Israel. But because there are so many fateful decisions involved in it, I think it will be a very difficult set of negotiations and we are all hopeful and basically Prime Minister Barak would like to see this move. So would the President. But we are not really putting a time frame on it.

MS. MITCHELL: Very briefly, do you think that if you have an agreement that Barak can sell it and have it approved by a referendum, especially with water rights and things like that, that are so crucial?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think water rights are clearly an important part. And what this agreement is going to be about are the areas of withdrawal of security, of what the peace looks like, you know, what is the character of it and the time table and water rights. Those are the issues that we are going to be talking about. They are bringing their experts to talk about all of that.

I think that Prime Minister Barak knows what he can do. He clearly has said that he has to sell this at a referendum and I think that he is going to be looking at how to do this. This is why these issues are so difficult: The leaders themselves have to make the decisions. The US can be a facilitator. I am going to be there the whole time in Shepherdstown, the President will be coming in as often as necessary. He will be deeply, deeply involved in this and we hope to be able to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

MR. RUSSERT: You sound reasonably optimistic.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am clearly very much seized with the idea that we are doing something this historic, that the opportunity is there and that these two -- that President Assad and Prime Minister Barak are prepared to make the fateful decisions. But, Tim, they are very, very hard decisions and therefore I am prepared to roll up my sleeves and work with them and they are, more importantly, prepared to roll up their sleeves and really work on the issues.

I think we have to be very realistic. We don't know how long it is going to take. I think that we will assess where we are at the end of the week and we are just going to keep working it. It is too important not to give it our full attention.

MR. RUSSERT: Another difficult area, Iraq. One year ago, the inspectors were told, "Get out," by Saddam Hussein. Do you believe that Saddam Hussein has more weapons of mass destruction now than he did a year ago?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, we are very obviously concerned about his ability to reconstitute and we are keeping him in his box and the no-fly zones are being monitored and, as you know, we occasionally have to take military action as our planes are illuminated or our pilots are in danger.

We are concerned about the fact that there are not inspectors on the ground and, as you know, we tried at the United Nations to ensure that that would happen. There is a new resolution which requires the inspectors to go in and that is the law, the international law at this stage. Saddam Hussein has turned that down. And we, obviously, have reserved the right that if we see that he has or is reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction, that we can take action on that.

We want to make -- we have set up a regime whereby the inspectors could go in and that is the way that Saddam Hussein could make sure that sanctions might be suspended.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you what the President said a year ago and get your sense of it as we look at it today: "A rather scary threat to regional stability becomes increasingly alarming. Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein is successfully staving off attempts at the United Nations to reinstate weapons inspectors in his country."

One year ago, President Clinton himself summed up the likely consequences of allowing Mr. Hussein to go uninspected for too long. "Mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction, he will deploy them, he will use them."

It's been more than a year. Aren't we concerned what Saddam has done this past year?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We are obviously concerned. As I said, I think that we have been successful in keeping him in his box and in terms of the threat to the region. We worked very hard on this resolution. We think it is unfortunate that Saddam Hussein has not taken advantage of it because it -

MR. RUSSERT: And the Russians, French and Chinese oppose us.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, they abstained. But what's interesting here, Tim, in their as they call it explanation of vote at the United Nations, they made clear that they believed that Saddam Hussein must abide by what the United Nations -- the resolution is.

MR. RUSSERT: And if he doesn't, what happens?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that we still continue to have the possibilities that we've had before of taking unilateral or multilateral action if we need to. But I think we should -- I can't say that we have accomplished everything we've wanted with Iraq. But we, I think, are on the right track in terms of keeping them, as I've said, in the box, of working with the opposition and working towards regime change, and making quite clear to the neighboring countries and to the rest of the world and our partners at the United Nations that what Saddam Hussein is doing is unacceptable.

MR. RUSSERT: Madam Secretary, we thank you for joining us. Happy new year.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Happy new year to you. Thank you.

[End of Document]
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