Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia Ara Aivazian Moscow, December 7, 2020
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to once again welcome my colleague, Foreign Minister of Armenia Ara Aivazian, who has come to Russia on his first foreign visit in his capacity as head of the Foreign Ministry of Armenia. Our talks were held in a traditionally warm, allied atmosphere of strategic partnership, which sets the tone for the development of relations between our nations.
On November 21, 2020, a Russian interagency delegation visited Yerevan upon the instructions of President of Russia Vladimir Putin. We held meetings with Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and our colleagues from the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and economic development agencies to discuss in detail the situation following the signing of the Joint Statement by the leaders of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9 this year, as well as tasks set to us in this connection in the interests of a full settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem and in the context of promoting bilateral ties between Russia and Armenia.
The Statement signed on November 9 created the necessary conditions for a lasting and fair settlement of the conflict in the interests of the Armenian and Azerbaijani people and stability in the South Caucasus.
We are satisfied with the fact that the ceasefire has been complied with on the ground for nearly a month. Refugees are returning to their homes, and there has been progress in the exchange of prisoners and the dead and in the search for missing persons. We would like these acute humanitarian issues to be settled as soon as possible. We have mapped out a number of steps towards this.
We are grateful to our friends for a high assessment of the activities of the Russian peacekeeping force. Another priority apart from the humanitarian issues I mentioned is providing assistance to the restoration of the infrastructure, housing, normal life and the healthcare system. The unblocking of the transport corridors and the entire range of economic ties, as stipulated in the November 9 Joint Statement, should play a positive role in revitalising the economy and restoring normal life in the region.
We discussed the establishment of a Humanitarian Response Centre at the initiative of President Putin. We proposed making it an international agency with the participation of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The practical aspects of this initiative are being coordinated. Many Russian ministries and agencies will contribute to its implementation.
We exchanged views on the involvement of the related international organisations in the post-conflict rehabilitation of the region. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been working there for many years, since the mid-1990s. It has its representatives in Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert. The ICRC group in the region will be increased, as ICRC President Peter Maurer told us during his recent visit to Moscow. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and UNESCO have shown interest in the matter as well.
UNESCO is concerned about the preservation of world cultural heritage sites. This is also in the interests of Armenia. Russia supports this approach.
Our goal is to ensure that the restoration of the economy, infrastructure, healthcare and life support systems helps to create conditions for the development of neighbourly ties between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, both in Nagorno-Karabakh and at the interstate level. This would help build up the atmosphere of trust and cooperation in the region to the benefit of local people and countries.
We are convinced that people of different nationalities and faiths should live in peace and safety everywhere. The South Caucasus deserves this. We will do all we can to promote this approach.
We pointed out the role the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States should play in strengthening these trends.
We spoke in detail about the key aspects of the bilateral agenda. We maintain an intensive political dialogue, including at the high and highest levels. Despite the epidemiological restrictions, cooperation is ongoing between our ministries and agencies, as well as between the co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation. The deputy prime ministers who co-chair the commission maintain permanent contact. We are discussing the next full-scale meetings of the Intergovernmental Commission and the Russian-Armenian Interregional Forum. They will be held as soon as the coronavirus situation permits.
We welcome the growth of bilateral trade by 26 percent last year, to $2.5 billion, and its small decrease in this coronavirus year, by only 0.7 percent. There are very few such results in Russia’s trade with its other partners. We regard this as a vital indicator.
We agreed that our foreign ministries would do their best to facilitate the creation of conditions for the further strengthening of our trade and economic ties. We pointed out that we would reinforce the legal framework of our relations and expedite the preparation of documents in the fields of communications and biological ad international information security.
We attach great importance to the study of the Russian language in Armenia. We appreciate our friends’ understanding of the importance of this sphere of our cooperation. About 60 public schools in Armenia offer extended training in the Russian language, and there are six branches of Russian universities in the republic, as well as the Russian-Armenian University. Over 5,000 Armenian citizens are studying at Russian universities, including more than 2,000 recipients of Russian federal scholarships. We will carry on these programmes and will continue to allocate the necessary quotas. We are ready to increase them.
We discussed measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus infection. We pointed out the importance of redoubling the efforts of our integration associations towards strengthening the common sanitary and epidemiological space, which the leaders of our states have recently discussed via videoconference.
At the bilateral level, Russia will continue the free delivery of mobile bio-laboratories, test kits, reagents and medical equipment to our Armenian friends. Yerevan has indicated its interest in the cooperative use of the Russian coronavirus vaccine.
We expressed appreciation for our interaction within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). We have agreed to continue coordinating our positions at the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and other multilateral forums. We discussed the implementation of the plan of consultations between our ministries in 2020-2021. We agreed to adjust it in light of the delay of many events because of the coronavirus pandemic.
We have had a very productive and effective first meeting with the new Foreign Minister of Armenia, who has kindly invited me to visit Yerevan once again. I will be delighted. We will coordinate the timeframe later.
Question: Could you outline the main objectives and fields of interaction of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in light of the Statement signed by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the President of the Russian Federation on November 9 and the Joint Statement by the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries signed on December 3?
Sergey Lavrov: The OSCE Minsk Group and its co-chairs Russia, the United States and France (it was initially co-chaired by Russia and the United States; France joined it later at Paris’ request) have accomplished a great deal over the past few years. In particular, they have drafted and coordinated – in general, though not in detail – the basic principles of a settlement with the parties. These principles were used as the basis of the agreement sealed in the November 9 Statement by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. I am referring to the transfer of five districts to Azerbaijan, to be followed by the transfer of two more districts, as well as the deployment of peacekeepers to ensure security in the region, the establishment of the Lachin Corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and the unblocking of all types of transport and economic ties and communications. All these objectives have been formalised in the November 9 Statement and are being implemented very effectively.
Question: In your opinion, how effective is the level of cooperation between the Interdepartmental Humanitarian Response Centre and the local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh in the context of creating favourable conditions for resuming normal life as soon as possible?
Sergey Lavrov: Peacekeepers and the Interdepartmental Humanitarian Response Centre are actively cooperating with the local population. Since the very first minutes following their return, the peacekeepers and rescue workers from the Russian Emergencies Ministry have been assisting the people who are returning to the area. This process is now becoming sustainable. People are becoming more confident about the current situation. We will promote this attitude in every way. Current talks on turning the Interdepartmental Humanitarian Response Centre into an international centre that would involve Armenia and Azerbaijan facilitate this process. The concerned agencies are also discussing the relevant documents.
The ongoing efforts on the details of the existing agreements include work on the legal aspects of Russian peacekeepers’ zone of responsibility. They are stationed in this zone under the November 9 Statement. The peacekeepers maintain security, create favourable conditions for the return of refugees, help solve humanitarian matters and facilitate normal life.
The process is heading in the right direction, as agreed by the parties to the conflict and the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. We believe that the most important thing is to provide all-round support for the three leaders’ Statement of November 9, 2020. On December 3, 2020, members of the OSCE Ministerial Council held a meeting via videoconference. The three co-chairs, at the level of foreign ministers, praised the November 9 Statement and supported its implementation.
Among the tasks that need to be addressed and on which the co-chairs could use their weight and authority I will note the involvement of international organisations. It is very important to chart correct parameters of such cooperation. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working there for a long time. On the other hand, UN agencies that have a presence in Armenia and Azerbaijan, have never worked in Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is preparing a fact-finding mission. This will take some time, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy. The mission is to involve representatives of specialised agencies and programmes of the UN Family who will travel to the region in mid-December. We would like these missions to focus on providing specific and detailed assistance to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in the most pressing areas, including the restoration of the essential infrastructure and housing, and the resolution of other humanitarian matters.
The co-chairs could also focus on the subject of preserving religious sites and cultural landmarks in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are plans to allocate special UNESCO resources for this purpose. This organisation is also preparing its own fact-finding mission.
As a co-chair country and acting together with our French and US colleagues, we would like to encourage international organisations to ensure progress in these areas. The preservation and protection of cultural heritage and religious sites has special significance. As a country that is home to the UNESCO Headquarters, France can play a special role in this respect. I believe that the United States can also facilitate this process.
Question: The November 9 agreements on Nagorno-Karabakh were obviously a temporary step on the way to a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Are more substantive discussions on this score planned in the near future, at the level of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan or at the highest level? When will it be possible to hold such meetings?
Sergey Lavrov: I said in my opening remarks that efforts to bring life in that region back to normal, so that all the national, ethnic and religious groups are satisfied, are an important part of a sustainable long-term settlement. This means a neighbourly coexistence of Armenians, Azerbaijanis and other peoples living in the region. This is our agenda and we will welcome any steps that the parties will be ready to take in this direction. We will encourage them to do this. As to the possible timeframe for direct contacts between Baku and Yerevan, including at the highest level, that will be up to our Azerbaijani and Armenian colleagues.
Question: On December 3, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell used the term “Astanisation” in his blog to describe the division of spheres of influence, such as between Russia and Turkey. He said this scenario was used in Syria, in the South Caucasus, and in Libya. Do you agree with this interpretation and more generally, with this term?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not read the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell’s blog entry where he mentioned “Astanisation.” I hope this is what he actually meant, not another consonant expression. In the former case, I do not see any negative connotation there. I hope he did not mean to give a negative overtone to this new word that he invented, because, by and large, the “Astana process” indeed took shape in the context of the Syrian crisis.
In fact, until the Astana format emerged, the political process showed no sign of progress at all. No one did anything for an entire year citing problems with various aspects: first the Government was ready but the opposition was not; then the opposition was represented exclusively by emigrants who had no influence on the battlefield situation; and more of that. So Russia, Turkey and Iran, which joined them later, as directly interested countries and neighbours (Russia also as a country that understood the terrible risk of a repetition in Syria of what had previously been carried out in Libya and Iraq), decided to use their influence on the Syrian sides to find a way to seat them at the negotiating table.
This is how the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue initiative came into being. We finally roused the UN, which was reluctant to participate in the Astana process before the Astana initiative, although it involved the Government and the armed opposition along with Russia, Turkey and Iran as guarantors of the Astana process. Observers from three Arab countries (Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon) are also present there now, as well as UN representatives. We must admit without false modesty that the Astana process initiatives, its specific agreements still determine the track for the Syrian conflict resolution, and the UN is moving along it with the support of the entire world community.
Whether or not this format is being projected onto other regions, is a matter for political scientists. As far as the South Caucasus is concerned, Russia, Turkey and Iran are the closest neighbours of the countries of this region and we are not indifferent to how things stand there. We express our attitude to what is happening there through specific actions. This also applies to the November 9 Statement coordinated at the initiative of the President of Russia Vladimir Putin with his colleagues from Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the solid assistance that we provide in relief efforts after the acute phase of this conflict including our peacekeepers, humanitarian supplies, and many other things.
As for the ‘mood’ EU High Representative Borrell conveyed in his blog, as I understand it, he is a little concerned that someone other than the European Union might be taking proactive steps in the modern world. As a reminder, some time ago, the previous High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Ms Federica Mogherini, said that when the EU came to the Balkans or any other region, others had no business being there. Later, after a few raised eyebrows and questions, they pretended it was a misunderstanding. But everyone understood it perfectly. If this Astanisation has been added into diplomatic discourse to reflect their nostalgia for colonisation, well, the European Union will probably have to deal with these years of nostalgia for a time that is long gone and is never coming back. I really do hope that the European Union will act in accord with the present time, and will not try to see the modern world as subject to division into spheres of influence. There will be enough room for everyone if they just participate in conflict resolution in good faith rather than try to gain some geopolitical benefits or unilateral advantages.