Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions during a joint news conference with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Yerevan, November 11, 2019
First of all, I would like thank our Armenian friends for the invitation on behalf of my delegation and myself, for the very cordial welcome and substantive negotiations that began today with a meeting with Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and continued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We talked about many things – but it is impossible to cover everything even in a whole day. We have a very rich and multi-layered agenda for bilateral relations and interaction in the international arena. Armenia is a time-tested ally and strategic partner of Russia. We noted the dynamic nature of our political dialogue, including at the highest level. This year alone, President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan met four times. The heads of government of our countries have had as many contacts as parts of various events.
Today we have substantively discussed the progress in implementing the agreements reached at the highest level; the process is going smoothly. We have agreed on additional steps to continue this work effectively and emphasised the productive and active interaction between parliaments. A few days ago, on November 5, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin visited Yerevan for the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly; he also chaired a meeting of the bilateral interparliamentary commission in Gyumri. We have extensive contacts between the various official agencies: last month alone, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, Deputy Healthcare Minister Tatyana Semyonova and other Russian officials visited Armenia.
Russia is the leading foreign economic partner of Armenia. On both sides, we are satisfied with the level of trade and economic cooperation, which is facilitated by our countries’ interaction in the EAEU. Last year, mutual trade grew by almost 11 per cent, and the positive dynamics continued into 2019. Today we reviewed the progress in large joint projects, primarily in the fuel and energy and transport sectors. We noted the effective work of the existing cooperation mechanisms such as the intergovernmental commissions on trade and economic cooperation and in military technical cooperation.
The regions continue to strengthen their ties. Over 70 Russian regions are involved in cooperation with Armenia. In turn, almost all Armenian territories maintain contact with Russian partners. Interregional forums are held regularly including one early next year. We note broad interaction in the humanitarian area including cultural and education exchanges. The numbers speak for themselves: about 6,000 Armenian nationals receive higher education in Russia with Russia providing federal grants for 1,500 of them. Six Russian universities have branches in Armenia. Including the Russian-Armenian University, they have over 3,500 students. About 2,000 Armenian citizens study at Russian secondary vocational schools. Large Russian companies that operate in Armenia fund social programmes here. I will just mention a training and sports complex built in Yerevan by Gazprom; it opened this year and includes a kindergarten, a school, an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a futsal pitch and a covered skating rink. Youth forums are convened regularly, the fifth such forum will be held shortly.
We interact closely on international and regional issues. We discussed our overlapping positions on key issues on the international agenda. We agreed to closely coordinate our approaches within various platforms including the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation and other multilateral formats. Our work will be efficient as we have signed the plan for foreign policy consultations for 2020-2021. Russia has a positive view of Yerevan’s presidency in the EAEU including the efforts to expand the EAEU’s international ties. We discussed preparations for Russia’s chairmanship of the CSTO next year. We compared notes on interaction within the CIS and also agreed to coordinate approaches for the next session of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Bratislava to be held in early December.
We spoke about a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement and stressed the importance of stepping up efforts towards an active and constructive promotion of talks between the parties themselves. We reaffirmed the need for further steps to ease tensions in the conflict zone in view of the existing agreements, including those mentioned by Mr Mnatsakanyan, which were agreed upon in April of this year at the meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. We believe it is important to continue to implement the measures agreed on by the ministers on the ground that were discussed at this year’s meeting of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia will be ready to further assist as mediator both within the OSCE Minsk Group and at the national level in the Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan format.
Overall, we are quite satisfied with our talks. They showed a mutual commitment to further strengthen the Russia-Armenia strategic partnership and allied relations.
Question: What is the likelihood of adopting a memorandum to grant Russian specialists access to bio laboratories in Armenia? What are the future plans for Moscow-Yerevan cooperation on biological security?
Sergey Lavrov: We discussed these issues today. They are also being discussed by our healthcare ministries. Minister of Healthcare Veronika Skvortsova’s deputy recently visited Yerevan and talked with her colleagues. We noted today that the talks on the text of the memorandum are over in general and now the document is going through interdepartmental approval on both sides. We hope it will be signed soon. Naturally, this will create additional opportunities for cooperation in biological security. We consider these contacts with our neighbours, allies and partners to be vital for the security agenda in the broadest sense of this word. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) prohibits the development of these weapons. Regrettably, due to the US’s categorical objections, the BTWC does not have a verification mechanism that exists in the majority of other multilateral documents. We have tried to create such a mechanism for many years, but our American colleagues prefer to avoid a relevant agreement and try to sign bilateral agreements on setting up laboratories to fit their “custom plan” all over the world. Needless to say, we are interested in complete reciprocal transparency in this area with Armenia and with all of our partners. This is what we talked about today. The same is fixed in the memorandum that, I hope, will soon come into force.
Question: Turkey remains a threat to Armenia’s security. Turkey is actively and unreservedly supporting Azerbaijan, building up military cooperation and holding joint exercises with it. What influence might Russia-Turkey rapprochement have on Russia-Armenia relations?
Sergey Lavrov: We do not talk in terms of rapprochement or a warming up when it comes to our neighbours that were given to us by history and geography. We are developing relations with all of them and each of them taken singly. This is also true of all our partners in the CSTO, the CIS and the EAEU. This applies as well to Turkey, Iran and the Eastern European countries. We want to have normal relations with all of them. We are doing what we can to overcome the problems in Armenia-Turkey relations. In 2009, we did much to facilitate the conclusion of the Zurich protocols (Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey and the Protocol on the Development of Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey) although we warned the participants against being too enthusiastic about this idea and, in particular, not to nurture the hope that they might become valid regardless of a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. We had serious doubts. At that time, our Armenian colleagues told us that this is how it was going to be, that this is what they were promised. Regrettably, the destiny of the Zurich protocols is sad, as you know. Nevertheless, we continue to be willing (although it takes two to tango) to use our opportunities for promoting normalisation between Armenia and Turkey. We do not see any grounds to think that someone will trigger a war between these two countries. In any event, our entire policy is aimed at establishing peace, ensuring coexistence and promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the region.
Question: How does Russia feel about Yerevan’s proposal to return Nagorno-Karabakh to the negotiating table as a full participant in the settlement process?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan have already stated their positions on this issue. I emphasise once again that the parties themselves must coordinate and determine the participants in the negotiations. At the early stage of the consultations and subsequent negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, when hostilities ceased, Nagorno-Karabakh was a party to the relevant agreements and related negotiations that were initiated after the ceasefire. At some point, one of the previous presidents of Armenia decided that Yerevan would represent the interests of Karabakh. In any case, Russia, while advancing this process as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, is adamant that it lead to a general consensus. It is clear to everyone that no agreement can be reached without the consent of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia simply will not sign them. This is our take on the problem. Speaking about Nagorno-Karabakh, I would like to underscore something Nikol Pashinyan said at our meeting today. He mentioned his public statement where he said that the final agreements should take into account the interests of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. It is difficult to argue with that.
Question: The US military have concentrated Abrams tanks and armoured vehicles around oil fields in northern Syria. How does this complicate Russian-Turkish cooperation in these territories?
Sergey Lavrov: Concerning anything that the United States is doing in the north of Syria, I no longer even have time to follow the never-ending zigzags of American politics, especially on the ground. Of course, their attempt to rob Syria and take control of the oil fields is, by and large, illegal and does not help the Syrian settlement, but only perpetuates an additional major irritant and serious threat in this part of Syria. We will insist that the Syrian army gain control of the entire territory of the country as quickly as possible. Only this will help ultimately put an end to terrorism and resolve the issues hindering a final political settlement.
Question: If the parties reach the point of signing a memorandum on bio-labs, can we say this uncomfortable issue has been removed from the Russian-Armenian agenda?
Sergey Lavrov: We must first sign the memorandum and begin to implement it. No issue can be removed completely. It remains on the agenda, only pending implementation rather than agreement. After signing the memorandum, we will fulfill it. It will be an ongoing process based on mutual interaction and transparency.
Question: Azerbaijan unequivocally rejects the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination without restrictions, implying that the conflict can only be resolved while maintaining the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. How realistic is any progress in the peace process?
Sergey Lavrov: I can only once again quote Nikol Pashinyan who said the process needs to take into account the interests of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. The principles of territorial integrity, self-determination and exclusively peaceful settlement of disputes are enshrined in all versions of the documents that are being discussed by the parties. In any case, the final decision must take into account all these principles. Neither Yerevan nor Baku argue this. Further progress will depend on the art of diplomacy, but in fact, more depends on a willingness to compromise. Any agreement, especially on such a complex issue, is a compromise. We, as co-chairs, are trying to ensure that this compromise is honest, and reflects a real and fair balance of interests.