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21 February 201917:50

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers at a meeting with the Association of European Business in the Russian Federation, Moscow, February 21, 2019

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First of all I would like to thank you, members of the Association of European Business, for your understanding of the circumstances that led us to request that you relocate the meeting to this facility. I think it is no less comfortable here than at the Baltschug Hotel. Moreover, due to the circumstances it gave us an opportunity to respond to your hospitality at our previous meetings.

For me, it is sincere satisfaction to address the members of the Association of European Business again. I can see many familiar faces here. This means continuity is in place. Despite the challenges mentioned by Johan Vanderplaetse, there is an attitude to continue our cooperation.

Our dialogue with business from the European countries has become a good tradition. Last year, in November, President of Russia Vladimir Putin met with German business community leaders, and in October with Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte and the delegation of the heads of Italian companies accompanying him during his visit to Russia. Several days ago, in the margins of the Munich conference on security policy, Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Josef Maas and I met with Russian and German business leaders at a very early business lunch.

Despite the current difficulties that nobody hides, there has been a feeling during these and other meetings that business circles are tired of the sanctions and of confrontation and are interested in resuming full cooperation. We support this attitude. By the way, this attitude is already producing practical results. Trade between Russia and the EU has increased for the second year running. Last year it increased 20 percent to almost $300 billion. This is certainly much less than the record $440 billion in 2013, but the trend towards a resumption of the growth in trade is obvious.

In principle, despite Brussels’s policy, we are seeing the revival of political dialogue as well. We continue cooperating on a number of sectoral issues. Contacts in science and technology and culture, as well as dialogues on migration and counterterrorism are making headway. Of course, these are one-time, sporadic contacts, but they are positive nonetheless. They confirm that there is no objective reason for the further degradation of relations, but we have to admit that conditions for a return to normal Russia-EU relations are not here yet.

Regrettably, not everyone in Europe supports the desire to normalise Russia-EU relations. As you know, the anti-Russia propaganda campaign is ongoing. Russia is being stubbornly presented as the main, “strategic” threat to European security. Unilateral restrictions are diligently extended. Literally just the other day, the EU again yielded to the pressure of its domestic Russophobes, as well as to the US and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, we see what’s behind this. We see that Russia’s demonisation in the eyes of the broad European public is aimed at creating a convenient cover-up for resolving geopolitical issues. NATO continues pursuing a course of building up its military activities and deploying its military infrastructure near Russian borders. Apart from Macedonia and other Balkan countries, NATO is stubbornly drawing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. The US’ withdrawal from the INF Treaty is not optimistic, either. This was obediently and unanimously supported by all NATO members although there are at least some discrepancies on this issue. Such actions lead to the escalation of military-political tensions, including in our common neighbourhood.

It is regrettable that the peace and security of the European nations have become hostage to the destructive policy of Washington and a small but extremely aggressive group of Russophobes in the EU. Mutual trust, on which we have worked so persistently for so long, has been seriously undermined. The system of multi-level Russia-EU cooperation – from summits to sectoral dialogues – has been suspended. I don’t need to tell you that European manufacturers are losing tens and maybe hundreds of billions of dollars. Is this all for the sake of giving the Kiev regime an opportunity to continue the war against its own people? I don’t think this is in the interests of the Europeans.

It is hardly worth speaking here in detail about the failure of the attempts to impede Russia’s economic and technological development. These attempts will not work. Our economy deals with this problem. It is flexibly reacting to the fluctuations in foreign economic markets. We are taking measures to enhance our investment appeal, in part, by establishing special economic zones and territories for accelerated socioeconomic development. The Foreign Investment Advisory Council (FIAC) headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has a good reputation. Indicatively, more than half of its members represent major European companies. Its work has improved the international investment position of this country. Russia has gone up by several positions in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings.

In general, we want new, positive opportunities to open for foreign business. I believe Europe is coming to realise this, judging by the recently released position document of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, that we talked about not long ago at the meeting of Russian and German business in Munich. This document contains an appeal to revise EU strategy towards Russia and embark on full economic cooperation.

I heard what you said about the situation around Michael Calvey from Baring Vostok. In his address to the Federal Assembly yesterday President of Russia Vladimir Putin emphasised the existence of systematic problems in this area. The issue was in the centre of heated political debates. I think all circumstances of this case will be considered during court hearings in the near future. I have never met Mr Calvey. As I see it, in principle he was not a very prominent figure in the public space, but I have heard from people whom I deeply respect what was said about him and I am sure that many have heard this as well.   

Colleagues,

Today, the global geopolitical situation continues to change rapidly, first and foremost owing to the emergence and consolidation of the new centres of economic power. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has come to play a tangible role. In a short span of time it has traversed a fairly long road – from elimination of customs barriers tо the formation of a common market for goods, services, capital and workforce. The EAEU’s aggregate GDP is about $2 trillion and the total number of consumers exceeds 183 million. The success of this integration effort is reflected not only in the growth of trade but also in the expansion of its foreign economic contacts – over 40 states and associations are working to sign trade liberalisation agreements with the EAEU.  

China, which is carrying out its “One Road, One Belt” concept in close partnership with Russia and the EAEU, is also working to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in Eurasia. The foundations of a common market with reliance on universally recognised WTO standards are being laid in our vast area. This synergy – in the vein of President Vladimir Putin’s initiative on establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership that implies large-scale economic integration free from all barriers – is beginning to produce results. Last year, Russia-China trade amounted to a record $100 billion. The two countries are successfully developing cooperation in energy, aircraft manufacturing, space and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Success lies in the reliance on the values of equality, respect and consideration for each other’s interests. Imagine, these are values as well.

Russia is ready to build its relations with the EU along similar principles. The EU remains our important neighbour and major trade partner. We are united by many things in the historical, cultural and human plane since the times when values were truly common to all Europeans. As before, we are open to cooperation with our European partners on building a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which can unite all states without exception in this vast and most competitive Eurasian region.

The EU should probably assess the prospects of creating an innovative model of cooperation in Eurasia, which could become the foundation for a system of equal and indivisible security that meets the realities of the 21st century. We could start with small steps – the development of stable contacts between the EAEU and the EU. There are obviously ideological obstacles in this respect. On a pragmatic basis, we welcome the contacts that have begun between the European Commission and the Eurasian Economic Commission. For now they are discussing issues of technical and standards regulation but probably this is not a bad thing. We are actively supporting them.      

Russia is striving to enhance the coherence and complementarity of cooperation in Europe in actions rather than words. Energy cooperation is an obvious example. Last year Gazprom broke its record of gas distribution volume to the European market. We continue carrying out major infrastructure projects, including Nord Stream 2 that is designed to diversify gas supplies to European consumers using the shortest and least expensive route. The construction of the Turkish Stream continues according to schedule. Alternatives for extending a ground-based gas pipeline branch towards Europe are being discussed. Considering the sad experience of South Stream, rock solid legal guarantees on behalf of the European Commission will be required for a final decision.

Friends,

We know that more and more people in Europe are coming to understand that the confrontation line with regard to Russia is simply pointless. They strive to implement a pragmatic policy and do not want to sacrifice their citizens’ well-being and future for the sake of dubious geopolitical projects. We are ready to expand cooperation with the EU to the extent that they want. We would like to perceive it as an integral, solid and independent partner that would become consolidated on the basis of every European nation’s genuine national interests, rather than on an artificially supported anti-Russia platform.

Business circles and business diplomacy can and should make a useful contribution to restoring mutual trust. This is what your Association is doing. We appreciate your readiness to expand cooperation and to implement mutually beneficial joint projects. In turn, we will continue to do our very best to create the most favourable working conditions for you here.

Thank you. I am ready to answer your questions.

Question: On February 15, the media reported that the Customs Service would expand the list of imported goods. However, everyone opposed this initiative at a meeting with representatives of the Russian business community at the Ministry of Agriculture. But some foreign-made goods are very important and should not therefore be banned. What will eventually be done?

Sergey Lavrov: This took place at another ministry, and this is not a political matter. This concerns market supplies, competition and consideration for our partners’ approaches towards trade with the Russian Federation. You know the origin of these reciprocal measures, and you also know how to eliminate their initial cause. All the rest stems from the initial situation, and we did not look forward to this development. It appears no one likes this situation, but you are affected by it. We are not happy about this either.  

Question: Yesterday President of Russia Vladimir Putin presented his Address to the Federal Assembly in which he mentioned many development vectors for Russia, including his proposal to think about streamlining visa procedures for foreign tourists, in particular, to make better use of electronic visas. Vladimir Putin also supported the idea of using electronic visas at the recent forum of Delovaya Rossiya business association where he talked about the experience of offering visa-free travel during the World Cup, when people could use their Fan IDs to enter the country. On February 11, there was a meeting with Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, organised with the support of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. During the meeting our representative proposed introducing Expo IDs for people attending major international fairs and exhibitions, to replicate the Fan ID experience. What do you think about this proposal?

Sergey Lavrov: We are currently carrying out a pilot project with electronic visas in Russia’s Far East, as well as in Kaliningrad. Considering the positive outcome there were decisions in principle to work out how this project can be expanded to cover other regions of the Russian Federation. However, there is an important aspect that we need to take into consideration. It is not uncommon that requests for electronic visas are filed by people who do not necessarily intend to visit the country and want to have a visa just in case. I may not remember the exact details, but I think that within a certain period of time less than half of the 50,000 visas that were requested were actually used in the Far East. This creates certain challenges that need to be addressed in terms of security at crossing points. We need to understand why people request a visa if they do not plan to come. So there are some particular aspects that we need to look into. In principle, we want ties and contacts to be as free and unhindered as possible.

Let me remind you what happened long before a government coup that was carried out in Ukraine with the support from some countries of the European Union and the US, and before neo-Nazis came to power and declared their intention to eliminate Russians in Crimea, which prompted people in Crimea to hold a referendum, and resulted in sanctions imposed by those who contributed to these developments and encouraged the government coup even though Germany, France and Poland signed, approved and acted as guarantors in the agreement between Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, only to have these agreements trampled upon by the opposition the very next day. So before all this happened the West had very few pretexts to engage in Russophobe practices (I am not talking about the West as a whole, but some adopted this attitude a long time ago), and we completed talks with the European Union on visa-free travel that had lasted for many years.

This process unfolded in stages. It started in 2003 at the Russia-EU Summit when then-President of the European Commission Romano Prodi said that he did not see any reason that could prevent the visa-free arrangement from coming into force within five years, i.e. by 2008. However, this did not happen. It wasn’t until much later that we signed an agreement on easing the visa regime. It covered a number of categories of people in Russia and was designed to make a substantial contribution to promoting people-to-people contacts.

At the same time, we held talks on an agreement to introduce visa-free travel for all citizens, including tourism and sports exchanges, covering almost all possible contacts. It was ready for signing, but the European Union put forward a number of conditions, including offering visa-free travel only to people with biometric passports. We agreed. After that the European Union insisted that we limit the number of people entitled to travel with service passports to civil servants, since service passports are also used by military personnel in Russia. We did this too. The EU’s third request was to have Russia and the EU sign a readmission agreement along with implementing protocols with every EU member country. We agreed to that as well. And despite all this when everything was ready, and it was up to Brussels to decide whether to sign the agreement, it was blocked, primarily by the Baltic states. Everybody knows this, and there is no secret about it. Their position consisted of a very simple formula. They said that it would be unacceptable to grant Russia visa-free travel with the European Union before offering it to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. If these are not far-fetched obstacles to free contacts, I do not know what else can be said about this.

Let me emphasise once again that all this happened before our relations hit a roadblock after this government coup and the neo-Nazi aspirations of those who came to power in Kiev. Nevertheless, we are still ready to move toward a framework that would make contacts as convenient and people-friendly as possible. We will do this, but of course we want these efforts to be reciprocal. This is what the rules of diplomacy are all about.

This does not mean that there will be any restrictions. What this means is that we must have the same regulations for EU countries. By the way, we appreciate the position of those EU countries that have been as liberal as possible in their visa policy toward Russia within the framework of the Schengen principles, including by offering five-year Schengen visas. I do not want to offend anyone, but Italy, France and a number of other countries have used the potential of the Schengen rules quite extensively.

As for the experience of the World Cup, let’s agree on hosting the World Cup in Russia every four years. This would be really nice. Maybe in this case Russia would not lose to Croatia.

Question: Mr Lavrov, this is the ninth time we have met. You are one of the wise men in foreign policy across the world.

As an American, I am worried that Russian-US relations have reached their lowest point. Can things fall any lower, or is there still a chance for us to improve our relations? What options do you see for restoring positive momentum?

Sergey Lavrov: I believe that this problem is rooted in the domestic developments in the United States.

Frankly speaking, we are not enjoying the current developments, but we did not start it. It is stretching the truth to say that this is the punishment for Ukraine and Crimea. It all began back under President Barack Obama, long before Washington launched its “colour revolution” project in Ukraine. It began with Edward Snowden, who was stuck in Russia because he could not fly anywhere – his passport was cancelled. The US President, the Secretary of State and the FBI and CIA directors put pressure on us to surrender him without delay. We said we could not do so because all the accompanying information indicated that he was facing the death penalty. This is why Obama banned bilateral contacts and cancelled his visit ahead of the G20 summit in St Petersburg. By the way, we were preparing for that meeting an agreement on the further reduction of strategic offensive arms, which should have followed on the 2010 Prague Treaty, as well as a largely coordinated declaration that set out an agenda on strategic stability for many years to come. Obama’s inability to forgo personal resentment buried a very important document, which could have been put to very good use now.

Next, sanctions were imposed over the Magnitsky case. A closer look at the problem revealed that Bill Browder, who raised the ballyhoo, had problems with the law, and not only Russian law. The Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia brought charges against Browder in the United States. American courts had to accept numerous facts supporting our suspicions. However, the court’s operations were clearly interfered with by those who did not want to ease pressure on Russia, that is, by Browder himself and his supporters. In other words, Ukraine was just another pretext.

The US elite disliked the changes that took place in Russia after Vladimir Putin became our president, when we gradually got back on our feet and regained our independence. Most importantly, we started thinking independently and stopped listening to the advisers who were entrenched in our key ministries in the 1990s. We are not happy about the current situation. Some people say that Russia is wallowing in pride and is showing off its arrogance. Nothing of the kind! Only those who do not understand our thousands-year long history can say such a thing. This is sad.

One negative consequence of the 1990s is that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history.” He was completely wrong, but many people took his writings as a signal to action. There were clever Sovietologists of the Cold War period, but no school of Russian studies has taken shape in the West. Few professionals shifted their views to Russia and the post-Soviet space after the demise of the Soviet Union. As for the current political scientists, I am at a loss to say who is really influential. There is Dimitri Simes and several other people I know personally, such as former ambassador to Russia Bill Burns. But they do not have any serious influence on decision-making, if at all. It is a lot simpler there [in the US].

The election defeat of the Democratic Party provided the pretext for preventing the normalisation of relations with Russia. Three weeks before leaving the White House, Barack Obama seized Russia’s diplomatic property. It happened in a country where this cannot be done for any reason, where private property is a sacred right and others’ property must never be taken. It was a time bomb, and its clock is still ticking. The Democrats have done their best to use the Russian card so as to do maximum damage to the current administration. When a great nation spends three years speculating about foreign interference that allegedly predetermined the outcome of its presidential elections, we see this as disrespect for the great American people.

Speaking about the election turbulence, I would like to refer to the Democratic Party. Contrary to what the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is trying to prove, there are solid facts showing that the Democratic Party violated the law when illegal methods were used to force Bernie Sanders to quit the race. Everyone has forgotten about this, talking about Russia all the time rather than about what is happening in the United States.

I know American society, where no secrets are safe but are leaked to the public. If there was a single solid fact of Russia’s interference in US affairs, it would have been leaked during the more than two years of hearings and meetings held by Mueller’s office. But the only one to get in trouble was Paul Manafort. Moreover, it turned out that he worked for Ukraine, not Russia. But this fact is being forgotten as well.

The focus is now on Maria Butina, whose only sin is that she has joined the National Rifle Association of America. This has been presented as nearly an assault on the US Constitution.

We are open for dialogue as long as the United States is. President Vladimir Putin has said this more than once at his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Hamburg in 2017, in Helsinki last year, as well as during their contacts at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. We do not want to interfere, and we do not want to give any reason for accusing us of interference in the internal fighting and conflicts in the United States. What we have is a constructive agenda. We have outlined a number of cooperation areas, including the establishment, upon our presidents’ approval, of a business council comprising five, six or seven top officials each from the largest Russian and US corporations. I am sure that such a high-level council could become a major stabilisation factor, at least for our business communities.

We have also proposed establishing, if our presidents approve this, a small council of leading Russian and US political scientists who can be charged with preparing a positive agenda. We have offered an extended programme for a dialogue on strategic stability, including on the INF Treaty and a future agreement on strategic offensive arms, as well as on cooperation in space and on ways to prevent its militarisation with unpredictable consequences. They have put all this on back burner. We have not received a clear or constructive response to these proposals. When the United States initiated the procedure to withdraw from the INF Treaty, President Putin said at a meeting with Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and me that we had more than once told our American partners about all our initiatives, and that our partners surely know about them. If they opted for disregarding these initiatives, we will no longer knock on a locked door and will stop reminding our partners about our initiatives. Our American colleagues can tell us when they are ready. We will be willing to start the talks.

Question: The reason why we are here today is business. It is something that still connects us and allows us to compensate for the deteriorating political relations. Representatives of companies who are here today spoke about the greatest damage having been caused, not by European sanctions but by the counter-sanctions that affected European businesses and Russian consumers.

The first speaker today expressed concern about the proposal of the Customs Service. I understand that it is not the Foreign Ministry’s responsibility but you are an influential member of the Russian Government and we hope that if such a proposal is discussed again you will take the comments of business representatives into consideration. This is more of a comment than a question.

Sergey Lavrov: Thank you, I heard that the majority’s opinion is that the main cause of trouble comes, not from your sanctions but from our response. You want to say that your sanctions must remain in place while we have to learn to live with them.

Of course, there are negative consequences for the market and consumers. There were even shortages in the very beginning. But if you talk to Russian agricultural producers, they got a new lease of life. Our agricultural industry is experiencing an unprecedented boost. Maybe not in every category but the process is very healthy.

Speaking about retaliation, how were we supposed to act? You did not simply impose sanctions on certain categories of products but also sectoral sanctions against banks, including strict restrictions on lending to Russian banks, such as Rosselkhozbank, which lends money to Russian agricultural producers. Considering that the agricultural industry in the EU receives tremendous subsidies, such a drastic deterioration of the lending terms for our agriculture could have brought it down.

No measure is perfect. They say that the sanctions are not imposed against the Syrian people but against the “regime;” that the sanctions are not imposed against the Iranian people but against Iran. It is impossible to precisely calibrate this kind of restrictive measures. In any case, they will hit the people first and foremost (both in Syria, Iran and North Korea). Therefore, these sanctions should be abandoned altogether.

The EU has contracted the virus of American  license (allow me to phrase it this way). Without giving it a second thought, the United States applies its legislation extraterritorially. In one of the cases, they found that a Paris bank had violated the US law, although there was no violation in terms of French or EU law (this bank carried out transactions with Iran). They made that bank pay eight or nine billion US dollars for nothing. Then something similar happened to a German company. It is becoming common practice. They introduce their own rules (in Russia, they would be called “terms”) and, instead of complying with the principles of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), they act according to their own terms.

Recently, the EU developed its own system of sanctions against those who use chemical weapons. It looked like a good idea. But it was not the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which operates based on a universal convention, that was selected as a criterion for imposing sanctions, but a Paris initiative that has nothing to do either with the UN or the universal convention and states that it is necessary to create a partnership against impunity in the area of chemical weapon uses. This means that one country announces that it is creating a partnership that has nothing to do  with universal structures and the EU says it is a good idea, and when this partnership appoints culprits, the EU will impose sanctions against them. All of this is beyond the scope of international as enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention. I could continue in the same vein for long.

The EU is also tempted to go beyond the frameworks where they have to come to terms with the entire world. It has no patience. Of course, it is much more difficult to talk about signing new universal conventions because they would have to be approved by 193 countries or the number of countries that are willing to participate. But all of them must be invited. It is much easier to come together with those who share the same values and engage in decision-making on who to punish and who to forgive within an inner circle. This is difficult to fight because you made the decision. Nobody will declare a war on you or the United States for that. But you need to think about the consequences. The universal foundations of international law are being eroded. This is lamentable.  I hope this process will not be irreversible.

Question: What do you think about the evolution of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline? What are your impressions? Will we manage to reach an agreement on this matter or not?

Sergey Lavrov: I only read about various developments. They say this is a major victory for Germany, France and common sense. I would like to believe this. As they say, the proof  of  the pudding is in the eating. Let’s see how all this works out.

To be honest, it is quite surprising how this entire story has evolved. All the parties to this project proclaimed it as a purely commercial venture that would benefit the European business community and boost European energy security, including that of Germany and other countries that are beginning to renounce nuclear and coal-fired power generation. Everything appeared to be fine. Virtually all further objections to this project were politically motivated, including claims that Europe’s dependence on Russia would increase. German Chancellor Angela Merkel aptly noted in Munich not so long ago that the Soviet Union had virtually enjoyed monopoly rights, but that Europe had  not felt any dependence or a need to follow in the wake of the Soviet policy. This is business only.

It is hardly surprising that the European Commission’s Special Committee on Legal Affairs was asked to provide a legal assessment of the project. The jurists wrote honestly that the project did not violate EU legislation in any way. Moreover, any attempts to bring this project in conformity with the gas directive post-factum would violate the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, because this Convention regulates matters linked with high-seas areas.

We believed that the European Commission would respect their own committee’s legal assessment, all the more so as member-countries whose companies were involved and are still involved in this project clearly stated their position. I don’t want to meddle in current intra-EU problems, but the European Commission persisted with its own line, rather than that of the member-countries whose opinion did not matter very much. The European Commission’s line eventually led to amending the gas directive. An assessment by many European, rather than Russian, lawyers shows that this amendment violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I am not a lawyer. The project was launched when the current directive remained in force, and no one doubted its legality. The amendment that was specially passed today affects the project that was launched two years ago. I am not a lawyer, but, in my opinion, it is not right to change something post-factum.

In some situations, a lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit. We are only too happy if this allowed the EU to preserve its unity. If this makes it possible to avoid an absurd situation where the pipeline, due to pump Russian gas alone, will be

Question: Mr Lavrov, we, as representatives of business, are now observing exactly the trend you described at the beginning of your opening remarks. We can see an increase, compared with last year, which is largely ensured by replacement through Russian companies. We are organising exhibitions and conferences. At the same time, we have not yet reached the peak values ​​of 2013. We are certainly interested in expansion. We can see significant potential in attracting a larger number of Russian exhibitors, but there is also significant growth potential for foreign exhibitors. European companies are now cautious about the Russian market.

In your opinion what are the main growth drivers that will increase European companies’ interest in the Russian market as well as their willingness to invest and come here?

Sergey Lavrov: I am not so deeply immersed in this topic. I am not a professional, but I understand what businesses generally need, so I would proceed from the fact that it is necessary for us to simplify the environment for starting and running a business, and the reporting system, as much as possible.

I know that the Government’s Foreign Investment Advisory Council deals with such matters. I thought your Association also regularly summarises various requests and sends them to the relevant ministries – the Ministry of Economic Development or the Ministry of Finance. This is probably the easiest and most reliable way – not to invent things for businesses, but to listen to them. This is actually the Foreign Investment Advisory Council’s mission; that is why regular meetings, such as the Sberbank forum, are held.

Question: What are the prospects for developing relations and expanding cooperation with Japan?

Sergey Lavrov: Investment cooperation is reasonably growing with Japan. Many Japanese companies, including automakers, open their units in Russia, and attain positive results. We have good cooperation in the energy sector. The Japanese are considering a number of projects along with Sakhalin, in which they would be willing to participate.

President Vladimir Putin agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it is important for us to bring our relations up to a qualitatively new level. This is our number one priority when it comes to the economy, politics and security, where we have a lot of problems, given the importance of a military alliance with the US for Japan. The Americans declared Russia the main adversary, if not an enemy. This clearly creates difficulties in raising the relationship to a qualitatively new level. For the same reason – its alliance with the United States – Japan votes with them in all international organisations, including on issues where Russia votes the opposite way.

We have very good humanitarian ties. Japan regularly holds festivals of Russian culture, which are very popular there.

We have a very good dialogue between the foreign ministries. But, I repeat, there are not so many points of contact, considering Tokyo’s pro-American position.

We would like to achieve more in economic cooperation. As you know, our leaders have agreed on joint business activities on the four islands. Five areas have been indicated, but they are not very impressive: aquaculture, greenhouse farming, things like that. So far we have very few joint high-tech projects, partly due to Japan’s external partners hindering these spheres of cooperation, as far as we understand our Japanese neighbours. But we still hope to bring the relationship to the level of a true partnership.

The difficulties I have listed are important obstacles, but we are committed to reaching the level indicated by the Russian President and the Japanese Prime Minister. In this context, as has been said, we will be able to resolve any complex problems. Plus, as Vladimir Putin suggested at the Eastern Economic Forum last September, we could be ready to draw up and sign a peace treaty right now – but not a peace treaty in the sense in which such treaties are signed immediately after wars. The state of war between us has long ceased to exist, since the adoption of the 1956 Declaration. Rather, after so many decades of coexistence and cooperation in a wide range of fields, we would like to prepare an agreement that would lay the foundations for our good-neighbourly and friendly relations.

So far, our Japanese colleagues have a different approach to the peace treaty problem, although the 1956 Declaration provides for just that. First and foremost, signing a peace treaty. In this regard, I definitely have to repeat what I usually say. The signing of a peace treaty absolutely has to imply a confirmation of the WW2 outcome in the form it was codified in many documents and, most importantly, in the UN Charter. It stipulates that everything the victorious powers did is not negotiable. Therefore, it is simply impossible to get away from this statement.

I met with the Foreign Minister of Japan Taro Kono on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 16. This was one of the highlights of our talks. So far, we do not see Japan’s readiness to confirm what it has signed up for following WW2, as it joined the UN.

Question: I’m a representative of a Polish machine-building plant in Russia. We have been supplying road construction equipment to Russia for over 40 years now. A few years ago, Russia changed the status of the rail and road border crossing in Smolensk. Since then, we have been unable to use the shortest Smolensk - Minsk - Brest route to go to Poland. We cannot have our mechanics use this border crossing if they drive, because it is closed to Polish citizens and, possibly, other European citizens as well. Will this crossing be open any time soon? If so, when?

Sergey Lavrov: Frankly, this is news to me. I’m going to ask my colleagues here to follow up on this and give me an update. I have not heard about such a problem, but usually this kind of a question regularly surfaces during contacts. Truth be told, we don’t have too many contacts with Poland now, so maybe that's why. But this is wrong. If you have been working in Russia for 40 years now and have no problems, it must make sense to you. I believe normal conditions must be put in place.

Maybe there’s something else to it? I don’t think that lowering the status of this border crossing has anything to do with Russia-Poland relations. Surely, there must be something else. Can it be a shortage of intersections? I will certainly look into this matter. I think this is only a small thing, but an important one.

Question: In your remarks, you noted that progress was made in EAEU - EU cooperation. We are aware that such cooperation was earlier allowed in the sphere of technical regulation. What do you think should serve as a catalyst to promote such a dialogue and expand it to Greater Eurasia?

Sergey Lavrov: I think life itself should be a catalyst. Many of our partners are already aware that a number of powers have been delegated from the national level to the Eurasian Economic Commission, and all inquiries should be sent there. You correctly noted that ​technical regulation was among the first areas in which contacts began. By the way, Germany has done a lot to overcome the ideological bias that has always been there. There will simply be no other options as the Commission continues to acquire its supranational powers.

Speaking of ideological bias, an interesting situation has shaped up around the multilateral organisations that include Russia as a member, such as the EAEU, the CSTO, the CIS, and even the SCO. As soon as we begin to promote projects involving the establishment of contacts between each of these organisations and, for example, the UN, mostly the Americans begin to get in the way and demand that the secretariat not sign particular documents. In June 2018, an anti-terrorism meeting was held at the UN office in New York, to which the Americans attempted not to admit representatives of the SCO regional anti-terrorism body. In the end, we overcame it. This bias is so far from the real needs of cooperation that discussing it at length makes no sense whatsoever. But the EAEU, albeit not without difficulty, including the anti-Russian sanctions, which impact our partners in this union as well, is looking for and effectively finds ways to improve things. The Union is developing progressively and the trade is growing quite steadily. The trend is quite good and will continue. Take a look at the specific EAEU competences – we cannot continue to work on a bilateral basis and to ignore this integration association.

The Greater Eurasia project is unlike the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership project. As I understand, the new US administration didn’t like the latter as it implied agreeing upon the entire package of rules and their subsequent entry into force from A to Z. The Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership was prepared in the same way, and also crumbled at this stage. They operate following their own processes. When President Putin talked about the practicality of discussing the Greater Eurasian space concept, he meant the EAEU and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The EAEU and China have a cooperation agreement. Russia and China also have signed a separate agreement. There’s also the SCO, which (although it mainly deals with terrorism and security) also has economic and financial projects, which are expanding. There’s ASEAN, which is interested, among other things, in expanding economic contacts with the SCO and the EAEU. Vietnam has already concluded a free trade agreement with the EAEU. Singapore is in the process of talks. ASEAN is also thinking about starting such talks with the EAEU.

That is to say, life sprouts. Here’s how they make a path across a lawn in England. First, they create a lawn and then let people trample on it in order to make a path across it. Once they have done this, they make a permanent path. We would like to use this logic to promote the idea of ​​a Greater Eurasian project. Don’t forget that Eurasia is our shared continent, the world’s largest, and all residents of this continent will clearly benefit from this flexible combination of efforts and the space which was predicted by great Europeans, starting with Charles de Gaulle. As soon as ideological blinders and shackles fall off, the EU, I think, will also benefit from becoming part of these processes, while preserving its identity.

Question: I would like to take this opportunity and say a few words about the issue mentioned by the representative of a Polish company because, since I moved here in 2016, I have been dealing with the problem of third country citizens’ not being able to cross the Russian-Belarusian border. This is a big obstacle for businesses, as well as cultural and humanitarian links. This has to do with the status of the border, border checkpoints and it is an issue we constantly address during our bilateral consultations and my contacts with the Foreign Ministry. What would be your comment?

Sergey Lavrov: This issue has to do with our border regime with Belarus. We have never had any visa requirements with Belarus but then our Belarusian neighbours unilaterally cancelled their visa regime for 80 countries, some of which also needed a visa to travel to Russia. To ensure compliance with the Russian law, we had to take measures to prevent citizens of the countries that do not need a visa to travel to Belarus but need a visa to travel to Russia from entering our country without visas. In late 2018, we almost finished working on an agreement with Belarus on common visa regulations. This agreement is about to be signed. It will be a step that should help in resolving this problem. But it will be completely resolved when we sign an agreement on a common visa space. This agreement is also under negotiation but we need more time to finalise it.

Another problem is that we basically have no border with Belarus. It exists on the map but there are no border patrol or customs officers. Therefore, even diplomats do not require a visa. When you enter the country there is nobody to even stamp your passport.

But the situation you described does create certain inconvenience. We are dealing with it and I will make sure to review the progress.

Question: I have a question about France-Russia relations. How good, do you believe, they are under President Macron? What kind of relationship exists between the presidents of our countries?

Sergey Lavrov: Our relations are good and comradely. Quite recently, the presidents discussed over the phone Syria, Ukraine and our future cooperation.

I regularly meet with my colleague, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. We maintain phone contacts. Our positions do not always coincide, but both sides are at least willing to look for things that we have in common.

Russia has Astana format partners – Turkey and Iran – which promote dialogue between the Syrian government and the armed opposition groups. There’s also a “smaller group,” which includes France. It was President Macron who came up with an initiative – with full understanding of the differences in the positions underlying these two frameworks ­– to build bridges between them. President Putin backed this idea. The first meeting focusing on such “bridge building” took place in Istanbul in October 2018, where the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Turkey held a meeting, which I consider quite auspicious. It advanced our common approaches towards promoting a political process. This is one such example.

We also cooperate with France in another quartet, the Normandy format. It was created at the initiative of President Hollande during the celebration, in 2014, of the 70th anniversary of Allied landings in Normandy. It is a no less complicated format than the one on Syria, but the Minsk Agreements provide a common basis. However, I’m not sure what to expect from Kiev in terms of implementing them.

The agreements approved by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine say that economic ties must be restored without delay. However, instead, 18 months ago, Kiev adopted a law on reintegrating Donbass, which established a blockade of this territory.

The Minsk Agreements say that problems with the payment of pensions and other social benefits must be resolved. Instead, the Ukrainian authorities are saying that the retirees who are entitled to them should cross the contact line, which can take a day or two, in order to receive their pension payments in that territory. By the way, Germany and France volunteered to set up mobile banking to pay pensions and agree upon common procedures, but the Ukrainian authorities did not let them do so.

The Minsk Agreements state that this particular region should have a special status, including the right to use its mother tongue. However, the law On Education was passed in Ukraine, which makes it illegal. A law is being prepared on Ukrainian as the state language, which, in practice, will make it difficult to use all minority languages, not just Russian, in all spheres of life, including in shops, cinemas and libraries.

The Minsk Agreements say that this territory should be entitled to self-government, have a say in appointing judges and prosecutors, and have its own law enforcement authorities. Now, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko is saying that bringing in the UN armed forces is the only way to resolve the Donbass problem. That is, in fact, occupying it along the perimeter, including the border with Russia, as he pointed out yesterday speaking in New York. However, according to the Minsk Agreements, the border with Russia will go under Ukraine’s control only after the region receives a special status and elections are held there. That is, at the very end. Meanwhile, he wants to do so at the very beginning.

How will then the Minsk Agreements be implemented, especially considering the fact that the birthdays of Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych and Semyon Petlyura are now national holidays? They are national “heroes” now, and monuments have been built to commemorate them. The day the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which collaborated with Hitler, was established is also a national holiday now, the Ukrainian Army Day. How can anyone even begin to wrap their mind around the fact that people not only in Donbass, but eastern Ukraine in general, will celebrate these holidays? Meanwhile, celebrating May 9 as Victory Day was cancelled. It was given a different name. At the same time, I cannot imagine how people in Lvov and the rest of western Ukraine will celebrate the holidays that are sacred to those who live in Donbass and eastern Ukraine.

The pride and fanfare with which President Poroshenko signed the law obliging Ukraine to join NATO made me doubt even more whether he intends to comply with the Minsk Agreements at all. The people in Donbass who are not even considered human to begin with (remember former Prime Minister Yatsenyuk calling them “subhuman beings”?) are now required to reunite with the state and do so not on the basis of the Minsk Agreements, but the Constitution obliging the country to join NATO. This is a provocation outwardly directed at destroying the Minsk Agreements.

We would very much like our French and German Normandy format colleagues to take note of that and present all these absolutely obvious and legitimate concerns to the Ukrainian leadership. Clearly, this will have to be done after the presidential election now. Then, there will be parliamentary elections.

Poroshenko and his team are not looking to achieve any settlement. What they really want is to escalate and exacerbate the situation. Recently, he made a provocation near the Kerch Strait, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov. Now, they are preparing another "breach" also in violation of the rules of passage in this complex water area. In September, though, two Ukrainian naval boats followed all the procedures and requested a pilot who was provided to them. They were properly escorted and sent off with wishes of a good journey in the Sea of ​​Azov. Now, Kiev is preparing another unlawful breach without filing any formal requests, or observing security measures, or asking for pilot services. I was told that they are asking NATO countries to send their representatives to these ships in order to have them onboard as they make another illegal attempt to cross the Kerch Strait.

If such a provocateur doesn’t get his wrist slapped, then I do not understand how anyone in the Western world is still shaking hands with him.

We want to cooperate with France. This is by far not our only area of interest. We have many questions on other foreign policy topics, including almost the entire agenda of the UN Security Council, such as the Central African Republic. The attempts to take our positions to different corners of the “ring” failed. We enjoy good mutual understanding on other crises in Africa, in which France traditionally acted as the convening party at the UN Security Council, and also on issues that go beyond the UN Security Council’s agenda.

Our dialogue is strategic. There are special bodies which we use to discuss fighting terrorism and promoting strategic stability. There’s also a large block of cultural cooperation, the Trianon Dialogue, created at President Macron’s initiative. We have good prospects. At least, they meet the aspirations of the French and the Russian people.

Question: There are many talented people in Russia. However, the personal data processing regulations make it difficult for us to search for the talents that could be useful outside your country. Do you see this as a challenge or is it simply a security issue?

Sergey Lavrov: This is our self-preservation instinct at work. We just want our talents to work in Russia while you openly want to steal them from us.

As it is stated in our Constitution, we support our people’s choice (including young people’s choice) of a place, a country where they want to live and work. But this principle must stimulate us to create most comfortable and competitive conditions in the Russian Federation.

And we are doing a great deal to make this a reality. Not many, but some people have returned. It is important to us that people work here, visit their partners, have their partners visit them here and exchange experience. But we do not want other countries to steal our talents. Although perhaps this will never end. Business is business. Headhunters are tough everywhere. Still, we want to create a business environment that could compete with the West, with the Silicon Valley and other places. We will try to achieve that.

Question: We have known you for a long time. We watch you closely and admire you for being tremendously hard-working. Have there been moments when you were in despair and wanted to give up everything? Or when you told yourself: “Good job, Lavrov, well done”?

Sergey Lavrov: Did you want to say “you son of a bitch”?

You asked if at times I want to give up everything. It depends on what “everything” means.

Thank you for complimenting my hard work. Actually, I am very lazy. It is true. There is no contradiction here. I hate leaving something unfinished on my desk for the next morning. So I make sure I can finish the amount of work I have by midnight and get a good night’s sleep.

But seriously, this is an interesting job. If I want to give up something, it is not the job. But… not a word about our partners.

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