Public Papers - 1991 - August
Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine
The President. We're in the middle of our domestic briefing which will continue. We interrupted that to get briefed by Secretary Baker who has just returned from the ministerial abroad, the NATO ministerial, that went very, very well. He filled me in on his conversations with the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union itself and of the Russian Republic; he met with him, I believe. And of course, we are very pleased that constitutional government has been restored there.
On the domestic side, as I say, we're halfway through it. This is a follow-on to regularized domestic briefings that we hold in the White House with Director Darman and Mr. Roger Porter and our Chief of Staff; Andy Card, our deputy. We have those regularly, but this was an update. And we talked about our education program. We're really looking forward to the fall with Congress out now, trying to figure out how best to get congressional action on some of our programs: energy, transportation, education, the crime bill, many other agenda items that will be coming up in the fall.
So, it's a mixed day of both the domestic agenda and the foreign policy agenda which has, of course, been dominated by events in the Soviet Union. And I have not talked to any of the leaders today. I did talk last night, as I think Marlin may have released, to Prime Minister Kaifu of Japan. And of course, Japan has very special interests in relationship to the Soviet Union. And he shared the emotion that we all felt as to developments over there.
So, that's an update for right now.
Internal Situation in the Soviet Union
Q. Mr. President, how do you judge Gorbachev's opening moves back in Moscow? He's put Moiseyev, a fairly hard-line person, in charge of the military.
The President. Well, he told me when he was in the Crimea that he had ordered Moiseyev to remove the forces, see that the forces move back, and I gather that has taken place. And it was Moiseyev with whom we finalized -- on the military side, through the Soviet Union, helped finalize the START agreement. But ``who's on first'' over there is up to them. That's not something that the United States can say any more about.
Q. Mr. President, to what extent has Gorbachev himself been part of the problem? Not in the coup, necessarily, but after all he did hand-pick these eight leaders. And to what extent do you think Gorbachev himself has been responsible for the drag on reforms?
The President. I heard President Gorbachev say that he bore responsibility for the people that he put in and felt betrayed by some of them. And that's a matter -- I think that said it all pretty well, Jim [Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News]. In terms of reforms, let's keep everything in perspective, and let's recognize that not only is Eastern Europe free, Germany reunited, troops moving back and all of that, but that he launched a very ambitious program on perestroika and on glasnost. You never would have seen a press conference today had it not been for the initiatives that he took early on.
Now, with some of the harder-liners on the sidelines, clearly, that perhaps frees up President Gorbachev to work very closely with President Yeltsin to see that these reforms continue. The objectives of the United States, of course, are to see a market-oriented economy in the Soviet Union and also to see certainly a democratically held elections and democratic-oriented regime there.
So, I view the recent happenings as very positive in that regard, to further the economic reforms. I can tell you that I made a decision today to lift the hold that we have had on the various economic programs that I think will clearly benefit the Soviet Union. That's as of now taken care of.
Q. Well, now that the hard-liners, some of the hard-liners have been brushed aside, do you look for Gorbachev to quicken the pace of reforms?
The President. Well, I haven't had an opportunity to discuss that with him. I haven't had an opportunity yet to discuss it with any of the Presidents in the Republics. But I would like to think that all elements in Moscow and in the various Parliaments would recognize that the best way to get economic support from the West is to adopt a genuine and far-reaching economic reform program. That has been on hold for some reasons which include a lack of a union treaty.
So, that's up to them. That's up to the Republics and the center, but they've got to get on with a treaty so that American entrepreneurs know who they're dealing with. You can't make a deal and then wonder whether you have to make it with two other entities. And that kind of problem would be eliminated if a good, solid union treaty were agreed between the Republics and the center.
Q. Mr. President, what do you hope Gorbachev does now in terms of independence for the Baltic Republics?
The President. You know, my position has been -- in the first place, we still don't recognize the incorporation and the Baltic flags do fly there in Washington as you know. But I've long felt that the quicker independence can be granted to the Baltics, the better. And let's hope that out of this now we will see genuine negotiations between the Baltic States and the center to accomplish this end. I've talked to President Gorbachev about this before. I've talked to President Yeltsin about it as a matter of fact. So, perhaps recent events will speed the day when you have an agreed path set out for independence of these States.
In my view, that would do more to enhance good will in the United States than almost any other single thing that could be done.
Q. Mr. President, do you think that this is a situation where Gorbachev is going to feel more personally inclined to speed up the pace of reform or maybe just pressured by this new kind of loose alliance that he's going to have to forge with Yeltsin?
The President. Well, I've always felt that Gorbachev was committed to perestroika. And I've always felt that he was committed to openness. So, what pace it takes now, with the removal of some of the hardest-liners to whom Gorbachev had to pay some attention, I can't say. But I see nothing in here but good news in terms of speeding up the pace.
Q. Mr. President, would this be a good time for Mr. Gorbachev to rein in the army and KGB, put them under -- --
The President. I think he's already seen that just taken place on a factual basis. Those responsible for moving the forces -- Defense Minister Yazov apparently is definitively out of the picture. Mr. Gorbachev appears to have put some trust in General Moiseyev -- Moiseyev, I guess is the pronunciation -- and he is a man that we've worked with. But that's a matter for Gorbachev to sort out, the center, as indeed Yeltsin pointed out yesterday, I believe. But we obviously will be looking for a regime that will move forward with these policies of diversification of defense industries.
We have had an opportunity in the past to express our concern about levels of defense spending in the Soviet Union. And clearly I'd like to see a finalization now of the START agreement which has only some details left, but that was resisted up until close to the final breakthrough by some of the hardest-liners in Soviet defense.
So, in the whole defense area we've got to wait. It's up to them who the head of their defense department is and who will be the next Chief of Staff. But we will hold back a little on military-to-military contacts until we see this sort out and move briskly forward on the agreements that we've already reached. And as I say, on the economic front we will go forward with the program that we outlined, a program that both Gorbachev and Yeltsin seem to feel would be very beneficial to the Soviet Union.
Q. But nothing new on the economic front?
The President. I don't see anything new right now on that. We'll be talking to our European friends about this. But we agreed in London on a certain path, and if there's something that we could do that might further enhance economic recovery, we'll always be glad to take a look.
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Sir, where do you go from now on the Middle East issue? Are you in contact with Mr. Bessmertnykh? Is he completely out? What do you expect next?
The President. The Secretary of State has talked to Mr. Bessmertnykh. And let me just ask him to comment in a little more detail here on how he sees that developing. But I can tell you we will do everything we can to see this peace conference go forward. It is in the interest of the entire world. And through hard work by our Secretary of State and with cooperation of a lot of other entities, countries and entities, things have moved far beyond where many of the severest cynics thought it would be. And now with this turmoil in the Soviet Union hopefully behind us, and with the Soviet Union being important in all of this, I see nothing but an improved chance.
But Jim, I'd like you to comment on the next details if you would.
Secretary Baker. I did have an opportunity to talk by telephone with Minister Bessmertnykh when I was in Brussels, and I believe that the Soviet Union will be every bit as committed toward trying to create jointly with us and others an active and viable peace process in the Middle East as they were before. Some of you may have seen during the course of the coup where certain sources, a very limited number as the President has pointed out, praised the fact of the coup. Those sources have shown an uncanny ability in the past to back losers, and this is another example of that.
We believe that there's an opportunity here for a possibility for peace. It's an opportunity that may not come by again for a long time. And we would hope that all the countries in the region and the sources and entities would subscribe to that and would join with us in seeking to promote peace in the Middle East.
Internal Situation in the Soviet Union
Q. What about the question about whether Bessmertnykh is in or out right now? There seems to be some doubt about what his role was, where he was during the course of the coup attempt -- --
Secretary Baker. When I spoke to him yesterday on the telephone, he was the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union. And picking up on what the President just said, the designation of their cabinet officials is really a matter for them to determine. Having said that, I think it's our view that what has happened might well provide us with the opportunity to pursue an expanded agenda with the Soviet Union, an expanded agenda centered on reform.
Q. But Mr. President, isn't there some concern, I mean, there is some confusion or some uncertainty about what Bessmertnykh's role was. For example, he disappeared, and it was announced that he was going to be sick for 2 days.
The President. There's a lot less confusion than there was 2 days ago, isn't there?
Q. But it was announced that he was going to be sick for 2 days, and then he showed up a day later, once the coup was over.
The President. Well, let them sort that out. Does that come under the direct heading of the United States of America? Here's a man that was constructive in the peace process. Here's a man that worked side by side with the Secretary of State to get something done. Now let them figure out if that's who they want to continue there. But we will deal with the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, and it's not for us to second-guess what happened in a complex situation. All I'm saying is: Things are an awful lot better today than when we were standing here, what was it, 48 hours ago.
Q. To clarify, the U.S. doesn't have any indication -- --
Q. Don't you have to approach the Soviet Union, though, for at least a brief period of time with a little more caution? Don't you have to figure out who it is you're dealing with and talking with?
The President. I said that, I think. Yes, Jim. But I don't think that means that -- what I want to do is give instant support for the change that's taken place. And one way to do it is to lift the economic hold that we've had on a program that I think would benefit the recovery. I'm perfectly prepared, and I think the American people want to go forward. But absolutely, we don't know exactly how all this is going to sort out and who is going to be on first or who's going to be on second when it comes to staffing the bureaucracy inside the Soviet Union.
But again, that doesn't exactly come under the heading of our business. I would be a little resentful if somebody told me who I ought to have in my Cabinet from Moscow. And I think they'll sort that out. There's great pressures now between the center and between the Republics. And there's also a great accommodation between the center and the Republics. And so, let's just see how it works out and not try to put this on a personal basis as to who ought to be where. That's their business.
Q. Mr. President, hasn't Gorbachev's personal stature been permanently weakened by this? And can he rule now without the fear of another coup from some direction?
The President. I wouldn't say that his stature has been weakened by it. Here's a man who stood by his desire for reform and democracy. And he was seized and put under house arrest. And to say that that is a weakening performance, I don't know.
Now, if you ask me has Boris Yeltsin's stature been enhanced, the answer is clearly yes. But this jumping on Gorbachev, who was taken and held under house arrest with his wife and grandchild, I'm simply not going to be a part of that nor a part of second-guessing all that. They've got procedures there that they've now put into effect in terms of investigating all of this. What business, what possible good could come from the President of the United States trying to sort all that out? Let the system sort it out. All I know is that he was committed to reform, he had the support of Yeltsin, and he had the support of the President of the United States and every other leader around except Iraq, Cuba, and Libya. And that's good enough for me. We're on the right side of that one.
Q. He'll still have to rule with the threat of a coup over his head, another coup, possibly.
The President. Well, you must know more about this than I do. I just don't see the threat of another coup, but there might be one. I don't know. But I'd love to know what any observer would base that comment on right today.
Q. How can you go forward in your relation with the Soviet Union without choosing between Mr. Yeltsin and Gorbachev?
The President. We've done it pretty well so far, haven't we?
Q. Would it be helpful to have another meeting with Gorbachev in the near future to discuss accelerating the pace of reform?
The President. We'll probably be discussing Soviet Union matters with him. No question about it. But whether -- is your question a head-on-head meeting?
Q. Yes, sir.
The President. Well, I don't know. There's no plans for such a meeting. And I think they've got some matters in the wake of this, which we've been fencing around about here, to sort out themselves. But I'm available. Look, this relationship is very, very important. And all I can say is: Isn't the world an awful lot better off today than it was 48 hours ago? And the answer to that one is, ``Absolutely, yes.''
Now, I can understand you all wanting to get out ahead of the power curve and try to have me committed as to who should be Secretary of Interior or Secretary of Defense over there, Minister of whatever is, and I'm not going to get into that business. What I am going to do is say both Yeltsin and Gorbachev are committed to reform, to democracy, and to openness, and this is very good. And there are some tensions, there are some dynamics between the Union and the center, but they'll sort that out.
And I think it will be sorted out without the threat, now, of another rightwing takeover. And the reason I say that -- some suggesting another coup here -- the reason I say that is the message of democracy was so clear. The strength of the people was so clear and visible in this one that I think anybody attempting another coup from the right would have to be out of their minds to take on hundreds of thousands of people who clearly, in spite of economic problems, want to see democracy prevail.
That's what it was about. That's what the message was about. That's what the survival of Gorbachev was about. That's what the strength of Yeltsin was about in demanding the return of Gorbachev. And I think the American people understand this probably a lot more clearly than any people around the world.
I'm going to take this last question, and then I'm shutting this thing down. I'm up here on a vacation now, and you're going to see me vacating a lot more. You've had me in here too much lately, and I apologize for abusing your hospitality.
Q. You've often said that the stability of the Soviet Union is in the best national interest of the United States. But as a result of this failed coup attempt, won't some of the Republics and the Baltic States be emboldened to perhaps rise up against the central government? Won't that create still further instability?
The President. Well, again, I don't know that, say, ``still further.'' If you mean still further than a coup where you had tanks rolling down toward the Russian Parliament building, no, I don't think so. But on the other hand, what I see is an opportunity, an opportunity to accelerate the talks that would lead to independence.
The position of the United States is clear on all of this. And there have been some reasons, some of which have now been gotten out of the way, that this process has gone much slower than I want; I think slower than Gorbachev might want, but clearly slower than Yeltsin wants. But I hope we're not looking at some confrontation on this. What I hope we're looking at is more rapid negotiations that lead to the full independence that we would like to see for the Baltic States.
Q. So, the central government's seen the light as a result of this?
The President. I think some of the people that saw the darkness are no longer around. And I think that's, I would hope that that's the case. But again, I can't assure you of that. We just don't have enough information on that at this point. But clearly, some of the hardest-line obstructionists are no longer in the picture. And so, I'd say to the degree any of that underbrush has been removed it makes it better and makes it clear that the people's drive for self-determination can't really be stopped. So, let's use the -- I hope they will use now the process of accelerated negotiation to get on with this. This is the position of the United States, and it's not going to change.
Thank you all very much.
Note: The exchange began at 2:05 p.m. at President Bush's home. In the exchange, the following persons were referred to: Secretary of State James A. Baker III; Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh of the Soviet Union; Foreign Minister Andre Kozyrev of the Republic of Russia; Richard G. Darman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget; Roger B. Porter, Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy; John H. Sununu, Chief of Staff to the President; Andrew H. Card, Jr., Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff; Marlin Fitzwater, Press Secretary to the President; Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan; President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union; Mikhail A. Moiseyev, acting Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Union; President Boris Yeltsin of the Republic of Russia; and former Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov of the Soviet Union. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this exchange.