Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s interview with the Interfax news agency, September 16, 2016
Question: Can you describe the mood of the Russian delegation to the current General Assembly session?
Gennady Gatilov: The Russian delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We are going to the session with a desire to discuss the challenges and threats facing the international community. We believe that additional efforts must be taken to formulate a unifying agenda, because only common efforts can help resolve the serious issues and regional crises that we have been unable to settle yet. We believe that to do this we must launch equal interaction and equitable cooperation between all states and avoid the lecturing or promoting the ideas of superiority and exclusivity of some countries. This is the only way we’ll be able to find solutions to these difficult crises, including the most difficult, Syria. Unfortunately, war has been raging there for over five years. The number of victims runs into the hundreds of thousands and the displaced persons into the millions, yet no fair solution has been found to this problem.
As you know, a serious attempt was recently taken in Geneva to reach consensus and launch constructive cooperation towards settling this destructive Syrian conflict. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry reached important agreements on making the ceasefire effective, dividing terrorist groups from moderate opposition and easing humanitarian access to the Syrians who need this assistance. We wholeheartedly hope that these agreements will be implemented. The sides are now coordinating the practical steps to implement these agreements. We believe it would be correct if this package of documents were approved in a UN Security Council resolution. This would prevent the misinterpretation of these documents and help use them as the basis for uniting the international efforts.
The main task in Syria is to defeat terrorism. For this struggle to be effective, we need to pinpoint the locations of terrorist groups and of the so-called moderate opposition. There is common agreement that the strikes at terrorists must be continued, primarily at ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. No efforts will be taken to stop the strikes and attacks against them. It is in this spirit that Russian and US military experts are working together to exchange information on these terrorist groups’ deployment and to coordinate attacks and strikes at them. We sincerely hope that this will be effective and will open the door to launching political negotiations on Syria.
As far as we know, Mr Staffan de Mistura, the intermediary and UN Special Envoy for Syria, intends to convene the next round of intra-Syrian talks in late September or October to continue the search for political solutions to the Syrian crisis.
Question: Will this round be preceded by a trilateral Russia-US-UN meeting?
Gennady Gatilov: No, such a meeting is not on the agenda, but we understand that such consultations could be useful at some point. The UN Security Council will hold a special meeting on Syria during the General Assembly’s ministerial week. We pin big hopes on this event, which will allow us to discuss all aspects of the situation in Syria once again, this time with members of the UN Security Council. We intend to take an active part in this meeting.
Question: Will the intra-Syrian talks, which may begin in late September, be direct or by proxy?
Gennady Gatilov: We have always advocated direct talks on Syria. But the problem was that the Syrian opposition delegation could not find a common platform for Syria’s disjointed opposition.
The Syrian government delegation was always ready to come to Geneva for the talks and has advanced its proposals regarding the agenda, but regrettably, the process was hindered by the opposition delegation, which advanced preliminary conditions for launching and attending the talks, primarily the issue of Bashar al-Assad. They said that the Syrian president must step down before talks can begin. This is an extremely unconstructive stance that has dead-locked the talks. It should be said that almost nobody who is in any way connected with the situation in Syria demands this now. The Syrian opposition delegation should abandon this obstructive position if it really wants to search for a solution to the Syrian crisis in good faith, and cooperate with the government delegation. We hope that Mr Staffan de Mistura will help achieve this as the main mediator whose task is, in keeping with his mandate and UN Security Council resolutions, to bring the conflicting sides together at the negotiating table.
Question: The High Negotiations Committee recently made public a detailed plan for a Syrian settlement in London, which stipulates six months of negotiations with government representatives with a total ceasefire, after which the Syrian President must transfer his authority to a transitional administration that will prepare for elections.
Gennady Gatilov: There have been a number of frameworks, at various points, for creating a transitional administration, drafting a constitution and holding elections. Unfortunately, none of these frameworks has been complied with. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on complying with time frameworks but on getting the negotiations moving.
The recent Russian-US agreements offer an opportunity to re-launch the negotiations. But the very next day after they were reached, some radical terrorist groups said they would never accept them. In other words, they don’t want to settle the crisis in Syria. At the same time, the Syrian government stated officially that it welcomed the Russian-US agreements and was willing to adhere to them, provided the opposition did likewise.
The future of Bashar al-Assad will be decided by the Syrians themselves without any preliminary conditions. The 2012 Geneva Communique and all the subsequent documents, which were adopted by the International Syria Support Group and within other formats, do not condition the talks on Bashar al-Assad’s resignation from the post of president. This issue must be decided in the context of the intra-Syrian talks. I believe that everyone understands this, including our US partners and everyone else who is involved, one way or another, in the situation in Syria and the negotiating process.
Question: We used to speak in favour of Kurdish participation in the negotiations. What will happen now, taking into account the operation that Turkey has launched recently?
Gennady Gatilov: Our position remains unchanged, we still think the Kurds should be involved in the talks as they are a real political and military power on the ground, and therefore their influential role is indispensable in addressing such issues as the future of the Syrian state, its constitution, future elections and any other aspects of the political process.
Question: So can we hope that Staffan de Mistura will send them an invitation to the new round?
Gennady Gatilov: We have always said to Mr de Mistura that the Kurds should be invited to the talks, especially during the substantive discussions on the political future of Syria. In principle, he agrees with this approach but has not decided exactly when he would be ready to make that move.
Question: When will the text of the Russian-US agreements be distributed in the UN Security Council?
Gennady Gatilov: We are interested in this happening as soon as possible because the bilateral agreements are already in place. If the UN Security Council approves them promptly, it will consolidate the ceasefire and facilitate a search for ways for a political settlement in Syria. I cannot give you any specific timeframe because this process has only just begun. We have to hold discussions and consultations with all the UN Security Council members and then, if needed, the Council will make a relevant decision.
Question: Can this happen within the UN General Assembly framework?
Gennady Gatilov: I think it could happen sooner.
Question: Even before the Russian delegation leaves?
Gennady Gatilov: Possibly, not before their departure but towards the end of the month. I think the consultations will enter the active phase next week. We are interested in avoiding any delays.
Question: Marc Toner, US Department of State Deputy Spokesperson, said yesterday that Russia and the US in their agreement of September 9 had agreed to deliver air strikes at Jabhat al-Nusra positions only, but not ISIS. Is this true?
Gennady Gatilov: I do not know the context of his statement. Concerning Aleppo, this is where Jabhat al-Nusra mostly operates, as far as we know. But in principle, we all understand that air strikes at ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra continue uninterrupted, these organisations are on the UN sanctions list as terrorist organisations and are not covered by the ceasefire agreement.
Question: But, are the joint Russia-US air strikes targeted at Jabhat al-Nusra?
Gennady Gatilov: This question basically has to be coordinated between the military experts of the two countries.
Question: Speaking of the experts, when is the Russian-US joint executive centre to coordinate air strikes against terrorists going to start operating?
Gennady Gatilov: Under the agreements, the centre is to begin operating within seven days after the agreements are concluded, which is one of those days, in Geneva, with the Russian and American experts.
Question: As the minister said, the sides agreed to extend the 48-hour truce by another 48 hours. What are the chances of the ceasefire becoming permanent?
Gennady Gatilov: We are talking about the D+7 days, which is 48 hours plus another five days, or seven days in total.
Question: The top officials of the High Negotiations Committee included representatives of the organisations Russia now considers terrorist.
Gennady Gatilov: They did indeed, but they somehow disappeared.
Question: In other words, the High Negotiations Committee is made of more or less acceptable people now, right?
Gennady Gatilov: This would be rather a far-fetched assumption. The main problem of the High Negotiations Committee is that it represents only part of the opposition. The other part is not on the committee. Therefore, we cannot say that the High Negotiations Committee is the only body that fully represents the opinion of the Syrian opposition.
The opposition has to find common ground to unite its efforts and, as I said, this is one of the tasks Mr de Mistura has yet to tackle.
Question: The US President’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, has said Washington doubts that Russia would deliver on its commitments under the September 9 deal. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded by saying that Russia would like to make the deal public, whereas the United States doesn’t want to. It has been reported that there are major differences between the White House and the Pentagon on this deal. Do we doubt that the US will live up to their part of the bargain?
Gennady Gatilov: This agreement is quite complicated, and implementation will call for hard work by all concerned parties to strictly comply with the provisions. Of course, there will be wrinkles and setbacks, but the main thing is for the parties to honestly implement their part of the deal. In the case of Americans, this means that they must work with the opposition as they pledged to. As for Russia, we have said repeatedly at all levels that we are willing to facilitate the implementation of these arrangements, working, respectively, with Damascus and the Syrian government, which has expressed its support for and expressed willingness to act in the spirit of the Geneva agreement.
Question: Mr Gatilov, another item at the General Assembly session will be the election of UN Secretary-General.
Gennady Gatilov: Since Ban Ki-moon’s term as UN Secretary-General will end on December 31, voting on the next head of this global organisation will be held soon. The process has been ongoing for some time, including consultations on the many candidates. Many of the 12 candidates officially nominated for this post come from Eastern Europe; they represent the Eastern European Group (EEG). Russia’s consistent position has been that the next UN Secretary-General should come from Eastern Europe. This would be fair, because there has never been a Secretary-General from that region before, while there have been from all other continents and regions.
Several countries have proposed candidates for the post this year. The candidates are prominent and respected politicians with good management skills, which is important for a global organisation. Three rounds of so-called straw polls have been held at the UN Security Council to indicate favourites. These are Miroslav Lajčák, Irina Bokova, Vuk Jeremić and several others. Of course, candidates for this top administrative position in the UN Secretariat were nominated not only from the EEG states, but also from several other countries.
One of them is António Guterres, a prominent politician and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Portugal’s Foreign Minister who has also held several other positions. He has the highest number of votes so far, 11 out of a total of 15 UN Security Council members. Other frontrunners are Lajčák from Slovakia (9), UNESCO Director General Bokova (7) and Serbia’s Jeremić (7). The selection process is not over yet; the next round has been scheduled for September 26. We will closely monitor the UN Security Council members’ preferences regarding the candidates.
Of course, this issue will also be discussed at bilateral consultations during the ministerial week of the UN General Assembly, where the most favourable candidate will be chosen. It is a very serious process, because the Secretary-General plays a crucial role in guiding the UN and choosing its priorities. Therefore, we want this position to be assigned to a person who meets these criteria best.
Question: Mr Gatilov, what was the whole story with Kristalina Georgieva? Berlin has denied it and said that nothing compromising happened.
Gennady Gatilov: This is a sensitive subject and there are many rumours and much speculation about just how the candidate selection process takes place. We consider Irina Bokova Bulgaria’s official representative. She has already gone through three rounds of voting and, as I said, her results are quite good. We take the view that Bulgaria will continue to advance one candidate – Irina Bokova. We do not know how things will develop at this point. The decision is in the hands of the individual governments.
Question: Is it possible to replace a candidate at the last minute?
Gennady Gatilov: It is possible, and new candidates may emerge alongside the existing names. The procedural rules do not prohibit this, and it remains possible right up until the voting takes place. Under the rules of procedure and the UN Charter, it is the Security Council’s prerogative to select a candidate to present to the UN General Assembly. The Security Council has to present an approved candidate to the UN General Assembly for confirmation. This will take place in October.
Question: Will there be another round of voting on September 26?
Gennady Gatilov: There will be another round of voting in the Security Council. This will not be the final round, and further rounds are possible. Once the Security Council settles on a candidate, the name will be proposed to the General Assembly, and this is where the final decision is taken.
Question: In other words, someone could join the list who has not gone through all these rounds of voting?
Gennady Gatilov: That’s entirely probable.
Question: Who will it be?
Gennady Gatilov: We don’t know. This is where the intrigue lies. If you remember what happened with Kofi Annan’s election to the post of UN Secretary-General, there was much discussion over the different candidates then, and the Security Council did not have a unanimous view. Mr Annan’s candidacy emerged at the last minute. The Security Council recommended him as an acceptable individual in political terms and as a qualified candidate for the post. Thus, the UN has some history of unexpected developments during the selection of candidates for the post of UN Secretary-General.
Question: Have the Bulgarians hinted that they could put forward another candidate at the last minute?
Gennady Gatilov: This is Bulgaria’s right. They don’t have to give hints and they have the right to make any decision they want, but as I said, at this point, we consider Irina Bokova Bulgaria’s official candidate.
As for Kristalina Georgieva, she did present herself as a candidate initially and as such even had some contact with us. But then she said that she decided to remain in her post in the European Union and ended her campaign. If she decides to resume her campaign, she has a full right to do so, and the Bulgarian government has the right to replace a candidate.
Question: What is Russia’s position on this issue?
Gennady Gatilov: Our position is very clear and simple. We take the view that it is each country’s sovereign right to do as it sees fit. We will not interfere. If they do this, we will decide then, based on the new candidate proposed.
Question: Are there plans for Sergey Lavrov to meet with John Kerry on the sidelines of the General Assembly session?
Gennady Gatilov: This issue is being addressed. Certainly, they will meet in any case, as there will be many various formats and a meeting of the five permanent Security Council members with the UN Secretary-General on the ministerial level. Other formats are also on the agenda, so they will certainly meet. As for a separate meeting, the issue is currently being addressed. The agenda is tight on both sides. This is a difficult question, as it is necessary to finalise a schedule of their participation in other events of the General Assembly.
Question: You mentioned other formats. Can the Normandy format meet there?
Gennady Gatilov: It has not been planned so far.
Question: What about the Middle East Quartet of international mediators?
Gennady Gatilov: The Middle East Quartet will be present and will hold a traditional ministerial meeting.
Question: North Korea. There hasn’t been any tough response to the nuclear test in North Korea. Does this mean that measures will be developed in the near term? And what kind of measures?
Gennady Gatilov: Measures might include another sanctions resolution by the Security Council. One can expect that the draft resolution will be prepared. It is the US which is usually in charge of this, and we are unaware of the content of the future draft document. Whatever proposals it will contain, they should be discussed in detail so that the proposed resolution and the measures it stipulates will be an appropriate response to the North Korean actions.
Question: Will Russia support the sanctions resolution?
Gennady Gatilov: We do not know how we will vote, and, as usual, our position will depend on all factors and the content of the resolution. We will take an active part in this.
Question: Is a meeting of the P5+1 group on Iran possible in New-York?
Gennady Gatilov: Yes, a meeting in this format will be held. It goes without saying that its participants will discuss the progress in implementing the agreements on Iran.
Question: It seems that Iran is dissatisfied with the US because it is in no hurry to unfreeze the accounts.
Gennady Gatilov: The parties will focus on these issues. This is the logical extension of the agreements and an exchange of views on the achievements and further steps to implement the agreements as they have been designed.
Question: Let’s talk about sport and WADA’s ugly behaviour. Should we take this issue to the international stage?
Gennady Gatilov: We are constantly doing just this. We have called for depoliticising sport long before the recent conflict and scandal. We believe that sport must not be a hostage of political ambitions or the political agenda of states. Sport should help bring nations closer together and strengthen the atmosphere of friendship, trust and partnership between them. It's a shame that the recent developments, or more precisely the banning of the Russian Paralympic team from the Rio Games, have become absurd.
The unprecedented infringement on the rights of athletes with disabilities and, worse still, their disqualification for being members of the Russian team, are unacceptable actions that directly contradict the principles of non-discrimination in sport and the independent and autonomous nature of sporting events, which have been approved by the UN General Assembly principles. We will also speak about this at the ongoing UN General Assembly.
Question: Maybe we should press for reforming WADA?
Gennady Gatilov: This is not a matter for the UN and its General Assembly but for other organisations. Bur objectively speaking, the issue should be placed on the agenda.
Another issue of importance to us, which we will raise at the session as we have always done, is the unacceptability of the revision of the results of WWII. It is an issue of great concern to us, especially in the year of the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. The results of that war and the suffering of the older generations are established facts. Any attempts to revise the results of WWII and to glorify Nazis are unacceptable to us, and therefore we will work consistently so that people do not forget the sacrifices made during WWII, and to prevent any distortion of history. This will be a topical and priority subject for us at this session.
We will also highlight the issue of terrorism. Unfortunately, this evil has not been eradicated yet, despite the efforts taken. We believe that for this struggle to succeed there must be no double standards or any flirting with terrorists in the interests of one’s geopolitical goals or agenda. Only united international efforts coordinated by the UN can bring about practical results in this area. Otherwise, there will be chaos, lawlessness, violence and cruelty such as we can see in Syria and Iraq.
We will remind the world about the idea of a broad counterterrorist front, which President Vladimir Putin advanced at the previous session. It is regrettable that the implementation of this idea has collided with the unwillingness of some countries to work together as equal partners, but we will continue to work towards its implementation. We also intend to submit a proposal aimed at preventing the proliferation or terrorist and extremist ideologies. We hope our partners will understand and support this initiative.