Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, March 16, 2017
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Leonard She Okitundu
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Leonard She Okitundu will be in Moscow on a working visit on March 22-24.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with him on March 22 to discuss prospects for developing Russian-Congolese relations with an emphasis on promoting effective cooperation in the political, trade, economic, humanitarian and other areas.
The ministers will also engage in a substantive exchange of views on current issues of the global and regional agenda, including countering international terrorism and unblocking crisis situations on the African continent.
Lecture by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for higher officers of the Academy of the General Staff
On March 23, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will speak before high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces, representatives of ministries and departments, as well as army officers from foreign countries who are taking the “Army and Society” course at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
Minister Lavrov will speak on the topic “The Role of Russia in Global Politics”. He will share his assessments of the international situation, discuss Russia’s approaches to key issues on the international agenda and priority areas of work for Russian diplomacy and, of course, take questions from the audience.
As you may be aware, the “Army and Society” course started on January 12. Its purpose is to improve the competence of the command staff of the Russian Armed Forces and boost interactions between the army and society.
The third anniversary of Crimea’s reunification with Russia
On these March days, we celebrate the third anniversary of a landmark event in the modern history of Russia, which received the poetic name of the Crimean Spring.
The proclamation in March 2014 of the independence of the Republic of Crimea and its unification with the Russian Federation were a legitimate exercise of the right of the people of Crimea to self-determination following an armed coup in Ukraine and the mayhem wreaked by radical national forces that did not hesitate to use terror and intimidation on both political opponents and the population of entire regions of that country.
In these circumstances, on March 17, 2014, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Crimea, based on the results of the general referendum in Crimea on March 16, decided to proclaim Crimea an independent sovereign state, the Republic of Crimea. On March 18, the Republic of Crimea signed an international treaty to join the Russian Federation. As a result, the Russian Federation gained two new constituent entities, the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.
The future has proved the legitimacy of the decision to reunite with Russia taken by Crimeans three years ago. The legality and validity of this exercise of the right to self-determination are on graphic display today, in light of the disgraceful bloody campaign waged by the Kiev regime against its own people. Extrapolating Ukrainian political realities of recent years to Crimea, it is easy to imagine what would have happened to the peninsula had it remained part of Ukraine. It is even easier to imagine if we recall the deplorable outcome of the twenty-odd years in which Crimea was part of the Ukrainian state.
Today, the task of ensuring sustainable socioeconomic development of Crimea continues to be a top priority. Over the past three years, extensive work has been done to establish and integrate the region into the Russian Federation. Active work is underway to build new and upgrade old infrastructure; a bridge is being built across the Kerch Strait; the construction of the Tavrida Motorway has begun, which will connect the Kerch Bridge to Sevastopol, crossing the peninsula from east to west. The Free Economic Zone with its preferential regime in the sphere of land relations, construction, and special terms for entrepreneurial activity creates a wide range of opportunities for investors in Crimea.
There is a trend toward economic growth, including through developing the energy and recreation sectors, and expanded housing construction. Industrial output is higher and unemployment is lower than the average for Russia. These are important economic and social development indicators. With regard to Crimea, this includes jobs and good salaries for the Crimeans, and innovative products made by local enterprises. All of these changes have taken place amid the sanctions imposed on the peninsula by Western countries, as well as unending provocations on the part of Ukraine, including attempted water and energy blockades and severing air, sea, passenger rail and mail services.
The situation on the peninsula is not perfect. However, despite objective difficulties, the federal and local authorities have already done a lot to improve the life of Crimeans and to ensure the comprehensive development of the peninsula as part of Russia. Still, more needs to be done.
Crimea has fully preserved its multinational population. Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and representatives of other ethnicities who have been living on the peninsula from time immemorial, are building a future together in peace and harmony. Since 2014, Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar have been official languages in the Republic of Crimea.
Over the past three years, Russia has been attending to and promoting the socioeconomic, cultural, religious and other interests of all the peoples and ethnicities living in Crimea at the micro and macro levels. This includes Armenians, Greeks, Crimean Tatars, Italians, Germans, and, of course, Russians and Ukrainians. The efforts of the authorities to strengthen interethnic stability are clearly visible to an unbiased observer. As a result of this policy, according to opinion polls, more than 90 percent of Crimeans say they do not experience any significant interethnic tension in their daily life.
The past three years have clearly shown that despite all the difficulties and controversy with regard to Crimea, there is strong interest in developing cooperation with the peninsula on the part of foreign parliamentary, business and sociopolitical circles, as well as representatives of culture, sports and the media. In particular, over 100 foreign delegations visited Crimea last year as compared to 73 in 2015, and over 70 international events were held.
Preserving its uniqueness and boasting vast potential for development, Crimea attracts attention not only by its remarkable natural beauty and cultural and historical heritage sites of international importance, but also by the hospitality of its people, who are open to dialogue and cooperation.
Anyone can form an impartial opinion of their own by visiting Crimea and Sevastopol and seeing for themselves the actual state of affairs in these two constituent entities of the Russian Federation.
Let me remind you that last year the Foreign Ministry created a pool of journalists who wanted to go to Crimea and see special infrastructure facilities located there. We are ready to proceed with this work. If anyone wants to go there and files a relevant request, it will be taken up gladly. Crimea will again open its door to members of the foreign media.
The situation in Syria
We note with satisfaction that the cessation of hostilities (CoH) in Syria, guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, has made it possible to significantly reduce the level of violence in that country. Ceasefire violations are limited. The CoH regime has made it possible to concentrate the Syrian Army’s efforts on fighting ISIS. As a result of the successful offensive operation by the Syrian Armed Forces, vast areas in the east of Aleppo Province extending as far as the Euphrates River were liberated. The al-Khafseh water treatment facility, recaptured from terrorists, has resumed fresh water supplies to the provincial capital and the area around it.
Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces, have routed ISIS militants near Palmyra and pushed the terrorists back from the city, which is part of world cultural heritage. As you know, while ISIS was in control there, they caused serious damage to historical landmarks that are part of this ancient city’s architecture. The extent of the damage, of course, has yet to be assessed. It is encouraging that different international agencies are already showing their readiness to participate in the reconstruction of Palmyra and its historical sites. At present, mine clearing is a particularly pressing issue.
Militants from illegal armed groups active in the Damascus area, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, continue shelling residential areas in the Syrian capital. Al-Shughour, Ibn Asakir, Bab Touma, Adavi and other districts have come under rocket and mortar attacks by radical forces. On March 10 and 12, several rockets exploded in close proximity to the Russian embassy in Damascus.
Earlier, we commented on the recent bloody terrorist attack in Damascus that was carried out on March 11. Responsibility for it was claimed by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which is the very same Jabhat al-Nusra that constantly changes its “facade” but whose al-Qaeda essence remains unchanged. Over 70 people were killed and about 120 injured at that time. However, there is another aspect to this tragedy. Our Western partners in the UN Security Council, who are purportedly determined to fight terrorism (at any rate, this is what they regularly declare), act beyond the bounds of logic and common sense. They constantly avoid condemning terrorist attacks under various pretexts. This calls into question the sincerity of their intentions to fight terrorism in Syria and reveals their attitude toward that country and its people.
I must mention new terrorist attacks in the Syrian capital that took place yesterday, March 15. A corresponding comment has been posted on the ministry’s website. I’d like to reiterate that such heinous attacks on civilians, which are provocations aimed at maintaining an atmosphere of fear in society, must not be allowed to thwart the efforts to promote a peaceful settlement of the Syria crisis.
On March 14-15, the third international high-level meeting on Syria took place in Astana. It was attended by delegations from the three CoH guarantor countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as Jordan, the US, the UN and the Syrian government. The discussion focused on consolidating the ceasefire, setting up a constitutional commission and a working group on the exchange of persons held by the parties to the conflict and identifying the location of terrorist groups and moderate opposition units.
We regret the fact that a delegation of the Syrian armed opposition showed disrespect toward the organisers of the forum and its other participants, who met in the capital of Kazakhstan, and indulged in speculation around its presence in Astana. The reasons cited by its leaders are absolutely unconvincing and unacceptable. After all, talks are designed above all to resolve existing problems, as we have repeatedly stated. Refusal to negotiate means only one thing: a reluctance to address the problems that the international community as a whole has been dealing with for many years.
Possibly, those who encouraged the Syrian armed opposition to boycott the event tried to deal a blow to the Astana, as well as Geneva, negotiating format. We are satisfied with the fact that this attempt has failed. We note the effective and well-coordinated efforts by our Astana-format partners, a format that continues to operate successfully, providing effective assistance to the Syrian parties in ending the bloodshed and moving forward with a search for political solutions based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Mechanism for assisting in the investigation of crimes committed in Syria
According to our information, on March 9, the Hague hosted a closed meeting on the so-called mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011. The event was organised by the Netherlands with the support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The meeting was attended by various Western and pro-Western NGOs, which feed off of the Syrian crisis, and states known for their anti-Damascus position. Russia, as well as Syria, was not invited to participate.
This mechanism is based on UN General Assembly Resolution 71/248 of December 21, 2016, adopted against the backdrop of a propaganda campaign launched in late 2016 to discredit the operation to liberate Aleppo, the second largest Syrian city. Russia, Syria and another 13 states voted ‘against,’ while 52 states abstained.
We consider the so-called mechanism to be legally untenable. The decision to create this prosecuting body is beyond the powers of the UN General Assembly and contradicts the UN Charter. Prosecution, criminal investigation or assisting criminal investigation are beyond the jurisdiction of the General Assembly. Moreover, the decision was taken without Syria’s consent and against its will. The UN Secretariat and personally the Secretary-General should take these circumstances into account when developing their position concerning the so-called mechanism.
It should be noted that the active supporters of this body are only those who actively support the Syrian opposition, including the armed opposition groups, which involve many extremists. They are also the main sponsors of the mechanism financed through voluntary donations. There is no doubt that the initiators of this idea, who are preoccupied with regime change in Damascus, started to gather evidence against it. Certainly, our ‘beloved’ White Helmets and other fake activists have already prepared multi-volume compromising materials. As for crimes committed by ISIS and other illegal armed groups, they will certainly carry little weight.
In any case, artificially highlighting the issue of ‘fighting impunity’ can become a serious obstacle to the political solution at the current very delicate stage, when talks in Geneva and Astana are just trying to make headway. The issues of national reconciliation, with Syrians in the leading role, should crown the political settlement. In fact, this is specified by the decisions taken by the UN Security Council.
The latest exposure of the White Helmets
It is obvious to us that the hyped story of the White Helmets that reached its climax with that organisation, which has been toiling in Syria, being awarded the “alternative Nobel Prize”, while a film about these activists received an Oscar, is just a large-scale PR campaign. We have repeatedly raised this issue during briefings, casting doubt on the noble efforts of the White Helmets. Particularly, we questioned and even exposed videos and other materials that that organisation released.
This time we would like to draw your attention to the conclusions that independent Swedish human rights activists arrived at after analysing a video posted by White Helmets. The monthly Indicter magazine of the European Human Rights Front has published an article detailing the degree of cynicism and absolute heartlessness displayed by these gifted “stage directors”. The authors turned to qualified medical professionals to help study a video showing White Helmets administering emergency aid to kids. Their conclusion: not only does the treatment violate medical standards or appear to be staged, but it is also dangerous. The most inhuman aspect of this is that, according to the authors, the footage shows a child being literally killed on camera. The child is one year old at most, his eyes are half-open, and he is immobilised but alive. At that moment, he receives a shot right in the heart area. According to qualified medical experts, if the child was still alive, such a shot would certainly kill him.
It is telling that some Western and Middle Eastern politicians have repeatedly and with tears in their eyes suggested using the White Helmets’ video and other materials as irrefutable evidence of the crimes committed by the “Syrian regime”. Naturally, we are unlikely to hear any of them address the revelations of the Swedish Indicter magazine, just as they kept silent when the Western coalition’s not terribly precise and not terribly successful attempts to take Mosul left numerous civilians dead. All these facts are related and reveal a propaganda effort to bolster the failure of the Middle East policy of our Western partners.
The situation in Libya
Fragmentary and largely conflicting reports coming from different sources regarding renewed fighting, in early March, in the so-called oil crescent along Libya’s Mediterranean coast, where the country’s main oil infrastructure is concentrated, do not make it possible to get an objective picture of what is going on. A number of foreign correspondents have asked us to comment on the situation in that region. As a matter of fact, we received such a request yesterday and today we have prepared a corresponding comment.
As you know, in September 2016, these areas, which were earlier controlled by the Petroleum Facilities Guards formally answering to Tripoli, passed to the Libyan National Army under the command of Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Later, the facilities located there (deposits, oil terminals, refineries and storage facilities) were transferred to Libya’s National Oil Corporation. The country resumed oil exports. Oil export revenues went to Libya’s Central Bank in Tripoli and were supposed to be used for the country’s current needs, above all to deal with the socioeconomic problems that have aggravated in recent years.
In March, these areas, including the main oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, were seized by militants from the so-called Benghazi Defence Brigades and placed back under the control of the aforementioned Petroleum Facilities Guards. Now Haftar’s army is trying to regain control of these areas or has done so already.
Amid the general political chaos in the country, it is rather difficult to say who is right and who is wrong, what intra-Libyan forces or possibly outside players are behind this or what goals they are pursuing.
One thing is clear: What is going on is hardly conducive to stabilisation in the country, which is going through a crisis that is probably the worst in its history. So we urge all of the parties to the conflict in Libya to show common sense and refrain from the use of force in dealing with particular disputed issues in order to avoid a dangerous escalation of the civil conflict, which is fraught with the final disintegration of this once prosperous country.
By the way, shouldn’t the public groups that are so concerned about the crimes of the “Syrian regime” and that meet in the Netherlands and other places be interested in raising the same issue with regard to Libya? The fact is that Libya was fragmented deliberately. There was no international terrorism there and nobody was fighting any extremist militants there. They simply went and destroyed the country as a viable state. The number of people who were killed, injured, otherwise affected or impaired not only physically but also psychologically has yet to be assessed. The same goes for the number of generations of Libyans who will have to bear the stigma of what is now happening to their country: how many generations have had their futures disfigured by ill-considered, bloody decisions.
The use of chemical agents by ISIS in Mosul
We are gravely concerned about reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation on the use of poisonous substances by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. As a result, 12 people, mostly women and children, have been hospitalised with clinical symptoms caused by chemical agents.
At the same time, we are dismayed by an apparently hasty statement by Iraq’s Ambassador to the United Nations that his country’s authorities lack any evidence proving the use of chemical weapons by terrorists.
Nevertheless, we praise the Iraqi Government’s intention to contact the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in line with its obligations under Article VII of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction and to request assistance in conducting a national investigation regarding the use of these weapons of mass destruction during hostilities in Mosul. This is particularly relevant since ISIS militants had Mosul University’s chemical laboratory under their control for an extended period of time. We have spoken about it more than once.
We see the latest ISIS crimes as evidence of the fact that the use of chemical weapons by terrorists, including against civilians, has already become systematic. We don’t doubt it that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra militants, as well as those from affiliated extremist organisations and groups of the armed Syrian opposition, possess industrial/household chemicals, such as chlorine, and full-fledged chemical agents, including yperite (mustard gas) and sarin. We have also repeatedly noted this fact.
We have been talking about the growing threat of chemical terrorism for the past two years, and stressing the need for the international community’s prompt and proportionate response to this at various international venues, primarily the UN Security Council. However, our Western colleagues have turned a blind eye to this acute issue and ignored our calls. How many more chemical attacks must be perpetrated for them to finally display their readiness to tackle these challenges? We hope this is not just a rhetorical question.
Unfortunately, our worst fears that chemical terrorism may spread all over the Middle East and beyond its confines are beginning to come true.
It goes without saying that we support the OPCW’s intention to provide all-round assistance to Baghdad in investigating all circumstances of this crime.
We will continue to actively monitor the situation. Those responsible for such crimes must be exposed, their guilt proved, and they must be brought to justice.
The humanitarian situation in Mosul (Iraq), South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria
On March 10, Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the UN Security Council on the dramatic humanitarian situation in some African and Middle Eastern countries.
UN humanitarian agencies point to the harrowing humanitarian situation in Western Mosul, where a military operation is underway to purge the city of ISIS terrorists. The city is under siege. Nearly 300,000 people have fled their homes to escape the hostilities since October 2016. According to UN data, there are some 224,000 refugees living in temporary camps, most of which are situated in the eastern part of the city. There are severe shortages of water, food and basic necessities.
Humanitarian agencies received access to the liberated districts only several days ago. According to various estimates, over 750,000 people in Western Mosul need urgent humanitarian assistance and protection.
Humanitarian agencies say that up to 4,000 people leave the city’s western district every day in an unorganised manner for there are no security corridors. The people flee in between attacks and active military operations. ISIS is using civilians as live shields and has refused to cooperate with humanitarian agencies. This is why there is no reliable information about the number of casualties.
The indiscriminate use of weapons in densely populated areas results in numerous casualties. It has been also reported that ISIS terrorists used chemical weapons, as I have said.
In this context, it is regrettable and unacceptable that information about the events in Mosul and the growing humanitarian disaster there has been suppressed by the Western media and many active NGOs. You remember that they did not mince words in their reports on the counterterrorist operation in Eastern Aleppo, which resulted in ten times fewer refugees than Mosul. It is yet another example of double standards in the Western media.
Moreover, it was reported in early March that 33 civilians were killed and eight wounded in an international coalition’s misdirected airstrike at a railway terminal in Western Mosul in February.
We are deeply concerned over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in some African countries. The situation is the most serious in the east of the continent and in the Horn of Africa due to a severe drought and ongoing internal conflicts, in particular in South Sudan and Somalia.
According to the UN, since December 2013 more than 7.5 million people have required humanitarian aid and protection and 4.7 million have been starving, of which some one million have faced famine, due to the ongoing military and political crisis in South Sudan. There are some 1.9 million internally displaced people in the country and over 1.5 million have fled to Uganda, Kenia, Ethiopia and Sudan. The sanitary situation is dramatic and there is the threat of epidemics in many regions of the country and a cholera outbreak has spread to more locations. The total number of internally displaced people has reached 3.4 million.
In 2016, humanitarian assistance was delivered to over 5.1 million people. However, international assistance is hindered by attacks on humanitarian aid workers and the plunder of humanitarian compounds and supplies. Stephen O’Brien said “the famine in South Sudan is man-made” and urged the authorities to start acting.
Regrettably, the situation continued to deteriorate in Somalia. More than half the population – 6.2 million people – need humanitarian and protection assistance, including 2.9 million who are at risk of famine. Over 1.1 million people live in appalling conditions around the country. There are about one million displaced people in the country, and 1.5 million Somalis have fled to neighbouring countries, primarily Ethiopia and Kenia. Al-Shabaab has been reported to attack humanitarian aid workers. Last year, some 165 violent incidents directly impacted humanitarian work and resulted in 14 deaths of aid workers. The military block major supply routes to towns in southern and central Somalia. Restricted access to markets is raising prices. The situation is further complicated by an unprecedented drought.
We are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Nigeria, which is being terrorised by Boko Haram extremists. According to UN experts, there are some 2.5 million displaced people in North-Eastern Nigeria.
Russia is contributing to the international humanitarian efforts in Africa. We donate funds to the international assistance programmes of the IMF, World Bank, WHO, UNICEF, the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO) and World Food Programme (WFP). In 2011-2015, we donated some $15 million to the WFP for assistance to Somalia and Somali refugees in neighbouring countries.
In 2014-2015, we provided food assistance worth $ 10 million to Somalia, Kenia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia through the WFP.
In 2016, the Russian Government decided to make an additional donation to the WFP to finance humanitarian food aid, including $1.5 million each for Zimbabwe and Ethiopia and $1 million each for Madagascar and Somalia. This money will be used to buy foodstuffs in Russia and to pay for their transportation by Russian companies.
It is obvious that it will be impossible to overcome the acute humanitarian crises in these countries without a major international response. In order to rally this response, the UN agencies should report on humanitarian crises around the world objectively and without political bias. Regrettably, this is not the case in many parts of the world that have been hit by crises.
How headlines in the leading world media should look in the context of the situation in Mosul
We continue to point out the fact that the world media are avoiding the developments in Mosul, Iraq. What does this mean? They certainly cover the situation in the city, there are reports, but if we recall the situation in Aleppo and how it was covered, we’ll see a huge difference. Front pages and magazine covers, headlines, centre photographs, and prime-time broadcasts were dedicated to just one subject – the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. Of course, the terrorists were not held responsible; the blame was laid on specific countries, with our country taking the main blow. But no one seems concerned with the situation in Mosul, although the scale of humanitarian disaster, the suffering of peaceful civilians, and cruelty is just exorbitant. The stories we read fully ignore the suffering of the local civilian population and the reasons that have led to this tragedy. The lopsided and muffled coverage of the military operation to capture Mosul contrasts sharply with what we observed in the course of the liberation of Aleppo from terrorists and militants by the Syrian Government army. I don’t think the picture of developments in Mosul is distorted in one way or another by correspondents on the ground, but the presentation on air and in print is exposed to certain influence. Of course, we can clearly see the political influence. There are high-quality stories that describe what is happening there, but they are sooner a rare exception than the rule. In principle, the mainstream is undisguised. Information is strongly glossed over and the humanitarian consequences of this large-scale military operation that practically couldn’t avoid civilian casualties are not represented.
To reach out to the foreign media and possibly make them understand how absurd they look and how they discredit their status as world media, we have taken the extraordinary step of modeling the headlines in the leading world media in the context of the operation in Mosul. This has been done under the heading “If They Were Really Objective, Their Headlines Would Look Like This.” You will see the selection in the Foreign Ministry’s official accounts in the social media immediately after this briefing. This is certainly not a trolling attempt. This is an attempt to reach out to the media, editors, and of course, correspondents, who, wittingly or unwittingly, are not paying due attention to the situation in Mosul, thereby distorting the presentation of information on what is going on there.
Afghanistan’s appeal to Russia to help rebuild infrastructure
We can only praise the appeal of the Afghan Embassy in Moscow for Russia to take part in restoring over 100 infrastructure facilities, built in Afghanistan with Soviet assistance.
We believe that appropriate cooperation could elevate bilateral relations to a new level.
At the same time, we would like to draw the attention of our Afghan partners to the fact that practical steps are needed to launch practical cooperation. So far, Russian companies are facing problems in their attempts to take part in implementing economic rehabilitation projects in Afghanistan.
As an example, we can mention the situation with the Kabul housing construction plant. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Urban Development and Housing signed a contract for restoring this plant with Russia’s RusIndustriyaStroi. The Russian company had to annul the contract with the Afghan state agency after a lack of progress for several years.
In this context, we would deem it possible to ask the concerned Afghan agencies to create favourable conditions for Russian investors. This would help successfully restore over 140 infrastructure facilities, built with the assistance of the former Soviet Union, which made a substantial contribution to Afghanistan’s economic development.
The possible establishment of the “Kosovo armed forces”
We consider the intention of authorities in Pristina to transform the Kosovo Security Force into full-fledged “armed forces,” contrary to the position of Belgrade and Kosovo’s Serbs, to be an irresponsible step which is dangerous for stability on the Balkan Peninsula and in the entire Europe.
The idea of establishing “Kosovo armed forces” runs counter to the fundamental document, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 stipulating a military presence in the region based solely on the UN Security Council mandate that calls for deploying the Kosovo Force (KFOR) primarily consisting of NATO member-country contingents.
Indicatively, the patrons of so-called “statehood” understand the legal and political flaws of Pristina’s intentions and urge the Kosovo Albanian elite to refrain from unilateral actions in this area and to heed the opinion of Kosovo’s Serbs.
Regarding security, it is necessary to focus on efforts to rectify the situation in Kosovo itself. This territory has become a criminal enclave and a hideout for bandits and terrorists (let’s call things by their real names), rather than a prosperous state, as had been promised by the Western community. It would be appropriate to prioritise efforts to combat the spread of Islamic radicalism in Kosovo. We are concerned that Kosovo’s territory is being used to recruit people for taking part in hostilities in the Middle East on extremists’ side and also to prepare terrorist attacks in other countries. Even Western experts admit that Kosovo ranks among the three leading European regions in terms of per capita ISIS militant numbers (340 per 1.8 million Kosovars). These militants are already returning to Europe. The very sponsors of the “Kosovo independence” idea who had made a fine mess of this not so long ago should think about it. This problem is also mentioned in the UN Secretary General’s report, of February 27, during the latest UN Security Council meeting on Kosovo.
Kosovo’s accession to the World Customs Organisation
We have taken note of the notification made by the Belgian Government in its capacity as depositary of the Convention Establishing a Customs Co-operation Council, according to which it “received the instrument of accession of the Republic of Kosovo relating to the above-mentioned international Act.”
We believe that UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 10, 1999, which regards Kosovo as part of Serbia, is the only acceptable basis for settling the Kosovo issue. So far, participants in the EU-facilitated high-level dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina that is based on the UN General Assembly resolution of September 9, 2010 only coordinated a status-neutral framework for Kosovo delegation participation in regional (Balkan) organisations, with reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the question of the accordance with international law of the unilateral declaration of independence in respect of Kosovo. In all other cases, Kosovo can only be represented in multilateral structures by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Kosovo’s admission to the WCO, regardless of Serbia’s opinion, undermines the agreements reached with EU moderation under the UN document and puts in question the international reputation of Brussels.
Under WCO legal instruments, it is an organisation of member states. The Russian Federation, just as many other countries, has not recognised Kosovo as a state and hence does not see any justification for the WCO depositary accepting the instrument of accession from Kosovo.
We believe that Belgium has taken a politically motivated decision that runs contrary, in part, to the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which defines the depositary’s functions as international in character and places the depositary under an obligation to act impartially in their performance.
In fact, Belgium’s decision disregards international legal acts and also the opinions of many WCO member states, which protested the admission of Kosovo when discussing its accession request in 2012.
Our reaction to this will be forthcoming.
Kosovo’s decision to take over Serbia’s property
The decision taken by the so-called government of Kosovo to nationalise the property of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbia as its legal successor is an act of usurpation that directly contradicts the laws and foundations of the European civilisation. It is yet another example of the increasingly crude intention by the Kosovar authorities to create conditions for pushing Serbs out of Kosovo. Such illegal actions undermine interethnic reconciliation. Just like Kosovo’s decision to turn its security forces into a regular army contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 1244, and some Kosovar politicians’ statements on the inexpediency of dialogue with Belgrade, the privatisation decision is designed to draw public attention away from Kosovo’s numerous internal problems, primarily lawlessness and a deep political and socioeconomic crisis, which is evidence of the artificial nature and functional unviability of the so-called Kosovo state.
Macedonian Government’s decision on visa-free travel for Russian citizens
Russian-Macedonian relations are based on an intergovernmental agreement on the procedure for the mutual travel of Russian and Macedonian citizens, signed on June 19, 2008 (hereinafter referred to as the Agreement). Under this Agreement, visa-free entry is granted to Russian citizens who have foreign travel passports and the originals of invitations issued in accordance with Macedonian law (for private and business trips of up to 90 days) or travel vouchers (for tourist travel of up to 30 days).
The Government of Macedonia has approved visa-free travel for Russian citizens between March 16, 2017 and March 15, 2018 without any additional conditions, including those stipulated in the above Agreement.
In the stipulated period, Russians travelling to Macedonia on short trips of up to 90 days every six months do not need to possess visas, tourist vouchers, invitations or letters of guarantee when crossing the state border. They only need a foreign passport and an insurance policy.
However, this decision is not applicable to Russians, including travel company representatives, who intend to secure employment or carry out business in Macedonia. We are asking travel companies to issue the relevant notifications.
Condolences on the death of Vitaly Churkin and the UN General Assembly meeting
The Russian Foreign Ministry has received over 800 messages of condolence on the death of Vitaly Churkin. I am not speaking about private messages by Russian and foreign citizens. The case in point here is the official response. We have received letters and notes with expression of grief from practically all capitals of the world and other cities, from ruling monarchs, presidents and prime ministers of 20 countries, from 50 foreign ministers, 32 ambassadors of foreign states, 13 heads of international organisations, 80 heads and officials of state authorities and local governments of the Russian Federation, heads of Russian missions abroad, Russian and foreign public organisations and business circles. Many of them knew Vitaly Churkin personally and had contacts with him in the line of duty or otherwise. Hundreds of letters have been received from ordinary citizens as well, who knew him from television broadcasts and took his demise as a personal tragedy.
Apart from sympathising with his family and acknowledging his invaluable achievements as an outstanding Russian diplomat, who was working at the forefront of world politics, many ordinary citizens made a number of proposals on perpetuating his name. They suggested naming streets and squares or special prizes and awards after him. I would like to assure all those who have written such letters that, first of all they will be handed over to Vitaly Churkin’s family and, secondly, that these matters will be studied by the relevant organisations with the participation of the Churkin family.
The UN General Assembly has approved a decision to pay homage to Vitaly Churkin’s high professionalism and to hold a meeting dedicated to his memory on March 21. The meeting will be opened by President of the UN General Assembly Peter Thomson. It is expected that condolences will be offered by the UN Secretary-General and representatives of all regional groups.
Against this background, we are surprised by inquiries about causes of Mr Churkin’s death that the Foreign Ministry has received from certain highly respectable members of the media and by requests to confirm or refute various recent versions concerning his death. Versions that have been sent to us, let me repeat, by highly respected journalists, are inventions and pure and simple filth and have nothing to do with reality. As you know, and we said as much right away, his death was sudden and brought about by natural causes. The rest is personal information; under Russian legislation and, as we understand, under legislation of many countries, personal data can only be conveyed to the family. It’s odd that international journalists, who regard themselves as experts on these issues, don’t know this and interpret them as they please. This must be known and clear to all those who really think they are journalists. I call on everyone to respect the feelings of people experiencing such a huge tragedy as this one – the loss of a dear and loved one. It is impermissible to speculate on such matters.
Situation around Russian citizen Yevgeny Pavlov
On March 7, law enforcement agencies in the Kingdom of Sweden arrested Russian citizen Yevgeny Pavlov and detained him at a Stockholm central prison.
According to Mr Pavlov’s legal counsel, his client is suspected of committing a fraud-linked crime, but no official charges have been brought so far. The court is to hear his case soon.
Swedish officials report that the Russian citizen has not requested permission to meet with representatives of the Russian Embassy’s consular department since his detention.
The Russian Embassy in Sweden has asked the Swedish authorities to provide consular access to the Russian citizen for clarifying the circumstances of his case, so as to protect his rights and legitimate interests.
I understand the interest and attention of the media outlets, primarily the Russian media, towards these situations perfectly well. They call regularly and ask what is being done in this situation. I can assure you that we respond as soon as we learn about this type of situation involving a Russian citizen in any country. Our diplomatic missions abroad, including embassies and consulates general, immediately contact the appropriate agencies of the receiving country, submit inquiries whenever necessary and possible, and provide all the required aid and assistance to Russian citizens. But again, situations vary. In some cases, Russian citizens decline such assistance when we don’t see any cooperation or mandatory assistance on the part of a receiving country’s authorities. I can assure you that Russian diplomatic missions abroad are doing everything possible in each case.
Situation around Russian citizen Mark Vartanyan
We continue to closely follow developments around Russian citizen Mark Vartanyan who was extradited on December 9, 2016 from Norway to the United States on charges of developing and circulating malicious computer software to steal bank data and embezzle funds.
Officials from the Russian Embassy in the United States regularly visit Mr Vartanyan who is currently being held at a pre-trial detention facility in Lovejoy, Georgia. He has no complaints about his conditions or his health.
According to Vartanyan’s lawyer, a plea bargain is currently being negotiated with the district attorney’s office by agreement with his client.
Issue of the yearend Diplomatic Bulletin for 2016
The Information and Press Department has published the yearend Diplomatic Bulletin for 2016.
The bulletin includes Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements, interviews and articles on key issues of Russia’s foreign policy for the past year, divided into several theme parts. It is the second time we have published this bulletin. It is issued in Russian and English and is based, as before, on Foreign Ministry publications and photo stories.
The bulletin is issued in 200 copies both in print and CD versions. The electronic version will be posted on the Press Service section of the ministry’s website.
NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence report about KVN
I can’t but say a few words about the NATO analysts’ report according to which the KVN show (Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or Club of the Merry and Witty) is “a ready-to-act tool of strategic political communication.” On the one hand, this is funny. But on the other hand, this report is evidence of the bloc’s approach to the goals it faces.
What are we talking about? Is chemical terrorism an issue? Is the extremists and terrorists’ access to weapons of mass destruction a problem? No, there is a bigger threat – the KVN television show. It is what NATO experts are analysing now. I would never believe this, but yes, this is our new reality.
It appears that fewer people in the West believe the old-hat stories about “aggressive Russians,” Russian submarines and the multimillion-strong and unpredictable Russian army, including an army of hackers. A new approach was needed – and it has been found. The solution is quite ingenious. Humour has been declared the new threat and challenge to the world. Humour is a new secret weapon of those cunning and treacherous Russians. What would encourage the taxpayers, as well as those who dish out money for the NATO budget, to delve into their purses? They should be told about a new and even more horrible threat coming from Russia. Speaking about money, I have a question: How much did this analysis cost? I mean, we could probably help. For example, we have one more comedy show, Smekhopanorama (Laughterama) run by Yevgeny Petrosyan. We could help our partners, find additional information for them and possibly even translate it. Why not? This could be funny.
In this context, I would like to quote from a statement made by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics in 2014. He said he would like cultural events – you know that many cultural events were held in Latvia – not to be mixed with politics and other issues that have no connection to culture. Three years ago, the foreign minister of Latvia, a NATO member, warned against mixing politics and culture and said that they had no doubts that the KVN show and the New Wave pop song contest did not pose a threat to the West. Why then has NATO decided now that KVN is an information threat? Whom should we believe: a NATO member country that warns against mixing politics and culture / art / entertainment / showbiz / pop culture, or the bloc which says that all of this is a threat? Which of them is lying?
Answers to media questions:
Question: US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Russian hackers were involved in Yahoo hacking, and that Russia is a big threat for the United States. What can you say about that?
Maria Zakharova: Russia is a big threat? I can say that the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared that US officials should not trust Russia.
What can I say? When people are mistrustful, it points to a certain preoccupation. The feeling that you mistrust someone can be overcome when you verify information. That is, one can mistrust others and live with eternal phobias, but let me reiterate, this is an indication of a preoccupation. We can go the way of cooperation and checking each other. This way is laid down in international law, in bilateral agreements and declarations. Nobody in the Russian Federation has given it up. What are the problems here? Cooperate, interact, talk, and you will get rid of your preoccupations. I think this is the way psychoanalysts work.
There is another side to this issue. What has caused the mistrust towards Russia? When did we betray or cheat someone? True, we do not allow others to cheat us, and historically we have not let anyone enslave and conquer us. That’s a fact. But cheating?
Question: In the past week, the issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement was in the focus at the top level in a number of countries. The issue was discussed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talks with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan in France. The issue was also discussed in Azerbaijan, where the President held talks with the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. What does it indicate?
Maria Zakharova: What does discussing the issue indicate? I think it only indicates one thing – that it was discussed and that active efforts are being made internationally to solve the problem. It was much talked about at different levels and in different countries following negotiations, at a number of news conferences and during interviews. Nobody is hiding anything, all the contacts are open, and the media have access to all this information.
Question: At one of the recent briefings you spoke fairly warmly about Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu. The other day Azerbaijan nominated him for the post of UNESCO director-general. How can Moscow comment on that? Do you support this nominee?
Maria Zakharova: This is Azerbaijan’s sovereign decision. I will be able to inform you on the issue a little later.
Question: On the eve of the third anniversary of “Crimean Spring” it became known that Turkey suspended sea communications with Crimea. They stopped receiving and dispatching ferries and other water vessels. Some experts called it an obvious anti-Russian demarche, as by doing so, Turkey has joined the blockade of Crimea, which is being waged by a well-known group of countries. What impact might it have on the process of normalising Russian-Turkish relations?
Maria Zakharova: The normalisation process stipulates discussion and an opportunity to consider various complicated issues. This is a complicated issue. We are discussing it with our Turkish colleagues. This shows that we are moving in the right direction. We can and must discuss problematic issues.
Question: Does this mean that the suspension of communications with Crimea by Turkey will also be put on the Russian-Turkish agenda?
Maria Zakharova: We have now established stable contact with our Turkish colleagues through various channels. This and other complicated issues that arise are being discussed in working order.
Question: What can you tell us about the situation regarding yesterday’s move by the US Justice Department to bring cyber criminal charges against Russian citizens and attempts to somehow use this case as proof of a link between the Russian secret services and hackers?
Maria Zakharova: I do not rule out that this is an attempt to divert world public attention from the latest materials published by WikiLeaks, because in European capitals everything possible is being done to prevent the latest WikiLeaks revelations from making it into their media and being actively covered. And this despite the fact that those revelations directly concern those countries, exposing very unseemly facts, particularly matters related to cyber crime. I do not rule out that what we are witnessing now is just an attempt to divert world public attention, through the media, from global and serious matters. It cannot be ruled out, of course, that this is the continuation of the hyped-up topic of proverbial Russian hackers in the internal political struggle in the United States.
Question: The officers who were mentioned today and whom the US media writes about are operatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Does this mean that Russia has something to do with this? Or is the FSB simply unable to control its people?
Maria Zakharova: I think everything linked with this issue is quite strange because it is not transparent, and, speaking more figuratively, even murky. One of the aspects attracting our attention is that we are dealing with certain events from 2014. We have heard nothing of the kind, although Russia has held many meetings and telephone conversations with our American colleagues over this period. Nor did we receive any requests for cooperation on this specific issue.
Unfortunately, media outlets, including your channel, create the impression that Russia simply runs hacker schools. Hackers are outlawed in Russia. We are fighting them. To us, this is illegal. This activity runs counter to Russian law. We constantly and regularly request, including during our contacts with American partners, that they inform us about arising US suspicions on these issues. Unfortunately, they are not cooperating in any way. All this is very suspicious, considering that the issue of “Russian hackers” became a driving force in the US election campaign and in post-election infighting. I repeat, we have grounds to believe that all of this is a continuation and part of the domestic political struggle in the United States.
Question: As we know, representatives of the Syrian opposition did not attend the third meeting on Syria in Astana. Can you comment on the upcoming talks in Astana?
Maria Zakharova: I’ve just talked about this in my introductory remarks, but I can repeat it.
Question: Is it possible that they were pressured?
Maria Zakharova: I have also talked about this. To us, it is an obvious fact that someone has worked with representatives of the visiting groups. We do not doubt this in any way. Unfortunately, this is so. What strikes and aggrieves us most of all is that the point at issue is not the situation on the ground where hostilities are raging and where it is very hard to tell the difference between members of the armed opposition and the terrorists. In this case, we are talking about the peace process that has been unequivocally approved by the UN, that has received worldwide support and which fits cleanly into approved international-law documents. It is impossible to treat the ongoing process negatively. There is no pretext for hampering this process, but nevertheless, certain influence is being exerted. I have already noted this today. In effect, this gives rise to serious questions about the role of some foreign actors in this process. In our opinion, it is high time to stop sabotaging the process of resolving the Syrian conflict.
To be honest, we assumed that the various outside actors that back many of the representatives of the Syrian opposition would act more responsibly.
Question: Since anti-Russia sanctions remain in place, is it possible to declare counter-sanctions against wealthier states? Can sanctions be mitigated with regard to poorer countries and their people?
Maria Zakharova: I am not quite sure that ordinary people not involved in foreign policy know that the European Union discusses these issues collectively, and that decisions on these issues are passed by consensus, that is, when they are supported by all countries. Regardless of whether it’s a rich or poor country, consensus, or complete unity of EU members in the decision-making process, including the anti-Russia sanctions, is required. We understand the implications. If, for example, the people of Bulgaria ask their leaders why they support anti-Russia sanctions, then, perhaps, something can change. This question should not be addressed to us. We did not declare these sanctions. No one asked us about it. We do not discuss them with our partners or anyone else. The EU made this decision by consensus and with the participation of various countries. Much depends on the position of each country.
Question: We see that the situation regarding South Korea is continuing to deteriorate, with US-South Korean war games and the planned deployment of the THAAD system. North Korea has reacted sharply to this. What is Russia’s current position on this?
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a tour of Asia. He visited Japan yesterday, where he said at a news conference that the efforts of the past 20 years to bring about North Korea’s denuclearisation have failed and that a different approach is required in light of the growing threat. Does Russia believe, as a member of the six-party talks, that new tools and approaches are needed, or that old approaches should be revived?
Maria Zakharova: I fear that Mr Tillerson may have problems at home if I mention that we have been saying for years that Washington’s approach to the North Korean problem has been wrong. There is evidence of a shallow approach, including in Washington, in that the situation is deteriorating and tensions are growing in the region. We had a very frank discussion on this issue with various US representatives, including diplomats of different ranks at international organisations, such as state secretaries and special envoys on North Korea. You can also read statements on Russia’s policy on North Korea made by our representatives at the UN. I invite you to analyse our position retrospectively, not over the past year or two, but with a 10-year perspective. You will see that it is a comprehensive and coherent approach on what should be done in this region. We stand for active international efforts to reduce tensions based on international law and in keeping with available agreements. As I said, we explained our position not only to our American partners but also to all interested states. It is an open and consistent position.
Regarding your first question, I believe that I have answered it, in part. We take a negative view on the growing instability and tensions in the region. But then again, this view is part of our long established, consistent position, which we have put forth very clearly. It covers stability, relations between regional countries and the belief that all these issues should be addressed on the basis of international law within the framework of bilateral agreements.
Question: The United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council over concerns, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, about the human rights record of the other council members, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. How would this affect the other council members and the council as a whole?
Maria Zakharova: It is difficult to comment on issues when they are taken out of context. We would like to look at the US foreign policy concept as a whole (if the new administration decides to revise it) to see the direction in which the United States is moving. At this point, we only see individual elements of this concept. Russia, for example, has a foreign policy concept, which everyone can read to learn about our priorities, the issues of utmost importance to us and our relations with countries and regions which are crucial to us for historical and other reasons. We would like to see a similarly comprehensive, and possibly revised, foreign policy concept in Washington, a concept that would shed light on the foreign policy of this global power. This will help us formulate our attitude toward its actions. This is all I can say at this point, because it is very difficult to comment on individual statements.
It is impossible to say now whether the decision [to withdraw from the HRC] has been made or if this is more of an intention, whether certain steps will be taken if the reasons behind this intention are removed or some other approach will be offered. We will maintain contact with our American colleagues, including on this issue.
Question: Many countries in the Middle East are turning to Russia for help. Recently, the Libyan parliament appealed to the Russian Federation for assistance in training its military. How would you assess the possibility of such assistance?
Maria Zakharova: This question should not be addressed to the Foreign Ministry alone, as such issues are always subject to interagency coordination. Now, as you know, we are interacting with various political forces in Libya to help resolve the crisis in that country. Any specific request will be certainly considered. I repeat, such issues require interagency coordination in our country.
Question: There has been unexpected news about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans to visit Russia, while before there was no chance of enticing her to come to Russia. Can you explain what is behind this sudden visit?
Maria Zakharova: I saw that the Presidential Executive Office has already given its comment on this matter. Taking into account the chain of command and division of duties, I would not like to go into detail.
I also saw a number of publications on the issue, which confirmed this was a rather unexpected decision, but linked it with other events. It seems to me that the right thing to do would be to ask Germany directly to clarify this issue: the potential timeframe, the terms and format of this visit, in particular, when the decision was made in Germany. This could be useful and interesting, considering the high media attention for the forthcoming event.
Question: On March 18, the first official talks on joint economic activities in the Southern Kuriles will take place at the level of deputy foreign ministers of Russia and Japan. It was also previously reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Russia at the end of April and that work is underway between the relevant agencies to coordinate the dates. Is there any information on when this visit could take place and what Russian city will be chosen as its venue?
Maria Zakharova: I repeat once again that questions about Russia hosting meetings or the Russian President’s participation in international events should be posed to the Presidential Executive Office. We have a clear separation on this issue, so your question should be addressed to the press service of the President of Russia.
Question: A question from Estonian Television.
Maria Zakharova: Do you watch KVN?
Question: Honestly, no, it makes me sick. But this has nothing to do with politics, it's just a matter of taste.
Maria Zakharova: That's where the threat shows.
Question: You described in detail the Astana process, which was ignored by the Syrian opposition. But aren’t they sure to show up in Geneva?
Maria Zakharova: You are so quick in your judgments as to whether they will show up in Geneva. This question should be addressed to UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. He organises these meetings and can tell you everything about who was invited, who confirmed their attendance, and who ignored it. I do not think you know more about this issue than he does.
Question: Do you think that Bashar Assad’s army’s obvious successes on the ground and the efforts of Russia, Turkey and Iran will improve the chances of achieving any mutual understanding in Geneva? Can this alignment of forces motivate the opposition to take a more constructive stance?
Maria Zakharova: I urge you to monitor the progress of the negotiation process. The previous Astana meetings showed that the opposition is very motivated. They showed up and worked actively there. The issue is that, unfortunately, there appeared demotivators who, behind the backs of those participating in the negotiation process, began dissuading the opposition members and pressuring them in every possible way, so that they would not go to Astana. The motivation for their involvement in the negotiation process was obvious. Their presence in Astana was an exceptionally voluntary matter. Of course, the results of the first meetings proved the format was effective, and it was worth moving forward. Unfortunately, those who advocate other options than a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis based on international law certainly did not like it.