Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of Portugal Augusto Santos Silva, May 31, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am happy to welcome my colleague, Foreign Minister of Portugal Augusto Santos Silva to Moscow.
Our talks took place in a focused and friendly atmosphere and were devoted to a broad range of bilateral issues. Before the talks, we took part in the opening of the Russian International Affairs Council conference on relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union. This was particularly useful, considering Portugal chairs the EU Council in this half year.
We analysed our bilateral relations over the past three years. Since 2018, we have exchanged visits between foreign ministers; President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the Russian Federation and met with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. We discussed the implementation of fundamental agreements reached at that time and later, including those under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation. We confirmed the important role of this mechanism, in particular in coordinating and adopting measures to counter last year’s negative trend in trade due to the coronavirus infection. We confirmed the need to promote our economic and investment relations, focusing on the potential for science and innovation.
We agreed to continue cooperation in healthcare. I would like to emphasise again our close cooperation during the peak of the pandemic last year. The Portuguese authorities gave us unreserved support in organising outbound flights for Russian citizens in Portugal. In turn, we provided unimpeded transiting of humanitarian cargo and medications to Portugal via Russian territory.
We are interested in continuing our political dialogue. We want intensive consultations between our ministries to cover even more subjects. We noted the need to overcome the long break in contact between our parliamentary leaders. As a first step, the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs invited a counterpart Portuguese delegation to visit Russia in October. We also agreed that our parliamentary friendship groups should resume meeting.
We reviewed our contractual foundation and agreed to expedite the drafting of several documents. I would like to mention a social insurance treaty, which is being prepared now. It will cover pension payments and reciprocal recognition of education certificates.
We hope the gradual lifting of epidemiological restrictions will allow us to conduct in-person cultural and humanitarian events. Moscow plans to hold concerts as part of the cultural programme of Portugal’s EU presidency.
We discussed the prospects for organising a major event, a Russia-Portugal Cross Year, that would be devoted to culture, education and youth exchange.
As regards the international agenda, we focused on issues that are of concern in the context of Portugal’s EU Presidency. We described our view on developments in this area. We reaffirmed our willingness to normalise relations and restore dialogue but only based on equality, mutual respect and a balance of interests and without any unilateral requirements or preconditions.
We proceed from the premise that Russia and the EU are neighbours and bear joint responsibility for maintaining stability and security in our common geopolitical space.
We said that a balance of interests and our common positions could facilitate efforts to develop a much-needed dialogue in countering the pandemic and other infectious diseases, developing digitisation, and making the transition to a green economy, and in various aspects dealing with a new technological mode. The priorities noted by Portugal at the start of its EU Presidency early in 2021 fit in well in the areas of potential cooperation that are under discussion today. These must be friendly, collective efforts. There must be no new dividing lines or attempts to gain competitive advantage at the expense of the lawful interests of one’s partners under any pretext. Sometimes, attempts to use the transition to a green economy are made for these purposes.
We reminded our partners that Russia and its neighbours are actively developing the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Contacts have been established on technical issues at the level of secretariats, the EAEU commissions and the European Commission. We believe it is time to move on to a more specific and broader dialogue since we share the same Eurasian continent. We recalled President of Russia Vladimir Putin’s initiative to establish a Greater Eurasian Partnership with an invitation to all countries on this continent without exception.
We reviewed issues related to Russia-NATO relations. Relations were almost completely suspended after the NATO-backed coup in Ukraine. We are willing to resume a dialogue, but it must not be devoid of common sense. We do not want to hear one-sided statements by NATO officials at every meeting of the Russia-NATO Council whereby they publicly accuse us of everything in the Ukrainian crisis. We want the Russia-NATO Council to focus on security issues. This is what it was established for. We are waiting for answers to our many proposals that NATO has been reviewing for over a year now. Their adoption could help reduce ever increasing tensions substantially, which are partly caused by NATO continuing to move its military infrastructure closer to our borders.
We spoke about relations at the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe. We are interested in using the unifying potential of these pan-European structures (and we felt reciprocity on behalf of our Portuguese colleagues). They must not be used for politically or ideologically based discussions or for settling accounts.
We discussed the situation in the east of Ukraine. We urged our European colleagues to exert more influence on Kiev to motivate it for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements. I hope that this signal was heard and that we will soon see some progress.
We exchanged views on the developments in the Middle East and North Africa, in part, in the context of the Syrian crisis and the situation in Libya. We are interested in the progress of talks between all parties with UN mediation and support from external participants that are able to promote positive results.
I am most grateful to our Portuguese colleagues for our positive cooperation.
Question (retranslated from Portuguese. Addressed to both ministers): Russia and Portugal enjoy a very high level of relations. Portugal’s presidency of the EU offers an opportunity to bring our two countries even closer together, but in the past six months Russia-EU relations have been deteriorating, as one can see from the latest initiative to disconnect Russia from SWIFT, which was put forth yesterday. Can this really happen, or is this nothing more than wishful thinking? How would you describe the current Russia-EU dialogue? Is it focused on attempts to point the finger at and make accusations against each other, or look for solutions and compromises that would be acceptable to both sides?
Sergey Lavrov: The idea of disconnecting Russia from SWIFT is nothing new. If it was mentioned yesterday again, it is yet another repetition of the calls that have been made for months, if not years. This subject is mentioned as an additional punishment for Russia. I don’t know what specific decisions the Western countries and SWIFT owners may adopt or what levers or methods of pressure can be used against them.
The system has been used for a long time to service the economic ties and interests of many countries, including EU member states, other western countries and Russia. However, we are also aware that the EU and the West as a whole have more than once shown in practice that they are unreliable partners. In some situations they can take unjustified and unreasonable decisions.
Today the Minister and I spoke at a RIAC conference on relations between Russia and the EU, or more precisely, on the current situation in our relations. In his very interesting address, Mr Minister mentioned guidelines for mutual relations such as good faith fulfilment of the agreements signed.
A concrete example is Nord Stream 2. All the related contracts were signed before the EU decided to complicate the implementation of this project. The lawyers of the European Commission expressed the official view that the Third Energy Package, which had been adjusted specifically to complicate the implementation of Nord Stream 2, cannot be applied to it because all the relevant documents had been coordinated before the package came into effect. It was the lawyers’ official conclusion. Nevertheless, the then EU leadership did its utmost to retrospectively apply the requirements of the adjusted energy package to Nord Stream 2. In short, anything can happen.
As Mr Minister said, we would like all the signed agreements to be honoured, including the Minsk agreements, which we have mentioned today. There are many more examples of this kind. I am sure that the Russian Government, the Central Bank and the relevant financial authorities are drafting decisions in the event an attempt is made to restrict free exchange within the framework of the multilateral trade system and WTO recommendations.
The agenda of a recent meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council included discussions on a broader use of national currencies for mutual settlements and, ultimately, on using currencies that will not depend on the US dollar, considering that the United States has been taking advantage of its position for years.
As for the outlook for the Russia-EU relations, we expressed our positions clearly in our opening addresses. I would like to reiterate that Russia is ready and willing to normalise these relations. We are neighbours and part of Eurasia, a huge and rapidly growing geo-economic space. This continent has become the driver of the global economy, and it would be unwise not to make use of the comparative advantages of our co-location in this part of the world.
However, we are only ready to resume normal relations on the basis of equality, mutual respect and a balance of interests, without any ultimatums or unilateral preconditions, such as the oft-repeated demand that Russia comply with the Minsk agreements. This is absurd, as all parties know very well. Nevertheless, the Russophobic minority is making use of the EU’s principle of solidarity and consensus to force all other countries to continue demanding that Russia comply with the Minsk agreements every time this subject is discussed at the Council of Europe. We would like to have normal, mutually beneficial relations. We would like our mutual trade to return to the 2013 indicators and exceed them. Today it is only half of the 2013 figure, and it was not the pandemic that was responsible for the bulk of the decline. We hope that the EU will ultimately replace its ideology-driven policy towards Russia with a rational one.
Question: Many people still believe that it is impossible to ensure collective security without Russia, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said recently. What are Moscow’s priorities? What is required to move beyond the factors standing in the way of collective security in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: If German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said this, I can only welcome this statement. Let me recall that some time ago Mr Maas and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was impossible to defend Germany without the United States and NATO. As you can see, a comprehensive approach to ensuring European security is taking shape. This is a positive turn in thinking.
As for us, we believe that at this stage implementing the agreements concluded earlier is the best way to settle the problems and mitigate the risks in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area. These are the documents adopted in the OSCE framework: the Paris Charter for a New Europe, the 1999 Istanbul Summit Declaration and the Russia-NATO Founding Act. All these documents contain principles for ensuring security through a collective effort. These principles prevent the creation of new dividing lines and provide the opportunity to take part in this dialogue not only to all countries (OSCE members in this case) but also to all the organisations in this space that deal with security, including NATO, the EU, the CIS and the CSTO. Our Western partners in the OSCE and the Russia-NATO Council do not want to follow the principles I mentioned.
The Russia-NATO Founding Act has been crudely violated. The military infrastructure is moving further east, and the presence of substantial forces is justified by saying it’s there on a rotational basis rather than permanent deployment. One NATO official spoke about “permanent rotation deployment.” This juggling with words conceals a strategy that is carried out on the ground in actions, hardware included. I like the idea that all normal countries must fulfil the commitments on which they agreed, and, all the more so, that were signed by their first persons. This would be a good foundation for considering new, additional agreements in this area.
For about two years now, NATO has failed to review the proposals by the General Staff of our Armed Forces. These proposals suggest establishing minimum distances between the movements of Russian and NATO aircraft and warships. There was also a proposal to agree on a distance for removing both Russian and NATO military exercises from the contact line of the two parties. There were also a number of other specific proposals for NATO. We have not received a reply to any of them so far. I hope this is just ‘so far.’
Question: US President Joe Biden said he would like to discuss human rights at the Russian-American summit in Geneva – “making it clear we will not stand by and let him (Vladimir Putin) abuse those rights.” Is Russia ready to discuss its internal human rights problems with the United States? Does Moscow intend to raise its own concerns with Washington in this area? Was the topic of human rights discussed today? Do you believe Europe’s intention to discuss this topic is even legitimate?
Sergey Lavrov: If I remember correctly, Joe Biden said he would definitely raise the human rights issue in his contacts with the Chinese and Russian leaders. As he explained, the entire US state system is built on human rights, on these values, therefore they cannot just ignore these issues. According to this logic, we also have values that underlie our statehood and society. They include adherence to some fairly important principles that our Western colleagues have been violating with their actions.
We are ready to talk. We have no taboo topics. We will discuss anything both parties deem necessary. We will answer the questions of the American party, including on human rights. Today we agreed with Augusto Santos Silva that any human rights concerns the other party might have should be discussed in an honest and equal manner. It is our shared belief that the UN Human Rights Council is the best format for that. When that body was created, the parties agreed to conduct periodic human rights reviews in each UN member state, on a universal basis. Portugal has gone through several reviews under this procedure, and so has Russia. Based on the results, long lists of recommendations are sent to the relevant party, which is expected to respond within a certain period. This is a normal civilised dialogue.
We are ready to discuss human rights or any other topic to the extent stipulated by universally agreed documents in this or in any other area, but only within the international law framework. We are not going to accept the newly promoted concept of a rules-based international order as a point of reference. As we found out today, it is a highly discriminatory concept that promotes the West as a trendsetter in every sphere, while everyone else should just follow those trends.
We have discussed this in detail and cited specific examples. We are also ready to discuss the problems the United States is struggling with. We are following the prosecution of those charged with orchestrating the January 6 riots. There are other developments and concerns that have to do with human rights, opposition activists and protection of their interests. The Kremlin and the White House press services will report more details about the preparations for the summit and the summit itself.
Question (addressed to Augusto Santos Silva): In your opening remarks, you said there were frictions between NATO and Russia and pointed out the importance of political dialogue in this regard. Can we read this as Portugal supports a resumption of the political and military dialogue between Russia and NATO? The military dialogue was actually completely frozen in 2014.
Sergey Lavrov (adding after Augusto Santos Silva): I would urge everyone to bear in mind all the other rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
First of all, I would underline a right that has not yet been mentioned today – the right to life. I hope our Western colleagues will remember that life is a person’s most treasured possession, whoever they are and wherever they live. Let us prevent a repetition of the tragedies that occurred in Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia, where that right was trampled upon by our NATO colleagues in a most brutal and illegal way.
Now about the tie. Russia has not yet chaired the EU, and it never occurred to us to order special ties for the CIS or the CSTO. We will think about it. I am sincerely delighted that Augusto Santos Silva mistakenly (or maybe deliberately) packed his tie from 2007. I would have liked to go back to the atmosphere that existed between Russia and the EU in 2007.