Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Didier Reynders, Brussels, July 12, 2017
I would like to thank Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Didier Reynders and his entire delegation for the very interesting and fruitful talks. Thank you for the invitation. Exchanging visits of foreign ministers has already become a tradition. We are all for this.
We have long-standing and cordial relations. This year we celebrated the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's visit to Belgium. Representatives of the public from both countries jointly staged various events with the support of the authorities, in particular, of Mr Reynders’ native city of Liege. As Mr Reynders said, the next year will mark the 165th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic relations. The ideas voiced by both Russian and Belgian experts in this context are very interesting, including the joint study of archival material and the organisation of exhibitions devoted to this anniversary.
It is noteworthy that despite all the difficulties in the trade and economic area, a positive trend has taken shape in the first four months of this year – trade between our two countries has grown by about a quarter. Our regions – the Flemish Region and the Leningrad Region – are engaged in active cooperation. Our ports of Antwerp and Ust-Luga have established good contacts and are cooperating on a mutually beneficial basis.
Our inter-parliamentary ties, cultural, humanitarian and educational exchanges are intensively developing, meeting the interests of our citizens. We will actively support this.
As for international matters, as Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Didier Reynders said, we spoke at length about Syria. There are positive trends in that country regarding the implementation of agreements reached in Astana in May on the formation of several de-escalation areas. The south-western zone has already been established with the participation of Russian, US and Jordanian military officials and diplomats. It has already helped to sharply reduce violence. A ceasefire has been observed overall since Sunday, July 9. We hope this trend will be consolidated. Talks are still going on regarding the remaining three zones. They were discussed at the meeting in Astana last week. Some progress was made there but there is still much to be done . I hope this work will be completed at the next meeting in August. Like Belgium, Russia is actively supporting the political process. The efforts made in Astana helped give an additional impetus, maybe not yet striking, to the work conducted under the aegis of UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. These days Geneva is hosting a regular round of the talks. We hope the Syrian Government and the opposition will strive to reach constructive agreements. Naturally, in this context it is important for the opposition to give up ultimatums and start fulfilling the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on the need to come to terms with the Syrian Government rather than demand a change of the regime or some other preconditions.
We discussed Libya, Yemen and the situation in the Persian Gulf. We spoke about the events in Central Africa. As Mr Reynders said, we agreed to hold special expert consultations that will be very helpful considering Russia’s status of a UN Security Council permanent member and Belgium’s experience in dealing with African countries, in particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the African Great Lakes region in general.
We certainly discussed Ukraine among other topics. We are committed to the Minsk agreements. We shared our assessments derived from the work in the Normandy format and the Contact Group on the reasons that are blocking progress towards the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Understandably, the European Union has its own position but a detailed exchange of views is always useful. I hope now we will understand better the reasons for the current very grave situation and ways of overcoming it.
Our relations with the EU have largely been damaged by the position occupied by our European partners on the crisis in Ukraine. We discussed this as well. However, we have always stood for dialogue. At the meeting with President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker in St Petersburg a year ago, President Vladimir Putin voiced our ideas on reviewing the status of our relations and normalising them to the benefit of Russia and EU countries. We are ready to discuss these proposals. Incidentally, we noted that at the June 22 meeting of the European Council, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel spoke out for a structured dialogue with the Russian Federation. This is also exactly what we suggest.
In conclusion I invited Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Didier Reynders to visit Moscow again when he has an opportunity. Thank you once again for your hospitality.
Question: Does Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya really have any ties with official Russian organisations?
Sergey Lavrov: It was with amused disbelief that I heard about Donald Trump Jr being accused of dealings with this Russian lawyer. In my opinion, this is absurd. Why should dealing with a lawyer become a problem or a threat to anyone?
I did not know anything about this until I read the news item to this effect and saw a television report yesterday. As I switched my television set on this morning, I learned that it was all over the Western media. It is surprising that serious people can make a mountain from a molehill. And maybe there was not even a molehill in this case.
Question: You said that President Trump had accepted President Putin’s statements that Russia did not meddle in the US elections. What exactly did President Trump say? What has prompted you to reach this conclusion?
Sergey Lavrov: I put forth our opinion immediately after the meeting in Hamburg. I stand by my words. Unlike many people who write about what happened at that meeting, I attended it.
Question: You recently said that a centre would be established in Jordan to monitor compliance with the ceasefire agreements in Syria. US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert was asked a question concerning this centre at a briefing yesterday. Ms Nauert replied that Mr Lavrov “likes to talk a lot and get out ahead of some of the negotiations that are underway.” What can you say to this?
Sergey Lavrov: How can this lady know what I like or don’t like? We’ve never met. Regarding her words to the effect that negotiations on this issue are still underway, I don’t know about the regulations on access to information at the US State Department, but the document that Russian, American and Jordanian representatives signed in Amman has a clear provision that establishes this centre. Getting out ahead of anything is not good, of course, but it is also important for diplomats to keep up with the issues at hand.
Question: Why do some Democratic leaders and journalists in the United States believe that Russia supported Donald Trump during the election campaign?
Sergey Lavrov: They have continued to ask us over the past few months why we interfered in the US elections. And we keep asking for at least a single fact. Many hearings have been held in the US Congress. Various representatives of the past administration and the current administration have spoken and television talk shows are being held on this issue. And yet, we have not seen a single fact to support these unsubstantiated claims. Please, ask the Congress and those who are doing their best to keep this issue hot. We have no doubt, as President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly, that this ballyhoo was raised to revise the results of the elections that Donald Trump won.
Question: Last week, the so-called “occupation regime” in the south shifted the border in the area of the village of Bershueti. After that many local residents found themselves on the other side of the border. How do you assess this situation? Why is Russia doing this?
Sergey Lavrov: There is a mechanism coordinated with all parties, including Georgia, to deal with issues arising between South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on the one hand, and Georgia, on the other. This mechanism is known as Geneva International Discussions. It held its regular meeting a few days ago. The participants have for long held detailed discussions on the central task that follows directly from the mandate of the Geneva International Discussions that were coordinated in 2008. Their main theme is to strengthen security in the South Caucasus. During many consecutive rounds the participants have discussed concrete proposals that would record the commitment not to use force. The Georgian delegation, regrettably, has been dragging its feet on their approval because it wants to lay all the blame for current developments on the Russian Federation. This will not work if only because we are now in the capital of Belgium, the capital of the European Union. The EU had ordered a special report, which Heidi Tagliavini wrote jointly with a group of experts. It is written there in black and white, who started this conflict in August 2008. Mikheil Saakashvili can confirm the decisions which he adopted and which were recorded by the group of rapporteurs commissioned by the EU.
There is also an incident prevention and investigative mechanism to consider concrete things happening on the ground. It also convenes in the region with the participation of the EU, the OSCE and the UN. The attending parties should work constructively and refrain from trying to turn these specific talks on what is actually happening on the ground into some kind of discussion about an “occupation” or something else.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognised as independent states by the Russian Federation. We have no doubt that they attend the Geneva International Discussions and take part in the incident prevention and investigative mechanism precisely in this capacity.
Question: Some Georgian MPs visited the Russian State Duma yesterday. Is there a chance to establish a dialogue?
Sergey Lavrov: We can only welcome contacts between MPs. Moreover, we are prepared for contacts at other levels too. There is a channel for dialogue between State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Grigory Karasin and Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze. We are ready for other formats that will be acceptable for both sides. We see this as useful. We should talk to each other and look for solutions. After all, we are neighbours. We have many things in common both in history and the present. We welcome the parliamentary initiatives.
Question: As we know, the Council of Europe’s sanctions against Russia are connected with the Minsk process. Can some of these sanctions be lifted soon?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Didier Reynders): The roots of the Ukrainian crisis go back to February 2014, when the agreement signed between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition leaders with direct participation of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland was violated barely a day later. The European Union promptly supported that coup, and the ministers of respected countries did nothing to make the opposition comply with the commitments they had put on paper the day before. This is where the crisis is rooted.
We did not take offence at the EU then. But we took note of the fact that the EU had opted for a logic in which Ukraine had to choose between Russia and the West. I am not referring to Belgium’s stand on the matter, but rather to the results of the common position of the EU, which took its cue from those who really wanted to see an unconstitutional change of government in Ukraine and who supported the actions taken towards this end. Everything that followed was the result of inertia.
Nobody can accuse us of lacking goodwill. We ensured that the two self-proclaimed republics, which had declared their independence, resumed negotiations and subsequently accepted the Minsk Agreements, which reaffirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine on the condition that Kiev approved a special status for this part of Donbass.
Today we have told you about our impressions regarding work in the Normandy format and the Contact Group and about what is really happening. However, we are not talking about sanctions. Our conclusion from what we see happening is that we can only rely on ourselves and do our best to avoid becoming dependent on those who could take politically motivated decisions that will harm the economy, including their own economy.
Our trade with Belgium, as well as with many other countries, has grown in the first four months of this year, and our businesses are implementing their projects. Many Belgian companies launched new projects with their Russian partners last year. So, life goes on.
When the EU says that politics must stand above the economy in the case of punishment, the fact speaks for itself. This is not how it should be in normal life.
Getting back to your question, I can say that the EU has chosen a comfortable formula, that the sanctions will be only lifted after Russia implements the Minsk Agreements. It came as a direct signal to President Poroshenko that Kiev may violate the Minsk Agreements and hence retain the conditions for the anti-Russian sanctions. This is exactly what the Kiev government needs to keep afloat at a time when the situation in the country has become dramatic.
Question: The United States admitted two days ago that Russia interfered in the US election through a Russian lawyer. Why did that lawyer decide to interfere?
Sergey Lavrov: Your colleague has already asked this question, and I have answered it. We have not seen a single fact proving our interference. If the media accept unsubstantiated claims and refuse to be concerned about the absence of hard facts, there is nothing I can do. It means that this profession has changed and relies on such approaches.