Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with TASS First Deputy General Director Mikhail Gusman, Baku, April 7, 2016
Question: The foreign ministers of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran are presently working in a trilateral format. It is a new format but one that has been planned for a long time. I understand that the events in Nagorno-Karabakh have slightly altered the agenda. Yesterday, upon your arrival in Baku, you met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. I’ll venture to say that the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was the key issue of your conversation. What was the focus of your conversation with President Aliyev? What solutions to the present situation do you see?
Sergey Lavrov: By the time I met with President Aliyev, right after I arrived in Baku, the situation had already stabilised. As you know, President Vladimir Putin had spoken over the phone with his counterparts in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is on his way to Yerevan. He’ll be in Baku tomorrow. A ceasefire agreement was reached at the level of the chiefs of the general staffs of the armed forces of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia (we mediated this process). A ceasefire was announced and it is generally holding. We are observing the situation. The most important thing is that both parties have reaffirmed their commitment to this regime.
Yesterday, we recorded the state of affairs in this vein. Today, we will continue the conversation at the level of foreign ministers. In addition to a trilateral meeting, there will be a bilateral meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and tomorrow, a long-scheduled meeting with Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian will take place in Moscow, where a session of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers will be held.
The principal task now is to prevent a resurgence of violence. Yesterday, President Aliyev and I discussed (I hope this will also be discussed with the participation of the Armenian side) the importance of revisiting the ideas that were laid out in joint Russian-Azerbaijani-Armenian statements three or four years ago, when meetings between our countries’ presidents took place. In addition to the efforts on the political settlement track and the search for an agreement to unblock this situation in general, issues of confidence-building measures along the line of contact, related to casualties, were addressed. There were incidents that resulted in casualties on both sides and there were prisoners; there was a need to swap bodies. Then there was the idea of disengaging snipers along the line of contact. It is risky when people look at each other through the aim of a gun every hour and every minute. Some lose control. Such steps were planned long ago.
In keeping with an agreement between the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, the OSCE, together with the co-chairs of the Minsk Group (in addition to Russia, also France and the United States), prepared concrete steps. There is even a document, which has not been approved yet, but it exists and work on it has continued for several years now. I believe that the current situation will stimulate and encourage all of us to approve these measures and bring them into effect as soon as possible.
Yesterday, during the meeting with Mr Aliyev, I raised this issue. He supported this approach on the understanding that we will introduce these measures not to perpetuate the status quo (nobody wants this) but to stabilise and normalise the situation now and create a more favourable atmosphere for a political process in the framework of which, in addition to the efforts of the three co-chairs together with our US and French partners, Russia is also pursuing its own initiatives.
President Putin, and prior to him, President Medvedev, have both actively promoted various ideas, which make it possible to unblock the situation by freeing the areas around Nagorno-Karabakh with the simultaneous resolution of the issue of its status. I will not go into details, but several options remain on the negotiating table. Yesterday, during the meeting with the Azerbaijani president, we also addressed this issue. We will continue our efforts.
Question: You will have a meeting with the foreign ministers of Iran and Azerbaijan. What brought about this format and what do you expect from this meeting? Will it be a prelude to a possible meeting between the three heads of state?
Sergey Lavrov: We have long-standing, close, friendly relations of strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and Iran. The agenda of our bilateral contacts with Baku and Tehran covers the economy, political dialogue, security issues, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, Caspian cooperation and infrastructure projects. During recent phone contacts between the Azerbaijani and Russian presidents, Mr Aliyev proposed to Mr Putin to use this trilateral format to see how we can address interrelated issues. They agreed that the idea of a summit meeting has been generally approved and foreign ministers will meet to prepare it (which is precisely what we are doing today in Baku) and discuss the principal areas where our three countries can complement their bilateral contacts by trilateral collaboration. As I said, it is already clear that these will include security issues, specifically regional security, collaboration in stopping trafficking in terrorists and militants, as well as drug trafficking in the region; also, general security, the fight against organised crime and cooperation in the Caspian, where we are working on a five-party convention with the participation of all littoral states (yesterday and today experts continued working on the convention in Baku). In addition to the five-party process involving work on a legal document on the status of the Caspian Sea, we have joint projects with Azerbaijan and Iran. This concerns the more intensive utilisation of ports and tourism and its promotion between the three countries. Of course, infrastructure projects have long been under consideration in the context of the North-South international transport corridor in which about 20 countries have a stake and they have already subscribed to it, from India to Scandinavian countries.
Russian, Iranian and Azerbaijani railway construction companies are working in particular on the Rasht-Astara section that goes mainly along Iranian territory. If it is created, the North-South railway route will acquire a final form and, to reiterate, it will be beneficial for many countries. We are interested in considering the options of our participation and this will also be discussed today. Then, of course, specialists from transport ministries, customs agencies and railway services will be brought in.
Another big block of issues includes humanitarian and cultural ties between Russian, Azerbaijani and Iranian regions that have been intensively maintained through bilateral channels for a long time. There is a clear interest in complementing this cooperation with tripartite activities.
As a result of today’s meeting I hope we will adopt a final communique and brief our leaders, bearing in mind the interest that they have shown. Based on the outcome of our tripartite meeting today, we will put forward our considerations while the presidents will make final decisions. The goal of the summit has been set.
Question: You’ve touched on the Caspian Sea subject where Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and other Caspian states form a five-side format. Kazakhstan is expected to host a summit. You mentioned that experts are putting together documents. What are the prospects for signing the long-awaited comprehensive document on the Caspian Sea at the upcoming summit in Kazakhstan?
Sergey Lavrov: The prospects were outlined by the presidents during the previous summit of the five Caspian states held in Astrakhan 18 months ago. The next summit will be held in Astana. We have set our sights on completing the work of many years on the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea by the time the summit convenes. The progress is there for everyone to see. About half a dozen issues that remained controversial for many years have been resolved at the expert level. There remain two or three key issues, but I won’t go into details now. More expert meetings are coming. Next summer, there will be a meeting of the Caspian Five foreign ministers, where we will decide on the date of the summit and on signing the convention. The plan is to convene the summit after all the irregularities of the document have been ironed out. I reiterate, there remain two to three unresolved issues.
Question: Recently, the Foreign Ministry clearly stated its position regarding CIS reforms, which are widely discussed now. The issue concerns certain changes and adjustments in the activities of various CIS institutions. What’s your idea regarding the upcoming ministerial meeting in this context? What is Russia’s position with regard to the future of the CIS?
Sergey Lavrov: There’s no such thing as frozen cooperation. Any organisation, if it’s capable and active, is a living organism that understands exactly what needs to be done at any particular stage to improve its efficiency. This approach fully applies to the CIS. We don’t see the reforms merely as a piece of paper that reads “to create a new body and disband the old one”. There’s much more fine-tuning to it than that.
There are many organisations in the post-Soviet space, that’s true. There’s the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is a fairly effective and active organisation as well. Many of our colleagues say that duplicating economic cooperation in the CIS and EAEU is perhaps unnecessary. The same applies to security issues. On the face of it, why discuss them in the CIS when there’s the CSTO. The fact is that the CSTO and EAEU do not include all CIS countries. For example, Azerbaijan is not part of either the EAEU or the CSTO. Although, I hope that this situation may change.
However, several post-Soviet countries are not members of these advanced integration associations in the spheres of economy and security. But the CIS has a free trade zone, which includes not five – as in the case of the EAEU – but nine countries. Losing it would be the wrong thing to do, as it would be detrimental to the interests of countries, including Russia, which are part of the free trade zone. The CIS has entities, such as the Council of Border Troops Commanders, which jointly fight common threats.
If you follow formal logic, all security issues should be handled by the CSTO. Entities, such as the CIS Interior Ministers’ Council, and the border guards engage in specific work. It's not that this is some kind of an artificial construct. Stolen cars which have to be looked for throughout the former Soviet Union, drug trafficking, or wanted criminals who move freely across vast areas of land, are all very specific issues. Few people are aware of them, as it’s the routine work of relevant ministries. But this is an important component that ensures the proper functioning of all our states. Therefore, we will look at the CIS Secretariat staff and the organisational structure of the bodies. Certain bodies can convene less often or merge with others. However, as we do so, we must make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I hope that we will focus precisely on this, including when these issues will be discussed at a meeting of the CIS Foreign Ministers’ Council in Moscow.
Question: The results of the referendum held in the Netherlands regarding the attitude of the Dutch people towards Ukraine’s association with the EU were released a few hours ago. As can be seen from the voting results, not exit polls, the referendum was declared valid with 32 percent of Dutch voters taking part in it, and over 60 percent voting against Ukraine’s association with the EU. Were such results expected? What’s your take on them? As far as I understand, it’s a legal impasse for the Netherlands?
Sergey Lavrov: This is an internal matter for the Netherlands. The referendum is a mechanism of democracy. The Netherlands organised it in accordance with its laws, when there was a certain number of signatures of Dutch citizens who wanted to hold such a referendum. The results of the referendum are for the Dutch Government to ponder. As I understand it, it’s a consultative non-binding referendum. I watched my colleague from the Netherlands speak today, and he said that the Government will take its results into account in its work, and will draw conclusions in regard to the next steps in its relations with the EU and Ukraine. We do not interfere in that process.
When the referendum was being prepared, we were blamed for trying to convince the Dutch people to vote against the association, whereas, in fact, there was a huge campaign by the official Kiev authorities and many Western patrons of the Ukrainian Government. They campaigned hard among voters. We stayed away from this, as we are convinced that we should not interfere in the processes that are referred to as democratic. So we have what we have. I’m not sure what the European Union will do next. It is not our area of responsibility.
We have always practiced a straightforward approach towards the ties between our neighbours and the EU. We welcome all this. Each country expands its social, economic and other contacts with its foreign partners based on its interests. The only thing that we talked about is that when the arrangements with third countries affect the commitments that our neighbour Ukraine has with regard to Russia, it is necessary to harmonise certain issues. This was the case when Ukraine drafted the Association Agreement and former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych saw that the obligations under the CIS free trade zone came into conflict with some of the obligations that Ukraine would have to take upon signing the Association Agreement.
In order to reconcile those obligations and remove these contradictions, he took a break, which immediately led to an attempt at a coup, which was successful. Clearly, it was just an excuse, and many speculated that Yanukovych had allegedly betrayed European ideals and thwarted the dream of the Ukrainian people. It was a case of demagogy, and it was clear to all.
However, later the new head of Ukraine, Petr Poroshenko, together with the Germans, the French, and senior officials of the European Commission, agreed with us that there must be a special process seeking to harmonise Ukraine’s obligations in the CIS free trade zone, and to identify what it needs to do as it opens its markets to EU goods. Unfortunately, these agreements fizzled out. Our approach to that is philosophical. We have introduced protective measures that we are entitled to use under the WTO, when our trade relations with Ukraine were subjected to risks after Ukraine and the European Union took unapproved decisions. Our ultimate goal is to promote the idea of a pan-European economic, social and humanitarian space.
Last autumn, the Eurasian Economic Commission sent a proposal to the European Commission through the EAEU Board. Unfortunately, the answer came back more than four months later, but it did nevertheless, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker saying that he supports the idea of developing contacts between the Eurasian Economic Union and European Union. He has yet to make an appropriate decision. So far, things have remained unclear, but he supports the idea in general. We stay sticking to it. I think that we can deal with the issues at hand in a manner that is beneficial for all participants as we harmonise the integration processes in Western Europe and the Eurasian space.