Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and responses to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of Eritrea Osman Saleh, Sochi, August 31, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
I held talks with my colleague, Foreign Minister of Eritrea Osman Saleh.
We noted that May marked 25 years of diplomatic relations between Russia and Eritrea. Today we acknowledged that, over the years, we have accumulated a very positive experience of cooperation based on a long-standing tradition of friendship, trust and mutual respect.
We reviewed in detail the current state of and prospects for bilateral relations and reaffirmed our mutual commitment to their progressive expansion, primarily in trade and the economy. Truck maker KAMAZ is already working in Eritrea, supplying its products to that country, as is Gazprombank Global Resources, which is building cooperation in the banking sector. Talks are underway to build a logistics centre at the port of Eritrea, which will promote bilateral trade.
We agreed to take extra measures to promote promising projects in the sphere of mining and infrastructure development and to supply specialised transport and agricultural equipment to Eritrea. We agreed to help our respective business people to establish direct contacts. For these purposes, our Eritrean friends said they are interested in participating in international economic forums held across Russia.
We welcomed our Eritrean friends’ commitment to expand interaction in education and professional training. Each year we provide a large number of scholarships to Eritrean students who plan to study at Russian universities. Work on an agreement on the mutual recognition of university diplomas has been completed, and the agreement will be signed soon. Eritrea is interested in opening a Russian language department at one of the universities in the capital of the country, Asmara. Today, we agreed to do our best to promote this important undertaking.
Our positions coincide on most regional and global matters and are fairly close on all others. Russia and Eritrea advocate state-to-state communications based on international law, respect for the identity of all nations and their natural desire to determine their own future. We will work to improve coordination, which we have already established in the UN and other international forums, including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where we share positions and are against eroding the activities of this important international body and focus on preventing deviations from the principles agreed to under the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC).
We focused particularly on the situation in Africa. We are convinced that the Africans have the decisive role to play in ensuring peace, security and stability in their home, of course, with the consistent support of the international community and the central role of the UN, which must actively interact with the African Union and subregional organisations on the continent.
We welcomed the normalisation of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations, which began in June, and the resumption of direct contact between the parties, which made it possible to advance along the path of removing mutual concerns, thanks to the goodwill of the heads of both states. As you are aware, Russia has been consistently in favour of overcoming existing differences between Asmara and Addis Ababa through peaceful means. Back in 2013, we proposed establishing a direct dialogue between the foreign ministers of Eritrea and Ethiopia. We are convinced that normalising ties meets the fundamental interests of the peoples of the two countries and will help maintain peace and neighborliness between the two countries, and will strengthen stability and security on the Horn of Africa.
We also support the positive changes in relations between Eritrea and Somalia. We want the relations between Djibouti and Eritrea to overcome the crisis as well. We are willing to provide every assistance in order to normalise the situation across the Horn of Africa. I’m confident that in addition to political stabilisation, this will help create excellent opportunities for deepening regional economic integration. We will facilitate such processes and encourage Russian companies to participate in prospective multilateral projects such as building regional transport corridors, cross-border pipelines and others.
Of course, given the radically positive developments on the Horn of Africa, especially between Eritrea and Ethiopia, we believe it is necessary to begin lifting the sanctions imposed on Eritrea by the UN Security Council.
In addition, we noted positive dynamics in other parts of Africa, specifically, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are still many unresolved problems there. In general, sub-Saharan Africa's problems are serious, but in some situations, which I mentioned, there are improvements. We believe that it is important to consolidate such positive processes in every way possible.
I think we had very useful talks. I am grateful to my colleague, Foreign Minister of Eritrea Osman Saleh, for his cooperation.
Question (to both ministers): At the start of the meeting you said that the Russian side notes positive trends on the Horn of Africa. What steps are being taken by both sides to settle conflicts in the region?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Osman Saleh): I can confirm that we are interested in the broadest possible cooperation with the African countries. We cooperate in many diverse areas: natural resources, all types of energy engineering, including nuclear and hydroelectric energy, and new sources of energy, infrastructure in all its aspects, medicine, the social sphere, transport and much more. The number of countries with which we are not only discussing specific projects, but are also beginning to implement them and achieve positive results, invariably increases every year. Regarding the Horn of Africa, Eritrea and Ethiopia are our longstanding partners. We wish them success in stepping up the normalisation process that will benefit all, including the people of both countries, in the economy as well.
But we also have many partners in other countries: Sudan, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and others. I do not want to offend anyone: this is by no means an exhaustive list. I am sure that, thanks to our economic cooperation, we will contribute to cementing the foundations for the stable development of Africa and eliminating the causes of conflicts, most of which stem from insufficient development of the socio-economic sphere and the dire situation for significant parts of the population.
Question: As reported after the Geneva meeting between Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev and US National Security Adviser John Bolton, an agreement was reached to restore contacts between the foreign and defence ministries of the two countries. When will your meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo take place? Are there any specific agreements, including any made on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no need to restore contacts between the ministries: they are underway. An agreement was reached to continue and preferably step up these contacts for the purpose of addressing the issues that depend, above all, on whether Russia and the United States can come to terms. As for the contacts between the foreign ministries, I met with Michael Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson several times. And I had a separate meeting with Michael Pompeo in Helsinki, when President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of the United States Donald Trump were holding talks there. I have talked to him over the telephone several times, including recently, around a week ago. As for the defence ministries, interaction between them, for example on Syria, is conducted in real time. There is an agreement on a mechanism for the prevention of unintentional incidents. It works. We would like our interaction in resolving the crisis in that part of the Middle East and North Africa to be more substantive, aimed at promoting a settlement, including in the political sphere. We are always ready to move in this direction as far as the American side considers possible for itself, given the fact that many in Washington dislike any contact between Russian and US officials. You know what an unhealthy atmosphere is pervasive there.
As for upcoming plans regarding a meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, we will both attend the high-level week during the upcoming 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. I assume that we are both ready to hold a special, comprehensive and substantive meeting and that we will review all the matters that require our attention on the bilateral agenda and in international affairs.
Question: Is it safe to assume that fundamentally important agreements with Turkey on resolving the situation in Idlib will be reached soon, or are we looking at a major military operation in that region?
Sergey Lavrov: You mentioned agreements between Russia and Turkey, but forgot to mention Syria, because, above all, this concerns the legitimate Syrian government which is fully entitled to secure its sovereignty, to expel and to eliminate the terrorist threat on its territory. This is the main problem now with regard to Idlib. The armed opposition that’s ready for a dialogue with the Syrian government must be separated from Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups that are recognised as terrorists by the UN Security Council in this de-escalation zone. The terrorists are against such a separation and want to use civilians as human shields, which in itself is a war crime – this shouldn’t be forgotten either. Using financial and other means, including intimidation, they are trying to prevent armed groups that are not part of Jabhat al-Nusra and its offshoots from leaving that area. They even force them to cooperate with terrorists, as I have mentioned, by intimidating them and simply killing those who even talk about a dialogue with the government.
I think everyone remembers our account of the situation that was provided yesterday at a news conference following talks with Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem. We did the same thing at a news conference with Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu several days before that. In all our comments and practical steps regarding the de-escalation zone in Idlib, we have in every way stressed the need to minimise risks for the civilian population. Yesterday, Mr Muallem once again pointed out that the Syrian government is working to achieve “local ceasefires” in the Idlib area in order to reach agreements with the towns and urban neighbourhoods where the municipal authorities or those who control a particular territory are willing to do so. Also, talks are underway on creating humanitarian corridors. All this indicates the precautions that are being made to stave off problems for civilians, whom Jabhat al-Nusra are tough with.
We will keep you posted on these efforts, which we actively support, and also on our dialogue with the Syrian government and Turkey, which, to some extent, is important for the de-escalation zone in Idlib after 12 observation posts had been deployed there in accordance with the Astana format agreements. We have no plans to hide what we are doing to support the Syrian government, which is liberating its land from terrorists and creating proper conditions for the Syrian people to be able to return to their homes soon and live normal lives like everyone else.
Question: The Western media’s vocal response to yesterday's announcement on the Russian Navy and Aerospace Force exercises in the Mediterranean scheduled for early September is quite notable...
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the Russian Navy exercises in the Mediterranean, they are routine. All states have the right to conduct exercises in accordance with international law either on their respective territories or the territories of other states as agreed with them or on the high seas, which is fully consistent with international law.
I’m not sure about a violent reaction in the West. I think it's better to ask those who are trying to stage a tempest in a teapot. I do not rule out that all this is in line with the urban legend that is being spread around the world which accuses Russia of everything, without exception, that is happening on the planet. I believe, so far the only thing we haven’t been accused of is arranging earthquakes and tsunamis.
The NATO countries regularly conduct exercises on the Black Sea directly off our coast, and the scale of these is on the rise. The underlying implications of such naval exercises are clearly aggressive. They are practicing the landing of troops on the Black Sea coast. Draw your own conclusions as to what they are training for and how they want to build their relations with Russia. To be sure, the Mediterranean Sea is far enough from the capitals that are most vocal about our presence there while the Black Sea is right on the Russian border.
Question: Yesterday Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, reminded everyone of the risk of using chemical weapons and the great number of civilians in the area controlled by the militants. Can you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: If we remain grounded in objective facts, I would rather talk not about the risk of using chemical weapons per se but about the risk of provocation with the use of chemical weapons in order to put the blame on the Syrian government. There is little doubt that such a provocation is in the making. We have submitted concrete facts, from different sources, both to the UN and the Hague where OPCW headquarters is located. These facts match. An effort should be made by these international organisations to realise their responsibility in the provocations being planned and to raise their voice against any such attempt. There is no need to convince anyone that this is real because there have been a number of staged incidents like this in the past two years. In all of those cases, after they were staged, our Western colleagues did not allow OPCW inspectors to the sites of the incidents to take samples under CWC-established procedures. The investigations were conducted remotely. The OPCW international staff – the inspectors – were manipulated roughly, openly and arrogantly, they were intimidated and blackmailed. This behaviour by the Western countries towards an international organisation is unacceptable.
Most countries think exactly the same. In June, when our Western colleagues tried to push through a resolution to grant the OPCW Secretariat with actual UNSC authority to decide by itself who is to blame for a given incident, the resolution did not even garner half of the CWC member-states’ votes. If they keep pushing this idea, it carries the risk of destroying the chemical weapons non-proliferation regime and undermining the Convention itself. Let me reiterate that UN representatives should be very cautious about commenting on this situation and should avoid statements that could be interpreted by the masterminds of provocations as support for their plans.
I have spoken about the large number of civilians in the militants-controlled area. I mentioned measures taken so as to minimise the risk to civilians – humanitarian corridors and “local conciliations.” Actually, equally vocal concerns were expressed when the liberation of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta was planned. In both cases humanitarian corridors were set up. The operation to suppress the terrorists was preceded by a series of “local conciliations.” By the way, immediately after the liberation of those territories, as well as other areas that the Russian side helped the Syrian government army liberate, measures were taken to clear mines and re-establish basic services for the people. Very soon civilians began to return to both Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. Hundreds of thousands of people have returned home. Most of them have actually come back.
In contrast, nobody recalls how Raqqa was stormed, what the US-led coalition forces did. There was no talk of humanitarian corridors and “local conciliations.” Raqqa was just erased and abandoned. Nobody tried to clear mines or even remove dead bodies. There was a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe there. Only several months later, after many members of the international community blamed the coalition for what it had done to Raqqa and its residents, some works started there to clear the city. Residents began to come back only very recently and in small numbers at that. Let me stress again that we insist that all the efforts taken within the framework of settling the crisis should be aimed at implementing UNSC Resolution 2254, which stipulates assistance from the international community in creating conditions for the Syrians themselves to agree on how they are going to live on in their country. We should all act precisely in this way, helping the Syrians, rather than using them as “pawns” in a chess game with unilateral geopolitical goals. I call on everyone to follow the logic of collective responsibility for settling international crises and conflicts.