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Yugoslav Unrest: Podesta, Sessions Comment on U.S. Policy

Aired October 5, 2000 - 12:31 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: ... has used nationalism throughout his reign in Yugoslavia to encourage opposition, encourage rather resentment toward the West, and the president went out of his way to say: If he even suggested U.S. military force, or NATO force could be involved, and any attempt to remove him from power, Mr. Milosevic could use that to his advantage.

So the president went out of his way to take that option off the table, and reiterated something the administration has said throughout this situation, since the last election, that is to say, the opposition won election, they won it fairly, there should not be a runoff. There is no need to recount the vote, and that it is up to the people of Serbia to take to the streets, to show that they want the will of their vote to be validated by the Milosevic regime, and that Milosevic should leave.

However, it is also worth pointing out that the administration has also said that it wants Mr. Milosevic, if he is removed from power, subject to trial on war crimes charges after The Hague, which is something the opposition leader, Mr. Kostunica, has said he does not support, and would not authorize, if in fact he did become the new leader of Yugoslavia.

The president also made it clear that there's a difference of opinion there, and did not really say how he thought that should be revolved if in fact Mr. Milosevic were to leave power -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Major, are there any indications of any diplomatic efforts under way? the U.S. working with others in Europe, perhaps with Russia, to try to do something to convince President Milosevic, this is the right time for him to step down before there could be a real civil war unfolding in Serbia?

GARRETT: The administration continues contacts with various European allies through NATO and through what is called the Contact Group, but is also trying to keep channels open to Russian President Putin, although press secretary Jake Seward (ph) said this morning that they did not think that it was a particularly open option right now to deal with President Putin and try to resolve this situation.

What the administration has said throughout is it is going to continue to contact all of its European allies, and try to rally the world community to send one very direct message to Mr. Milosevic: You lost election. It is time to submit to the will of the people of Yugoslavia and step down.

Other than that, what the administration has said is it is up to the people on the ground, through a grassroots uprising, to topple this regime, not up to NATO, and certainly not up to the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Major, we are standing by for a statement from Tony Blair, the British prime minister. He's in London, obviously monitoring this situation as well. When he comes out, we will be taking his remarks live. We are also standing by for an interview with the White House chief of staff, John Podesta.

In the meantime, Major, give us a sense of some of the mood that is going on at the White House right now. What is happening behind the scenes? How big of a crisis potentially is this situation? Right now, of course, only within the past year or so the U.S. was involved militarily, in the situation in Kosovo?

GARRETT: Well, Wolf, the story really begins with the election, and administration said from that day, that Sunday, that fateful Sunday that it was clear to them, based on their evidence from the ground, that Mr. Milosevic was trying to subvert the will of people of Yugoslavia, subvert the will, try to knock down Mr. Kostunica and his opposition.

But they have said from that day, and they have said very day since then, that they were impressed by the savvy, by the political acumen of the opposition in Serbia and Yugoslavia to stick together. That is something that had never been seen before. Administration officials were quietly confident that that unity -- that unanimity among the opposition forces would eventually lead to unanimity throughout the country.

And they were also encouraged step by step by signs that those forces who had so often been aligned with Mr. Milosevic were not showing that regular alignment, the police, various security officials, other folks around the country. And all along, the administration said, these are hopeful signs, as long as the opposition continues to build, as long as people go to the streets, and show that they want that election to stand, and those forces loyal of Mr. Milosevic do not stand with him, there is a chance this could break. They are seeing that breakthrough now, they are encouraged by the signs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right Major Garrett, standby at the White House.

I want to go back to Alessio Vinci, our Belgrade bureau chief. There have been new developments only within the past few minutes -- Alessio.

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good afternoon.

The latest that we heard here from the opposition is that Studio B, the television station that was in the hands of the government since May of last year, is now controlled by independent journalists. Also we have some reports, a source with the opposition, that Radio and Television Serbia, the states channel, is also now being emptied out of all of those people who were siding with President Milosevic. There were earlier reports that some policemen, and riot policemen were inside the building. We understand that now from opposition that that building now is completely empty, and they called on those journalists from state television, which organized the strike yesterday, because they wanted to reclaim control of the news as it happens here, not what the state government was telling them to tell.

They are calling on those journalists to return to work. Of course, we have an indication that is happening because in the last three hours the state television has not broadcast a single bulletin. Therefore, there's certainly something that is going on inside that building. We understand from the opposition now that the people siding with Mr. Milosevic, who were inside the building, have now left that building.

If indeed this report is confirmed that will be the second major building in town that is now under at least the control of the opposition, or at least it will eventually come under the control of the opposition -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Alessio, also, give our viewers some perspective on President Milosevic. He is not someone who is easily going to be intimidated. Given the international coalition, the international pressure that has been put on him over these many years.

GARRETT: Well, certainly not. President Milosevic has shown throughout his tenure in power that he was willing to take it always to the brink, always to the very latest. At this point, this is another indication that President Milosevic is willing to at least stay on. We have not heard from him. After all, the capital of Belgrade is now the scene of hundreds of thousands of people, 100,000 people in the streets protesting, the fact he wants to remain in power, we have not heard from him.

One thing is sure however, Wolf, is that despite international calls, especially from the United States, of trying to bring Mr. Milosevic to The Hague, the opposition leader here, Vojislav Kostunica, who says he won the elections last Sunday, two Sundays ago, has repeatedly said that he would hot hand over President Milosevic to The Hague. He said that actually Kostunica criticized very much the United States for turning this election into a Milosevic issue. He said that this is not -- has nothing to do with President Milosevic, this has to do with the will of the people.

Kostunica said that it is now up to the people to protect that victory. Kostunica is galvanized by the fact that 2.5 million people voted for him. He also knows less people voted for President Milosevic. And the word is out. Because even as the election commission issued the official results, it was clear that President Milosevic lost the first round election, and all of this chaos here has begun because the election commission refused to recognize an early victory in the first-round of Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition leader.

Therefore, it is certainly at this time it is too early to say how much now Mr. Milosevic's willpower is in danger. What we know is that, for the first time in 10 years, we have protesters, opposition supporters, taking over a major government building, and we have to see now what Volislav Kostunica, the opposition leaders, will tell them to do next.

Back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Alessio Vinci in Belgrade, standby.

I want to bring in now the White House chief of staff, John Podesta. He is here in our Washington bureau.

Mr. Podesta, first of all, thank you for joining us, but tell us what is happening from the U.S. perspective right now and what the United States, the Clinton administration, can do to presumably, which is your objective, see President Milosevic step down?

JOHN PODESTA, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, Wolf, I think the president just spoke to that. I think what you see out on the streets is people fighting for democracy, fighting to get their country back. And we are encouraged by that. I think the beginning of the end perhaps for Mr. Milosevic began with the vote which, I think it is important to remind every one of, he set the game, he set the rules, and then he still lost.

So what has happened is that Mr. Kostunica has obviously won this election, I think the people recognize that, and now they are out there fighting for their democracy. And we are watching this realtime as are you.

BLITZER: We heard a recommendation from the former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic only a few minutes ago here on CNN, a recommendation that the U.S. work with others, Russia, the Europeans, to try to convince President Milosevic to leave, presumably to get safe haven, and to forget about the International War Crimes Tribunal, the fact that he's an indicted war criminal right now. The need is to get him out in order to avoid a civil war erupting in Serbia. What do you make of that?

PODESTA: Well, I think, as you know Mr. Milosevic is an indicted war criminal, he belongs at The Hague and for the crimes that he has committed. But right now, I think the most important thing to do is to get him to step down and to permit the will of the people in Yugoslavia and in Serbia to take effect and to have a new president in Serbia.

BLITZER: All right, Mr. Podesta, stand by a second. I also want to bring in Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He is a Republican. He has been following this situation quite closely.

Tell us, Senator Sessions, what you make of it?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I'm really -- we can't help but be hopeful and almost excited that the same thing could happen here that happened in East Germany, when the wall fell, it has some of those same earmarks, but I think everyone understands that if troops come in and people start firing and shooting, this thing could turn ugly in a real -- in a hurry.

So I think it is an incredible time, it is an incredible time for the people of Yugoslavia. We can only hope they can take back their government and restore democracy. It would be such a wonderful thing for that whole area of the world.

BLITZER: Senator Sessions, you heard President Clinton say that it is probably a bad idea for the U.S. to engage militarily on the streets of Belgrade at this point. That might do more harm than good. Is that your sense as well?

SESSIONS: That would be my sense. I would support the president. He's better informed than I, and somebody has got to make a lot of decisions in a hurry. I think that Congress will support him as we go along here.

BLITZER: And just to make that point clear, there is bipartisan cooperation on this specific issue, as far as President Milosevic is concerned, what to do, what to do with him as far as you can tell in the U.S. Senate?

SESSIONS: I think so. Nobody in the Senate is as fully informed as the national security adviser and the president and his staff. So we've got to follow their lead on this now.

BLITZER: Mr. Podesta, how much cooperation is the Clinton administration receiving from Russia right now, which still has considerable clout in Belgrade with President Milosevic? We heard Vice President Gore say the other night, the Russians were not necessarily supporting the U.S., the NATO position, meaning that there should not be a run-off election as a result of what happened only a few weeks ago.

PODESTA: Well, as you know, Wolf, the president has spoken with President Putin about this. Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger have talked to their counterparts. I think that we are urging the Russians to influence Mr. Milosevic, if they can, to accept the will of the people, to accept the judgment of this vote, and to step down from power and move forward with an orderly transition of government.

BLITZER: All right, dramatic developments unfolding in Yugoslavia right now, in the balance: the future of President Milosevic. We have a lot more to report on this developing situation. Let's take a quick break. We will be right back with out continuing coverage.

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