3 September 202118:36

Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during a meeting with the participants in the educational marathon “New knowledge,” Moscow, September 3, 2021


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Thank you for inviting me once again. I already attended the “New knowledge” marathon this year on May 21. I liked the keenness with which the marathon participants were taking an interest in some or other aspects of the life of our state and people. For understandable reasons, I am delighted with your taking an interest in diplomacy. I have been in it for several decades now.  One is always pleased when young people are gravitating to one’s profession. This means that this profession is prestigious and that our country’s foreign policy is shaped correctly.   

The foreign policy concept approved by President of Russia Vladimir Putin requires that we apply all our forces, endeavours and capabilities to create maximally favourable external conditions for our country’s development, security and socioeconomic prosperity, for the wellbeing of our people and the protection of their rights internationally, including the rights of Russian businesses. Currently, the discrimination against both [Russian] entrepreneurs and athletes is assuming an unprecedented scale.

Foreign policy work requires erudition, a broad outlook and great knowledge. It is not accidental that highly gifted, talented and even brilliant people worked for the Russian diplomatic service. I am referring to people like Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Tyutchev, Alexander Griboyedov and many others.  A profound imprint on our diplomatic service and on Russia’s foreign policy as a whole was left by such incredible statesmen as Chancellor of the Russian Empire Alexander Gorchakov, who was instrumental in Russia emerging from a tremendous crisis that followed [its defeat] in the Crimean War, and Yevgeny Primakov, one of my predecessors. These people have formulated [fundamental] foreign policy concepts, including the need for promoting contacts with any nations that are ready to do this on an equal and mutually beneficial basis.

Today, we are acting precisely in this way and receiving a positive response from the overwhelming majority of countries in the world.   All of them are in favour of developing ties based on international law – all but our Western colleagues, who are not following the requirements of the UN Charter to respect the sovereign equality of states and are trying to position themselves as rulers of destinies. They are introducing rules of their own instead of international law and urge those who disagree with their point of view to change their behaviour. It is in this manner that they are treating us, or rather are trying to do so, because we will never accept this. They are also seeking to contain the development of the People’s Republic of China, not only that of the Russian Federation. But these are futile attempts that reflect the Western countries’ desire to conserve the 500-year historical epoch, when, by virtue of the specific features of mankind’s development, they dominated world politics, the economy and military affairs. Today, all of this is receding into the past, what with new powerful centres of economic growth, financial preeminence and political influence emerging throughout the world. This is a natural, objective historical process. There is no escaping it.

Yevgeny Primakov predicted the formation of a multipolar world. The West’s desire to slow it down will probably yield an effect for a couple or so years, but it is doomed in the historical sense. We are unwilling to go against the current and never do anything against the wind. In everyday life, this never fails to come to a bad end. One should fit into the mainstream of human development. Our hand is extended to all countries, including the Western nations, but we will not deal with them in the pupil-teacher or slave-master format. We would like an honest conversation, where everyone’s concerns will be considered in the context of a search for the balance of interests. Those, who are prepared to promote cooperation with foreign countries on this basis, will always find the Russian Federation responsive, supportive and ready to come to terms.

Question: What are the main development trends of Russia-Uzbekistan relations?

Sergey Lavrov: The most positive. We are allies and strategic partners with Uzbekistan, even though it has left the CSTO, if we speak about a military and political union. But we have a bilateral document that outlines us as allies. Uzbekistan also maintains contacts with the CSTO members. A couple of weeks ago, the extraordinary video conference of the CSTO heads of state took place, and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev was invited. They had an interested and constructive discussion about the aftermath of the NATO troops’ fleeing from Afghanistan and the problems it caused in the region.

In addition, we are actively and efficiently developing economic and investment ties, as well as cultural projects with Uzbekistan. There is growing interest in the Russian language there. We are going to support and facilitate cultural exchanges and foreign political cooperation within the CIS and SCO. Our Uzbek colleagues are interested in the development of interaction with the EAEU where they have received observer status. Unfortunately, it was impossible to hold the state visit by the President of Uzbekistan last year. As soon as the epidemiological situation permits, this visit will take place. It will be a breakthrough because it has an unprecedented agenda.. I have wonderful relations with my colleague, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan. Relevant ministers at all levels are in contact every day. The prime ministers communicate within a specially created mechanism that allows for coordinating all aspects of our relations in accordance with the agreements reached by our presidents.

Question: You once said that it is not always necessary to respond to a negative step right away. It might be a provocation. A pause is in order. Later this could be used against you. This is really an important matter for young folks. Could you give us an example from your own diplomatic practice that taught you to follow this rule? How did you realise that temporising was better than an immediate response?  

Sergey Lavrov: There is a number of Russian proverbs: “Do not hit straight from the shoulder,” “Measure thrice and cut once,” “Keep a cool head,” etc. People have different temperaments. When you see a crying injustice or if it turns personal, most normal people wish to respond at once and defend their outraged honour. But in diplomacy this sort of “luxury” is not quite admissible. I am not saying that on hearing an unacceptable statement you should retire to your study, ponder for a week or a month, and then say: “Look who’s talking!” One should not do that either. I think it mandatory to calculate your reaction before making it public.  There are quite a few examples of this kind in diplomacy. I cannot think of anything right now, but I will certainly mention it if it “pops up” later as we talk.   

Question: Could you cite some successes that Russian diplomats have achieved over the past year?

Sergey Lavrov: It does not befit me to appraise my ministry’s activities. By and large, a lot of useful things were done last year. And the process is continuing.

Last year, Russia was chairing BRICS and the SCO. Despite the pandemic, we were working in a hybrid format, combining online and offline.  Over a hundred direct face-to-face contacts were held, if we take BRICS and the SCO alone. Last year, we were also actively promoting the EAEU external ties, including under the recently signed EAEU-PRC agreement. Documents on EAEU-ASEAN cooperation were also signed. The initiative, which Russia is promoting and which has been mentioned by President Vladimir Putin, is about all integration organisations, including the EAEU, SCO and ASEAN, harmonising their plans and forming a Greater Eurasian Partnership.  The SCO summit formalised our initiative in its final documents.

We worked intensively to implement the results of the first ever Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi in October 2019. Last year, we established the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum and the Association of Economic Cooperation with African States. The latter includes a group of major Russian companies. This is a very important event laying a firm foundation for long-term ties between Russia and the African continent.

Speaking of last year, I cannot but mention our efforts – primarily those of President Vladimir Putin – to end the war in the South Caucasus and achieve agreements on a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. These are being successfully implemented with the participation of the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Defence, and Russia’s economic agencies that are supporting talks on unblocking all lines of communication and economic ties in the region.  

The Russian-US summit in Geneva should be mentioned as well. There were no meetings for a long time. This summit, however, has yielded modest, if very important results that consist in the fact that the two presidents have reaffirmed the key principle that there can be no winners in a nuclear war. A nuclear war should never be fought, as the statement says. We have launched a new round of talks on continued arms control after the expiry of the New START Treaty that has been extended for another five years.

Question: How are female diplomats being accepted on the international stage? Is it true that only recently there has been an unspoken ban on admitting young women to some MGIMO departments?

Sergey Lavrov: You need to know all the secrets. I am not the MGIMO rector, so I will not justify Anatoly Torkunov’s policy. But I took an interest in the statistics, especially because the other day I delivered a traditional address at MGIMO on Knowledge Day. I always ask how the list of students is being drawn up, because it directly affects the formation of the Foreign Ministry personnel pool. In 1990, 304 men and 110 women graduated from MGIMO University. Even then these numbers were comparable. At the moment, the gender balance is tilted towards women. Anatoly Torkunov has provided me with the information and in 2014, 757 young men and 1,066 young women graduated from MGIMO. According to my MGIMO colleagues, this trend has been observed for the past seven to eight years. The number of female students consistently exceeds the number of male students. The same trend, maybe not that obvious, is seen in new Foreign Ministry staff. The relative number of women keeps growing and is some 50 percent. I hope that there will be a transition from quantity to quality and that we will have more female ambassadors and department directors. At least, there are many of them at the second highest positions in departments. But not too many. Do not suspect me.

Question: You regard USSR Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko as the greatest Soviet diplomat. What do you think it was that made him a phenomenon?

Sergey Lavrov: He understood the interests of his country perfectly and knew that the USSR would never be able to give up on its sovereignty and influence on the global stage. It would never follow the lead of those who tried to revise the outcome of the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War. At the same time, Gromyko knew that this position could be defended through dialogue, or rather that resoluteness should come with dialogue. It is necessary to always be ready to use all available means to protect the vital interests of the state, but diplomacy too must always be used.

He was proficient in negotiations. Gromyko not only saw the line that must not be crossed when the interests of the state are involved, but also a line that could become a compromise.

Question: There is currently a lot of news concerning Afghanistan. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, recently said that “what we cannot do is to let the Chinese and Russians to take control of the situation.” What do you think about this statement? Can it be called diplomatic? Is it possible to resolve the situation in Afghanistan solely by diplomatic means, although the Taliban, an organisation banned in Russia, has gained power there?

Sergey Lavrov: Speaking of Josep Borrell’s statements, they closely match the style of the European Union’s diplomacy. The mentality of EU diplomacy is that they perceive each country, located not only near Russia and Europe, that is, former Soviet republics, Central and Eastern European countries, but also those as remote as Afghanistan, in  the either/or context. Either any specific country sides with Europe or it supports the Russian Federation. The EU expects all countries to make their choice. These concepts and discourses hold no promise and lead into a blind alley.

Regarding opportunities for resolving the problem of Afghanistan by peaceful means, I believe that such opportunities exist.  I expect that the last manifestations of confrontation in Panjshir Valley, northern Afghanistan, will eventually give way to talks. The talks began some time ago but broke off, and armed clashes resumed again. I hope that talks between the Taliban and Afghan Tajiks will get underway. An agreement on a political settlement should inevitably include a compromise deal between the Pashtuns, mostly represented by the Taliban (but other Pashtuns should also be involved), the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras, that is, between all the main ethnic groups of Afghanistan. We are most actively helping launch this dialogue.

All these years, we have conducted dialogue with all Afghan communities without exception, including the Taliban. When someone says that it is impossible to deal with them, he or she is being sly. A UN Security Council resolution does not call the entire Taliban movement a terrorist organisation. Instead, it imposes sanctions on certain Talib leaders for specific “transgressions,” including terrorism, involvement in illegal drug trafficking, etc.

When members of the UN Security Council passed this resolution, most countries, including the Russian Federation, included its provisions in their national legislation. The President of Russia issued the relevant executive order. As far as I know, the United States did not pass such national acts. So, this nuance shows how various countries deal with the subject.

But, most importantly, it is impossible to resolve anything there, unless all key players get involved. It is unrealistic to try to claim that the Taliban is not the main player.

I watched the morning news. Even Mr Borrel is now saying that it is necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is actively calling for ties to be established with them as soon as possible.

We shall see whether our hopes for a quick peace settlement are realistic or not. The lineup of the transitional government is to be announced in the near future. For many years, we and our partners promoted the international format which is an optimal scenario for supporting the Afghan peace settlement from the outside. It includes all five Central Asian republics, as well as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and the United States. At that time, the United States was involved in this work as the country leading the international military coalition in Afghanistan. We are ready to provide similar formats for all countries which are sincerely interested in helping the people of Afghanistan reach agreement.

Question: I am a public activist and I have several questions. You speak of Yevgeny Primakov as a prominent diplomat and politician. His patience as well as your own and the resilience of all ministers and diplomats, is to be envied. How do you stay calm when being provoked by your opponents? How do you siphon off the stress? Sometimes it is impossible to stay calm on seeing what is happening on the global stage.

Analysing some Western media, one can get the impression that Russia is guilty of just about everything. Can we hope that there will be no war given the escalation of conflict in some countries such as Afghanistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Middle East?

Can I take a photo with you?

Sergey Lavrov: I am pleased to learn that you are a public activist. What do you do for a living?

As for how resilience is formed and where our emotions go. Usually it is through certain expressions, that are better to not said out loud or at least whispered. It helps.

I have already spoken about Russia supposedly being guilty of everything. The West simply cannot be at peace that the 1990s have long passed. It is a totally different country now. In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama seriously spoke about the end of history when there would be no communism, no socialism, nothing except the neo-liberal Western system, and a uniform order. But, as you see, there is no uniform order, and US President Joe Biden has declared the end of the era of major military operations to remake other countries.

If we believe these statements, there should be no war. And we will definitely rely upon not only assurances and declarations, but the real balance of power between us and the US as the major nuclear powers. We will not allow the balance to tilt the wrong way.

As for the photo, I do not know. I only have an academic hour. You are a public activist, so you can photoshop an image.

Question: You have headed the Russian Foreign Ministry for a long time and have vast experience. Do you ever feel afraid? Do you have such a feeling ever? For example, when was the last time you felt fear?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I do. I was in Yekaterinburg yesterday at a meeting with the public, business circles and athletes. The meeting was held in the Russian Copper Company headquarters. It was built by a British architect bureau. It is a high-rise and I am afraid of heights. I had to go up to 28th floor in an elevator that had a glass wall overlooking the street. This was really uncomfortable, and I am honest about it. At least, nobody else has frightened me lately.

Question: I have followed the history of diplomacy, including your diplomacy. In 2009, you wrote a note to Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan concerning the signing of a protocol on the normalisation of Armenian-Turkish relations. The note had just six words: “Edward, agree a ceremony without statements.” How did these six words convince your Armenian counterpart to end the confrontation? What was behind this seemingly simple phrase? 

Sergey Lavrov: If you have “unearthed” this theme, I should provide the context. In 2008, our Armenian friends told us about the Turks suggesting that they jointly coordinate documents on restoring diplomatic relations, on cooperation and the implementation of joint projects.   We said that this was fine and asked whether there were any preconditions. The reply was “no,” there were no preconditions. The signing ceremony with the participation of foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey was scheduled in Zurich. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a EU representative and your humble servant also arrived there. We should have been witnesses at this important event. But when it came to the signing, it transpired that the Turkish colleagues said they would sign everything but with a reservation concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. The text of the reservation was at odds with Armenia’s position.

I told my counterpart that I had warned him: it was hard to believe that there would be no preconditions. So, we were where we were. All parties concerned had arrived just to witness an impasse.

Eventually, the Turkish colleague agreed to compromise and withdraw this formal condition. But the Armenian colleagues started to negotiate for the possibility of making a statement in which Armenia would outline its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. Then the Turkish minister said that he would also make a statement.

At that time we were watching a televised football game, while the two ministers were arguing until late at night. At last we realised that we should somehow pull out of that predicament.   So I wrote a note urging him to stop insisting on making comments. He complied. As a result, the documents were signed.  But they failed to be implemented for the same reason: the parties saw the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement in their different ways.

Now that the war there is over and foundations have been laid for a political process and the unblocking of all transport and economic ties, I think it would be quite logical for our Turkish and Armenian colleagues to resume the normalisation efforts.  We are ready to help this in every way.

Question: Is Spartak champion?

Sergey Lavrov: No. Spartak is not champion – regrettably.

Question: Will the 2021 elections to the State Duma influence Russia’s foreign policy course?

Sergey Lavrov: In the Russian Federation, the foreign policy course is defined by the President. I do not see any legislative or political grounds for this course to be changed.  The President has approved it in conformity with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. This is what we are being guided by.

The current composition of the State Duma, all the four factions are most actively cooperating with us in implementing the foreign policy course. This course enjoys wide ranging public support. This is really helping us in our work. During these meetings and my trips around the country I feel this live. All the four Duma parties are working hard to get reelected. Even if some extra parties make it to the Parliament, I will be only happy at the flowering of pluralism. I do not see any reason why the Federal Assembly should reduce its support for Russian foreign policy.

Question: Today’s world is characterised by rather complicated, versatile and occasionally tense international relations.  Could you advise students and future diplomats on what knowledge and skills one should possess in the modern world?

Sergey Lavrov: This is a long story. The more knowledge you attain, the better. But one of the skills is civility. Do not take the floor ahead of women, when they are ready to ask a question.

Question: Is it strategically important today to be not just a trained diplomat but also a scholar? I mean, diplomats versed primarily in philology, with economics, law, and international relations coming second.  

Sergey Lavrov: It is absolutely clear that a diplomat who is not a good writer and a good speaker is not a full-fledged employee. Likewise a diplomat without knowledge of at least two foreign languages, along with a fine command of his native language, will not go far professionally. International law, economic knowledge and history offer an unlimited scope. But Russian is the main discipline. A diplomat must have a perfect command of it and constantly enrich his or her knowledge.

We will continue to build up our efforts to support the Russian language abroad. A specialised comprehensive state programme is being drafted, which will considerably expand the capacity of your institute and other organisations (the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Cultural Cooperation) to protect and promote the Russian language and meet the growing demand for its acquisition by learning that we are observing in the world.

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