Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Moscow, August 21, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
The talks were intensive, and we reviewed the entire range of relations between our countries.
Egypt is our leading partner in the Middle East and North Africa. We maintain regular contacts, which are based on trust and help us find new practical approaches to promoting crisis and conflict resolution in the Middle East and North Africa.
We agree on the need to resolve all crises and conflicts in the region on the basis of international law through an inclusive national dialogue without any outside interference. This is the angle from which we analysed the situation in Syria, where de-escalation zones are being created with the active participation of our Egyptian friends, who have held several meetings in Cairo that made it possible to agree on such zones in Eastern Ghouta and Homs.
Russia and Egypt are actively helping form a collective delegation of the Syrian opposition to negotiate with the government on a constructive and realistic platform. The participation of all political and tribal groups without exception is a pre-condition for progress in the Libyan settlement as well.
Like Egypt, we are convinced that all international players and mediators must focus their efforts solely on trying to make Libyans sit down at the negotiating table and make sure that an agreement is reached on the future of that country that takes into account the interests of all, without exception, political and other forces in that country.
Moscow and Cairo are interested in rapidly ending the bloodshed in Yemen and starting a substantive and meaningful political process, as well as immediate steps to bring relief to the grave humanitarian crisis in that country.
We exchanged views on the situation in the Persian Gulf region. We urge all parties to resolve current contradictions at the negotiating table and to remove concerns that have emerged recently.
We also share the position that all the grave processes that are unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa should not divert our attention from resolving the key task, which is the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Without exaggeration, this is a cornerstone problem. An international legal framework within the UN was agreed upon in order to resolve it. We encourage all the stakeholders to implement these decisions.
Along with our Egyptian friends, we consider it very regrettable that another UN decision on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East cannot be implemented. Russia and Egypt are actively cooperating within the framework of the Review Conferences of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in order to find a solution that would make it possible to implement this long-standing agreement. Today, we discussed additional steps that can be taken to promote the resolution of this issue.
Today, once again, we reaffirmed our solidarity and unwavering determination to fight terrorism. In this regard, we noted the very high levels of interaction, including in the UN Security Council, where we are promoting coordinated decisions, including those that are required to cut off financial support of terrorists and to combat terrorist ideology.
We noted progress in our trade, economic and investment cooperation. These issues will be discussed in detail at today's meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov. This meeting will serve as preparation for next month's meeting of the Russian-Egyptian Intergovernmental Commission.
We regularly review the resumption of direct air travel between our countries. Today, we noted progress in the work of specialists who are addressing these issues. We assume that we will know more about the prospects for resuming direct air travel in the very near future.
Once again, I would like to emphasise that we are very satisfied with the outcome of the talks. We agreed to continue to maintain close contacts.
Question: What do you think about the role of Egypt in the Syrian settlement? Does Russia plan to send Foreign Minister’s Special Representative for Middle East Settlement Sergey Vershinin to the region to hold talks on the Palestinian-Israeli settlement?
Sergey Lavrov: We appreciate greatly the role of Egypt in promoting international cooperation to resolve various crises in the region. Today, we discussed the state of affairs as part of the efforts that are being made to overcome the Syria crisis. As I have already noted, Egypt has played and continues to play an important role in supporting the concept of de-escalation zones, which was agreed upon as part of the Astana process.
The same applies to the Libyan settlement, where Egypt plays an active role. We have a close, in fact, identical understanding of the need to prevent the isolation of any Libyan politicians, key figures, or tribal leaders from the process that should lead to restoring Libyan statehood.
Returning to the Syrian settlement process, I would like to note that Russia and Egypt are actively seeking to unite the opposition for talks with the government on a realistic and constructive platform. We are trying to make the opposition groups which are known as participants in the so-called Cairo and Moscow groups, to think that way.
We have similar approaches and believe that we need to break through the impasse in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. Like Egypt, Russia is in favour of resuming talks. To do so, it is important to create proper conditions, primarily, to prevent any unilateral steps.
Question: Is there any progress in building the nuclear power plant at El Dabaa in Egypt? What other big Russian-Egyptian projects are planned?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding our bilateral cooperation and specifically the question of the nuclear power plant’s construction, the main contract was signed in December last year. Another three contracts are near completion and their signature will make it possible to start actual construction of the facility. We have many other big projects, including the one still under discussion now. I hope that the upcoming meeting of the Joint Russian-Egyptian Commission on Trade, Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation in September will enable us to make progress on this matter. The project in question proposes establishing an industrial zone along the banks of the Suez Canal, with Russian participation. I hope that consultations will begin in the next 2-3 months, followed by full-fledged negotiations between the EAEU and Egypt on the possibility of establishing a free trade zone.
Question: You said that Egypt and Russia are working on organising a unified Syrian opposition delegation for talks with the regime. Are there any plans in this area?
Sergey Lavrov: We are working with other partners too on this, including Saudi Arabia. We hope to give more information on these efforts and their results to the media a little later.
Question: Much has been said about the difficulties with the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib. What, specifically, are the problems there? We know that the disparate nature of the armed groups in this city and the ongoing armed combat are negatively impacting this zone.
Sergey Lavrov: If issues could be resolved through simply sharing the details at news conferences, there would be no further need for our work and everything would be known to the public immediately. For understandable reasons, this is a complicated process (I am speaking of the de-escalation zones around Idlib). The three guarantor countries are taking part in the discussion, Russia, Turkey and Iran, which approved the de-escalation zone idea during the Astana process. The guarantor countries have planned expert-level contacts in the near future (before the end of this month or in early September). We will then prepare another international meeting in Astana, where the results of the work at expert level will be examined and, I hope, supported.
This is as much as I can say at this stage. As you noted rightly, this is the issue of agreements between the forces confronting government troops in this district. These agreements must imply agreement on the de-escalation zone’s configuration and on ensuring security along the future zone’s perimeter areas.
Let me say again, the work continues, the negotiations are understandably complicated, but we continue to act, primarily through our militaries, with diplomatic support.
Question: One hour ago, the response to Moscow’s measures concerning the US diplomatic corps and diplomatic missions in Russia was published on the US Embassy website. Specifically, it said that issuance of non-immigration visas will be suspended from August 23 to later resume in a significantly reduced scope. Starting from September 1, all interviews will only be held at the US Embassy in Moscow. This will affect application processing times. Moreover, the US Embassy in Moscow and the Consulate General in St Petersburg will stop accepting visa applications from citizens of Belarus. How would you comment this situation? Is retaliation possible?
Sergey Lavrov: I have just become aware of this decision. I only read the media reports but we will examine it more thoroughly.
As my first reaction, I can say the following. As you know, when at the end of last year the Obama administration was in its final throes and seeking to sabotage prospects of the Russia-US relations under the new administration, it imposed tough sanctions and demanded the deportation of our diplomats, which was absolutely illegitimate and a violation of international law, and seized Russia’s property, we did not respond and only responded when the US Congress, in a Russophobic rage, passed a new and quite far-reaching set of sanctions. Our response was as balanced as possible and strictly within the limits of diplomatic practice and traditions. In response to actual seizure of our diplomatic property, we asked the United States to stop using their diplomatic property in Moscow and to reduce the total number of diplomats and operating personnel of US foreign missions in the Russian Federation to the number equal to Russia’s staff in the US. We assumed that like Russia’s, the US diplomatic school and diplomatic service has established good traditions and experience in training highly competent professionals who can deal with the tasks of foreign embassies and consulates and have modern technology for successful operations.
It would be disrespectful of us to say that equalising the number of employees of US foreign missions in Russia and the Russian foreign missions in the United States would seriously limit the US diplomatic service’s capabilities to perform its consular functions, including issuance of visas. I believe the true reason for the decisions announced today is different. My first impression was that the decision is another attempt to incur Russian citizens’ displeasure with the authorities. This is the well-known logic of those who organise colour revolutions and simply inertia from the Obama administration. The same logic explains the decision that citizens of Belarus must, from now on, apply for US visas not from Moscow and St Petersburg but travel to Vilnius, Kiev and Warsaw. This measure clearly has a political motivation.
As concerns our action in response, as I already said, the decisions announced by the Americans today need careful consideration. We’ll see. I can only say one thing. We will not take it out on American citizens. If anyone was hoping that a bad example would be contagious, they were wrong.