Briefing of the Foreign Ministry Spokesman

21 May 202020:42

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, May 21, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Update on the coronavirus pandemic and assisting Russian citizens in returning home
  2. Return of Russian school students on education exchanges from the United States
  3. Delivery of US lung ventilators to Russia
  4. Signing the Memorandum on the Replenishment of the Russia–UNDP Trust Fund for Development
  5. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in a video conference of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation
  6. Update on Syria
  7. Media reports on Russia’s “initiative” concerning Middle East settlement
  8. Venezuela update
  9. Fake news disseminated by US and Canada on the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine
  10. Latvia's violations of ethnic minorities' language and education rights
  11. Response to statement by Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for European External Action Service
  12. Interview with former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt and former parliament speaker Bjorn von Sydow who mentioned military guarantees Sweden needs to secure in case of a conflict with Russia
  13. Attack on the Cuban Embassy in the United States
  14. Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro
  15. New bells cast in Russia donated to the Zhyrovichy Monastery  
  16. Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro
  17. New bells cast in Russia donated to the Zhyrovichy Monastery  
 
  1. President of Russia Vladimir Putin’s telephone conversation with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev regarding the situation on the border between the two countries caused by the coronavirus pandemic 
  2. Russia-proposed consultations with the Czech Republic on current issues of bilateral relations
  3. References to “Japan’s sovereignty” over the southern Kuril Islands and the issue of their ownership in Japan’s updated Diplomatic Bluebook
  4. Statement by Russian Ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora on repatriating North Korean workers from Russia  

 

Update on the coronavirus pandemic and assisting Russian citizens in returning home

 

We will start with the subject that continues to be the focus of world news: the current situation on the coronavirus. As you know, the new coronavirus infection continues spreading all over the world. The total number of infected people continues to grow and now exceeds 5 million. 

The 73rd session of the World Health Assembly, the highest governing body of the WHO, has adjourned in Geneva. The participants reaffirmed their intention to build up the consolidated potential of cooperation in the face of this dangerous global challenge. This is the genuine mission of this organisation. In this context, the occasional speculations on the organisation and attempts to turn the WHO into a venue for settling some political grievance are particularly inappropriate.

Under these circumstances, Russia continues to organise the evacuation of Russian citizens who want to return home from abroad. According to Rosaviatsia, last week 3,202 of our compatriots were assisted in returning to Russia (in all, over 236,000 people have been brought home since March 18).  

The Foreign Ministry is guided by Government directives on limiting the number of arriving passengers to prevent new outbreaks of the disease. We plan the schedule for return flights in cooperation with our colleagues from Rosaviatsia, the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media, the Ministry of Transport, and Rospotrebnadzor. Considering the enormous and unprecedented challenge facing the entire world, both the Russian regions and civil society are involved in these efforts.

The geography of departing flights is constantly expanding to new territories. On May 14-16, Russia’s Royal Flight Airlines carried Russian citizens from Mauritius, South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania. In all, 280 people were brought home, including 97 from South Africa. The same flight took humanitarian aid to South Africa – a consignment of test systems for identifying COVID-19, which were developed by the Vector State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology.   

At present, another Royal Flight plane is on the way to Russia. It has 205 Russians aboard from two Indian cities: Trivandrum and Kolkata. As a reminder, flights to these cities had been cancelled several times for various reasons. Now these flights are taking place. Regrettably, many passengers who registered for a return flight changed their mind at the last moment. Some passengers simply did not show up. This explains why the planes are not full, but this is the personal choice of each passenger. Our task is to continue this effort, and we will continue to do so. Today, our citizens are also returning from Athens and Colombo. We expect Russian citizens to return soon from Dubai, Bishkek, Tashkent, Goa, New York, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Our return programme has been ongoing for two months and is based on an algorithm that was approved in early April. This algorithm is continuously being upgraded and will be improved in the future with due account for the epidemiological situation in Russia and its regions, and also in the countries where our citizens need assistance.

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Return of Russian school students on education exchanges from the United States

 

In the context of this subject I want to tell you about the situation concerning the return of Russian school students. This is a hot topic. We are receiving a lot of questions and requests on this matter, and we will update you regularly.

We are constantly working to bring Russian school age children home who are in the United States under general education programmes and are in a difficult situation in view of the spread of the coronavirus. The difficulty lies in the fact that the host side, who took on the responsibility for these children, has rejected their responsibility on many occasions and only advised the Russian side when they decided to give up this responsibility. Together with other Russian specialised agencies, and in close coordination with the Russian Embassy in Washington, we are working hard to ascertain all the cases of Russian children’s departure for participation in these exchange programmes. Again, these programmes were not coordinated with the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In addition, we only recently found out that some Russian children under US based education exchange programmes went to countries other than the United States. By the way, we learned this from their parents’ petitions to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Some went to other countries. Specifically, at least two students are now in Argentina and one is in Costa Rica. We will, of course, keep this in mind when arranging evacuation flights.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning, US authorities failed to give our representatives the appropriate assistance in this situation. And this despite our formal requests to give us exhaustive information on the number of Russian students, their location and the host organisations. We are doing this because the parents and the children themselves apply to us for help. We need to know exactly how many children need our assistance, considering that no one contacted the Foreign Ministry before going abroad, and the US side cannot provide full information either. We are carrying out a set of measures to collect the relevant information and to provide assistance.

Given the current circumstances and to avoid a recurrence of such circumstances in the future, we are urging Russian schools, supervisory authorities and parents to display vigilance and responsibility. We should not let children be taken abroad under any dubious education programmes or initiatives, especially when the organisers of such trips do not assume responsibility for those whom they bring over.

We have, nevertheless, arranged for the return of a group of children from the United States. There are 28 such children so far. Of this number, the latest Aeroflot evacuation flight carried 10 school students from New York to Moscow on May 15.

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Delivery of US lung ventilators to Russia

 

Today, May 21, an American plane will make a special flight to Moscow to deliver a batch of lung ventilators under an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump.

Approaches to combating the new coronavirus infection, including through the combined efforts of the two countries, have been discussed many times during top-level Russian-US telephone conversations. First, Russia rendered assistance by sending a plane with domestic medical items and equipment to New York at a time when the coronavirus situation there was stressful. Now that the US has boosted the production of ventilators, Washington can support Russia’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, so it offered to help and this move was agreed on and is now being implemented.   

Both examples illustrate sincere humanitarian gestures, cooperation in an emergency situation and rendering assistance for free. Russia and the United States each paid their respective costs for the equipment they supplied. More details on this issue are posted on the Russian Direct Investment Fund website https://rdif.ru/fullNews/5184/

The 50 ventilators to be delivered today, along with another consignment of this equipment expected next week, will be taken to the Pirogov National Medical Surgical Centre. Specialists will then decide which Russian hospitals are to get the American ventilators, depending on the coronavirus situation and the real demand in each case.    

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Signing the Memorandum on the Replenishment of the Russia–UNDP Trust Fund for Development

 

On May 21, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have an online meeting with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Achim Steiner. The officials will sign the Memorandum on the Replenishment of the Russia–UNDP Trust Fund for Development (TFD), in keeping with Government Directive No. 1128-r of April 24, 2020.    

The event will be broadcast online at 5 pm Moscow time on the Foreign Ministry website and social media.

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovs participation in a video conference of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation

 

On May 26, the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO CFM) will hold a video conference chaired by Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov.

The conference agenda will include issues of the current state and possible developments of the international and regional situation and their impact on the security of the CSTO member states, and also CSTO cooperation with the CIS and the SCO.

Special attention will be given to CSTO member state interaction at international venues, the development of the organisation’s peacekeeping efforts and CSTO Observer and Partner status as well as cooperative efforts to counter current security challenges and threats.

A number of joint statements will be adopted, in particular, on the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, on solidarity and mutual assistance in fighting the coronavirus infection, and on reaffirming the commitment to UN goals and the UN Charter.

We see the forthcoming conference of the CSTO CFM as another step in allied interaction within the organisation.

The opening remarks by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be streamed on the Foreign Ministry’s official site and social media accounts at approximately 11 am Moscow time (approx.); and a news conference will follow the conference at 12:30 pm (approx.). 

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Update on Syria

 

We see the overall situation in Syria as stable.

In Idlib, the Russian and Turkish militaries continue to work on implementing the March 5 Additional Protocol. The key goal is to unblock the M-4 motorway and ensure joint patrols along the entire route. However, this effort is encountering resistance from the militants who instigate provocations to try to thwart Russian-Turkish patrols. We expect that our Turkish partners will continue their efforts to separate the “moderates” from the terrorists while neutralising the latter.

The situation in areas outside government control in the northeast of Syria is deteriorating. ISIS fighters have decided to take advantage of the coronavirus epidemic and have increased their attacks. From May 10 to 15 alone, the terrorists launched over 20 attacks against Kurdish units in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Al-Hasakah where at least 20 people were killed and about 40 wounded. We also noted disturbing reports about the escape of seven ISIS terrorists from the prison in the al-Hawl camp for internally displaced persons. This is further evidence that the US and its allies who occupy the territories on the west bank of the Euphrates do not care about the civilians and maintaining security. 

For our part, we are doing much to facilitate humanitarian deliveries to the northeast of Syria across the line of contact. Since the beginning of the year, the UN specialised agencies have been able to send at least seven humanitarian convoys to the west bank of the Euphrates by air and by land. In addition, this week, the Russian military delivered 170 metric tonnes of humanitarian aid there. The route was 1,500 kilometres long, the Euphrates River had to be crossed several times in order to reach the most remote villages. After returning to the Khmeimim airbase, the Russian convoy will prepare for another trip to deliver food and humanitarian supplies totalling 850 metric tonnes to the country’s other regions.

The situation in the Rukban camp for IDPs, in the so-called security zone established by the Americans around Al-Tanf, is also a cause for concern. Fifty refugees who fled the camp in early May gave a detailed account of the developments there – it is outrageous. They have neither food nor water nor electricity there, and there are problems with medical aid. Rukban residents have to pay the militants who control the camp for essentials and even for nonpotable water. The US contingent is well aware of all that. 

Sending a UN humanitarian convoy there will not change the situation as the aid will not reach those who need it; it will be appropriated by the militants as has happened many times before. We presume that the Rukban problem will be resolved after the US terminates its illegal presence in the south of Syria. Along with the Syrians, we are providing any necessary support for the refugees that have managed to leave the camp, at the exit of the 55-km zone. 

We also note that the coronavirus pandemic has not stopped Syrians from returning home. After emergency closures, border crossings on the Syria-Lebanon border have reopened; about 100 people returned to Syria this week. 

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Media reports on Russia’s “initiative” concerning Middle East settlement

 

We have noted that another series of false reports and fakes has been planted. Unfortunately, Russian diplomats are constantly dealing with this type of thing. We make sure to comment and issue rebuttals promptly.

On the tip from a media outlet called Axios, a number of Russian and foreign media outlets reported that Russia had allegedly proposed holding a Palestinian-US summit in Geneva to prevent the situation around the Middle East settlement from deteriorating further. It was claimed that this so-called “initiative” was put forward by Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, during a telephone conversation on May 19 with Avi Berkowitz, Assistant to the US President and Special Representative for International Negotiations.

Once again, we are dealing with a vicious practice of distorting facts and spreading misinformation. The telephone conversation did take place on May 19 and, as we reported on the Foreign Ministry website, it was requested by our US partners. The conversation focused on the prospects of resuming direct Palestinian-Israeli talks under international guidance. A Palestinian-US meeting at the highest level was never mentioned and nobody asked Russia about it. Russia confirmed its strict adherence to the well-known international legal framework of the Middle East settlement, including the understanding that there is no alternative to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Additionally, the Russian representative stressed that Russia, as a member of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators that includes Russia, the United States, the EU and the UN, is ready for a meeting in this format as soon as possible, as encouraged by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and it is possible that the meeting may involve major Arab countries and the League of Arab States in the interests of establishing direct bilateral talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis under international guidance.

This is the kind of hideous fake news that we are dealing with right now. I am under the impression that Russian diplomats are being bombarded with misinformation as if somebody ordered another information campaign against Russian diplomacy. We will continue to consistently debunk these claims.

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Venezuela update

 

We have invariably focused on Venezuela. We see the authorities in Caracas make substantive efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country, this against the background of reports to the effect that the Latin American region may emerge as a new hotbed of contagion.  This is particularly obvious in the light of alarming information coming from states bordering on Venezuela, where the virus has reached a scale that is causing much concern.

In this context, the US administration’s preservation and even toughening of sanctions against Venezuela is becoming increasingly appalling. The attempts to palm them off as “targeted” restrictions against certain representatives of the national leadership (let me note that they are the legitimate leadership, including President Nicolas Maduro) hold no water.

Figures speak for themselves. Since December 2014, Washington’s anti-Venezuela sanctions have affected 140 individuals and 118 businesses, 65 aircraft (including the national carrier, Conviasa), and 52 ships (mostly oil tankers operated by the publicly owned PDVSA company).  An actual ban has been introduced on oil exports and oil product imports, which can provoke a paralysis of agriculture, industry, trade, transportation, and basic life-supporting infrastructure. 

The country is being squeezed out of the international financial system by stripping it of its foreign assets and even of the ability to carry out the actions that are needed at this moment, such as to repair its losses by exporting its natural resources or borrowing on external financial markets. As a result of the US unilateral restrictions, the frozen Venezuelan assets total over $116 billion. Thereby the country is being deprived of resources and a capability to purchase the badly needed diagnostic equipment and medicines, vaccines, personal protective gear, and medical equipment and consumables. 

Let me make it clear: the economic sanctions against Venezuela are producing the same effect as the coronavirus on the human body. In both cases, the oxygen supply system is affected. I understand that this may be a highly symbolic picture, a metaphor, but be that what it may, a portion of the US political establishment are seeking to stifle Venezuela at all costs.      

Yet another example is related to Washington’s actively promoted claims that the Maduro Government is “uncooperative” with regard to humanitarian aid deliveries to Venezuela.  Incidentally, foreign NGO’s are ready to distribute this assistance exclusively outside of the official channels. The injustice of these charges is clear to all those familiar with the data provided by the UN and its specialised agencies. Last year, the UN considerably expanded its presence, including locally. Humanitarian organisations are present in all 24 states, their personnel numbers have increased by 150 percent, and cooperation is maintained with 81 humanitarian partners.   All of this has made it possible to render assistance to a total of 2.4 million people, including by supplying medicines and equipment to 341 medical centres all over the country.

UN bodies’ good partner ties with the Government have facilitated the development of a plan to respond to the pandemic, including the testing and provision of water and hygiene products. Temporary accommodation facilities have been established for Venezuelans returning home from abroad (there have been about 60,000 of them since mid-March). The returnees are mostly motivated by the deteriorating economic situation in the countries of temporary residence.

I am mentioning this because Spain and other EU countries are convening an international videoconference in Madrid next week in order to help Venezuelan migrants stuck in neighbouring countries. We are not sure that this is a well-timed measure; against the background of the threat of the pandemic in the region, it is fraught with a strong anti-Venezuelan bias. We hope that the forum will focus on lifting the sanctions as the most logical way of helping Caracas to overcome its socioeconomic problems. This must indeed become the centerpiece of international efforts. 

Regrettably, Washington’s “sanctions steamroller,” which I have just mentioned, went over the information sphere as well. DirecTV, an American direct broadcast satellite service provider, has announced that it is withdrawing from Venezuela on account of the restrictions on its operations with Venezuelan publicly owned companies, imposed by the US Department of the Treasury.   These are, of course, anything but “targeted” sanctions. Rather, this is a direct encroachment on media freedom and the right to access information. I would like to add that DirecTV is a well known company and the biggest cable services provider in Venezuela with an audience of over 6 million. Its package included numerous channels diffusing the widest possible spectrum of opinion, which was often far from being pro-government.  But the US authorities are clearly unconcerned. This is a fact. The views, shows and broadcasts presented by the provider were really versatile and representative of a wide gamut of points of view.   

I would like to ask this: Why has this attack on the media been launched at this point? The Pentagon reports that the US Navy has formed a naval task force in the Caribbean, which includes three destroyers, a littoral combat ship and antisubmarine aircraft.  They say their goal is to ensure ocean space safety ahead of a US-led allied operation pursuing quite noble objectives. 

There has been no force projection on this scale in the region for a long time. Published by the US Southern Command, a report on the task force personnel drills is evidence of the preparations for boarding large watercraft rather than intercepting small speedboats, an ostensible aim of the practice. 

The naval exercise has coincided in time with the reports to the effect that Iran is sending oil tankers to deliver fuel to Venezuela. In this context, the US efforts look like an attempt to impose a naval blockade of the Bolivarian Republic.

Our question to the US colleagues is whether they are ready to confirm that the naval and air forces concentrated in the Caribbean have no objectives other than those declared as part of the operation to interdict illegal activity? Our next question is: how can such actions influence safety of shipping in the region, including in the light of the corresponding US international obligations?  

We continue to maintain diplomatic contacts with our partners in Europe, Latin America and Asia, with whom we discuss the situation in Venezuela and in the neighbouring countries.  We note that the overwhelming majority of them have a concordant understanding of ways to achieve a settlement. It should be a peaceful and political one and result from talks between Venezuelans themselves. This is also the Russian position of principle. We will continue to work pro-actively in this vein. We think that the idea of a broad-based “humanitarian truce” involving all constructive forces in Venezuela – the Government and the opposition –and intended to coordinate measures against the spread of the coronavirus in the country will create a positive basis for this kind of national dialogue.  

We are confident that it is highly important to prevent the situation in Venezuela and beyond from degenerating to the point where force might be used.

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Fake news disseminated by US and Canada on the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine

 

We have noted another example of misinformation and blatant propaganda by representatives of the United States and Canada in the OSCE.

On May 14 and 15, during a meeting of OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna and a briefing by Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Yasar Halit Cevik for OSCE member states, the United States and Canada made an attempt to accuse Donetsk representatives of aggressive actions towards OSCE observers. This allegedly took place during the mission patrol's monitoring of the territory. US and Canadian representatives claimed that on May 8 the mission representatives, who were launching a drone over Gorlovka, were attacked by members of self-defence forces, who "seized the observers, threw them face down in the mud, twisted their arms and pulled guns on them."

This false information was refuted by Yasar Halit Cevik, who said that Mission members overall feel comfortable in Donbass, with local residents showing no aggression, while the self-defence forces' members did not pose any threat. In fact, according to Mr Cevik, the incident on May 8 was solely a misunderstanding between the self-defence forces and the mission observers, which led to a three-hour patrol delay. After these facts were made public, our US colleagues started accusing everyone of conducting 'disinformation campaigns.'

The fact of such appalling lies by officials who represent two large powers in the major European organisation is simply outrageous. Their attacks are particularly reprehensible as Donetsk representatives had no opportunity to respond to them. We urge our partners to refrain from resorting to rumours, unconfirmed facts, fake and false information and innuendos as this all turns into absolutely outrageous and blatant propaganda. We call for focusing on constructive efforts to facilitate settlement of the internal Ukrainian conflict in Donbass.

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Latvia's violations of ethnic minorities' language and education rights

 

Due to Latvian educational institutions shifting to online teaching starting March 23, an urgent issue has arisen again as regards organising the educational process for Russian-speaking students.

Despite their international obligations as well as appeals by civil society members, Latvian authorities have made no effort to create conditions for remote learning in the Russian language. For instance, the television channel Tvoy Class (Your Classroom), which is used for remote teaching, shows programmes only in Latvian.

Just a reminder: in his recommendations issued on April 17, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier urged OSCE member states to continue balancing opportunities for teaching in a state language and learning state and official languages with proper opportunities provided for students to learn their minority's language or receive education in this language, as well as to adapt home learning to the needs of various communities.

The policy pursued by the Latvian authorities towards the Russian language has affected pre-schools as well. On May 14, the Latvian parliament approved in the final reading the amendments to the law on education, which stipulate that all Russian-language kindergartens will be required to organise groups that teach kids in Latvian. Regrettably, the implementation of these measures will further force out the Russian language from the pre-school education system and will have a negative effect on the education process, which will subsequently lead to inequality in the labour market and lower living standards for ethnic minorities.

We continue to follow this outrageous situation in close cooperation with the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities as well as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), whose aim is to monitor observance of human rights and promote democratic norms in Latvia.

We urge Riga to strictly observe its international obligations in protecting ethnic minorities' rights and to promptly provide favourable conditions for Russian-speaking school students.

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Response to statement by Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for European External Action Service

 

We have to note that the coronavirus response topic continues to be employed by some of our Western partners to escalate anti-Russian rhetoric in the media. There are lots of examples. One of the recent ones is the interview by Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for European External Action Service, to Germany’s Bild on May 17. According to him, Kremlin-friendly sources and Russian state-owned media are spreading false information. He also noted that conspiracy theories and misinformation can have a significant impact on public health. The European Commission representative cited no examples or specified what he was referring to. I have only one question: does he even follow the US media or hear American officials expound on conspiracy theories and accusing other states, speculating about the origin of the virus, and such things as this? How would the agency he represents assess the approaches of the US and Anglo-Saxon media, for example?

We have repeatedly commented on such allegations by EU officials. We consider them baseless as well as unacceptable. We regard them as unscrupulous attempts to distract the EU public from their own problems in containing the pandemic. Such attacks against us look especially cynical considering Russia’s proven commitment to rallying in the fight against the pandemic with every interested party, including some of the EU member states. This is more than just determination and interest. This is about specific practical experience already in place.

Russia, like many other countries, is struggling with an “infodemic” plaguing the media landscape, something the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke about. This pandemic of misinformation surrounding the epidemiological situation in Russia includes biased publications, unverified information, as well as frankly fake news. Notably, most of this is published by Western media, some of them based in EU countries. Yet, we refrain from any attacks of this kind that representatives of EEAS take the liberty to carry out.

We hope that a sensible and balanced attitude will prevail and that the EU will discontinue spreading unproven anti-Russia myths that complicate the already difficult condition of our relations. The current crisis dictates an urgent need for combining efforts to establish de-politicised international cooperation in countering real, not far-fetched, challenges and threats.

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Interview with former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt and former parliament speaker Bjorn von Sydow who mentioned military guarantees Sweden needs to secure in case of a conflict with Russia

 

We noticed an interview by former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt and Bjorn von Sydow, former speaker of the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, with Dagens Nyheter on May 13, where they discussed military guarantees that Sweden should secure in case of a conflict with Russia.

The speculations of veterans of Swedish politics are not news, but just more confirmation of their loyalty to the longstanding tradition of fostering the mythical Russian military threat. Suffice it to recall the imaginary fight with the so-called “presence” of Russian submarines in Swedish waters often used by Stockholm to boost political capital.

We have repeatedly assured our Swedish partners, including Bjorn von Sydow who visited Moscow in March 2019 leading a delegation of the Swedish Defence Commission, that Russia was ready for a dialogue on ensuring stability, strengthening security and confidence-building measures in the Baltic Sea region with all interested states in any format so as to address both imaginary and real threats, for example, illegal migration and drug trafficking, marine pollution and climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases. We invited our colleagues to think about reviving the 5 + 3 + 1 dialogue (Russia, North European and Baltic countries) to exchange views on regional issues, including in the security sphere, but we have received no answer.   

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Attack on the Cuban Embassy in the United States

 

We have already drawn your attention (comment by the Foreign Ministry Information and Press Department, dated May 6) to the outrageous attack involving firearms against the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Washington on April 30.

To date, three weeks after that flagrant criminal attack – a terrorist attack in fact – we still have no official reaction regarding the relevant investigation by US authorities, which based on their international commitments should provide for the security of foreign diplomatic missions on its territory.

On the contrary, Washington has decided to include Cuba again in the list of “state sponsors of terrorism“ kept by the United States as part of its further buildup of pressure on Havana, cynically continuing even amid the common threat of pandemic.

This absurd and far-fetched initiative runs counter to the spirit of solidarity with and support of Cuba by an overwhelming majority of countries in the region and other members of the international community, primarily with regard to overcoming the US embargo.

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Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

 

On May 12, in Niksic, during the holiday of St Basil of Ostrog, who is held in special reverence in Montenegro, members of the Montenegrin eparchies of the Serbian Orthodox Church held their traditional prayer service. Under the pretext that they were in violation of lockdown restrictions, the police used tear gas against the believers to disperse the gathering. Bishop Joanikije Micovic of the Budimlja and Niksic Eparchy and accompanying priests were detained and held in custody until May 15.

On May 19, the US Department of State noted the importance of observing human rights in religious affairs and expressed support of the Montenegrin authorities’ harsh actions. This kind of statement indicates that Washington considers the church strictly from the perspective of geopolitics. It is an obviously blatant attempt to sow discord within the Orthodox world and destroy the integrity of the Balkan spiritual community.

This yet another surge in tensions in Montenegro ignited by the violence of the local authorities against the Serbian Orthodox Church and its parishioners in the country causes serious concern. We believe that any problems that arise must be resolved through a constructive dialogue and in line with the standards, rules and regulations fixed by international documents, and with due respect for the statutory rights of a canonical church and its members. Ignoring their opinion, artificially dividing believers and especially imposing unscrupulous external interference may be fraught with serious problems and even upheavals that could easily sweep over the region.

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New bells cast in Russia donated to the Zhyrovichy Monastery  

 

We have more news, this time positive, related to world religions and relations between states. Twelve bells have been delivered to the stauropegic Zhyrovichy Monastery (Grodno Region, Belarus). The largest bell weighs 4,200 kg. The bells were cast by the Anisimov Bell Foundry in April.  

The set of 12 bells, a temporary bell gable and a future bell tower is a gift from Russia for the 500th anniversary of the monastery and the 550th anniversary of the Icon of the Zhyrovichy Mother of God. The large bell has the following words moulded on it: “In care of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko.”

The bells were created with the financial support of VTB Bank (Belarus) and the governments of the Novgorod and Voronezh regions. They were transported to Belarus by Gefest. The Sverdlovsk Region will fund the construction of the monastery’s bell tower.

The Russian Embassy responded to an appeal from Zhyrovichy Monastery’s father superior, Archbishop Gury of Navahrudak and Slonim, and made sure that the project is carried out to celebrate the monastery’s 500th  anniversary.

The celebration was planned for May 20 but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The upcoming festivities are particularly important for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Belarusian exarchate and Orthodox Christians all over the world. We hope that in this moment of true cooperation, mutual support and united intentions between the two nations, the scheduled events will take place. We will keep you updated.

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Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

 

On May 12, in Niksic, during the holiday of St Basil of Ostrog, who is held in special reverence in Montenegro, members of the Montenegrin eparchies of the Serbian Orthodox Church held their traditional prayer service. Under the pretext that they were in violation of lockdown restrictions, the police used tear gas against the believers to disperse the gathering. Bishop Joanikije Micovic of the Budimlja and Niksic Eparchy and accompanying priests were detained and held in custody until May 15.

On May 19, the US Department of State noted the importance of observing human rights in religious affairs and expressed support of the Montenegrin authorities’ harsh actions. This kind of statement indicates that Washington considers the church strictly from the perspective of geopolitics. It is an obviously blatant attempt to sow discord within the Orthodox world and destroy the integrity of the Balkan spiritual community.

This yet another surge in tensions in Montenegro ignited by the violence of the local authorities against the Serbian Orthodox Church and its parishioners in the country causes serious concern. We believe that any problems that arise must be resolved through a constructive dialogue and in line with the standards, rules and regulations fixed by international documents, and with due respect for the statutory rights of a canonical church and its members. Ignoring their opinion, artificially dividing believers and especially imposing unscrupulous external interference may be fraught with serious problems and even upheavals that could easily sweep over the region.

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New bells cast in Russia donated to the Zhyrovichy Monastery  

 

We have more news, this time positive, related to world religions and relations between states. Twelve bells have been delivered to the stauropegic Zhyrovichy Monastery (Grodno Region, Belarus). The largest bell weighs 4,200 kg. The bells were cast by the Anisimov Bell Foundry in April.  

The set of 12 bells, a temporary bell gable and a future bell tower is a gift from Russia for the 500th anniversary of the monastery and the 550th anniversary of the Icon of the Zhyrovichy Mother of God. The large bell has the following words moulded on it: “In care of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko.”

The bells were created with the financial support of VTB Bank (Belarus) and the governments of the Novgorod and Voronezh regions. They were transported to Belarus by Gefest. The Sverdlovsk Region will fund the construction of the monastery’s bell tower.

The Russian Embassy responded to an appeal from Zhyrovichy Monastery’s father superior, Archbishop Gury of Navahrudak and Slonim, and made sure that the project is carried out to celebrate the monastery’s 500th  anniversary.

The celebration was planned for May 20 but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The upcoming festivities are particularly important for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Belarusian exarchate and Orthodox Christians all over the world. We hope that in this moment of true cooperation, mutual support and united intentions between the two nations, the scheduled events will take place. We will keep you updated.

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Answers to media questions:

Question: The Presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan, Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev, have recently had a telephone conversation about the situation on the Russian-Azerbaijani border against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. The developments were then discussed by the Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Elmar Mammadyarov. What measures are being taken to settle the situation? How is the work to return Russian nationals from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani nationals from Russia progressing?

Maria Zakharova: It is true, a difficult situation developed on the Russia-Azerbaijan border near the Yarag-Kazmalyar – Samur checkpoint with some 700 Azerbaijani citizens who wanted to return to their homeland. It was discussed in detail by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev during a telephone conversation on May 18. This was preceded by a series of contacts between the two countries’ prime ministers, deputy prime ministers and foreign ministers.

Despite the complex sanitary and epidemiological situation in Dagestan and Azerbaijan, the parties were able to revive the process of returning Azerbaijani citizens back home. In accordance with the presidents’ instructions, on May 19, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov discussed practical steps in this area, focusing on the importance of coordinating joint efforts. On the same day, a group of 120 Azerbaijani nationals returned to their homeland. We hope that this process will be continued in stages.

Both Russian and Azerbaijani sides, while acting in the spirit of strategic partnership, are doing everything possible to settle the issue with returning their compatriots home. Close interaction has been established between our governments, relevant ministries and agencies, as well as regional authorities and embassies.

During the pandemic, Azerbaijan Airlines carried 1,500 Azerbaijani nationals home from Russia. In addition, in April two groups of Azerbaijani nationals (1,006 and 548 people) crossed the border through the Yarag-Kazmalyar – Samur checkpoint.

Five groups of Russian citizens totalling 672 people crossed the border at the same checkpoint. On May 18, Aeroflot flight from Baku brought over 140 Russian citizens home.

The Russian Foreign Ministry is carrying out this work together with our Azerbaijani colleagues.

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Question: What is the situation with the Russian-Czech consultations on current issues of bilateral relations that were announced with regard to the dismantled monument to Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague?

Maria Zakharova: Yes, the Russian party suggested holding consultations on current issues of bilateral relations as per Article 5 of the 1993 Russian-Czech treaty on the friendly relations and cooperation, as we said during our briefing on May 14. At the time the Russian side confirmed its readiness by a note sent by the Russian Embassy in Prague to the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic, and a letter to the Czech Ambassador to Russia.

We know that our partners at the Czech Foreign Ministry have heard this signal. However, we have not received an official response from the Czech side on the date of the consultations, although we have repeatedly commented on this matter.

We believe that one of the thorny issues to be discussed is the situation with the monument to Marshal Ivan Konev, which was dismantled and hidden (there is no other word for that) by the Prague authorities. We have repeatedly reminded them about Article 21 of the abovementioned treaty, according to which the Czech party is responsible for the preservation, maintenance and providing access to military monuments such as the one to Marshal Ivan Konev. We consider this situation to be a violation of this article, which we have also mentioned many times.

Meanwhile, Prague keeps saying that the monument belongs to the municipality. And again we claim that the responsibility to adhere to international treaties lies with the state, and the authorities cannot dodge it. In addition, for many decades, the monument to Ivan Konev has been listed on the national register of military monuments kept by the Czech Ministry of Defence. The Czech party denies this despite the existing facts. We will continue to insist that the Czech authorities issue an explanation on what grounds the monument was removed from the register. We are ready to provide the necessary information once again.

We urge our partners to sit down at the negotiating table to discuss the entire range of problems that have accumulated if Prague is still ready to mend the unhealthy situation in bilateral relations, caused by the Czech party.

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Question: How can you comment on the references to the “Japanese sovereignty” over the southern Kuril Islands and the islands’ “ownership issue” in the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s new Diplomatic Bluebook?

Maria Zakharova: We have noticed that the “Japanese sovereignty” over the southern Kuril Islands phrase and the islands’ “ownership issue” in the context of the Russian-Japanese peace treaty dialogue are back to the 2020 Diplomatic Bluebook.

Our position is that this step directly contradicts the goal set at the highest level to create a favourable atmosphere in bilateral relations. We are compelled to pull our colleagues from the Japanese Foreign Ministry back to reality, and the reality is as follows – the legal sovereignty over all the Kuril Islands belongs to the Russian Federation following WWII outcome in accordance with international legal documents, including the UN Charter, and is uncontestable.

As we have repeatedly noted, at this stage, the priority for our concentrated efforts is to ensure tangible advancement across the entire range of bilateral relations, including the development of practical cooperation, confidence building in the security sphere, and the consolidation of cooperation on the international arena.

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Question: In an interview with Interfax, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said that the evacuation of North Korean workers from Russia cannot be completed because the borders were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Could you confirm that they continue to work in Russia? Last year, Russia issued six times more student and tourist visas to North Koreans than the year earlier. How could you explain the reason for this growth?

Our television company working in Vladivostok found out that after December 22, 2019, North Korean workers began to travel to Russia with three-month student visas and continued to work in the Russian Federation. Do you have any information on this?

Maria Zakharova: First of all, I would like to emphasise that the Russian Federation strictly and fully complies with its obligations under paragraph 8 of UNSC Resolution 2397 that required the repatriation of all North Korean citizens earning income in the relevant jurisdiction before December 22, 2019. Most workers from North Korea have left Russia, although, due to objective difficulties associated with an insufficient number of flights and limited capacity of rail transport, it was not possible to repatriate everyone. It seems to me that the whole world is in the same boat now – most types of transport have been grounded due to the lockdown. The few workers who could not leave have not been working since December 22, 2019.

As of the start of February all transport services between the Russian Federation and North Korea have been discontinued over the COVID-19 concerns, by a decision of the Korean side, and the repatriation of workers had to be suspended. Their return to their homeland will be resumed as a matter of priority as soon as Pyongyang decides to open its borders.

As for the entry of North Korean citizens arriving here on other arrangements, they could have done so before the transport service was terminated and anti-epidemic restrictions introduced, if they had legal grounds and visas issued in the established manner in accordance with the Russian laws and the bilateral intergovernmental agreement on mutual travel signed on January 24, 1997.

Indeed, there has been some increase in the number of visas issued by the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang and the Consulate General in Chongjin, but not six-fold of course.

And of course, citizens of North Korea, and of any other state for that matter, who entered the territory of our country with student visas or on tourism programmes, are forbidden to do any paid work. We are not aware of any violations of this rule by North Koreans.

 

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