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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Ukraine Under Pressure; Syrian Aid Suspension; Little Change Since Newtown Massacre; Imagine a World

Aired December 12, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET

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


HALA GORANI, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

For weeks now, thousands of Ukranians have braved the bitter cold to protest their government's rejection of an E.U. trade agreement in favor of keeping closer ties with Russia.

But today, finally, a hint that Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, may be bowing to the pressure and reversing course. The E.U.'s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, talked to Mr. Yanukovych and said this to CNN just as she arrived back home in Brussels.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CATHERINE ASHTON, E.U. FOREIGN POLICY CHIEF: He indicated he still wishes to sign the association agreement with the European Union. From our perspective, we think that's good for this country.

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GORANI: The protests in Independence Square are the largest the country has seen since the 2004 Orange Revolution. They turned violent overnight on Tuesday when riot police cracked down with chain saws and even bulldozers in an attempt to push the protesters out.

The riot police later withdrew, but the E.U. and the United States quickly condemned the actions with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry going as far as calling the American reaction to all of this "one of disgust."

Ukraine has been caught in a tug-of-war between the West and Russia ever since independence. Both sides are jockeying for influence over the economically troubled country of 46 million. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, hasn't said much publicly about the protests happening next door.

But he briefly touched on the topic during the state of the nation address today.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): We know about all the events that are taking place in Kiev at the moment and all the political forces of the country. It is in the interest of the Ukranian authorities to succeed. We need to work together in all these spheres.

We are not obligating anyone to do anything. This is our wish, to work together.

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GORANI: How will Russia respond if Ukraine's president goes against Putin's wishes and signs that E.U. agreement? I asked Alexei Pushkov, head of the International Affairs Committee in the Russian Parliament when he joined me earlier from Moscow.

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ALEXEI PUSHKOV, HEAD OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, RUSSIAN PARLIAMENT: Well, Mr. Yanukovych has made different statements these last weeks. And he never actually rejected the possibility of signing a deal with the European Union.

But he said on many occasions that he's not happy with the content of the deal. So what he meant when he said that he may sign this association deal with the European Union is not quite clear to me.

Is he ready to sign the deal which has been proposed to Ukraine and which has, to my mind, not very appealing and to the mind of Mr. Yanukovych neither?

Or he is ready to sign some kind of deal which can be reconsidered by the European Union and which may contain better conditions? This is not clear yet and I will need some more information to make my judgment.

GORANI: But if a deal is signed, that would not satisfy the Russian government which wants Ukraine to sign a deal with it, a trade deal with its bloc.

Is that the case?

PUSHKOV: Well, Russia is definitely interested to have close integration and economic relationship with Ukraine. This is true.

But at the same time, the Russian president said on many occasions that he will respect the Ukrainian choice, that whatever Kiev decides to do will be respected by Russia and we will definitely not complication our relationship over this.

GORANI: Because of course, as you know, the criticism geared toward Russia is that Russia is simply bullying Ukraine into rejecting a European trade deal and trying to bully it into getting closer to the Russian side on this.

What's your response to that?

PUSHKOV: I think this is -- I think this is a very biased approach. I think the European Union does bully Ukraine to accept the deal, which is definitely not very advantageous to Ukraine.

Have you seen the deal? Have you read this deal? It offers $660 euros to Ukraine and that's it. In the times when Ukraine has a huge debt, it has to pay $2 billion for its (INAUDIBLE) to Russia. It has to live through a very hard winter. It has very small financial and gold reserves. And the E.U. offers a token package which is not of any interest to the Ukranian government.

And that's why Mr. Yanukovych has initially rejected it. And then all these demonstrations started with the participation of the European ministers of different countries, of foreign affairs, who were speaking on the Maiden (ph), joining the protesters and so on.

I would say this is taking Ukraine by the neck and trying to bring it forcefully into the paradise (ph). So we don't agree with this reading.

GORANI: So you're seeing the European Union essentially as strong- arming Ukraine?

PUSHKOV: Absolutely. If you go to Kiev today, Hala, and you look how many European representatives are there, trying to influence the Ukranian government, supporting the protesters, making statements, giving interviews, and then you compare them to the number of Russians who are there, you will find that there are no Russian political personalities there trying to make Ukraine make a choice which Russia would like it to make.

You will see only foreign ministers and members of Parliament. And by the way, Ms. Victoria Nuland from the State Department, saying to Ukraine what to do. And this is a very drastic difference in the Russian approach and in the Western approach.

GORANI: Do they not have a right to protest against their government in a free society?

PUSHKOV: Actually, did I say anything against this? I say that they have the right to do this. But I don't think that they have the right to dictate to the whole Ukranian nation what way to take.

GORANI: Now I have to say if this E.U. deal is signed, eventually -- and it's possible that it will be -- what would the Russian response be in that case, do you think?

PUSHKOV: The Russian response would be as it was stated before; Russia will reconsider its trade terms with Ukraine, because there is not a single reason if Ukraine has a free trade zone with the E.U., to give the present regime of taxes, customs regime with Ukraine. It will be member of a group of countries which has a free trade agreement. Russia is not part of this group.

And Russia will defend its market from the goods which may come from Ukraine. And I think Ukraine will lose a lot.

And that's what we told the Ukranians and, yes, we suggested them to make the calculus, what is better for them, to join the free trade association with the E.U. or to have a most favored nation regime with Russia. It's up to them to decide.

GORANI: But it does sound as though Ukraine would be punished for signing a deal with the European Union by Russia.

PUSHKOV: No, there is -- it's not a punishment. You live in a market society. You understand very well that if you have a special agreement with a number of countries, the third country has to defend its market.

And I have to tell you that look at Serbia, look at Bulgaria, which is member of the E.U. These countries have lost much more from joining the association or the membership in the European Union. Their industry is destroyed. Their agriculture is almost nonexistent. And they are still waiting for investments from the European Union, which are never coming.

And I think Ukraine has to compare itself with these countries, not with Denmark and Norway or Sweden, which are well-to-do countries, but with countries of Southern Europe. And we have noticed that the association with the European Union does not really spell well for a number of Southern European countries with underdeveloped economies.

GORANI: Will this resolve itself peacefully in Ukraine, do you think?

PUSHKOV: We hope. We hope it will, because we are not interested in this kind of civil confrontation in Ukraine. Ukraine is very close to us, 13 million citizens of Ukraine are Russians and half of Ukraine or even two-thirds of Ukraine are Russian speakers. And we feel very close to this country.

So we are definitely not interested to have a civil war or a civil confrontation there.

GORANI: And do you think that the U.S. is concerning itself with something in Ukraine that it shouldn't be, making these statements about being disgusted, et cetera? Do you think that this just kind of stirs the pot? What is your feeling on that?

PUSHKOV: My feeling is that the United States are disgusted with the governments they don't like and they are quite happy with the governments they like, even if these governments are killing people.

The United States are not disgusted with the government of Saudi Arabia. The United States are not disgusted with the government of Qatar. The United States are not disgusted with the government of Egypt.

But the United States, for some reason, disgusted with the democratic government of Ukraine and with the president who has been democratically elected and recognized by the United States. This, I completely fail to grasp.

And the only reason for this is geopolitics. The United States want Ukraine to become part of the Western sphere of influence, and that's the reason. That's why the United States are disgusted in the Ukranian case and not disgusted with their allies which conduct dictatorial policies.

GORANI: Mr. Alexei Pushkov, thank you very much for joining us today on CNN.

PUSHKOV: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GORANI: Alexei Pushkov, the head of the International Affairs Committee in the Russian Parliament, with some very strong words there.

One of the biggest problems for the United States and the United Kingdom in Syria right now is firmly back in the spotlight again.

How can the West back the moderate Syrian opposition without also indirectly supporting the increasingly powerful Islamist opposition? Washington and London have suspended all non-lethal aid, including communications equipment, because of reports Islamist rebels have seized bases belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

Earlier, I spoke with the FSA's chief of staff, Salim Idris, seen here back in April. He joined me on the phone from the Turkish-Syrian border and told me the situation in Northern Syria is very dangerous.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEN. SALIM IDRIS, CHIEF OF STAFF, FSA: It is very difficult now to pass the support to the right hands and that's why I can't understand the - - let me say, freezing the support for a period of time.

GORANI: And who exactly attacked this warehouse that contained American -- the so-called non-lethal aid? Who was responsible for this?

IDRIS: Yes. Let me first tell you that the kind of aid which were in the warehouse were not American aid. We had in the warehouse some food, which we bought from the markets inside the country. And we had some food baskets and some washing materials.

And this warehouse was under our headquarters and I can tell you also that one battalion, which was for the protecting the warehouses, was attacked, and not the warehouses itself.

GORANI: Who attacked the battalion protecting this warehouse? These are Islamist fighters. It's starting to sound like there is a lot of infighting going on between the FSA more moderate rebel fighters and these Islamists, and that the Islamists are winning in many cases, and that's what's worrying Western countries so much.

Is that accurate to say?

IDRIS: We thought and we were told, thought that Abu Mufaa (ph) attacked the battalion. But the inspection now told us that it is not very clear and we suspect other groups who attacked our battalion. I can say so frankly that the situation in the north is very complicated and very dangerous.

GORANI: There have been reports that these some -- that these some -- one of these Islamic -- Islamist groups has taken over your headquarters and you have had to flee to Turkey.

Is that the case?

IDRIS: No, that is not true at all. First of all, when that happened, I wasn't in the headquarters. I was in Turkey already. I am now at the border. The news which said that I went to Doha or to Gulf region to stay there, all this news are not true.

I am back. I am with my officers. I had a meeting today with the commander of the front. We are doing our job and we are trying to stop the fight between the revolutionary forces and to go back to fight against the regime.

GORANI: General Salim Idris, the chief of staff of the FSA, thank you very much for joining us today on CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GORANI: And after a break, an anniversary no one would have wished for; in the past 12 months for the grieving families of Newtown, Connecticut, everything has changed. And so have America's gun laws. But have they actually changed for the worse? Twenty-six reasons why that would be a tragedy on top of a tragedy, when we come back.

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GORANI: Welcome back to the program, I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane.

It's been almost a year since the massacre of 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Behind me, you're seeing some of the faces of the children whose lives were cut so very short to that day.

And while there is much we don't know about the tragedy, an investigation by the State of Connecticut does confirm that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was a man with, quote, "significant mental health issues," and, quote, "access to firearms and ammunition."

So has anything changed on those issues in the last year after that shock? slate.com says it's been keeping track and that at least 11,400 more people were killed by guns in that time. That includes almost 200 children.

Support for stricter gun control laws has fallen somewhat from 55 percent shortly after the incident to 49 percent now. And while a Senate bill mandating background checks on most gun purchases, a bill supported by a vast majority of Americans, failed to overcome a Republican filibuster, at the state level, a variety of new gun laws were passed.

Thirty-nine laws restrict access to guns. But listen to this: there are 70 new state laws making buying, owning and carrying guns even easier.

Meanwhile, Congress have also failed to pass any legislation regarding mental health background checks since last year.

Senator Chris Murphy represents the families of Newtown, Connecticut, in Congress. He appeared on this program earlier this year, after the Senate failed to pass a background check bill. And today, I reminded him of what he'd said to Christiane at that time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONN.: Many of them are able to get up in the morning because they believe that this world is going to change as a consequence of this tragedy. And I do shudder to think what I'm going to tell some of these families if we can't even get background checks passed in the United States Senate.

GORANI: So what did you tell the Newtown families after the Senate failed to pass background check legislation, which is supported by a vast majority of Americans?

MURPHY: Yes, I mean, listen; something is fundamentally broken with the Senate and with democracy in general if when 90 percent of the American public thinks that you should just pass a basic criminal background check before buying a gun and the Senate can't pass it, a lot of the same legislators were here that day when the Republican filibuster stopped the bill from moving over to the House.

And I got to tell you, a lot of them picked me up. That was the worst day of my career in politics. And they just told me, listen, we didn't become advocates on this issue for four months. We became advocates on this issue for the rest of our lives.

And what has happened since that vote is that these families and groups like those started by Gabby Giffords and Mayor Bloomberg, they are starting up a political infrastructure in this country that's going to go out and ultimately build something that rivals the NRA.

This is now a long game. I mean, the NRA is powerful. But we're going to build up a constituency backed up by the vast majority of the American people that eventually is going to win this issue. Maybe it's not this year. Maybe it's not next year.

But when you got 90 percent of the American public on your side, you're eventually going to win the legislative fight.

GORANI: You say that things are changing. Since January 1st of this year -- we're talking a few weeks after that massacre at that elementary school in Connecticut, 100 new state laws passed, two -thirds of them loosening gun restrictions. We're going in the opposite direction, aren't we?

MURPHY: Well, that's -- I don't think that's necessarily true when you look at the states like Connecticut, like Colorado, who passed sweeping new laws that ushered in a whole new regime of background checks and restrictions on assault weapons.

I think that more than makes up for the plethora of smaller laws that might have already built on pretty loose gun laws to begin with in some other states.

So I certainly understand that we're going forward in some places, backwards in other places. But I think overall, this country is moving towards a new relationship with guns in which we just say military-style assault weapons stay on the sidelines and you got to prove that you're not a criminal.

I think that's the way ultimately that most states -- not every state -- are going to move.

GORANI: Well, certainly, I'm in Georgia right now, and I can tell you it would be extremely easy for me to get that type of weapon at a gun show or elsewhere, where there are major loopholes there, where you don't require background checks if you're going to purchase a firearm.

But after that failure at the Senate level of passing legislation to implement background checks, are you and your colleagues working on another legislative solution, something else that could take the place of the initiative that failed earlier this year?

MURPHY: Well, nothing's going to take the place of the bill that we had earlier this year. Background checks work. Since the system was put into place, 2 million people have been stopped from buying a gun; because of their criminal history in states that have background checks, women are 40 percent less likely to be killed by their domestic partner.

So nothing is going to be able to substitute for criminal background checks. But, yes, we are going to try to find some way to increase support for mental health systems, maybe with some fixes to the underlying background check system, to just make sure that what we have now works better.

But that's not sufficient. That may be something that makes some people feel a little bit better, but ultimately you need to get assault weapons off the streets, expand background checks and do not just new mental health programming, but new mental health funding, which, frankly, a lot of Republicans have been fighting against, if you want to change the reality of gun violence out there.

GORANI: Let me ask you, finally, where will we be a year from now on this issue, do you think?

MURPHY: I think we're going to be fighting elections a year from now. We always know what the results of the 2014 elections are. I'm not hopeful that you're going to get any major gun reform bill passed through the Senate and the House between now and next election.

I think that our focus has to be on passing smaller measures and then going out there and building up a nationwide constituency that's going to go to the polls and say enough is enough.

If you're standing with the criminals and against our children, if you fundamentally misunderstand the Second Amendment and don't get that it's not unconditional, that it doesn't give you the authority to have a military-style assault weapon, then you're going to be voted out of office.

I think that we'll know a year from now whether we've been successful in at least the first phase of that larger electoral endeavor.

GORANI: If you were to speak now to a Sandy Hook family who lost their small child almost a year ago today, what would you say to them?

MURPHY: Well, I'd tell them that this fight is not over, that people like me have been transformed by what happened in Sandy Hook. Every single day I get up thinking about what I can do to convince my colleagues to support the American people and pass reasonable gun restrictions.

And all I will say to these families -- and I'll see many of them this weekend, in and around Sandy Hook, when I'm back in Connecticut, is don't give up. These big changes don't have overnight. A lot of us thought that it would in the wake of that horrible tragedy. But if they don't give up, we won't give up.

GORANI: Senator Chris Murphy, thank you very much for joining us today.

MURPHY: Thanks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GORANI: The stain of the Newtown massacre has been hard to erase, not only for those touched by the tragedy, but by a hedge fund, of all things, anxious to distance itself from the tragedy.

Last December, just days after the shootings, Cerberus Capital Management announced its plans to sell one of its holdings, the very company that manufacturers the Bushmaster rifle that was used in the Newtown killings.

But 12 months later, any hope for a quick sale has been thwarted by a lack of willing buyers. Still the firearms company, called Freedom Group, keeps turning a profit. The Cerberus Group told us today they are still committed to selling their stake, adding, "No words or actions could lessen the enormity of the loss of the Newtown massacre."

And after a break on the program, the story with an ironic twist and a French accent, when we come back.

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GORANI: And a final thought tonight, what in the name of Napoleon is happening to the French? Once accused of fighting to the last English man, the French have reasserted themselves, taking the lead, for instance, in sending troops into Mali as well as the Central African Republic. And pressing Iran for guarantees against developing nuclear weapons.

Now imagine a world where the French take on an even more intractable foe: rude French men and women. A cafe in Nice has had its fill of betes noire at the wine bar, so it's begun to charge extra for being gauche.

As this chalkboard menu shows, should you demand a cup of coffee like it's your private or droit du seigneur, you'll have to fork out a whopping 7 euros un cafe. Quelle horreur! If you simply say, "please" or "s'il vous plait, un caf,, s'il vous plait," the price drops to 4 euros 25. But if you make a polite request, "Bonjour, un cafe, s'il vous plait," well, it'll only set you back 1 euro 40.

Although the perception may be that a French waiter enforcing etiquette is as unlikely as a ketchup bottle on the table at La Tour d'Argent, the nation that chopped off the heads of their monarchs may be ripe for a new revolution, where manners are king.

That's going to do it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website, amanpour.com, and me on Twitter @HalaGorani. Thanks for watching. Goodbye from CNN Center.

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