Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, May 31, 2017
Terrorist attack in Afghanistan
On May 31, a truck bomb exploded in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in close proximity to the German embassy. According to preliminary reports from Afghan government agencies, about 80 people were killed and over 300 injured in the massive explosion. Reportedly, there are no Russian nationals among the victims. The Russian embassy in Kabul and missions in Afghanistan are in contact with the authorities and will be continuously monitoring the situation.
We strongly condemn this terrorist attack. We hope that its plotters and perpetrators will be severely punished. We urge the Afghan authorities to take appropriate measures to ensure security in both the capital and other parts of the country.
We offer our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed and wish a speedy recovery to those injured.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s agenda on the sidelines of the 21st St Petersburg International Economic Forum
On June 1, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have a meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
On June 2, Mr Lavrov will have talks with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerrit and Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechervan Barzani.
This is his agenda in brief. Considering the opportunities that the St Petersburg International Economic Forum provides for communication, the timetable of talks and contacts may be adjusted, and we will duly inform you via the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei will be in Russia on June 4-5 at the invitation of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meeting will take place ahead of an anniversary – 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Belarus, June 25.
The visit will include talks between Mr Lavrov and Mr Makei and an annual joint meeting of the Russian and Belarusian Foreign Ministry Boards. In keeping with the agenda, the following issues will be addressed: the implementation of the Programme of Coordinated Action in the Foreign Policy of Members States of the Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State for 2016-2017 and the development of a programme for the next two-year period, relations with NATO, the main areas of information activity to enhance the international authority of the Eurasian Economic Union and the development of bilateral cultural and humanitarian cooperation.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Foreign Minister of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajčák
On June 6, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with Foreign Minister of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajčák in Kaliningrad.
The ministers will discuss the current state and prospects for developing the full range of bilateral relations, considering the 18th session of the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation between Russia and the Slovak Republic that Moscow hosted on April 27-28 of this year.
Taking into account Miroslav Lajčák’s election as President of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, which is expected today, the ministers will exchange opinions on UN matters, the main issues on its agenda and the priorities of its activities and development. They will also discuss topical issues of world affairs.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis Quecedo
On June 6-7, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis Quecedo will make a working visit to Russia. On June 7, he will hold talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
During the talks, the ministers intend to compare notes on prospects for bilateral cooperation in various fields and discuss the current state of Russia’s relations with the European Union and NATO and also within the OSCE and the Council of Europe. They also plan to exchange opinions on the fight against the terrorist threat, the situations in Ukraine and around Syria and Libya, and other international issues.
The situation in Syria
We note with satisfaction the steady improvement of the military-political situation in Syria, which is the direct result of the implementation of the memorandum on the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria that was signed in Astana on May 4.
The Syrian Army is conducting successful combat operations in the Deir ez-Zor, Homs, as-Suwayda and Hama provinces. Government forces are extending the scale of the operation against ISIS militants in the east of the Aleppo province. Mop-up operations are continuing against terrorist groups holding some districts in East Ghouta. The town of Salamiyah is coming under intense shelling from militants in the east of the Hama province. Terrorists are offering fierce resistance to army subunits, trying to counterattack, and as they retreat they are mining roads, infrastructure and transport facilities and, worst of all, staging public executions.
Amid the massive offensive operations of the Syrian Armed Forces, conflicts between terrorist groups are growing, leading to bloody clashes. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra radicals are locked in intense fighting in mountain gorges on the Syrian-Lebanese border, including western Kalamoon.
Subunits of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have expelled ISIS terrorists from the town of Gudeiran west of the city of Raqqa, which enabled them to take control of the northern part of the al Hurriya dam. Under an agreement reached between the SDF command and ISIS leaders, groups of jihadists are trying to leave Raqqa, blocked by SDF detachments from the west, north and east, along the southern corridor. A few days ago, the Russian Aerospace Forces repelled one such attempt to break through toward Palmyra, killing over 100 ISIS members and 32 pickup trucks with heavy machine guns.
We are concerned by a new series of airstrikes carried out by the US-led so-called anti-ISIS coalition on Syrian territory, including on May 25 against the town of al-Mayadeen southeast of Deir ez-Zor (35 civilians killed and many injured) and May 27 south of Raqqa between the towns of al-Ratla and al-Qasr (20 civilians killed and seven injured).
We condemn such ill-conceived and poorly planned actions carried out under the pretext of fighting international terrorism. Of course, they have nothing to do with fighting, much less effectively fighting international terrorism. In reality such air raids further aggravate the complicated situation in Syria, result in more civilian casualties, sow chaos and destruction and play into the hands of terrorists from ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated organisations. We reiterate our urgent call for our partners to combine efforts in fighting terrorism and rally the ranks of all international players to eliminate this evil.
Meanwhile, talks are ongoing with armed opposition groups in the Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Homs and Quneitra provinces on joining the ceasefire.
The peace process in parts of Syria has brought more results. A few days ago, the final stage of the militants’ withdrawal from the capital’s district of Barzeh was completed as 1,012 people, including 455 militants, left it.
Developments in Venezuela
Developments in Venezuela are a source of deep concern. We regularly share our assessments. Society is becoming a hostage of tough scenarios of political struggle. The confrontation is escalating. Firearms are used more often during street protests of anti-government forces. This is increasing the number of victims. To our great regret, more than 60 people were killed and over a thousand wounded in the two months of protests.
We are deeply concerned that attacks are directed at schools, hospitals and transport. There were even cases of rough justice staged by the enraged mob against the Government’s supporters. Attempts are being made to capture arsenals of armed units. Teenagers and children are getting involved in mass disorder, which is absolutely impermissible.
We are alarmed by statements of the opposition forces on the transition to “frontal confrontation to the very end.” Despite aggressive manifestations and growing provocations, law-enforcement and the military should not cross the dangerous line and should act within the limits of their authority.
We are convinced that constructive dialogue between the Government and the opposition in Venezuela with authoritative international mediation is the best way of avoiding a massive war and starting to seek practical solutions to socio-economic problems that regrettably were relegated to the background by the political confrontation. It is a pity that recent appeals by the UN Secretary-General and the Pope of Rome to resume negotiations remained unheeded.
We believe it will be possible to find a peaceful settlement of the internal conflict in Venezuela after the National Election Council determines the terms for the election of governors, on which the coalition of the opposition forces insisted. We hope that the desire for peace inherent in the Venezuelan people will triumph.
Developments in the southern Philippines
The situation in a number of southern regions of the Philippines sharply deteriorated in the last 10 days of May. It developed into clashes between army units, law-enforcement and militants of the terrorist groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf.
Martial law was introduced on the island of Mindanao and the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
We are closely watching the developments. There is no information on Russian citizens located there.
We hope the leaders of the Philippines will manage to regain control over this situation in the near future and prevent the spread of terrorist activities to other regions of the country.
Amendments to the Latvian Code of Administrative Offenses penalising “failure to use the state language”
On May 25, the Latvian Saeima submitted to the parliamentary legal commission a bill on amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses stipulating a significant increase in penalties (up to 700 euros for individuals and 10,000 euros for legal entities) for “failure to use the state language to the extent required by official duties” and for “disrespect” for the state language. What’s more, this legislative initiative establishes a legal mechanism making it possible to dismiss municipal officials, including mayors, for language-related offenses. This is an obvious case of extreme nationalism.
The authors of the amendments do not even try to conceal the fact that their goal is to eliminate the “unjustified” use of other languages, which effectively deprives the heads of self-government bodies of the possibility to communicate with Russian-speaking residents of their towns in their native language.
We are convinced that the adoption of such laws has nothing to do with the real integration of ethnic minorities into Latvian society and grossly violates international legal acts related to the use of native languages.
We hope that common sense will ultimately prevail and that these amendments will not be enacted. However, for common sense to prevail in this case, of course, the international community needs to respond, because, to be frank, there is little hope that common sense on this issue will in fact prevail in Latvia. We are awaiting reaction from appropriate legal institutions, nongovernmental organisations and all those who are concerned about the observance of fundamental human rights. We hope that this situation will be addressed.
The Pushkin Russian Language Institute’s foreign programmes
Since we mentioned and briefly commented on the topic of Russian studies abroad at the previous briefing, many questions have come concerning this activity. In response to these questions, I would like to talk on this topic in more detail.
The Pushkin Russian Language Institute’s activity is based on the model of similar language and culture centres: the Goethe Institute, the Cervantes Institute, the Confucius Institute and Alliance Francaise.
For the past 50 years its mission has been to promote the Russian language abroad and, naturally, provide professional support to students of Russian. Over these years, about 500,000 people have studied Russian thanks to the methodologies and teachers of the Pushkin Institute. Until the mid-1990s, the institute had 20 affiliates across the world that were research, methodology and education centres for Russian studies. Those centres were closed in the 1990s, when financing stopped.
Today, as the Russian language is given high priority by the Russian leadership, nongovernmental organisations and civil society as a very important factor in developing and maintaining cultural ties, the Pushkin Institute has been given a new lease on life: the institute’s Russian language departments have reopened in Cuba (Havana University) and Vietnam (the institute’s Hanoi affiliate). In November 2016, following a directive from the Russian Government and Education and Science Ministry, the Pushkin Institute began working at the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Centre in Paris. After more than 20 years the Pushkin Institute has returned to France! Most importantly, this is certainly not an artificial development that only reflects the implementation of set goals and tasks. This is actual, sincere and very natural public demand for the study of everything related to Russia. This is about children, people who in their time immigrated or moved for permanent residence abroad or those who are still the citizens of their respective countries but feel a special connection to Russia and want to study the Russian language.
I can say that when I worked in the US and met with our compatriots and US citizens as part of my official duties, I was often asked how to place children in a Russian school or enroll them in a Russian language study programme and ensure that a child does not forget Russian or begins studying it from scratch. That was the main topic. Our schools do not always have sufficient capacity because they are primarily aimed at providing education services to staff of missions abroad, which is only natural: People come to work abroad for several years and there is no way they can have their children study in Russia. However, if there are available places, of course, the children of our compatriots can be enrolled in Russian language programmes. To reiterate, that is more of an exception to the rule because there are simply no such opportunities. As for training courses and affiliates, of course, there is great demand for all that. The statistics speak for themselves.
The institute is developing as a European centre of Russian studies and offers language courses for children and adults, advanced training programmes for students of Russian and education activities. The work is done according to advanced methodologies by the institute’s best teachers, as well as through its website: an online Russian language school, established on instructions from the Russian Government Language Council. The website makes it possible to study Russian online. It has been visited by almost 60 million people since 2014. Some 1.3 million people from 190 countries are registered users taking various programmes. To reiterate, there is strong demand for the study of Russian abroad.
I would like to address our foreign audience. Thanks to the Pushkin Institute, you now have yet another opportunity to study Russian and read the works of prominent Russian authors in the original, not in translation.
French author Pierre de Brantome said that “as many languages as a man knows so many times is he a man.” I don’t think this is an axiom but I believe it gives us something to think about.
Answers to media questions:
Question: Is Russia ready for Montenegro’s NATO entry? What measures are being elaborated in this context, and what will be your response?
Maria Zakharova: You would do better to ask Montenegro whether it is ready to join NATO. This question should not be addressed to the Russian side. Ask residents of Montenegro whether they are ready for this. What do we have to do with it? Ask Montenegro’s citizens precisely the same question. It would be best if this question – whether the residents of that country are prepared for NATO entry – was really asked by the BBC, possibly as a public opinion poll. We will respond to changes in the military and political landscape in an appropriate manner, as we are supposed to, as all countries do proceeding from their goals and tasks. Your question is absolutely justified but it should be addressed not to Russia and the Russian people, but to Montenegro, and most importantly, to its people.
Let me remind you that we heard all kinds of assertions from Montenegro – about the notorious “Kremlin’s hand” (it is surprising that no artist has yet hit upon the idea to depict it), spies and a mythical attempt to change power in that country. Only the main point was missing. There was no answer to the question of whether the people of Montenegro are ready to join NATO. Everything revolves around this.
Thank you for this question, but I think you should ask it at the Foreign Ministry of Montenegro rather than Russia. I don’t know whether they hold briefings. If they do, I believe this is the most pressing question that is worth asking.
Question: How will the high-profile diplomacy scandal affect Russian-Moldovan relations? Will Russia strike back in kind?
Maria Zakharova: It is too early to speak about response measures. Moldova should figure out itself what it wants to do. This is not yet clear for the time being. There are fierce internal political debates on these developments. You know the decision that was made at the government level and the reaction of the Moldovan President to it. We hope we are dealing with a country that has an integral position on international issues. At any rate, this was the practice until today.
Let me repeat that Chisinau should determine its position. As you know, regardless of where and what steps are made, they are followed by appropriate, mirror-like, symmetrical measures. But sometimes there are exceptions. It is too early to speak about this. In theory you know our answer – it has been voiced, but in practice we should wait for Chisinau to take a unified, well-thought-out decision. Different political forces in that country should come to terms.
Question: Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said after a meeting of the Normandy Four deputy foreign ministers that Ukraine is trying to change the format of the Minsk Agreements and involve other organisations in the settlement process. What organisations are these?
Maria Zakharova: The point is that this is not the first time that Kiev has tried to do this. There have been numerous attempts to involve other persons and organisations. We should analyse these attempts not to see who else Kiev would like to involve but to understand Kiev’s goals and objectives. The apparent goal is to postpone the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Procrastination and attempts to avoid responsibility are Kiev’s main goals. Regrettably, this is only complicating the situation on the ground and prospects for a settlement in Ukraine.
We were not surprised by this because it does it regularly. We have the Normandy format and the Minsk Agreements. The international community, including all countries individually and international organisations collectively, has confirmed the imperative of the Minsk Agreements and the viability of the Normandy format. There are various subsidiary and auxiliary mechanisms supporting the Normandy format, and Russian-US contact at the level of authorised officials in support of the Minsk Agreements and in addition to the Normandy format. Nobody has proposed changing the format or preparing and signing a new agreement. Everyone says that the agreements we have are sufficient for a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.
As I said, Kiev has made similar attempts before, and we know about this. Regrettably, Kiev is only doing this to hinder the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Question: US President Donald Trump said at the recent Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh that Iran is backing terrorism and is responsible for instability in the region, and that “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.” Can you comment on this statement and also on his proposal for a regional coalition? What effect could this US policy regarding Iran have on US allies?
Maria Zakharova: As you know, US-Iran relations in recent decades have depended on the political forces that stand at the helm in the United States. This is the basic concept. Overall, the United States does not have a clearly formulated concept or long-term strategy regarding Iran. Therefore, it can be said that long-term US-Iran relations are based on fluctuations that depend on the political forces and individuals that sit in the White House. This does not add stability to international relations and even largely destabilises them. Iran is a major regional player, a power with large potential in many areas. Relations with Iran that are based on doing something today and changing course tomorrow are no good at all. Considering Iran’s history and potential, relations with it should be based on serious work at the bilateral and multilateral levels.
This US policy is not strengthening stability. As for the endless allegations of supporting terrorism, you know that we have commented on this many times. Russia has been working closely with Iran on the issue of combating terrorism in the Middle East. We hold consultations and talks on Syria at the bilateral level and also in the framework of the Astana process, and we regularly invite the United States to become fully involved in it. Such involvement and joint practical work will help settle the current issues or any other complaints Washington may have against Tehran. Making accusations and refusing to do anything practical is not a constructive position in principle. Whatever country we look at, especially in the past few years, refusing to cooperate and focusing on accusations have not produced a positive result.
Question: The presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran had a meeting last year. Could US policy have a negative effect on the development of this trilateral union?
Maria Zakharova: First, we are not talking about a union but an additional cooperation format. And second, I believe that our relations with either of the above countries are important per se. No factors, whether positive or negative, should be allowed to influence them.
Question: Is there any information about the tentative date for the upcoming meeting between the Normandy Four foreign ministers? Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said recently this depended on several factors. What are these factors?
Maria Zakharova: Mr Karasin discussed this issue in great detail on the sidelines of the Normandy Four meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers. For example, he said that a possible Normandy Four ministerial meeting and another meeting of the Russian, German, French and Ukrainian leaders depended on the results of the Contact Group’s work and on the presidents’ political aides.
The meeting participants reviewed virtually all sensitive aspects of this process in great detail. Although we cannot say that any substantial progress was made, the opinion exchange made it possible to conduct a sufficiently clear inventory of all the unresolved problems and to prepare for a high-level dialogue, as well as a top-level dialogue, in the long run. In Mr Karasin’s view, the political aides of the Normandy Four leaders may meet next week to discuss the roadmap for the settlement of the situation in Donbass.
Everything depends on the results of this work. Tentatively speaking, the first stage is over. The parties viewed it as quite constructive, and although no breakthroughs were posted, this stage had certain benefits. They are currently preparing for the second stage, and a decision will be made on the basis of its results.
Question: The Kremlin has not made many comments on the results of President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Chairman of the Ministers’ Council and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman al Saud. Could you discuss this meeting in greater detail? Rumours are circulating that Russia might mediate relations between Middle East countries.
Maria Zakharova: The Presidential Executive Office traditionally comments on these events.
Regarding rumours of Russia’s possible mediatory role in the Middle East, I can say, regardless of the latest contacts, that mediation is exactly what Russia is doing. In many cases, Russia’s actions are very effective because it understands that mediation in establishing dialogue between major regional players guarantees progress on the Syrian peace settlement. It is virtually impossible to talk about a comprehensive peace settlement without mediation or establishing bridges between the main players on this issue. We initiated the Astana format and we most actively support everything linked with the Geneva talks. This, too, amounts to substantial work because it involves mediation between the Government of Syria and the opposition scattered all over the world. Isn’t that mediation? One can name many such examples. It is precisely Russia’s efforts as a mediator that serve as a factor of sustained forward movement, including in the Syrian peace settlement.
Question: How do you assess the operations of the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition? Was the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Kalibr missile attack on ISIS positions today coordinated with all players? Will this coordination produce any results or do we just give them information?
Maria Zakharova: The Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry have repeatedly raised the question about both the actual targets and the effectiveness of the coalition’s operations in practice. You can see how their strikes are carried out: Their actual targets are not militants or field commanders, but unfortunately, civilians, whose casualty numbers are rising. Lately there have been quite a few strikes, many of them carried out in support of certain armed groups. This is obvious to strategists and analysts. What seems a random strike to a lay person is in fact a calculated move, like in a chess game. It is clear why they were delivered, who stands to gain from them and who they affect. Unfortunately, we are seeing a clear trend, specifically, that this entire bloody game largely helps support illegally formed armed groups.
As you know, we have repeatedly talked about this. We have repeatedly raised the issue of combining efforts. Those were specific, global proposals, in particular at the UN: creating an international legal coalition that would have valid legal grounds for conducting this fight. These proposals were made to individual countries and groups of countries. Be that as it may, the need to combine the efforts of the global community in fighting this evil is becoming increasingly obvious.
This approach is relevant not only for the Middle East. When our African colleagues come to Moscow they say that [their] region is also infected with the virus of terrorism and that no one country on their continent can address these issues single-handedly. This is a common evil that can be fought only collectively. All proposals are on the table. But you see that the domestic political situation of the moment in a number of countries makes them largely hostage to the lack of progress in combining efforts in fighting terrorism.
Regarding the strikes carried out by the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Defence Ministry has already commented.
Question: Can you comment on the possibility of US involvement in the process of creating de-escalation zones in Syria? After the meeting in Washington, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US will take the initiative in the south of the country. How are the talks on this issue proceeding?
Maria Zakharova: I am not aware of any breakthroughs. Obviously, the US has not demonstrated a coherent counterterrorism concept, in particular with regard to the region you are talking about or at least with regard to Syria. Perhaps, the meetings and talks that US leadership has now conducted in the region and in contact with its NATO partners will lead it to formulate its views and approaches toward a settlement in Syria. We do not rule this out: After all, there have been many meetings and talks. Our proposals regarding close daily cooperation and making it real – not just at the level of notifications and political contacts in support of talks – are still in force. Despite the fierce domestic political struggle in the US, we act on the assumption that the situation on the ground in the region and in Europe, where the US has interests, overseeing European security as a “big brother,” will eventually encourage Washington to formulate a clear-cut approach, at least toward a settlement in Syria.
We realise very well that this involves more globalised goals: After all, a settlement in Syria cannot be regarded in isolation from the situation in the region. So, to reiterate, we are waiting. Unfortunately, the more we and the whole world wait, the more lives are endangered and, worst of all, the more victims are brought to the altar of international terrorism. With every new terrorist attack – despite the highly emotional response that they evoke – it becomes increasingly obvious that no country can counter this evil single-handedly.
As a follow-up to this question, I remind you that several countries continue to block antiterrorism cooperation with our country. Great Britain, for example. Even the recent terrible events in Manchester have not prompted it to acknowledge the need to unite and share information. At a time when UN member states that have disagreements and different approaches for some reason decided not to talk to each other, terrorists – poorly educated people, many of whom lack fundamental principles – are intensively exchanging such information. It is appalling that even though they are in possession of comprehensive information, those who should exchange it for the good of their nations, their people do not do so because of their ambitions, and thus, cede the initiative to international terrorism.
Question: Do you know the names of Estonian diplomats who will be expelled from Russia in response to Estonia’s move? Have you sent a note to this effect to the Estonian Embassy? Vladimir Dzhabarov, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, said yesterday that this would not affect Russia-Estonia relations, which cannot be any worse as it is.
Maria Zakharova: You know that we do not comment on measures that may be taken, especially with regard to concrete individuals. We traditionally do not comment on this.
Question: US President Donald Trump has recently criticised the Europeans for spending too little on defence. Can you comment on this?
Maria Zakharova: The issue of who pays how much, and what services they provide for money or free of charge is for the Europeans and the United States to decide.
Question: Kiev has decided against applying the decommunisation law to the Motherland Monument. Some even say that this law should be declared unconstitutional. What is the reason behind this decision? Or is this just a change in rhetoric?
Maria Zakharova: There is still hope that common sense, which we spoke about today, will prevail after all. It is impossible to understand the Kiev government’s policy of destroying their national history. We explain the removal of some individuals and facts from Ukraine’s history, which it shares not only with Russia but also with other sovereign countries that used to be part of other states, by the influence of the nationalist ideas and the dominant ideology in Ukraine. This policy can only get you so far.
The current Kiev government is not the first or last that has tried to use nationalism to create a new state or reform the existing state. States can be reformed only through political, economic, cultural reforms, reforms in education and science. Juggling with historical facts is not a real reform. We understand that this virus has not affected the society and the country as a whole. There are political movements, public organisations, government agencies and citizens who understand that this is a destructive path. The issue you have mentioned is complete bigotry. You can have your own opinions and reject some historical realities and facts, and you can do your own historical research, but there are some things that cannot be disputed, such as the Nuremberg Trials and the UN decisions regarding the Second World War, and many other historical facts.
So, this is not a change in the rhetoric of the Kiev government, because rhetoric is the only thing it can boast of. It has not demonstrated any practical achievements to the international community and no positive results of its work in the past two or three years after it had illegally seized power. Nationalist rhetoric is the basis of the current Kiev government, and so it is unlikely to be changed. Kiev was offered a chance in the form of the Minsk Agreements, whose implementation could rally society and while doing so, formulate a unification agenda. Regrettably, Kiev is not using the Minsk Agreements as a unification or reconciliation factor but as a destabilising factor that is increasing the divide between people. We have provided concrete examples of this.
Question: As you know, there is general concern about the situation with gay men in the Chechen Republic. This issue was raised at a meeting between the Russian and French presidents in Paris. Since the Chechen Republic is part of Russia, do you agree with the Chechens’ statements to the effect that there are no gay people in the republic? How could this influence Russia’s relations with the EU?
Maria Zakharova: Mr Ramzan Kadyrov, we have with us today a Finnish television reporter, Erkka Mikkonen, who is concerned about gay men in the Chechen Republic. He has addressed his question to the Foreign Ministry, which does not have the authority in this issue. Could you organise this journalist’s trip to Chechnya so that he gets answers to his questions?
I have done everything in my power. Please, go to Chechnya and talk with representatives of NGOs and government agencies, local journalists and public figures and make an honest commentary. Why are you adding a political dimension to this issue? Why do you come to the Foreign Ministry to talk about your pet subject? As I have said, go to Chechnya and write a normal commentary.
Question: In other words, you do not want to comment on this issue?
Maria Zakharova: What does the Foreign Ministry have to do with this issue? You are in Russia, and you have confirmed the obvious thing when you said that Chechnya is part of Russia. Thank you for saying this. Foreign journalists recognised this fact many years ago. You can move freely around Russia and see with your own eyes what is happening here, and then you can use your professional skills to report what you have seen. Why do you need me?
Question: I need you because the second part of my question concerned the impact this situation could have on Russia-EU relations.
Maria Zakharova: Go to Chechnya and tell your audience in Finland and Europe about what you saw there. Wouldn’t that make sense?
Question: I talked with people in Moscow who have fled from Chechnya. I have formed an opinion based on what I heard.
Maria Zakharova: You have made the first step, so why not take the second step? Go to Chechnya and talk with people there. I do not mean that you won’t find any information on your pet subject there. I am sure that you will continue your investigation. I suggest that you do this not at the Foreign Ministry but on the ground. Why are you adding political overtones to this issue? Why are you asking the Foreign Ministry when you have an opportunity to go to any region of Russia and talk with any local official there? You are a journalist, and so government officials cannot refuse to provide the information you need for writing an article. Why don’t you do this, why don’t you use the advantages offered to you by your profession? If you encounter any difficulties, we will help you organise a trip and find the people you need to talk with if you cannot do this yourself. I have done everything I could when I asked the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, to help you. He will not refuse to help you.
Question: Does this mean that this subject is so painful to you that you refuse to comment on it?
Maria Zakharova: I suggest that you go to Chechnya and write an honest commentary. I have nothing to do with this issue, and politicising it is the wrong thing to do.
Question: This issue is a cause for concern. French President Emmanuel Macron, and before him German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised it. This is an interesting situation.
Maria Zakharova: The situation is interesting because you have said that this is your pet subject. This is why I suggest that you go to Chechnya to talk with people and the human rights advocates who deal with this issue on a professional basis. The Foreign Ministry deals with foreign policy. I can imagine a situation when I go abroad where journalists who cannot go to Russia because their media outlets don’t have offices here ask me all kinds of questions, from the Russian system of education to culture and foreign policy. I can understand this. But it is strange when a journalist who is working in Russia comes to the Foreign Ministry to ask such questions. We have a human rights commissioner, and there is also the republican leadership and NGOs. Ask them.
If you need any assistance in arranging meetings with people whom you cannot contact for some reason, we will be happy to help. We have a press centre, which organises foreign journalists’ trips to various regions of Russia. You are welcome to use its services.
Question: The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun. Terrorism remains one of the biggest foreign policy issues today. What would you like to say to Muslims at this moment?
Maria Zakharova: I cannot give recommendations or advice to Muslims, as they follow an ancient religion, are perfectly independent, and have no need of my advice. You are absolutely right in that for people who follow true Islam and are true Muslims, breaking the basic commandments by committing terrorist attacks is completely unacceptable, and this rejection demonstrates the purity and truth of their aims and convictions.
Question: Tomorrow, June 1, is International Children’s Day. Yours was a Soviet childhood. Do you feel nostalgia for those years in terms of the education, respect and moral foundations they offered?
Maria Zakharova: Regarding International Children’s Day and my Soviet childhood, I had a very interesting childhood. I look at it not in terms of the particular political system in which we lived. I think that children judge things by their family and the environment in which they grow up. I was lucky. By God’s will, I got the parents I did, very interesting and amazing people. I do not divide my childhood into periods (part of it took place in the Soviet Union and part in the Russian Federation). I look at it rather in terms of the unique opportunities my parents gave me for learning and discovering the world, and I am eternally grateful to them for this. I had a real childhood, and it was a very interesting time.
Question: The G7 summit in Italy revealed differences between the United States and Europe on a number of issues. After the summit, US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke separately about the fraying US-Europe relations. Has the Russian Foreign Ministry noticed any weakening of US influence on European politicians? Will Europe’s potential escape from Washington’s influence benefit Russia’s relations with the EU countries?
Maria Zakharova: This has had little effect on the ministry’s work. Frankly speaking, we have not tried to see whether this influence has weakened or grown stronger. We are aware of the ongoing discussions and noted the statements that were made after these meetings. We were somewhat surprised by the statement that Europe should pay more attention to its own interests and really take its fate into its own hands.
We always thought that the EU is a self-sufficient alliance with huge political, economic and human potential, and that it does not need any additional spheres of influence or any curators. Or rather, this is what we thought some time ago when the EU made truly independent decisions. We could talk about the EU foreign policy at that time. We saw important accomplishments, such as the EU’s active contribution to the settlement of Iran’s nuclear problem. It is safe to say that European diplomacy had a leading role then. It was a fully independent role. There are many more examples of this kind, but all of them are, regrettably, examples from a distant past.
We have not seen any signs of this independence in recent years, and so the statements you mentioned are nothing to go by. There are practical results and reality in which we see very little impact of the independent EU policy. Why is this so? Ask our European colleagues. As I said, European diplomacy has potential, as we can see from its deep traditions and modern European history. It is for our European colleagues to say why their diplomacy has become ineffective and lacking in initiative, why they allowed this to happen, and whether they gave up part of their sovereignty of their own free will. Once again, Europe has powerful potential in many areas, sufficient to regain its independent voice.
Question: The 2010 crash of the presidential plane is a much-discussed issue in Poland. The exhumation and autopsy of the victims’ bodies has shown that serious mistakes were made during the burial. Who is responsible for this? And what influence this could have on Russia-Poland relations?
Maria Zakharova: I have seen media reports on the exhumation of the bodies of victims of the presidential plane crash that happened on April 10, 2010 near Smolensk. I also read reports and discussions, which bordered on speculation, about mistakes (some of them allegedly criminal mistakes) and deliberate wrongdoing during the identification of the bodies, all of which has been blamed on Russia. We have commented on this issue more than once.
However, I would like to present our position once again. The crash of the Polish plane with a delegation that included many Polish leaders came as a major shock to Russia. Our best experts were assigned to the investigation and they worked in very difficult conditions. I hope that those in Poland who are writing about the crash now know how the investigation was organised and remember the high level of openness regarding this case in Russia. We maintained close cooperation with our Polish colleagues. There seemed to be no serious problems at the time.
All of you remember the atmosphere of transparency in Russia. The remains were transported to Moscow within days of the tragedy. Authorised Polish officials and the victims’ relatives identified the bodies. The identification of many bodies required DNA tests, but Russian experts had no time for these, because our Polish partners insisted that the bodies be moved to Poland as soon as possible. I would like to remind those in Poland who write on this issue that knowing facts and factual evidence is not enough. They should also know how long a DNA test takes.
The victims’ bodies were turned over to our Polish partners in strict compliance with the rules and formalities. The concerned Russian agencies had not relation to the subsequent procedures that took place in Poland. It is a fact as well. We consider allegations against the Russian experts who honestly did their professional duty in a difficult situation to be contrived and unacceptable.
Question: You mentioned the issue of the Russian language abroad. I don’t know about other countries, but learning Russian is a major problem in Arab countries.
I noticed during a recent book fair in Algeria that many young people expressed a desire to study the Russian language. But there were no Russian textbooks on the stands. Diplomats from the Russian Embassy told me that Russian language courses were terminated when the Russian Cultural Centre closed. Many people in Algeria would like to learn Russian. They regard Russia as a friendly country. This problem is not limited to Algeria. I noticed at a book fair in Cairo that when the organisers decided to hold a concert and looked for local children who are learning Russian, they could not find any.
The Iraqi Ambassador in Moscow told me that he had asked many times that a Russian cultural centre be opened in Baghdad, but has not received any answer to this day. There are the French Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institute and the American Information Bureau there. Why have the Russian Cultural Centre and Russian language courses been closed?
Maria Zakharova: I would like to remind you that Russian language centres have been closed not only in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq, but in many other countries around the world. There was no funding for so many centres. And we did not show enough concern for this issue also because of domestic problems. I am aware of the importance of learning Russian, but you should remember how difficult our life was in the 1990s. It is from this angle that the closure and the potential opening of Russian language centres abroad should be regarded. We launched the process as soon as we could.
I have told you about the regions where such centres are opening. As for the possibility of opening them in Iraq, I will have to request additional information. I will also ask about Russian literature and textbooks. Where there are no plans to open Russian cultural centres, we could send books. I will research this issue.