the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Vice President
For Immediate Release

Background Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden's Trip to Romania and Cyprus

Via Teleconference

9:18 A.M. EDT

MS. TROTTER:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for joining.  This conference call is to discuss the Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden’s trip this week to Romania and Cyprus.  The call is on background, and all of our speakers should be referred to as senior administration officials.  They’ll speak for a few minutes now and then take some questions.

And with that I will turn it over to our first speaker.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, everybody, for joining the call.  I’ll start by giving some context for this trip and then walk through the schedule as it stands today, and then would be happy to take some of your questions.

Vice President Biden’s and Dr. Biden’s upcoming trip to Bucharest and Nicosia is first and foremost about strengthening our bilateral ties with two key European partners and about consulting with them on the latest regional developments, including the continuing challenges presented by Russia’s destabilizing actions in Ukraine.

This will build on the Vice President’s engagement with the leaders of both countries.  He met with President Anastasiades in the fall.  He met with Prime Minister Ponta here in Washington in the fall.  He’s had numerous call President Basescu and Prime Minister Ponta as well as President Anastasiades over the last several months to touch base on regional developments and bilateral relations.

And this also grows out of the Vice President’s broader engagement across the region and follows on his trips to Poland, the Baltics and Kyiv over the last couple of months.  He is making these trips, these calls, taking these meetings all as a way of showing the United States’ continuing solidarity and growing partnership with all of our European partners at a complicated and challenging time in Europe.

In terms of Romania, Romania is a strategic partner, a valued ally and a long-time friend to the United States, a friend that now finds itself in a tougher neighborhood.  So as he and the President have done with other European allies, the Vice President’s main message will be one of reassurance.  He will underscore that no one should doubt the United States’ commitment to Article 5.  He will highlight some of the steps we’ve taken to reinforce our presence throughout Central and Eastern Europe.  And in that regard, he’ll have the chance to see an American presence with his own eyes when he visits with Romanian and American troops who are involved in a joint training exercise in Romania.

But it will also be an opportunity for the Vice President to discuss with Romania’s leadership their ideas on how Romania can play a pivotal role in European energy security, contributing to a diversification of supply and helping to reduce Russia’s capacity to wield energy as a weapon against its neighbors.

Finally, the Vice President will want to focus on ways that the United States and Romania can work together to grow our economies through greater trade and investment.  And obviously in order to do that, there will need to be strong rule of law and continuing efforts against corruption, a point that he will underscore in all of his engagements there.

The Republic of Cyprus is a newer, but also strong strategic partner.  And as many of you on the call know, there is real historical significance to this visit.  Vice President Biden will be the first sitting Vice President to visit Cyprus since Lyndon Johnson in 1962, and the most senior American official to visit Cyprus since that time.

We believe that Cyprus can play a pivotal role in regional peace and security throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.  The government of President Anastasiades, which has been in power for just over a year, has reoriented the country to promote core European and transatlantic priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean, something that we have welcomed. 

The Vice President’s visit to Nicosia is part of an effort to continue to cultivate our growing bilateral partnership, which includes cooperation to remove chemical weapons from Syria, nonproliferation, nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism and crisis response. 

The economic crisis of March 2013 which forced Cyprus to seek a bailout from the troika continues to take its toll, and the government is continuing to take steps to rise to the challenges that it is presented.  Meanwhile, the discovery of hydrocarbons in the Cypriot EEZ could position Cyprus, we believe, as an energy and economic leader in the region.

The Vice President is going to Cyprus at a time of renewed hope and energy in the two communities as they work toward the comprehensive settlement to reunify the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.  Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots signed a joint declaration on February 11th in which the sides expressed their determination to resume settlement talks in a results-oriented manner, and they aim to reach a settlement as soon as possible.  We’ve seen productive cross-visits of the negotiators to Ankara and to Athens, and we’ve seen several restorations in religious services that have helped increase cross-communal engagement.  At the same time, the two sides have begun the second more substantive phase of negotiations, something that got underway on May 6th. 

So over the course of his visit the Vice President will see the leaders of the two communities, as well as political, civil society and religious leaders who will play varying roles in this process, and members of the U.N. team that orchestrates the current talks process.  We're not coming to impose solutions or to pressure the two sides.  This is about hearing Cypriot ideas for what a solution could look like.  The Vice President will offer continued U.S. assistance as long as the sides find it useful.

Just to walk through the schedule -- in Bucharest, when the Vice President arrives, he will move right over to Otopeni Military Airport where Romanian defense officials and the base commander will introduce him to Romanian and American air crews who are exercising together.  The exercise, known as Carpathian Spring, is a joint training exercise involving U.S. airmen out of Ramstein Airbase.

The Vice President will express his gratitude to the Romanian military for their strong support in Afghanistan and Iraq and really across the full range of our military and defense cooperation.  And he'll underscore that we simply could not ask for better allies, 10 years as a NATO partner.

The following day, the Vice President will meet separately with both the President and the Prime Minister foremost to reassure them of the United States’ unwavering commitment to our Article 5 guarantee.  He'll also want to consult with both leaders on how we can continue to closely coordinate our response to destabilizing Russian actions in Ukraine.

The Vice President will end his visit to Bucharest by spending some time giving remarks to a gathering of students and young activists as well as government officials on the importance of continuing Romania’s efforts to develop its democracy, fight corruption, and strengthen the rule of law.  We believe that Romania can be a model for the region and this will really depend on the energy of the new generation of leaders emerging in Romania right now.

In Cyprus, the Vice President will arrive in Larnaca on the evening of Wednesday, May 21st.  He'll be met at the airport by Foreign Minister Kasoulides and will deliver remarks upon arrival, and those remarks will emphasize and focus on the strong bilateral partnership between the United States and the Republic of Cyprus under the leadership of President Anastasiades. 

The following morning, the Vice President will proceed to the Greek Orthodox Archbishopric, where he’ll meet with the leaders of various faith communities in Cyprus, including His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos; His Excellency Dr. Talip Atalay, the Mufti of Cyprus; His Excellency Dr. Youssef Soueif, Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus; His Excellency Varoujan Herkelian, Armenian Archbishop of Cyprus; and Father Mariuaz Dulniok, the Latin parish priest in Cyprus,

The Vice President sees interfaith cooperation and dialogue by religious leaders as a positive example of the kind of trust, reconciliation and respect that can be built across divides.  And he will speak with these leaders in a roundtable format.

From there, the Vice President will proceed to the Presidential Palace for a bilateral meeting with President Anastasiades.  In the meeting, we expect the two leaders to discuss ways we can strengthen our bilateral cooperation to bolster regional security and prosperity.  He'll recognize Cyprus for its regional leadership in supporting the mission to eliminate chemical weapons from Syria.  He'll discuss the transatlantic community’s response to Russia’s illegal intervention and destabilizing actions in Ukraine.  And of course, they’ll also discuss the settlement negotiations process.

After the bilat, they will have an official lunch at the palace, joined by members of the cabinet and party leaders, and participants at that lunch will include former presidents, former speakers of the house, and other politicians. 

There will then be a brief stop at the embassy, where the Vice President will honor the memory of Ambassador Rodger Davies and local employee Antoinette “Toni” Varnavas.  Ambassador Davies and Tony were shot and killed on August 19, 1974, and this August marks the 40th anniversary of the tragedy and will be commemorated by the embassy with a memorial ceremony to rename the Ambassador’s residence the Davies House and the embassy’s community lounge the Varnavas Lounge.  That memorial ceremony will take place in August, but the Vice President will have the chance to lay a wreath on his visit later this week.

Later in the afternoon, the Vice President will travel to the Buffer Zone, which is run and maintained by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, and there he'll greet and give brief remarks to a gathering of leaders in business, politics and civil society from both communities.  He'll be able to discuss with the civic leaders the critical role that they can play in the process of creating a vision for the future of Cyprus following the settlement and supporting the leaders and negotiators during the settlement process.

Some of the details of our schedule are still being finalized, including plans for the Vice President to see the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr. Eroğlu, as well as other Turkish Cypriot party leaders from across the political spectrum, and from the U.N. Good Offices Mission.  We believe these will be useful opportunities for the Vice President to hear Cypriot ideas on how they hope to shape their future, as well as to hear the views of the leaders and negotiators about how the current political environment and public perceptions are influencing settlement talks. 

As for Dr. Biden, in Bucharest she’ll accompany Mrs. Maria Basescu, the First Lady, to the Dimitrie Gusti National Village. She will also visit a Romanian NGO that works with victims of trafficking in persons.   

In Cyprus, she will join the First Lady of Cyprus, Andreana Anastasiades, to visit Lefkara, and she and Mrs. Anastasiades will also visit Old Town Nicosia and the U.N. Buffer Zone.  The U.N. Head of Mission, Lisa Bettenheim, will provide a tour there.

I'm sorry to go on for so long.  I just wanted to make sure that we fully made out what the context and the elements of this visit.  And I'd be happy to take your questions.

Q    Hi, this is CBS News.  As the Vice President takes off on this trip and these talks on what you just described as “Russia’s destabilizing actions,” I’m wondering what your take is on the announcement from Moscow that President Putin has ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases.  Does the U.S. see any sign that this is really happening?  And what do you make of the timing of this announcement coming just as the Vice President travels to the neighborhood?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me start by saying that the fact is that Russia has been maintaining significant forces in forward deployment areas along Ukraine’s border.  They have not been conducting routine training activities.  They’ve been up on the border in a menacing posture.  And we’ve been concerned about this military buildup and have been consistently calling for Russia to remove its troops back to their home bases and end this threatening behavior.

We’ve seen what President Putin has said, and if Russia conducts a transparent and meaningful withdrawal of forces back to their home bases, we’d welcome it.  But to date, we haven’t seen evidence of them doing so.  I haven’t seen the latest this morning, whether they’d begun to move, although we’ve heard from Russian leaders in the past that they were removing troops from the border and they haven’t done so.  As you’ll recall, they’ve made similar claims before.  They made them at the end of March and didn’t follow through.  So we’ll be tracking this closely over the course of today and the coming days, and we’ll want to see clear, firm evidence of this move before we make any judgment. 

Q    Hello, this Politico.  I’m wondering if the issue of Romania’s status as a haven for cyber criminals is going to come up when the Vice President visits?  And is it his sense that cybercrime in Romania represents a lack of will on the part of the Romanian government to get it under toe; or lacks capacity to do that?  And how Romania may possibly cooperate with federal prosecutors going forward on cybercrime?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The challenge of cybercrime is something that we are consulting with all of our European partners on, because we view it as a growing challenge both to governments and businesses in the region, in the United States.  This is something we take very seriously, so we expect it will be one of the issues that is addressed in his meetings. 

Our view is that this is something we’ve had a deep dialogue with the Romanians on over time.  That’s a dialogue that will continue both in law enforcement channels and at the diplomatic level.  And we believe that over time, working together both bilaterally and multilaterally, the United States and Romania can make progress against what has become an increasingly acute challenge to governments and to people around the world. 

Q    Hi, this is AFP.  A lot of Russian money and investment flows through Cyprus, and the government has already raised concerns that if there were to be sectoral sanctions on the Russian economy, it could really hammer the Cypriot economy.  How much of the Vice President’s trip to Cyprus is going to be dwelling on this issue?  And if sanctions were to go ahead without Cyprus, how would that sort of weaken the sanctions regime?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We have had a close consultation with the Cypriot government about the issue of sanctions.  And the Vice President has personally engaged with President Anastasiades on this subject.  Cyprus has supported the European Union in imposing costs on Russia for its illegal intervention and occupation of Crimea, and for its continued destabilizing actions in the east.  It has been part of the EU consensus in imposing the sanctions that the EU has imposed so far.

The EU has also made clear in its most recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting that continuing destabilizing actions by Russia will lead to further sanctions, and that sectoral sanctions remain on the table.  And Cyprus was part of the decision making that produced that outcome from the Foreign Affairs Council.  This will be an important topic of conversation in the Vice President’s meetings with President Anastasiades.  He will want to be able to consult about what costs will be imposed should Russia continue to take steps to destabilize the situation in Ukraine.

Obviously, we are aware of and understanding of the exposure of Cyprus to Russian economic activity and Russian economic pressure.  But we believe that a sanctions regime can continue to be enforced and frankly bolstered -- if it comes to that -- that will impose costs on Russia without imposing unnecessary costs on Cyprus.  The Vice President will have the chance to speak in very detailed terms with President Anastasiades about that subject, and that is one of the purposes of this visit.

Q    Hi, I am a Russian reporter here in Washington, D.C.  Basically I have the same question.  A follow-up to that is Cyprus has publicly called for each individual country to be free to impose or not impose their own sanctions, rather than doing this collectively.  Would that be acceptable to the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We have welcomed the actions that the European Union has taken to impose costs for the destabilizing and provocative and in many instances illegal actions that the Russian government has taken in Ukraine.  And we’ve also supported the EU’s clear statements about the upcoming election on May 25th.  We believe that the EU speaking with one voice is an important element of an overall effort to make sure that Ukraine is ultimately free to make its own decisions about its future.

So far Cyprus has been part of a consensus that has produced the sanctions that are currently on the books and that have laid out the potential increase in costs on Russia should Russia continue doing some of the things that it’s doing.  We think that's the right approach.

And we’ve been gratified to see Cyprus’s constructive role in supporting the overall consensus, and the Vice President will look forward to discussing with President Anastasiades the ways in which the EU as a collective community can continue to support this overall effort in partnership with the United States.

Q    Thank you.  I have two quick questions.  One is that I am puzzled that you still have not scheduled a meeting with the Turkish Cyprus leaders, even though we know it has been for a while that Vice President’s visit schedule.  Can you tell us why?  Is there a communication problem?  Or you didn't get the response? 

And my second question is what can you tell us will be Ankara’s role at this visit?  Have you been communicating Turkish leaders here, all this visit?  And what do you expect from Ankara on this specifically?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  As I said, some of the details of our schedule are still being finalized, including plans for the Vice President to see the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr. Eroğlu, as well as other Turkish Cypriot party leaders from across the political spectrum.  The Vice President intends to see Mr. Eroğlu to discuss with him how we can all work together -- the Turkish Cypriot community, the Greek Cypriot community and the international community in support of them to work towards a settlement. 

So that will be part of the Vice President’s visit, and this is a matter of working out some detail.  We will have more information over the next hours and days as every aspect of the schedule gets finalized.

With respect to Turkey, the United States believes that every country in the region and Turkey and Greece being very important players should be supporting a settlement that leads to a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, and a better future for all of the -- for both communities in Cyprus.  And we’ve been pleased to see the role of Turkey in the cross-visits that took place that were very productive, and our understanding is that Turkey will continue to work to play a constructive role in these efforts as we go forward. 

And in that regard, yes, we are obviously consulting with people in the government of Turkey, just as we do with people in the government of Greece and with leaders in both communities in Cyprus, and we expect that those consultations will continue as we move forward.

MS. TROTTER:  All right, thanks, everyone, for joining this morning.  And we will have more information about the Vice President and Dr. Biden’s schedule in the next day or two.  Thank you very much.

9:42 A.M. EDT