Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, December 28, 2017
- Developments in Syria
- Bombarding Hmeymim airbase
- Results of the OPCW FFM experts’ visit to Syria
- The developments in Afghanistan
- Release of two Belarusian citizens in Libya
- Japanese government’s decision to deploy US Aegis Ashore missile defence systems on its territory
- Imposing restrictions on the United States under the Open Skies Treaty
- The US plans to cut the UN budget
- Statements by US officials
- Anti-Russia statements by US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker in an interview with Italy’s La Stampa
- Results of prisoner exchanges between Kiev, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic
- Western statements about preparations for the presidential elections in the Russian Federation
- Russian-US understandings on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs
- Letter by the ambassadors of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia to Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic Martin Stropnicky regarding the monument to Marshal Konev in Prague
- The status of the Russian Orthodox Church properties in Jerusalem
- A branch of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture opens in Gyumri
- The owl rescued by Foreign Ministry workers
- Excerpts from answers to questions
- Participation of Syria’s Democratic Union Party in the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi
- Russia-Turkey cooperation to settle the Syrian crisis
- Russia’s position on relations between Baghdad and Erbil
- Russian diplomatic performance in 2017
- Arrest of Norwegian citizen Frode Berg
- Statements by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite on cooperation with Russia
- New US sanctions against Russia
- Presidential election in Russia
- Illegal US presence in Syria
- Russia-Japan relations and international observers at the presidential election in Russia
- Preparations for the Syrian conference in Sochi
- Talks between Russian and North Korean foreign ministers
- Plans to promote Russian-Turkish cultural ties
- Russia-Turkey visa relations
Positive dynamics continue in and around Syria. With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian army continues to systematically destroy the remaining hotbeds of international terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra. The completion of the intense military phase of the Syrian crisis creates the urge to step up the political settlement process.
The 8th International Meeting on Syria was held in Astana on December 21-22, following which, in addition to the Joint Statement by Russia, Iran and Turkey, two more important documents were adopted on humanitarian demining in Syria and the release of detainees/hostages. The Astana forum participants focused particularly on preparations for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress scheduled to be held in Sochi on January 29-30. We regard the Congress as a body designed to give major impetus to the negotiation process under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva and to the achievement by the Syrians themselves of the agreements by mutual consent and without any preconditions.
The success of the Astana meeting made all various political radicals step up their activities. They are trying to hamper the beginning of a broad inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue and practical steps to outline the political arrangement in a post-conflict Syria. The radicals are not interested in achieving peace. They have something to lose, because they cannot count on the support of even a small portion of the population in conditions of returning to a peaceful life. In this regard, they are trying to obstruct the settlement process in every possible way and to interfere with the work of the international formats, which seek to facilitate the political process.
We call on international and regional forces that have an influence on the situation in Syria to take an unambiguous position in favour of the Congress designed to advance the talks in Geneva, and help the Syrians themselves achieve consensus agreements based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
On December 27, militants fired, from the village of Bdama, several missiles at the international airport of Latakia and the Russian Aerospace Forces deployment site at Hmeymim. Two of them were intercepted by the Russian air defence system Pantsyr. The third veered off its trajectory and fell in the vicinity of the town of Jebla.
Moscow is concerned about this provocation by terrorists. We are not worried about the safety of the Russian service personnel, who are reliably protected by a multi-level air defence system, which, in this case, proved its effectiveness. Another thing is of concern: where are the terrorists getting more weapons that allow them to carry out such raids?
In this regard, we noted that a Syrian Air Force L-39 jet was shot down over northern Hama province from a portable anti-aircraft missile system several days ago. So, the facts are telling us that the supply of weapons to the terrorist groups has not stopped.
We demand that all members of the international community take a responsible approach to the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which prescribes, inter alia, “to prevent and suppress terrorist attacks… and to eradicate the safe haven they [terrorist groups] have established over significant parts of Syria.”
In yesterday's attempt to attack the Russian military at Hmeymim airbase, we see another link in a chain of ongoing and, possibly, orchestrated provocations involving terrorists and radicals from the Syrian opposition aimed at disrupting the positive trends in the situation in Syria and, in particular, creating obstacles for convening the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi on January 29-30.
For our part, alongside the Syrian, regional and international forces that are wholeheartedly striving for peace, we will continue our preparations for the Congress, which is to give the necessary impetus to a political settlement in that country based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and genuine national reconciliation in Syria.
According to available reports, following numerous requests from the Syrian Government, a group of experts from the OPCW Fact Finding Mission visited Damascus, at long last, from December 8 to 16, to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The main purpose of the visit was an inspection of Zahiriyah area in northern Hama Province, where government forces discovered makeshift chlorine-filled weapons left in the caches by members of the terrorist and extremist groups upon their retreat.
Unfortunately, we have to state once again that the planned visit to the site did not take place. The OPCW special mission experts refused to go to the area at the last minute citing alleged recommendations by the UN Department of Safety and Security. This despite the fact that the territory has long been controlled by government troops, while the Syrian side offered additional guarantees of safe access to the area and was willing to provide the OPCW officials with a helicopter and armed escort.
Incidentally, the UN headquarters deny that such recommendations were given, which may testify to a certain “misunderstanding” between the two international agencies. Misunderstandings have been fairly regular, as seen by the examples of exclusively remote investigations by the OPCW and the UN of earlier cases and recurrences of “chemical terrorism” in Syria. This raises more questions.
Nevertheless, we must give credit to the OPCW experts as they did not waste a week in Damascus. They discussed with the Syrian authorities incidents of chemical weapons use by illegal armed units in Hama province in 2017, in Aleppo in 2016, and other similar cases. Testimonies were recorded of the victims of the above chemical attacks and the medics who helped them. The experts visited the research centre in Barz where they sealed samples collected by the Syrians on the site of the terrorist attack in Al-Hamdaniya, Hama Province for further analysis during the next visit to Syria in January 2018.
In the context of the above, we would like to believe that such “discrepancies” in the OPCW’s interaction with the UN will be removed in the nearest future, and the work on investigating cases of chemical weapons use in Syria will be brought in full compliance with the high standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The misguided practices of remote investigations such as the media-spun provocation by militants with the use of sarin in Khan Shaykhun, Idlid Province in April, must end.
We note that the security situation in Afghanistan remains complicated despite the beginning of winter, which has traditionally been marked by decreased activity by terrorist and extremist group members.
Further evidence of the difficult situation was today’s attack on a Shiite cultural centre in Kabul. By preliminary assessment, over 70 people were killed or wounded in the double terrorist attack. None of the terrorist groups has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.
We resolutely condemn this inhumane act of terror and hope that its masterminds will suffer severe punishment. We express our deep condolences to the families and friends of the victims and wish a speedy recovery to the wounded.
The growing activity of the Taliban Movement rebels is seen in a number of Afghan provinces. Their presence in the provinces of Sar-e Pol, Takhar, Faryab, Nangarhar and Paktia is cause for serious concern. The Afghan national security forces trained by NATO and US military specialists are so far incapable of noticeably improving the situation.
The situation in the north of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan causes special concern. The ISIS Afghanistan “branch” is already in full control of several districts there and persists in attempts to establish a foothold in Afghanistan’s northern areas bordering Central Asian countries. In this context, we especially note Jowzjan province where ISIS members have launched a massive recruiting campaign, including among young people, in the districts of Darzab and Qush Tepa. In early December, media reports appeared that around 300 local teenagers from 10 to 15 joined ISIS.
We are concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Due to ongoing fighting in Imam Sahib district in Kunduz province and in the Sangcharak district in Sar-e Pol province, about 2,000 people and 500 families were forced to leave their homes. In Urozgan and Daykundi provinces about 60 medical facilities stopped operating due to threats from the Taliban. About 30,000 students are temporarily unable to attend classes after 70 schools were closed by ISIS in Jowzjan province.
In connection with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision on the resignation of Balkh Province Governor Atta Muhammad Noor, we expect that the IRA’s leaders will be able to maintain a balanced domestic policy and will not allow the polarisation of Afghan society along ethnic lines or the violation of the rights of ethnic minorities ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary (July 2018) and presidential (2019) elections.
On December 27, efforts by the Russian contact group in Libya, led by Lev Dengov, resulted in the release of two Belarusian citizens, Inna Babush and Sergey Zdota, who have been working in Libya under a civil contract since 2010 and detained by a local militant group. The details were widely covered by Russian media.
Regarding two Russian sailors, members of the international crew of the Temeteron tanker, held prisoner in Libya since June 2016 – Captain Vladimir Tekuchev and First Mate Sergey Samoilov – Russia will continue working most actively, including in contacts with the Libyan authorities at the high level, to ensure their safe return to Russia as soon as possible. We believe we will succeed.
The recent decision by the Japanese government to deploy US Aegis Ashore missile defence systems on its territory causes deep regret and serious concern. Whatever arguments and motives behind it, it is clear that the deployment of these systems is yet another step towards building a full-fledged Asian-Pacific regional segment of the global US missile defence system. It should be kept in mind that these systems are equipped with universal missile launchers capable of using strike weapons. In practice, it means another violation of the INF Treaty by the United States with Japan’s assistance.
We consider Japan’s step as going against the efforts to establish peace and stability in the region. In addition, these actions by Tokyo directly contradict the priority task of fostering trust between Russia and Japan in the military-political area and will affect the general atmosphere of bilateral relations, including talks on a peace treaty.
Continuing its general political course towards the further degradation of relations with the Russian Federation, Washington, without providing any proof, has accused Russia of violating the Open Skies Treaty and undertaken unilateral steps to create as much inconvenience as possible for Russian Open Skies missions carried out over US territory.
In connection with this unfriendly move, and in line with the principle of reciprocity, Russia was forced to take response measures, which are procedural in nature. In particular, we have informed the Open Skies Consultative Commission of our intention to cancel overnight stops at three airfields for US aircraft. Also, in December, Russia sent a note to the US Mission to the OSCE, announcing the termination, as of January 1, 2018, of a number of bilateral agreements with the United States that were signed to facilitate flights under the treaty.
The US actions are undermining the Open Skies Treaty. We are calling on our US partners to stop and start seeking, in a depoliticised manner, a mutually acceptable solution to treaty-related issues.
We were surprised to learn about the United States’ announcement that it has allegedly managed to trim $285 million from the UN budget. This is nothing more than juggling with numbers and doublespeak in order to, by all appearances, play up to the current political situation in the country.
I would like to remind you that the approval of the UN budget is the result of negotiations between all the member countries of this organisation, rather than a unilateral step by any single country, even if it is the largest contributor to the UN budget.
In addition, the amount of the cut to the UN budget announced by the United States, $285 million, has been calculated incorrectly, since the figure is not compared with the initially approved budget for the period of 2016 and 2017, as should have been done, but rather with the actual final figures. As things stand, the member countries and the UN Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions have slashed the initial figures proposed by the UN Secretary-General for the 2018–2019 budget by a total of $211 million. As a result, the 2018–2019 UN budget that was approved several days ago is approximately at the same level as the initially approved budget for the current two-year period of 2016–2017, which totals $5.4 billion.
We would also like to reaffirm that Russia consistently speaks in favour of checking the growth in spending by international organisations, including the UN, in a reasonable and substantiated manner and adheres to this position when participating in the relevant talks.
We have been surprised at US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s article in the New York Times, which was published yesterday. This is a sort of publication not typical of a diplomat, mostly due to its confrontational tone, let alone the wording. It looked like an attempt to drive yet another wedge in relations with other countries, above all, Russia and China.
I do not know what prompted this publication that abounds in many oddities. Perhaps, it was some fear of the growing influence of Moscow and Beijing on the international arena. This fear has already manifested itself in the recently renewed US National Security Strategy that virtually acknowledged a decrease in America’s global hegemony and set forth a new goal – to restore it.
Again, the thesis about Russia’s alleged “interference in the US election” was brought up. All these messages are turning the publication into a “fake news” outlet. As for what is behind this – poor interdepartmental coordination in Washington or the desire to secure support from some Russophobic circles – frankly, there is no strength or desire or time to guess at it.
We do not like the current state of Russian-US relations either. It is necessary to clearly understand and honestly say that it is the United States, and not Russia, which is to blame for the decline. Certainly, “business as usual” with the US is indeed impossible until it revises its aggressive stance, which includes the return of the stolen Russian diplomatic property in the US.
As a statement of fact: it is time for American politicians and diplomats to realise that military and economic pressure tools are useless against Russia. Washington’s delusive policy discredited itself a long time ago, including on the international stage.
Another example is an utterly outrageous publication by the US State Department’s Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker. Curiously, Kurt Volker published his article, full of anti-Russia comments, in the Italian media, in which he implored the United States’ European partners to maintain sanctions against Russia. He thereby revealed that those in Europe who are willing to follow Washington along the sanctions path are becoming fewer in number.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s phrase that when he wakes up, his first thought is how to prevent people around the world from being killed, poorly matches the supply of American lethal weapons to Ukraine intended to be used against the people of Donbass. Either, from a US viewpoint, the people of Donbass and Donbass itself are not part of Ukraine, or something is not working out well over there. US threats to destroy North Korea are further proof that a whole set of high-ranking officials in Washington have dreams that are far from peaceful.
US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa that 2017 was the most violent and bloody year of the Ukrainian conflict, and that, judging by the number of civilian casualties, there were numerous ceasefire violations. In this context, as you understand, the blame has been placed squarely on Russia, which is really surprising considering that Washington and the US administration presented Mr Volker as an expert on Ukraine. One has the impression that he is totally unaware of what is going on in the country.
He has called for maintaining pressure on Russia, because, according to Mr Volker, only pressure can force Russia to comply with the Minsk Agreements. On the one hand, he says that the situation is deteriorating, but on the other hand, he calls for maintaining pressure. Mr Volker seems to be contradicting himself. If the anti-Russia sanctions have not produced any effect over the past few years, as he said, why persist in this completely useless striving to pressure Russia? Mr Volker’s interview is highly contradictory. Even if we forget about objectivity and look at the situation through the biased eyes of the US representative, we will see huge contradictions. Doesn’t anyone who prepares material for such interviews see this?
They are putting the blame for the non-implementation of the Minsk Agreements on Russia, as if no one in Washington knows that Kiev does not even make a secret of its unwillingness to implement them. I would like to point out that it is not an abstract American politician but the State Department’s special representative for Ukraine who is giving this interview.
He also mentioned fake news, alleging that Russia’s foreign policy doctrine encouraged well-considered actions intended to influence elections in EU democracies. Each time, we ask the US side and all those who talk about our alleged interference for any facts or evidence of this. The last time we did this was when UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was in Moscow. He said at a news conference that he had no convincing evidence or any evidence at all that Russia had meddled [in the referendum on UK’s withdrawal from the EU]. But they continue to make these propaganda claims again and again.
Kurt Volker said that the amount of fake news and unreliable information provided by Moscow has increased ahead of the parliamentary election in Italy. Does he have any evidence or facts proving this? Maybe they can be provided at some point? No, they cannot, because there are none. As I said, the only conclusion we can make from this is that this campaign suits Washington for propaganda purposes.
According to Mr Volker, Russia is actively applying economic leverage such as transit energy delivery to the Apennines. When has Russia manipulated energy deliveries? Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov regularly meets with European business leaders in Moscow. These are open meetings, unlike the meeting with business leaders held by foreign policy departments in Europe or Washington. We invite the media to these open meetings. You can read the transcripts or watch the video. European business leaders say every time we meet in Moscow, as well as when they meet with Russian representatives outside Russia, that they trust Russia as an energy provider completely. They say that Russia has always been the most reliable partner since the Soviet era regardless of the ongoing changes.
Here is another strange thing Mr Volker said in this interview. According to him, Moscow’s support for some pro-Russian Italian opposition parties, primarily the Northern League and the Five Star Movement, which demand the lifting of the anti-Russia sanctions, is an additional instrument of Russian influence on the internal political situation in Italy.
Mr Volker’s interview is the latest attempt to promote American views on the Ukrainian crisis in Europe. Moreover, it is an apparent attempt at US interference in Russian-Italian relations. Who has authorised Mr Volker to make value judgements of our bilateral relations?
It looks as if this US official has encountered problems in his current mission, Ukraine, where the situation is deteriorating in all areas. Problems are snowballing in Ukraine. It seems that Mr Volker is trying to shift the focus or is possibly considering new employment in case he fails with his mission in Ukraine. He may be looking for a new area to apply his talents, that is, the struggle against something that does not exist.
We certainly welcome the humanitarian aspect of the December 27 prisoner exchange. We are happy to note that hundreds of people have been reunited with their families, relatives and friends on the eve of the New Year.
At the same time, we realise that this is only the beginning of the process. We believe that the relevant work will continue for the complete implementation of the all-for-all principle under p. 6 of the Minsk Agreements.
We cannot help but say that we regret the way the Kiev regime has behaved even during this humanitarian project. It is good that almost everything has been accomplished, even despite the actions of the Kiev regime.
The US Department of State has accused the Russian Government the other day of putting pressure on potential candidates, due to take part in the 2018 presidential elections, of taking tough action against certain “independent voices” and of being unable to effectively guarantee human rights as well as the main freedoms in Russia.
First of all, I would like to reiterate clearly that such statements made by the US Department of State amount to direct interference in the election process and a foreign state’s domestic affairs. Why do official US representatives think they have a right to assess domestic political processes in other countries? This is a good question. Are they guided by the notorious US “exceptionalism” once again?
Second, the so-called “tough action against independent voices” implies journalists. What particular cases is the Department of State talking about? Can they provide us with specific information? What agency is taking such tough action and how? These allegations are being made at a time when US authorities are openly harassing Russian media outlets that have fallen out of favour.
A cursory examination of political developments in the West and the United States makes it possible to recall how the Obama administration had paved the way for its own candidates during the election race. Let’s recall how they neutralised Bernie Sanders and their unprecedented harassment campaign against Donald Trump before and after the elections. There was no talk of using administrative resources after the elections, but the Obama administration was the incumbent government before and during the elections. You know what resources had been used to “torpedo” presidential candidates, and you have seen this with your own eyes.
By the way, I suggest that you reread a detailed report analysing the US election system that was published by the Russian Central Election Commission on its website in 2012. The report lists specific facts and examples and it quotes findings of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It proves that US elections are not direct, universal and equal, and that they do not guarantee the secret-ballot vote principle. It would be nice if the US side analysed its own system, before saying anything about the Russian system.
If our colleagues at the US Department of State or any other US agencies continue to make such statements, we will comment on these statements, remind them of their own electoral processes, and we will also provide you with the relevant facts.
The subject of Russian and US interference or non-interference in each other’s internal affairs has been broached repeatedly during the outgoing year. It is likely that not a single news show in the United States and many European countries went without charges that Russia was guilty of all “mortal sins.” Some cases in point are an article by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and an interview by US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker. One has the impression that the presence of this theme in the media space has become an exploited trend to boost ratings and citation indices. Moreover, this story was presented in a peremptorily affirmative key with the intention to sow the conviction that Russia was really to blame for both interfering in the US presidential elections and hacking attacks, and certain other influences on all internal processes.
In so doing, our US partners, usually so keen on public exposures, are for some reason in no hurry to disclose a very interesting fact. Starting in the Soviet period and for more than 80 years, this country has sought to put reciprocal non-interference in each other’s internal affairs within the framework of the law. Paradoxically, the Americans have either rejected or ignored all Russian non-interference initiatives advanced since the early 1990s. The likely reason is that they are the ones to systematically engage in interference in the political processes in our country and elsewhere. Following below is a brief recap of history.
On November 16, 1933, when diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries, they clearly put on record the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. The USSR People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov, who had arrived in Washington for the purpose, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt exchanged special personal notes, which are posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website. They say that each state has an indisputable right to order its own life within its own jurisdiction in its own way. The USSR and the United States pledged to “refrain, and to restrain all persons in Government service and all organizations of the Government or under its direct or indirect control, including organizations in receipt of any financial assistance from it,” from any act overt or covert, including any agitation or propaganda having as an aim the bringing about a change in the political or social order of each other. It was also agreed to take preventive measures against any other groups having a similar aim.
The initiative to exchange the notes came from the US authorities, who feared the USSR’s influences amid the Great Depression. The two countries also agreed not to permit the formation or residence on their territory of any organisation or group which makes attempt upon the territorial integrity of the other side or has the aim of armed struggle against it.
Under the new circumstances, the United States has been warned about the unacceptability of its interference in Russia’s internal affairs since the 1990s. This was done, in particular, in connection with the developments in Chechnya and the outside attempts to influence our elections.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reminded US State Secretary Hillary Clinton of the 1933 commitments during his conversation with her in St. Petersburg on June 29, 2012. Her attention was called to the unacceptable attempts to influence Russian domestic political processes, made by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), whose activities in Russia had to be terminated as of October 1 of the same year.
The same matter was raised during US State Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Moscow on May 7, 2013, in the context of the 80th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations and also repeatedly at subsequent meetings with him. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov focused on the exchange of notes in his public remarks dedicated to the anniversary, which he made in the US Ambassador’s presence on October 23, 2013.
After the launching of a campaign of groundless accusations regarding “Russian influence on the US presidential elections in 2016,” we again repeatedly suggested that Moscow and Washington officially guarantee non-interference in each other’s internal affair, including as part of the efforts to overcome the existing distrust. A relevant clause was included in the draft joint statement of the presidents of Russia and the United States, prepared for their meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7, 2017.However,the Americans avoided endorsing the document.
On July 17, Russia suggested that the Russian and US foreign ministers exchange letters with commitments to comply with the fundamental norms of equitable interstate dialogue, including a renunciation of attempts to influence the domestic situation in the partner state, and we sent a relevant draft to Washington. We hoped to exchange these reassurances in the course of the high-level week at the UN General Assembly. But on September 15, we received an elusive and vague written reply from the US Department of State, which said, without going into further detail, that the proposed pledge would not serve the purpose of improving Russian-US relations.
We think that by turning down our proposals it has clearly confirmed the absolute farfetchedness of accusations that Russia interfered in the US elections. Actually, this amounted to the recognition that nothing of the kind had taken place and that there has been no threat to the US and its electoral system from Russia. At the same time, Washington demonstrated that it was unwilling to assume any obligations, which looks like a desire to reserve the right to interfere in the affairs of others.
This was outlined in a memorandum dedicated to Washington’s long-standing and systemic aspirations to influence the developments in Russia in its own interests, which was handed over to US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman on December 21. The memorandum also reiterated Russia’s readiness for an exchange of letters or other forms of guarantees concerning mutual non-interference in electoral and other internal political processes. Now the matter rests with the American side.
A few days ago, the ambassadors of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia wrote a joint letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic Martin Stropnicky regarding the monument to Marshal Ivan Konev in the municipal district Prague 6.
The ambassadors of the states, whose soldiers made a decisive contribution to WWII battles and the liberation of Europe, including Czechoslovakia, from Nazi troops, have put forth their position clearly and unambiguously. The intention of the district authorities to make “biographic” adjustments to the monument to Marshal Konev, who commanded the troops of the First Ukrainian Front during the Prague Offensive, contradicts the original idea of the monument, which was installed as a sign of Prague residents’ gratitude to the Soviet soldiers and their commander for liberating the city and saving it from destruction. These attempts can only be interpreted as deliberate actions to distort the role that Marshal Konev and Soviet troops played in the liberation of the Czech capital and are an act of contempt towards the sacrifices made by the multinational Red Army and Czech heroes in the fight against Nazism.
We hope that our Czech partners will show understanding for the concern expressed in the ambassadors’ letter and the opinion of Czech citizens who have called for the preservation of the original state of the monument to Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague.
During the previous briefing I received a question about the status of properties owned by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Jerusalem.
The ROC owns four properties in West Jerusalem: the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the building of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, the Gorny convent in Ein Karem plus an apartment on Ha-Nevi’im Street. The former two facilities have been registered as the property of the Russian Federation, while the other two belong to the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission. The ROC and the Imperial Russian Orthodox-Palestinian Society have joint use of the St Sergius Metochion, which has been registered as the property of the Russian Federation.
The Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR) owns four properties in East Jerusalem: the Alexander Metochion, the Church of St Mary Magdalene, the Russian Convent of the Ascension and an Orthodox school for girls in Bethany.
On December 20, a ceremony was held in Gyumri, the second largest city of Armenia, for the opening of a branch of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture. The ceremony was attended by Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudichestvo) Alexey Frolov, Governor of Armenia’s Shirak Province Artur Khachatryan, Minister of Education and Science of Armenia Levon Mkrtchyan, Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanyan, Director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Yerevan Sergey Rybinsky, Consul General Alexander Kopnin, members of the Russian Embassy, delegates from the 102nd Russian Military Base and the FSB border department for Armenia, as well as academics and cultural figures plus Russian compatriots and young people.
The Gyumri branch has opened in accordance with instructions from President Vladimir Putin and decisions of the 17th meeting of the Russian-Armenian Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation. The opening ceremony is a major event in bilateral relations this year of priority importance for Armenia, as Armenian representatives pointed out at the ceremony.
The opening of the Gyumri branch of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture has greatly contributed to the strengthening of cultural and humanitarian ties between Russia and Armenia.
As you may recall, the other morning our workers saw an owl sitting in a tree outside the ministry building with crows flying around it. The owl was either wounded, or unwell in some way, because it wouldn’t fly, and the crows could have pecked her to death. It was removed from the tree as part of a special operation. We called the corresponding municipal department, and our colleagues from the Mayor’s Office responded promptly and took care of the owl.
I am pleased to inform you that the owl that touched your hearts and our hearts is alive and kicking. Indeed, it was injured as a matter of fact. It was taken to a nursery and released into a large enclosure to see how well it could fly. The owl is under observation. It had a bruised wing, which is clearly getting better. We went to see it once after some hours and had a few pictures taken with it.
Since the owl is now our adoptee, we were informed that it will be released in the spring. So far, it’s been preparing for the winter celebrations. We checked its diet and how it was doing overall. We are happy for the owl, and also for the fact that we managed to do at least something to rescue this living creature.
Question: Did Russia make a decision about the participation of the Syrian Democratic Union Party in the National Dialogue Congress, or is this matter still being discussed?
Maria Zakharova: Preparations for the participation of the Kurdish, as well as other political and social movements, and figures of the intra-Syrian and foreign-based opposition, are still underway. It is premature to discuss any elements of this preparatory work. Give us some time. We believe that all the parameters of this event will be made public in the new year. You will know everything. Everyone is working hard on it.
Question: Turkish President Erdogan said that President of Syria al-Assad is a terrorist. We can see that there are quite a few disagreements between Russia and Turkey regarding the Syrian settlement. How can Russia and Turkey find common ground to resolve the Syrian crisis?
Maria Zakharova: Representatives of the legitimate Syrian government represent that country in the UN and its Security Council, participate in its activities, make statements, share their views, and provide information. In and of itself, even without any additional assessments or arguments, which are in ample supply, it suggests that one can go on forever discussing the Syrian regime's mistakes, but such assessments have no legal basis whatsoever. I will ignore the moral side of it for now. Such statements are groundless from the legal perspective.
With regard to bringing Russia's and Turkey's positions on the Syrian settlement closer, there are appropriate interaction formats for doing so in place. We are working closely with our Turkish and Iranian colleagues to take care of issues and disagreements. We have certain achievements, but much remains to be done through talks, consultations, meetings and information exchanges.
Question: Could you provide the final comment for this year on Russia's position with regard to relations between Baghdad and Erbil?
Maria Zakharova: This is a typical question. And our answer is also typical – by way of negotiations and peaceful dialogue.
Question: On behalf of all the reporters present here, I would like to thank you personally and the Information and Press Department for the unusual beginning of today's briefing. That was very pleasant. We appreciate this kind of attention to the reporters. We thank the Foreign Ministry in general for working with us this year, and always trying to answer our questions.
Do you believe Russian diplomacy was successful in 2017, including with regard to conflict resolution in different parts of the world?
Maria Zakharova: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds an annual news conference for Russian and foreign correspondents precisely to answer this question in a global sense and also to provide answers to questions about specific areas. This time, it will be held on January 15. We will post an announcement and additional information after the New Year break, so that you can get accredited.
As is customary, the main purpose of this news conference is to sum up the performance of Russian diplomats, have a candid discussion on various foreign policy topics and the global situation. I think that you can safely go ahead and get your questions ready. As you are well aware, it can get very extensive occasionally. I think you will get the answers to your questions.
Question: On December 5, Norwegian citizen Frode Berg was arrested in Moscow. He is currently at Lefortovo prison, facing espionage charges. Has this incident had any impact on relations between Norway and Russia? How will Russia respond to this case?
Maria Zakharova: Speaking of the overall situation, I would like to share our information on this issue. Indeed, Frode Berg, a citizen of Norway and a representative of Norwegian secret services, was arrested on December 5 in Moscow, while conducting a spy operation. He was staying in Russia on a tourist visa. On December 6, a criminal case was opened against him under Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code (Espionage). Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Berg. The Norwegian Embassy in Moscow has been informed under the standard procedure.
Currently, Mr. Berg is at the Lefortovo pretrial detention ward, and he enjoys all statutory rights, including the right to hire a lawyer and an interpreter, to meet with consular officers and to receive medical treatment. He has not filed any complaints or claims.
I don’t think this incident will seriously impact bilateral relations. Russia and Norway develop their relations in various areas. Such unpleasant incidents happen from time to time. Russian legislation stipulates adequate measures.
Question: President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite has recently summarised the outcome of the country’s policies in 2017 and outlined Lithuania’s short-term prospects. For example, she has said that Russia remains a difficult neighbour for Lithuania but that it is, nevertheless, necessary to display flexibility. In her opinion, it is necessary to cooperate and trade with Russia, rather than fight. What is your response to this statement?
Maria Zakharova: We have noted this Christmas interview with President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite. In particular, we have seen the passage that it is necessary to cooperate and trade, rather, than fight, with Russia.
I believe you know as well as we do the attitude of the Lithuanian head of state towards Russia. If this is not a PR stunt but a truly serious and well-thought-out statement on modifying Lithuania’s traditional position, then we will, for the most part, judge this in line with real deeds, rather than statements. Quite often, statements and actions are discordant with and run counter to one another.
Earlier, we constantly heard statements concerning alleged “threats” that emanate and will continue to emanate from Russia. In particular, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite even alluded to the construction of a nuclear power station in Belarus, which she believed might sow panic in Lithuania and undermine the country’s security. We considered this logic to be rather strange.
You mentioned that Lithuanian leader Dalia Grybauskaite has stated the need to display flexibility. We don’t mind if Ms. Grybauskaite displays flexibility.
Question: US authorities are expected to declare new anti-Russia sanctions in February 2018, this time in the banking sector. Does Moscow have any plans for a tough response to the new US sanctions?
Maria Zakharova: Today, we have focused a lot on the issue of Russian-US relations. You could find the answer to this question in my comments; nevertheless, the question has been asked.
You know our traditional position, which is that we are forced to respond symmetrically to all aggressive action by our partners against the Russian Federation. We would like to focus on symmetrical responses to positive actions, but, unfortunately, we more often see actions by our American colleagues that are destructive to bilateral relations. In this connection, no one has abolished symmetrical reciprocal measures.
We believe that US colleagues will eventually realise that it is in their own interests to cooperate in all areas, instead of wrecking bilateral relations which are already in deep crisis.
Question: The Western press is writing about a lack of democracy in Russia. By way of example, they are citing a decision to prevent Alexey Navalny from taking part in the elections. They write that he is the only serious candidate who could rival President Putin. Could you make clear the position of the Russian authorities?
Maria Zakharova: This is a strange question to ask the Foreign Ministry. I can tell you for certain that this is not our issue. The Central Election Commission deals with these matters.
To be honest, I watched the Central Election Commission’s meeting on this affair several times. As I see it, the meeting was quite exhaustive in terms of the arguments presented by all sides. I advise you to watch that meeting once again and you will find an answer to your question there.
As for statements, I have already spoken about this today. We would very much like the foreign press, whether pro-Russian or Russophobic, to cover the 2018 Russian presidential elections. Regardless of the context, one way or another, this will help involve Russian citizens and eligible voters in the elections. Therefore we are happy that the Western press is covering the pre-election situation so actively and informing readers about the elections. We would like them to more actively cover specific events and to provide concrete facts. But everyone is acting in line with his or her capabilities.
Officials of Western states in Brussels and Washington will certainly voice their opinions, criticising everything linked with the elections, from legislation to procedural issues. And, as you have said, they will draw conclusions about an “incorrect” democracy. We are confident this will happen because they have already started making these statements, and we remember how the situation developed in previous years and during earlier presidential elections. I have commented on this today, and I have said that, first of all, it would be nice for them to assess their own democracies, electoral cycles and procedures. Second, such statements are nothing more than interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, i.e. the Russian Federation. Experts and media people can come here, cover the events and monitor the situation. We are ready to provide assistance. I believe we will ask senior officials and representatives of the Central Election Commission to provide information and to hold relevant news conferences at the Foreign Ministry’s Press Centre. We are ready to be completely open on this issue.
However, it is very strange that difficulties are being predicted in advance, several months before the elections. They are already predicting that democratic processes, etc. will not be up to the mark. Most importantly, while finishing my reply to this question, I would like to ask: Can we obtain concrete data if official representatives and politicians of foreign countries have any claims about this process in the Russian Federation?
The State Department spokesperson’s statement mentioned the Russian Government. The Russian Government has various agencies, departments, services, organisations and personalities. Whom or what exactly are they talking about? Can you say that the Foreign Ministry is harassing foreign correspondents and hampering their work?
All these empty phrases amount to propaganda clichés that are constantly churned out to distract attention from essential issues. We are ready to comment. Please ask your questions and tell us if you need additional meetings with experts. Draw your own conclusions on the basis of what you see and hear. A media carousel is launched time and again. Someone circulates the main points, quotes anonymous sources and makes statements. The media starts copying all this information. After that, official State Department spokespersons will produce a pile of newspapers and printouts from social networks, and they will call this expert opinion.
First, they set a trend, it is trumpeted in the media, then this same trend and the same questions are resubmitted to the Department of State in the form of questions. This is how this cycle of the media carousel ends. The situation will repeat itself here too, but we are ready for this.
I would like to once again flag up what I have already said today: We will comment on every statement by our Western colleagues as regards discrepancies in electoral processes, procedures and events. I am telling you this for sure.
Question: The illegal presence of US forces in Syria is hindering the establishment of peace there. In addition, the United States is forming a new army out of the remaining ISIS groups in southern Syria. Is this compatible with the claim that the US is fighting ISIS?
Maria Zakharova: This is absolutely incompatible. Of course, the destructive influence, which some Western and regional countries are exerting on the developments in Syria in one way or another (we are monitoring this), is incompatible with the statements of their good intentions or their defeat of ISIS, as Paris and Washington claim. Their deeds conflict with their noble words.
I would like to answer your inferred question – if I got it right – about what can be done to resist this. I believe that it is very important to use the opportunities we have now that ISIS has been defeated (we need to continue mopping up the country, although the process has begun and the deadly blow has been delivered to them). I call on all parties to the Syrian settlement, including the internal and external opposition, to do their best to come to the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi to reach an agreement before new terrorist groups emerge. I call on them not to use this moment for throwing endless accusations at each other, for quarrelling or acting at foreign prompting, but to see that this is a crucial historical opportunity for the revival of Syria.
The future of Syria is in the hands of the Syrians, both those who have been pro-government and those who did not support the government and are not Bashar al-Assad’s fans, to put it mildly. Syria, if they do care for it, need them to use the historical chance they can have at this platform, which Russia is offering based on the results of the Astana and Geneva talks. This is the only chance to prevent external forces from promoting the hellish scenario that has been ongoing in Syria in the past few years.
Question: My first question concerns Russia-Japan relations. You said previously that they could be affected by the deployment of the US BMD system in Japan. Could this have a negative impact on the dialogue between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding the Kuril Islands and a peace treaty?
My second question concerns the presidential election. Have you made any arrangements with international organisations regarding international observers in Russia? If so, which organisations are they? I remember you saying that there will be no US observes. Who will you invite then?
Maria Zakharova: Regarding your first question, I would like to repeat what I said before: the Japanese government’s decision to allow the deployment of the US Aegis Ashore missile defence systems directly contradicts the priority task of building trust in military and political areas between Russia and Japan and will have a negative impact on the general atmosphere of bilateral relations, including our talks on a peace treaty. I believe that this is an exhausting, clear and understandable position. The specific details will depend on our work going forward. We will proceed from our principled assessment of this Japanese decision.
As for observers, I will find the necessary information on this issue and will provide a comprehensive answer at my first briefing next year. Of course, this issue is also addressed to Russia’s Central Election Commission, but in one way or another it concerns the Foreign Ministry. I will provide complete information on observers and the process about which you have asked at the next briefing.
Question: I have a question about preparations for the Sochi conference in late January. Have members of the united Riyadh, Cairo and Moscow groups sent any clear signals about possible participation in this conference? If they do not attend, will it be held at all?
Maria Zakharova: First, we won’t comment (at least it makes no sense to comment on this at my level) on the specific details of these preparations. Second, all those who are interested in Syria’s future should realise on what side of history they stand. Do they support the need to pool efforts for developing Syria, drafting its fundamental laws and elaborating its future political arrangement or will they miss an opportunity for which the Syrian people have paid such a price? The Russian Federation and other countries that want to find a constructive settlement have made enormous efforts. It is essential to understand if this will be the conference of the future or if it follows a path of missed opportunities.
Every Syrian group and Syrian public figure and politician that is involved in this process in one way or another must decide for themselves whether it is sensible to continue listening to those that have led Syria to edge. Or is it worth making independent decisions at long last relying on the opportunities that were granted to the Syrian people at such a price. When I talk about the Syrian people, I am referring not only to pro-government forces and civilians residing in Syria but all those Syrians that are not indifferent to the destiny of their homeland. When we have full information on the participants we will forward it to you at once.
Question: Are there plans to hold talks at the foreign minister level between Russia and the DPRK in 2018?
Maria Zakharova: I don’t know about any specific plans. As for Russia’s global foreign policy plans, on January 15, 2018 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold a news conference on the results of 2017 and the line that the Foreign Ministry will pursue in 2018.
Question: Russian-Turkish relations are focused on the economy. Are there plans to enhance cultural ties, for example?
Maria Zakharova: Of course, we are planning to develop bilateral ties in all areas. Many events are being held in Turkey by Russia, including by our embassy and other foreign missions. If you want more details, I will certainly be ready to give you a more exhaustive answer.
Question: What do you think about the opening of a Turkish university in Russia and a Russian university in Turkey? We are saying that the crisis is behind us but there are still problems. During the crisis, many Turkish citizens were deported or were denied entry. Are talks on cancelling visas being conducted?
Maria Zakharova: As for deportations, they were carried out in accordance with the law. As regards visas, at this point the Russian side is discussing with its Turkish partners further steps on simplifying entrance to the Russian Federation for certain categories of citizens, for example those with service passports and international carriers. The sides are discussing a complete resumption of visa-free travel in the context of joint efforts to counter terrorism and prevent those who pose a terrorist threat from entering Russian territory.
As for humanitarian and cultural ties, as I promised, we will tell you about them as we learn more.