Interview With Egle Samoskaite of Delfi

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Trakai, Lithuania
January 12, 2012

QUESTION: In Lithuania the most important thing is Russia, Russia, Russia, so the first question will be connected. We see some unrest in Russia, protests against Vladimir Putin regime. So in your opinion, could it change the regime in Russia, and could it change Russia’s relations with its neighbors and with the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t want to speculate too much about things we don’t know. What I can say is the United States has been clear about supporting the right to free protests. It is notable. These are the biggest democracy protests we’ve seen in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is notable and positive that the Russian authorities are allowing the protests to take place. And again, as you know, because Secretary Clinton made it very clear when she was last in Vilnius a few weeks ago that the United States thought there were irregularities in the parliamentary election and she made very clear that Russians have the right to free, fair and transparent elections. So it’s up to Russians to determine where this leads, but it’s a good thing to see a new generation of Russians underscoring the importance of democracy and transparency.

QUESTION: But do you think that these protests are important in their scale? Of course we are happy to see that, but can it change something?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, that’s up to Russians. Yes, they are important in their scale. The scale is very impressive, the number of Russians who are paying close attention.

For a number of years there was always an argument about apathy in Russia, that Russians were resigned to authoritarian leadership and not too interested in democracy. Many of us questioned that view. We thought that Russians, like many or all people, want freedom and transparency and democracy. I think that’s what these protests are about. That’s a good thing.

QUESTION: Lithuania has another neighbor, Belarus, and Secretary Hillary Clinton expressed support for the nuclear station, nuclear plant in Belarus. Nowadays when we see the situation, don’t you think it was some kind of mistake? In Lithuania it was known as a tragedy, not supported.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Let’s be clear about that. The United States said if Belarus transferred all of its highly enriched uranium out of the country, which is a huge proliferation concern to us, the United States would not oppose Belarus moving forward with a nuclear power plant. So long as that power plant was built according to international standards, environmental standards, and safety standards. And even then the United States wouldn’t be the one paying for it or providing technical support. Simply we would not oppose its right, like all countries’ rights, to build a safe and secure, environmentally sound plant.

That doesn’t address the issue of where it would be built, by whom it would be built. But the bottom line is any support that the United States would lend to a nuclear power plant in Belarus would be dependent on that meeting safety and environmental standards. The highest international standards.

QUESTION: Nowadays we see some big change in Ukraine. Ukraine doesn’t know where it’s going to be with regard to the West. Do you think that there is possibility to migrate [inaudible] European Union has, as you know, very [inaudible] problems and cannot pay attention to this big country. So is there any possibility that we can lose Ukraine?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Let me say a further word on Belarus before I talk about Ukraine because the nuclear power plant was one issue, but since we’re talking about these themes of democracy I need to say on Belarus as well that we’re very frustrated with lack of progress since the crackdown. We think that Belarus had the opportunity to begin to respect democracy and human rights and move towards a better relationship with us, which is what we wanted. With the crackdown and the arrest of presidential candidates, apparently for nothing more than running for president, and their detention and the recent detention of human rights activists, Belarus has foregone that opportunity. That’s why you’ve seen U.S. sanctions on Belarus and joint statements and actions with the European Union to make clear to Belarus that these actions are unacceptable and there’s no future relationship in Belarus for us, let alone a nuclear power plant, so long as they stay on that course. So that’s an important thing to say about Belarus.

It leads to a similar comment about Ukraine. We would like to see Ukraine move in the direction of better relations with the West, with the United States and with the European Union. We’ve made that clear. But we’ve also made clear that we expect Ukraine to meet European standards of democracy and human rights and we’ve been disappointed by some of the recent developments, not least the arrest of former Prime Minister Timoshenko which I have to say appears to us to be a political prosecution. Without getting into -- I’m not going to sit here and adjudicate the case -- but the pattern seems to be that it’s only the previous regime and its leadership that is being arrested for these alleged crimes and corruption. That is simply not the way European countries of the 21st Century can proceed. That has to have consequences for Ukraine’s relations. Therefore we strongly supported the European Union’s message last month when it said we want an association agreement with you, we want a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. But they can’t move forward until democracy standards are met and that’s exactly the message of the United States as well.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Timoshenko case can be the kind of thing that enforces the move of Ukraine to the East? When we don’t listen to the Ukraine because it imprisoned Timoshenko and so on, so they have no choice.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think they’re the ones making the choice. It’s a similar argument you sometimes hear about Belarus and Ukraine, that we are pushing them towards the East. We don’t want to push them anywhere. First of all, I don’t think it’s a choice. We’ve never said that their good relations with us need to be at the expense of Russia. It’s normal and appropriate for them to have a good relationship with Russia. That can even be in our interest. So it’s not a zero sum game or a choice. But we are not the ones who are pushing them to the East. They’re making certain choices that limit their ability to have the kind of relationship with us that we want.

We want to see a Ukraine with a free and transparent energy market, independent. The same goes for Belarus, by the way. But again, both of those countries are making choices that by limiting their economic and political options with the West lead them to increase their ties and frankly their dependence to Russia. I don’t think that’s what they want. And we remain more than open to building our relationships with them. That’s why the European Union did an association agreement with Ukraine. Nothing would be better for Ukraine than to build this relationship, free trade with the European Union and political ties. But again, I don’t think we can just sweep aside our concerns about democracy and human rights in those countries.

QUESTION: I’d like to jump to the Middle East because the situation is not stable after Arab Spring and the situation in Iran is also concerning. Do you think it’s changing [inaudible]? What is going on in this region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: There are a lot of questions about the future of the Middle East and the results of the Arab Spring, but keep in mind, this is not a policy. We didn’t choose the course for these countries, we didn’t choose the timing, it’s not up to us. Indeed, one of the potentially positive things about it is it’s not the West that decided this. The people of the region decided, like some Russians have recently decided, that they want to call for more transparency and openness. So it’s important to understand and be a little bit humble about this. We don’t control the future and we can’t predict the future. All we can do is try to shape it in a positive way. It does have potential.

Look, while we’re right to have some anxieties and questions about the future, but the status quo in the Middle East was not exactly perfect for the past 60 years. So the removal of some of these leaderships, whether it be Mubarak or Gadhafi or Ben Ali or others is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and turbulence, but we hope that on the end of it can be countries that are more free, more transparent, more market economy based with some economic growth. While right to be nervous about the future, no one should pretend that things were ideal before all of this.

QUESTION: Maybe it’s true to say that, but is a conflict with Iran possible? Real conflict?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, I don’t want to speculate. Our approach is clear. We want to resolve this diplomatically. We have given Iran and continue to give Iran the opportunity through talks to resolve this problem. And so long as they fail to abide by Security Council resolutions and its commitments to the international community there will be consequences. We’re focused on economic, financial and energy consequences, but there are risks of conflict, Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz which is something we cannot accept, there are concerns about Israel taking military action. All of this is all the more reason to increase the pressure on Iran so that they realize that there’s no future interest for them and there’s a very high price to be paid for ignoring the will of the international community in developing nuclear weapons.

QUESTION: But you have no backing from China as I know because of all this.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We’re talking to China. The Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, is there right now talking to China about this. We think China has no interest in seeing an Iran with nuclear weapons. [inaudible] the United States already has an oil embargo on Iran, if the Europeans join and stop buying Iran’s oil we think that China has an interest in avoiding being overly dependent on Iranian oil. That’s one of the things we’re talking to China about and we’ll seek to persuade it not to purchase any of the oil that Europeans would forego so Iran feels even more pressure.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: My pleasure. It’s nice to talk to you.