the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Gaggle by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and NSC Senior Director for European Affairs Liz Sherwood-Randall, 5/27/2011

4:45 P.M. CEST

     MR. CARNEY:  Hello, everyone.  As we make our way to Warsaw, I wanted to gaggle and bring with me Ben Rhodes, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.  We also have with us Liz Sherwood-Randall, who is Senior Director at the NSC for European Affairs, who can talk to you about our visit to Poland. 

     I don’t have any other announcements to make, so I’m going to ask Ben to give a little bit of an overview, and then Liz can talk to you about specifics about the dinner tonight and what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. 

     MR. RHODES:  Just a quick thing on today.  I know you got a readout already, but in addition, the President was able to met separately on the margins for a brief period of time today with both Prime Minister Essebsi of Tunisia and Prime Minister Sharaf of Egypt.  They were able to have discussions between meetings. 

     And the President just told us that he found both of the leaders committed to moving forward with the political reforms in their country.  They discussed the importance of moving forward with democratic reforms, including respect for the rights of minorities.  The President reaffirmed America’s commitment to democracy in both Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the programs of economic modernization that were the topics of discussion today.  And the President discussed again our long-term commitment to supporting stability and democracy and economic prosperity in these countries, and was impressed with both leaders.

     I’ll just kind of go through some of the -- you already have most of this, but the top lines for the Poland trip, and Liz can speak to the dinner tonight and the bilateral agenda for tomorrow. 

     So tonight, after we get to Poland, the President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.  He will proceed immediately to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and lay a wreath honoring, of course, the great sacrifices made by the Poles throughout many, many centuries and many years of their history.

     Then he will go to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, where he will also pay tribute there to, of course, the tragic history as well as the heroic resistance that took place at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial.  He will lay a wreath there as well.

     Then he will proceed to the presidential palace, and he and President Komorowski will host a dinner with Central and Eastern European heads of state.  Liz can give you the list and the agenda for that dinner in a moment.  But, again, this is an important opportunity from Warsaw to underscore America’s deep commitment to security and democracy in the region, to consult with the leaders of these countries, as well as, of course, having the bilateral meeting with Poland.

     Then tomorrow the President will begin with a bilateral meeting with President Komorowski.  Then the two leaders will participate in a discussion -- after that bilateral meeting, a separate discussion about democracy, some of the lessons learned from the experience of Eastern Europe in Poland and their democratic transitions.  There is a group of people who’ve traveled -- Poles -- who work these issues who’ve recently traveled to Tunisia and other places, and also are playing a key role in Belarus, which Liz can talk to, which is of course the last remaining -- or the most troublesome remaining country in Europe in terms of backsliding on democracy. 

     Following that, he will have a working lunch and bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Tusk.  They will hold a joint press conference.  And then he will visit the church that is the memorial to the tragic plane crash of last year.

     With that, Liz can give you the dinner and the bilateral agenda, and then we’ll take some questions.

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  Hi, all.  Happy to do this.  So for those of you who remember, last year in Prague the President had dinner with a number of his Central and Eastern European counterparts.  It was leaders only.  And the President found it very meaningful to hear directly from them about their concerns in their region, their perspective on the work that we’re doing together.  And so when we learned that the Poles were hosting a summit today of Central and Eastern European leaders -- which has been a formula in Central and Eastern Europe since 1993, with variable participants, it’s not a set group -- we asked if we could jointly host with the Polish President an informal dinner with the Presidents from the region who are going to be in Warsaw today. 

     So the President will have dinner with President Komorowski and 17 other leaders from the region tonight.  Would you like me to actually tell you what countries?

     Q    Yes.

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  Okay.  Albania, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and then obviously Poland and the United States.

     The agenda for the dinner is twofold.  The first element is a discussion about finishing the unfinished business of Europe in the post-Cold War era.  So it’s really to talk with these countries about their consolidation of democracy, their security interests, and then, as Ben alluded to, the challenges we continue to face in the countries on the eastern periphery of Europe, in particular Belarus, which is really the last holdout in Europe. 

     And we’ll be discussing the ways in which we can cooperate together to build on the successful models of the countries that are around this table tonight and encourage those who are at this table who are still working their way along the democratic path to continue along that path.

     So the first discussion, as I said, is about European security and prosperity.  The second half of the dinner will be a discussion about Europe in the world -- because one of the themes of our administration has been that these countries, which moved along toward democracy at the end of the Cold War, have great experience to share with countries that have not yet made that transition.  And given the dramatic events of the last few months, Poland has taken the lead, as Ben mentioned, to assist countries like Tunisia with their efforts to build new democratic institutions and processes. 

     And so what we want to talk about with these countries is the role that they can play not only within Europe, as we’ll talk about at the first session of the dinner, but in the second element of the dinner, how they can play a role beyond Europe.  And we’ll be discussing in particular Tunisia and Egypt and the participation that they can have alongside us in the work we’re doing there, building on what happened today at the G8.

     Q    Liz, can you expand on that a little bit, on how these countries could play a role in Tunisia and Egypt?

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  Well, already it’s happening, so the democracy event tomorrow where the President will be briefed by Poles who have been out in Tunisia and in Libya -- because the foreign minister has been in Libya recently -- what we’re talking with them about is, what lessons from your experience of transition can be applied to those who are now trying to figure out, in the wake of the revolutions that essentially have taken place in their countries, how to build new democratic institutions that work.  And while our experience is rather old in this regard, with these countries the experience is very fresh; it’s 20 years ago.

     And so our thinking is -- and we know this from some of our partners in the Middle East and North Africa -- they’re very interested in the example of Poland, in particular, but also some of the other countries that will be around the table tonight.

     MR. RHODES:  I’ll just add one thing to that, too.  There are the direct contacts that we want to encourage between the countries around the table -- Poland in particular has taken the lead -- and these countries.  There have been very impressive civil society contacts.  I think you’ve seen, for instance, some of the group of people who were involved in the Serbian protests have been in contact with the Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.  So they’re government-to-government; they’re civil society-to-civil society contacts.

     But also some of the discussion today, of course, was about the economic component of this.  Some of the very same institutions and infrastructure that was set up to support democratic transitions in Europe, in Eastern Europe in particular, are now being reoriented towards the south.  So you have the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, who built up expertise and how countries that are transitioning in democracy need to consolidate growth.

     So the EBRD is going to be reorienting a lot of its focus to MENA.  That’s an outcome of the G8 meeting today.  And that’s the type of expertise that exists within Eastern Europe that can be now refocused on the Middle East and North Africa.

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  And actually I’d add two points here -- one, to build on what Ben has said.  So a concrete example of this is in our own country that our democratic institutes are partnering with the Poles.  We can provide some support for them.  They have the human capital, and some of our democratic institutes want to help them get out in the region.

     MR. RHODES:  Yes.  Like NDI and NRI --

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  So NED, NRI -- yes, exactly -- and NDI.

     So, second thing I want to say, going back to the first session, given what happened yesterday with the apprehension of Mladic after so many years, it’s a perfect way of thinking about the continuing work we’re doing toward reconciliation in Europe and toward integration in Europe.  And so one of the themes of this first session, when we’re talking about Europe itself, is how can we consolidate that integration. 

     There are countries in the Balkans that have not moved fully along the path to membership in the EU.  The development in Serbia yesterday means that Serbia can take further steps forward toward its EU membership -- because one of the issues that had blocked its progress was the fact that Mladic was still on the loose. 

     And so this is a good example of the kind of work we want to do to help Europe heal from the past and integrate so that it is that Europe that is truly whole, free, and at peace.  And there is unfinished business still to be done.

     Q    Are you surprised that Walesa isn’t going to be at the event tonight, given his interest, his visit to Tunisia recently?  Why did he cancel?  And what is your reaction to that?

     MR. RHODES:  Yes, I got your question, Kate.  First of all, events tomorrow, the democracy events tomorrow.  He was invited by President Komorowski.  We certainly -- President Obama would welcome the opportunity to meet with him.

     My understanding, from his statements and his communications with us, is he has an engagement in Italy -- speaking engagement.  But we’re working -- we, of course, would welcome his participation in the democracy event.  He was invited by the Polish President, and President Obama, of course, would welcome that opportunity.  But I think it’s a scheduling matter that they’re looking at.  I think he spoke to it today, actually.  And we’ll let you know if there are any updates.

     The group of people that he was a part of, again, were part of this Polish delegation that’s traveled in the region and that will be providing the readout of the meeting.  But, of course, he is a symbol among -- a leading symbol among many of the transition by the Polish people.  So we’re certainly going to benefit from the experience of those Poles who travel in the region and the experience of Poles involved in the transition to democracy.  And I think right now what we’re working through is just whether there’s a scheduling conflict.

     Q    Did the two -- did Walesa and Obama speak today, did you say?  When you said the two spoke today, who --

     MR. RHODES:  No, no, no, I said I think Lech Walesa spoke publicly about how he’s trying to -- about his scheduling commitment.  And so I think -- I was referring to the fact that he spoke.  And we’re proceeding with the democracy event, seeing if there’s any way to make it possible for him to be there, but if he can’t be there because he has a previous commitment, that’s certainly understandable.

     Q    Given that you’re talking a lot about how good your relationship with Russia is, is there any feeling that it’s good for the President to go to Poland to sort of stress that just because you have a good friendship with Russia doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective sort of partner with Poland?

     MR. RHODES:  We’ve had a view from the very beginning of the administration that the reset of our relationship with Russia would be good for Eastern Europe and the security of Europe generally, because, frankly, when you have Russia communicating well with the United States, communicating well with NATO, you have a better context for European security generally.

     I think, understandably, at the very beginning of the administration, there was some concern that if there was a reset with Russia, would it come at the expense of Europe, or would it be in service of European interests?  And I think what we found increasingly is that these countries very much came to support the reset.  You saw that in Prague last year when they actually -- after signing the START Treaty, President Obama had the dinner with these leaders, and many of them remarked on the fact that they had come to believe that the thawing of relations between the United States and Russia was a broader thawing, in some respects, between the United States and the West that could be beneficial for European security.

     Similarly, many of these leaders, as you know, those of you who were with us in Lisbon, became very supportive of the START Treaty and made statements in support of the START Treaty that were very important statements at a time of discussion and debate in the United States.  And what they said at the time was it is better, again, to have this type of cooperation with Russia, this type of transparency, so we understand what’s happening at the time within Russia as it relates to its -- their nuclear facilities. 

     So, again, you saw them reaffirm their support for the cornerstone of the reset with the START debate.

     So I think what we’ve come to see -- and then, last, I should have said the NATO-Russia Council that took place in Lisbon also I think spoke to the fact that this wasn’t just the United States and Russia that had to reset, but rather it was NATO and Russia, to include, of course, the Eastern European countries.

     At the same time, I think it’s important for the President to send a signal about all of our -- the importance of all of our alliances and partnerships.  And what you’ve seen on this trip is the close ties that we have with the Irish people underscored by the President.  You saw a reaffirmation of one of our most important relationships in the world, of course, with the United Kingdom.  Then you saw the consultations at the G8, meeting with President Medvedev as a part of that, and now a chance to underscore the importance of Eastern Europe as well.

     So I do think it’s important to send a signal in that context, that Eastern Europe is very important to the United States, and European security is very important to the United States, and that we’re going to remain deeply committed to the democratic consolidation in Eastern Europe while also working with them to make them more active global partners as well.

     Q    Does the U.S. have anything to announce on any of their sort of bilateral issues like their kind of request for help with their F-16s, squadrons, or even the visa waiver issue?

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  So we have a number of deliverables that will be put out tomorrow.  I think I can say confidently that we are going to announce tomorrow the conclusion of the agreement to establish an aviation detachment in Poland that will allow for our two air forces to cooperate in training the Poles to utilize the American aircraft that they purchased --  F-16s and C-130s. 

     So what we will be doing is rotating quarterly trainers and aircraft to Poland so that they can become more interoperable with NATO, utilizing the equipment that they own.  This will be a small, permanent presence on the ground, and then a rotational presence that will be more substantial.

     Q    How many aircraft are you talking about, Liz?

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  I believe they have 48 F-16s, but how many we will rotate will depend on how we decide to do the training.

     MR. RHODES:  The agenda tomorrow -- that's a very -- obviously, an issue of great interest to the Poles and to the United States, given their interest in -- and our common interest in their close defense cooperation.  And I’m sure they’ll be discussing a range of issues to include the democracy aspects that we discussed, to include economic cooperation, particularly on energy.  I think the Poles are interested.

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  And we have a fact sheet we’re going to put out tomorrow on the cooperation that we’re undertaking with the Poles on energy, particularly clean energy and shale, which is something we’re working on very closely with them.

     As Ben said, we’re going to have some things to announce on democracy promotion because of the leadership role that Poland has played in the region and our concerns about Belarus. 

     And then do you want to say word on visa waiver?

     MR. RHODES:  Yes.  Then I think -- of course, visa waiver is an important issue to the Poles, so I think tomorrow the President will be able to update both Prime Minister Tusk and President Komorowski on the progress that we’re making in pursuit of fulfilling the President’s commitment to address Poland’s visa concerns.  So that will be -- he’ll be providing that update tomorrow.

     I should have pointed at the beginning, we put out a statement on Belarus today condemning the political arrests that have been made there and signaling an intent was to pursue targeted sanctions against those members of the Belarusian government who are responsible.

     MR. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  And provide additional support to Belarusian opposition and civil society.

     Q    It doesn’t sound like you have a final visa agreement.

     MR. RHODES:  I think that we’re working towards fulfilling the commitment that the President made.  There are many components of that, to include both components within the administration, but also legislatively, as well.  So those are being worked through.  And I think the President will be able to provide the update as to how many of -- how far down the road we’ve moved and what the remaining issues are. 

     But, again, it will be -- we feel like we’ve made progress from the time that he made -- he had his last meeting with the Poles, and he’ll be able to speak to that progress tomorrow.

     Q    Ben, can you talk a little bit about the comments out of Russia today where they were saying that they would be willing to mediate in Qaddafi’s exit?  And can you talk a little bit about what Obama and Medvedev spoke about this yesterday?

     MR. RHODES:  Yes.  Well, as we said yesterday, Libya was a topic of conversation in the bilateral meeting yesterday.  The President reiterated the fact that Russia’s role in abstaining was essential to the resolution passing, the operation going forward. 

     They then discussed what role Russia might play in the current context.  And the Russians, of course, have longstanding relationships in Libya that, frankly, we don't have, and so we agreed that it would be important for us to remain in close contact with the Russians. 

     For them, they provided us with an update on some of their discussions they’ve had with I think both the opposition as well as regime officials -- because I think recently you saw, for instance, travel to Moscow by some opposition leaders.  So they’ve been in touch with members across the Libyan spectrum. And we agreed to stay in contact with them around those discussions.

     We noted Russia’s public statements following the meeting that they are committed to seeing Qaddafi go.  And that's very consistent with the discussion that the two Presidents have.

     Q    Did Medvedev say that Russia was willing to play a role in Qaddafi’s exit?

     MR. RHODES:  They didn't -- the way I would characterize it is there was agreement about what needs to happen in Libya, and that we believe that Russia has a role to play going forward as a close partner of ours who also has discussions with the Libyan people. 

     So I wouldn’t want to suggest that they discussed a great detailed plan of action, but it was rather, we agree that the Libyan people -- we are in agreement that there needs to be forward movement in Libya on the political side.  There’s an agreement that the Libyan people deserve a better and different future, and that we are going to be in close touch with the Russians as they pursue their conversations with the Libyans.  And we’re going to continue to share information about this.

     MS. SHERWOOD-RANDALL:  I had a Russia point, just going back to the question about the reset.  It’s notable that Poland has pursued its own reset with Russia, that in the context of the work that we’ve done to reduce the tensions in the relationship between the United States and Poland, Poland felt the confidence also to pursue the development of a more constructive relationship.  And they feel that their security environment has been improved as a consequence of the overall change in climate since we began this work together. 

     So I think that's one of the things that we see when we talk about Poland’s role in the region.  Poland is really playing a leadership role now in stabilizing its region, in encouraging reconciliation and progress toward EU integration, and in trying to induce countries that are still not far enough along the path of democracy -- in particular Belarus, but we also see backsliding in Ukraine -- to work in that direction.  They’ve committed time and energy and resources to it, and we’re going to be increasingly partnering with them as they assume that leadership role.

     Q    Thank you, guys.

END 5:09 P.M. CEST