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Interview: Top U.S. Diplomat Discusses Regional Developments, Abuses, Stalemates, And Cooperation

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon (file photo)
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon (file photo)
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon recently returned from a trip to Russia, Poland, and Germany, and later this month will be in Lisbon for the NATO summit and NATO-Russia Council meeting.

He sat down with RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Heather Maher for a wide-ranging interview on developments in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Russia.

Gordon commented extensively on the U.S. position on everything from the jailed bloggers in Azerbaijan to Ukraine's improving relationship with Moscow, Georgia's right to territorial sovereignty, to Russia's role in brokering a deal over Nagorno-Karabakh.

RFE/RL: You recently returned from a trip to Russia, and during that visit you met with civil-society groups. In your remarks, you told the audience that the United States was "well aware of cases like Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov, Natalya Estemirova, and Sergei Magnitsky." All these murder cases share the distinction of being unsolved. When you told the audience that the United States was "focused on these cases" in its bilateral discussions with Russia, what did you mean? And what, if anything, do you hear from your Russian counterparts that gives you hope that justice will ever be done in these deaths?

Philip Gordon:
By "focused on" means that we raise them at all levels and consistently with our Russian interlocutors. Everybody knows we're pursuing a political and strategic agenda with Russia and we think we've made a lot of progress in that relationship -- to the benefit of both sides. We think it also benefits the overall relationship so that there's more trust and confidence and ability to work on the things that we disagree on. There are some of those, as well.

But even as our leaders -- President [Barack] Obama, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton -- focus on our political and strategic cooperation, they never lose sight of the fact that we're very much concerned about these cases -- some of which haven't yet been resolved, and need to be resolved and need to be investigated -- and in some cases, there need to be prosecutions. And the president has raised that at every opportunity.

When the president was in Moscow for the summit, I think he spent half of his time with civil-society leaders, NGOs, opposition political leaders, students -- making clear that, while we have a lot of business with the Russian government, and that business is going pretty well, we're also focused on civil society, rule of law, and democracy. So that's what I mean by "focused on it" -- the president always raises it with his interlocutors, the secretary raises it, NSC [National Security Council] Senior Director Mike McFaul is co-chairing a working group and a bilateral presidential commission on the subject, and we make clear that this is of importance to the United States and we think that a society can only really succeed when it is based on democracy and rule of law.

Georgian Sticking Point

RFE/RL: Another sticking point in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations is the situation in Georgia. The United States recognizes Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, while Russia has installed military troops on Georgian soil, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. You have called this "a real difference" and said "we talk about it, but have agreed with Moscow not to let it stand in the way of the good relationship" both sides want. Where, if anywhere, is the pressure coming from to solve this inconsistency in U.S. policy? And indeed, is there any pressure to solve it?

Well, I think there's significant international pressure to solve the question. Russia's relationship with many countries around the world -- indeed, its reputation around the world -- will never be what it could be, what Russians want it to be, so long as in the view in much of the world, it's occupying a sovereign country. And when Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they may have expected a number of countries would go along, but they haven't. And it will constantly be an issue for many countries around the world, for many countries in the European Union and certainly for the United States.

What we haven't done is chosen not to move forward in the areas of common interest with Russia until this very difficult issue is finally resolved.
What we haven't done is chosen not to move forward in the areas of common interest with Russia until this very difficult issue is finally resolved. We don't think that would be in our interest, it wouldn't be in Russia's interest, and I would add, we don't think it would be in Georgia's interest, to say that we refuse to deal with Russia, we refuse to look for common ground, we refuse to strike any agreement in any area, until the difficult issue over Georgia is resolved. We don't believe that would be a successful approach or in anybody's interest.

So we're raising this bilaterally with the Russian government, we are supporting Georgia internationally at the Geneva talks -- which is the forum that was set up to deal with the issues following the war. We're very active on the subject. We're trying to get international organizations -- the OSCE, NGOs -- back into Georgia. We have successfully encouraged other countries not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We're keeping it on the international agenda.

RFE/RL: The United States has made it clear that it opposes Russia's call for a new European security treaty. At the upcoming NATO-Russia Council meeting in Lisbon, and beyond, how big a sticking point will be as you try to forge cooperation on things like missile defense and emerging threats? And how much room is there for movement in the U.S. position?

The United States has been clear for some time, as have many of our allies, that we don't think a new treaty is necessary. We already have some good institutions in place, and good principles in place, and don't believe it would be a productive use of time to try and negotiate a treaty which would be difficult to negotiate, agree on, and ratify, and isn't necessary.

So that is our view and the view of many allies. But I don't expect that to be a major sticking point. That idea has been out there for some time. We've also made clear to the Russians that we're ready to talk about European security -- we're open to a debate, dialogue, on the subject, we've had it all along. I don't think the Russians are expecting us to change our position. We've been pretty clear about it.

NATO In Afghanistan

RFE/RL: Along with the new strategic concept and missile defense, Afghanistan will be a big agenda item at the NATO summit in Lisbon later this month. What will the United States be looking for from the allies in terms of increased or continuing commitment to the war? And is there a concern on Washington's part that as it enters the final year of the military campaign there that European governments will begin to draw down their contributions to the effort?

I think the first thing to say is we're already getting very important contributions from all NATO member states. Every single member of the alliance is in Afghanistan and making a major contribution to our success there and we have known from the start that we can only succeed if the alliance as a whole, and indeed others, are working with the United States, as they are. There are, I think, 49 different countries operating in Afghanistan, more than 40,000 troops from our European allies, significant financial contributions, and this is an alliance effort as a whole, and that's why it will be a feature in Lisbon -- for the alliance to come together and reinforce its determination to succeed together.

The administration, as you know, is focused on the training mission -- we're trying to train Afghan national security forces so that we can complete a transition to Afghan lead authority, ideally by the time President [Hamid] Karzai said he wants to do it, in 2014. And so we will be looking to allies to reiterate their commitment to this common goal, and I also want to say that for all of the talk of questioning the mission and unpopularity -- and we all know how hard this is in democracies given the costs and sacrifices we're all making -- allied governments are telling us they are committed to the issue. And they know that it needs to be a collective effort, and even when they tell us how challenging it is domestically, they reiterate their support for moving forward together.

RFE/RL: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in Moscow this week and it was reported that Russia and the alliance could sign a major agreement soon on cooperation in Afghanistan. "Kommersant" newspaper reported that in exchange, Moscow might ask NATO to limit its presence in new member states or seek to further whittle down the proposed U.S. missile-defense system. Can you comment?

I'm not going to report on partial reports that I haven't seen. Russia has been increasing its contributions to Afghanistan. Of course, when President Obama was there in summer of 2009, the two sides agreed on lethal transit over Afghanistan, which was a major contribution by Russia to American efforts to diversify our supply routes to Afghanistan.

There is also a NATO-Russia transit agreement that facilitates supplies to the NATO operation there, and there are discussions on maximizing and expanding that. But I have no comments about any major new deals and I'm not really sure what they might be referring to.

The second part of your question was about linkage between NATO-Russia cooperation and NATO's policies toward its own member states. On that, I can be quite clear that there are not two separate classes of NATO membership and the alliance has been clear that it's not prepared to create separate classes at anyone's request. So that sort of question is off the table.

Ukraine's Flawed Elections

RFE/RL: Ukraine held regional elections last weekend and the results appear to have strengthened President Viktor Yanukovych's hold on power. Yanukovych is, of course, much more Moscow-leaning than his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko. Is Washington at all concerned about Ukraine's continued move away from the reforms of the Orange Revolution era? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently noted that relations between Kyiv and Moscow are growing stronger.

First, just on the local elections from last Sunday [October 31] that you mentioned -- we don't believe that those elections met the standards of openness and fairness that applied to the presidential election earlier in the year, for example. And the vice president [Joseph Biden] has spoken to President Yanukovych about the importance of maintaining democratic reforms. I think the world -- the European Union and the United States were paying close attention to the local elections and as I say, we don't believe they met appropriate standards.

It is critically important for a country like Ukraine, that's building its democracy, to ensure the participation of all parties that want to participate, to have an electoral law and code that meets international standard. And from the preliminary reports that we've gotten that doesn't seem to be the case. And we have communicated that to the Ukrainian government. We stand ready to help them on their Electoral Code and its implementation and the process of local elections and national elections so that they can meet the standards that we think, they and we know are necessary for a democracy to succeed.

More broadly, the Ukrainian government has said that it wants to advance its democracy and we want to work with them toward that goal. They have said they want to pursue a balanced foreign policy between Russia and the West and we have said that we don't think it needs to be zero-sum and a choice -- that you can have good relations with Russia and good relations with the United States and the EU at the same time. And we, again, will be looking to the government in Kyiv to demonstrate that that's the case.

Peace In The Caucasus

RFE/RL: On the subject of the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan: There is a perception of late in Armenia that the Russians have taken the lead as the organizer and mediator of talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. The recent talks in the Russian city Astrakhan mediated by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is just the latest example. Are the United States and France outsourcing their role in the OSCE's Minsk process to Russia? And can you comment on the Minsk process and where you see it going?

Well, I think that would be news to the secretary of state, who is very much focused on this issue, [has] spent a lot of time working on it with the French and the Russia and with the parties, including on her trip to both countries in July. And it would be news to our Minsk group negotiator, Ambassador [Robert] Bradtke, who has spent an enormous amount of time shuttling back and forth between the countries and with the French and Russians.

It would be news to me and others around here [the State Department] who are very much focused on it, because the United States, as a Minsk Group co-chair, but also an important player in the Caucasus, has a major role to play. And we have been very focused on it because it's a potentially dangerous situation. There are incidents along the line of control all too frequently and we remain committed to using the Minsk Group process to get a settlement -- in the absence of which you would constantly have to worry. You'll have isolation of the two countries that should be cooperating economically, diplomatically, and you'll have the potential for a conflict, so we're very much involved.

RFE/RL: Secretary Clinton and President Obama have both repeatedly raised the issue of the two bloggers in Azerbaijan who have been jailed on trumped-up charges of hooliganism, as well as the case of imprisoned independent newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev. In 2008 the Azerbaijani government also banned RFE/RL and Voice of America broadcasts on FM frequencies. Yet the United States considers Azerbaijan an important partner in the region. Can you tell me if any action has followed the rhetoric -- what is the United States doing specifically to keep the pressure on President Ilham Aliyev's government?

We have addressed that issue consistently, it's not just a case of getting the president or the secretary to mention it, and then you forget about it. But through our embassy and at all levels of the government, including on my own trips and trips by the deputy secretary, we call attention to these matters and make it clear that they need to be dealt with and the bloggers should be freed, in our view.

As you said, the president and the secretary have both raised this at the highest levels, with their interlocutors in Baku. I think when the president of the United States, in a meeting on a wide range of strategic issues, takes the time to underscore how important it is that he is personally focused on a matter of human rights like this, that sends a pretty important message. And the president did so in his meeting with President Aliyev in New York and we think the Azerbaijanis know that the world is paying attention, and that they should address these issues.

No Ambassador In Belarus

RFE/RL: Elections are coming up next month in Belarus. Every election sees President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "win" by a landslide and democracy protesters beaten and detained. Is Washington doing anything to help civil-society groups there prepare for the vote next month? And secondly, there is currently no U.S. ambassador in Minsk -- when might that change, and can you also comment on the status of U.S. sanctions against the government?

We have made clear that we would like to have a better, more functional relationship with the government of Belarus. But there are steps that that government needs to take to make that possible.

The sanctions that the United States put on Belarus had to do with the human rights situation and the lack of democracy in Belarus. And even though we may have other interests in common - whether its energy or political relations -- the sanctions will only be removed when there's progress on human rights or democracy. And the upcoming presidential election will be an opportunity for Belarus to show progress. And so we'll be watching it very carefully, and stand ready to assist in the process, so that they take advantage of this [opportunity]. The previous presidential and parliamentary elections in Belarus did not meet international standards -- they have an opportunity to do so now.

That would be the path toward a better relationship with the United States. It would be the path towards the removal of sanctions and economic progress in Belarus, and it would also be the path to fully staffing our embassy. The reason we don't have an ambassador in Belarus is not our choice, it's their choice -- in response to the sanctions we put on for reasons of democracy and human rights. We would like to see an ambassador there tomorrow. We don't believe that the absence of an ambassador is the way to effectively deal with the government and we think they should agree sooner rather than later to let us fully staff the embassy so that we can pursue a better relationship.

Deadlock In Bosnia

RFE/RL: You were just in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Secretary Clinton. The situation there, as you know, is quite volatile. There's a stalemate over reforms that are opposed by Republika Srpska. The recent U.S. and EU efforts to encourage the reform process failed and political parties are now bickering over the creation of a new government. What is the U.S. strategy to help Bosnia out of this deadlock?

We remain very much engaged in Bosnia and that's why the secretary wanted to go there, and to deliver that message directly to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina; [to say] that we support them as a functioning state, as a sovereign state. The United States has invested a lot in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the years and there was significant progress for the first decade or so after the Dayton agreement.

But it has stalled, you called it a "stalemate" and that's what it has been. We lent our support for a [NATO] Membership Action Plan in Bosnia and made clear that for that process to begin, they would have to resolve to issue of defense property that they still haven't sorted out more than 15 years after the war.

We believe that modest constitutional reform is necessary, not least to put Bosnia on a path towards potential EU membership, and what the secretary communicated is that we will continue to stand by Bosnia but they have to do some work themselves, and squabbling among political leaders is not going to get them where they need to go.

So there was just an election. There were some positive signs, with moderates doing reasonably well, some changes to the tri-presidency, and we're hopeful that in this new alignment, leaders will understand that Bosnia and Herzegovina's future as a whole depends on them getting together and making some of these reforms, resolving the issue of state property and defense property, and getting on the path to the European Union, that's the way to serve their people, rather than just representing their ethnic entities.

RFE/RL: Kosovo and Serbia are preparing for talks on pragmatic governance issues -- will the United States play any role in brokering these talks and if so, what outcome are you looking for?

What the UN General Assembly agreed to was EU-facilitated talks between Kosovo and Serbia. We supported that, we voted for the resolution, we think the EU is well placed to facilitate those talks. Both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU, we support both of them joining the EU when they meet the criteria. We've also said we expect to be and are ready to be involved. We have strong relationships with both Serbia and Kosovo, we have something to offer. And while the EU will be facilitating the talks, we are ready to play a constructive role, as well.

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