Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during a meeting with the faculty and students at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kaliningrad, August 17, 2021
I am sincerely delighted to be back in Kaliningrad at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, the western outpost of the Russian Federation. This past July, I visited Vladivostok and had a meeting with the students and faculty of the Far Eastern Federal University.
It is on the eastern and western frontiers of our homeland that we get the most vivid demonstration of its unique role as a linchpin that holds together the vast Eurasian space. History and geography have preordained our foreign policy objectives and its multipronged nature. We have no right to turn our backs on the West or the East, or ignore developments in the South. Our independent foreign policy calls for establishing neighbourly relations with all our partners in all geographical directions.
Today we are meeting at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, one of ten Russian higher education institutions with the highest research and academic status. This university serves as a platform for carrying out numerous innovative development programmes in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and environment studies. The university has about a thousand international students , which is further proof of its high prestige and reputation.
This year we mark 80 years since the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. The USSR made a decisive contribution to defeating Nazi Germany and saving Europe and the world from the brown plague. Today, attempts to rewrite the history of the Second World War and its outcomes, as set forth in the verdicts of the Nuremberg Trials and the UN Charter, are gaining momentum, which is highly regretful. But we will persist in our consistent efforts to counter these attempts. There is more than just ideology at stake, since these attempts aim to reshape the international architecture resulting from the Second World War and undermine the fundamental principles enshrined in the UN Charter: the sovereign equality of states, non-interference in domestic affairs, settling disputes by peaceful means and respecting the right of every people to decide its own fate.
Our Western colleagues are trying to destabilise this architecture by replacing international law and documents that were universally agreed and approved with some kind of rules that, they believe, should underpin the international order. Instead of devising these rules in multilateral settings, they opt for narrow groups, primarily composed of Western countries that take various decisions and present them to the rest of the world as universal and binding norms. For example, instead of resolving issues within the UN, where all points of view are represented, our Western colleagues come up with various external platforms.
In late 2020, our American colleagues informed us of their plans to hold a Summit for Democracy. It will be up to them to decide who gets invited, meaning that they will be the ones to decide on the extent to which one country or another is a democracy. They will also set the summit’s agenda. There is no doubt that its outcomes will be presented as the ultimate truth, while all the other countries who are “lagging behind” and cannot be referred to as “developed democracies” would have to treat the resolutions of this summit as a guide to action. The French and the Germans did the same in 2019 by launching the Alliance for Multilateralism initiative. We asked them, why not hold these discussions at the UN? Can there be anything more multilateral than the UN with its unique legitimacy and where all the countries of the world are represented? In response, they told us that some view multilateralism “the wrong way,” while their objective was to have an alliance of “effective multilateralists.” When asked why these matters cannot be discussed among all the countries of the world, President of France Emmanuel Macron said that those “falling behind” should not hold back the “high performers” and their initiatives. These approaches clearly demonstrate the determination to move away from the principle of equality in international affairs based on the UN Charter.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Western countries started pushing the narrative that the world had made its “final choice.” Political scientists such as Francis Fukuyama referred to this period as the “end of history.” What they meant is that communism and all other alternatives to the liberal international order and philosophy have lost all relevance. Many of you probably remember that our Western colleagues assumed the roles of the “rulers of the world’s destinies” and started pushing their own methods of conducting international affairs. In fact, they exported democracy by imposing alien values and recipes on other nations, including by force. Many countries suffered from this line of conduct: Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The push to engineer various situations as one sees fit without taking into consideration the opinions of other interested countries culminated with the February 2014 coup d’etat in Ukraine. Today, the West prefers to omit the fact that Germany, France and Poland, your neighbours, were guarantors of the agreement between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. But literally the next morning after the agreement was signed, the opposition carried out a coup d’etat, and the Germans, the French and the Poles did not follow through on their guarantees and sanctioned the power grab by the ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. The goal was abundantly clear: to create a hotbed of tension in close proximity to our borders and prepare the territories to the east for a geopolitical takeover.
Let me give you an example that illustrates all too well the thinking of the leaders who backed the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, as they call it, while in fact it was an armed coup d’etat. When the first Maidan uprising took place in Ukraine in 2004 with the ensuing standoff between the government and the opposition, the European Union acted as a mediator. In its statements, Brussels said that the people of Ukraine had to make a choice between Europe and Russia. This mentality has persisted. The same happened in 2013. Conditions were ripe for a coup d’etat, with Ukraine aiming to sign an association agreement with the EU. We pointed out to our neighbours that many of the obligations that Kiev would undertake under its agreement with the EU would run counter to its obligations within the CIS, primarily in trade. There is a free trade area within the Commonwealth of Independent States, and during its accession to the WTO Russia negotiated serious and advantageous protective tariffs on European goods. Had Ukraine signed on to zero tariffs with the EU, and this is where things were headed at the time, we would have had to protect our border with Ukraine from European goods.
We were honest on this matter with Viktor Yanukovych and warned him that this was a problem that needed to be resolved. In particular, we proposed holding trilateral consultations involving the European Commission, Ukraine and Russia in order to come up with a mutually acceptable approach and avoid any damage to anyone’s trade and economy. However, the European Commission arrogantly stated that it had no intention of discussing its relations with Ukraine with us, and backed this position with an argument that Brussels was not invited to discuss Russia’s cooperation with China. To this day, this arrogance is deeply embedded in the thinking of many European political leaders. Against this backdrop, at the Eastern Partnership summit Viktor Yanukovych proposed not rejecting, but postponing the signing of the association agreement with the European Union in order to get a better insight into the trade and economic consequences for Ukraine. The West insisted that Ukraine change its course. In fact, the Maidan uprising was staged along the lines of the narrative that Ukraine had to choose between Europe and Russia.
The deadlock logic of “either or” still persists in Brussels. The cases in point are the EU's continuing course of action in Ukraine, its recent interference in the parliamentary elections in Moldova, and also many other incidents. They claim they want to have a normal relationship with us but first, Russia must apologise and reconsider its own behaviour. The Europeans are not going to change anything themselves because they are a poster child for democracy. I am well aware that in this context as well, there have been attempts to destabilise the situation. Some of our foreign partners and ideologists are trying to impose the so-called “Koenigsberg identity.” I would like to stress that we welcome de-politicised civil-society cooperation with all countries without exception if this cooperation is motivated by a genuine intention to develop contacts between people, to help them communicate and enjoy friendship. However, if the activity of various civil-society institutions and people’s diplomacy are simply a disguise for attempts to interfere in our domestic affairs (which is often the case), these attempts will not be left without a response and will not be tolerated.
This being said, we will continue to cooperate with all our partners on the premise that we will deal with our own issues without any advice from the outside. This concerns the upcoming elections to the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation as well. We have reasons to expect attempts to question the outcome of these elections. We prioritise the result based on the choice of our citizens. Russian people will give their own assessment to those in power and determine its own course for the next historical period. We will be consistently strengthening our national sovereignty. To do this, we have a strong modern army, diplomatic resources, advanced science and education. In this context, your work is a manifestation of our national sovereignty and part of what we call human capital, without which sovereignty is impossible. Our country has always been known for its autonomy and self-reliance. It has been in our blood for centuries. This is the approach that has secured a predictable future for our nation, our country and, which is equally important, a balance of powers in the world.
We are actively protecting our national interests but never slip into autarky, self-isolation or confrontation. We promote an agenda that aims to unite countries based on international law and the principles of the UN Charter. Our cooperation with the overwhelming majority of countries is successfully developing in line with this policy. These countries include our allies and friends from the CSTO, the CIS, the SCO, the EAEU and BRICS. We have built a truly strategic partnership with such great Eurasian powers as China and India. In 2019, the first Russia‒Africa Summit in history was held in Sochi, laying a solid foundation for further plans to develop our contacts with the African continent. Our relations with Latin American countries are growing, as are relations with their sub-regional bodies and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that unites all the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Population-wise, we are developing principled, equal and mutually beneficial relations with about 80 percent of all people on the planet. Unfortunately, our Western partners are not ready to pursue a similar course yet. We have repeatedly said that if our European colleagues are interested in developing relations with us on the basis of equality, mutual respect and consideration for each other’s interests, we will not keep anybody waiting. We are part of Greater Europe; we are neighbours. Despite the current crisis in our relationship with the West, there are a whole lot of fields where our cooperation is quite relevant. I meet with representatives of German and French businesses and the Association of European Businesses in Russia on a regular basis. They all point out their interest in developing links, working together on large projects and joint investment.
Transborder challenges and threats have not gone anywhere. They are common for all of us and know no national borders: terrorism, drug trafficking, the cybercrime problem that has become more acute of late, climate issues, the coronavirus infection, etc. Joint work in these areas is in demand as well as assistance in settling numerous ongoing regional crises and conflicts. It was again quite visibly manifested in the situation collapse after the hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Despite the sanction attacks against us by the European Union, other Western countries and the United States, our interaction with the EU members and Norway continues as part of the border cooperation programmes. Currently, seven such programmes are being implemented by Russia, Poland and Lithuania, also involving the Kaliningrad Region and Euroregion Baltic. We are in complete support of this. Those are pragmatic and depoliticised projects that genuinely help address life-activity problems in the relevant parts of our countries and issues of interest for our citizens. If the principles serving as the basis for border cooperation projects could be applied to more global issues in relations with the EU, then everyone would have gained from it. It is time to give up the illusion (so far entertained by many people) that the EU is an ideal of democracy, a big brother, whom everybody should obey. This has long become a thing of the past, but there is a natural ordinary interest in coming to terms with neighbours, trading with them, exchanging experience, visiting each other and eventually making friends.
Your region provides an example of depoliticised ties. I found it interesting to read about the implementation of humanitarian projects, a number of programmes with Poland, Nordic countries, Germany, France and others. Obstacles in people-to-people contacts are often created by our neighbours. It has been and continues to be so. Warsaw has suspended visa-free travel for the residents of Kaliningrad Region and border Polish provinces. Our colleagues from the EU must finally realise that they do not stand to gain anything from their wish to punish us. In my opinion, it has long been high time to see that it cannot be a one way street. Sanctions will bring no result. We will have to respond to any unfriendly steps on the basis of reciprocity. This is still in force either in foreign policy or diplomacy.
I am quite sure that one cannot imagine Russians without patriotism or a tendency towards a truly sovereign policy. I would like to assure you that Russian leaders will continue to make maximum use of all resources, including foreign policy, for the benefit of the country’s multi-ethnic population. The policy line on the international arena approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin is a long-term strategy and is not subject to fluctuations due to the political environment. The aim of it is to create the most favourable external conditions for the country’s growth and prosperity, security, and better living standards, and it remains geared towards the same priorities.
Question: My question has to do with a topic that might make a perfect blockbuster plot one day, based on real events involving Nord Stream 2. Do you think that this story is past its climax? Is a finale close, or is there still too much controversy to deal with?
Sergey Lavrov: If we look at the countries and companies that are implementing this project, they have initiated it, financed and built it almost to the last mile, and there have never been any questions.
At the same time, there are others who have nothing to do with the project and want to continue feeding off it, as is the case with our Ukrainian neighbours. They say Russia should ship gas, pay for the transit, while they will continue playing their games with the West, egging them on, turning a blind eye to manifestations of neo-Nazism – that is, making every effort to set the West even more against Russia. These attempts continue.
As for the US’ stance, promoted by the previous administration and the current one – which in fact reaffirmed Washington’s attitude towards Nord Stream 2 – they primarily see the project as an irritant for Ukraine and want to “defend” their new ally. Secondly, they saw it as competition for their liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the start. Back then, they vigorously insisted that Europeans build LNG factories and terminals and the corresponding infrastructure, recognising that their LNG is more expensive than our pipeline gas. They told Germany the government could cover the difference to save the local consumers the impact from the increase in prices. This is ideologised geopolitics, attempts to outplay competitors in the economic field and to strengthen their positions unilaterally.
Poland, too, has been repeatedly attacking Nord Stream 2, primarily for Russophobic reasons. They are trying to present the matter in a way that suggests Nord Stream 2 will lower Europe’s energy security. At the same time, the main country involved in the project, Germany, assured that Berlin supported the project precisely because it should strengthen the energy security of Europe and especially the European Union. I am quite certain that all attempts to undermine, challenge, or encumber its completion with any conditions are doomed to failure. But they will still be made.
The European Commission is being dishonest. Several years ago now, relevant requests were made regarding the project’s legitimacy and to what extent it complied with the EU Gas Directive, the so-called Third Energy Package. The European Commission lawyers responded absolutely officially and in accordance with their legal requirements and procedures, that Nord Stream 2 did not fall under the new EU Gas Directive because it had been agreed, legalised and funded long before that Directive was released. International agreements of this kind do not have any retroactive effect. Yet, a different decision was made despite that clear and explicit, official opinion expressed “on paper” by the European Commission's lawyers. It extended the Third Energy Package to Nord Stream 2 and to the already connected gas pipelines in Germany in retrospect. We fully expect more such attempts. But this is not just about a decision between two countries, Russia and Germany, supported by many EU members. We also have legitimacy, which we will defend.
Question: Considering its unique geographical location, the Kaliningrad Region can be viewed as Russia’s ‘visiting card’, and hopefully this also applies to the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. Should the university be organised along the lines of a European-style campus concept so that it offers a more straightforward and attractive image to foreigners?
Sergey Lavrov: The rector and I discussed the university’s development plans today. What you are asking is quite close to the ideas that are about to materialise. We will proactively support this approach. As I have already mentioned, the Kaliningrad Region is Russia’s Western outpost. We are proud that it has a university with traditions that go back centuries that adheres to high standards and is popular among international students. We cannot but welcome this.
Question: Four vaccines have already been registered in Russia and have proven effective both in Russia and in many other countries. Nevertheless, they have not been registered in the West. Why?
Sergey Lavrov: I think that politics has played a part in this. Together with China, we are being accused of starting a new “vaccine war.” This is what President of France Emmanuel Macron said in public back in the spring. His foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, followed up by saying that we use vaccines as a weapon to undermine the European Union’s prestige. However, things have calmed down since then. Hearing these statements from Paris was a bit odd, considering that we invited the French to visit Russia last autumn. They toured our manufacturers and the Gamaleya Institute and were very interested in what they saw. We have never tried to conceal what we do from anyone.
Then we had to face accusations of inciting the anti-vaccine movement in Europe, including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain or in other countries. You saw hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest about the restrictions, but still, someone had to pinpoint that Russia was to blame.
We have grown accustomed to this biased attitude towards us. It manifests itself in almost all spheres of international affairs. Whenever something goes wrong, Russia stands accused without a single fact to back such claims. Vaccines were not an exception. The same happened with the interference in the US election. We never saw any facts. The same applies to the Skripal case. They are alive and well, and no one saw them anymore. The same happened with the Russian blogger Alexey Navalny. They accuse us using harsh, offensive language, and then use these allegations as a pretext for imposing sanctions on us without presenting even a single fact. And the list goes on and on.
Every now and then we post articles on the Foreign Ministry website to debunk these claims, and to the embarrassment of our Western partners they have nothing to say. Anyway, they keep mum while persisting with their mantra that we have to confess that we were the only ones who could have done this, the “highly likely” narrative, and so forth. The same happens when we are accused of seeking to undermine Western jabs, as if we were trying to discredit them as low-quality or incite anti-vaccination campaigns in order to destabilise the European continent.
When President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin announced one year ago now that Sputnik V, the first vaccine, is ready, and shared this achievement that had been reached by the Russian virologists, in his first statement on this topic he said that Russia was open to the broadest possible cooperation on vaccine manufacturing. This invitation to work with us was stated in all clarity. Let me reiterate that at the time this proposal elicited no response.
During the first months of this year makers of Sputnik V and AstraZeneca raised the prospect of developing a combined vaccine. But this topic then went off the radar, which was not our initiative. Of course, understanding the certification process is essential. For example, the European Commission signed contracts for purchasing the Western vaccines before they were even registered.
As for Sputnik V, the European Commission does not intend to do anything until it is registered by the World Health Organisation (WHO). We are proactively assisting Russia’s Ministry of Healthcare in its efforts to complete all the procedures mandated by this organisation. There is a lot of red tape there, many just-in-case questions that the WHO wants to clear up in order to be sure 100 percent or even at a higher percentage.
Anywhere you look, there are efforts to delay and to postpone. We are now discussing mutual recognition of vaccine certificates with the European Union that would cover vaccines that were not recognised by the other side. This is not even a question of certifying the Russian jab. By the way, it was the EU’s initiative, voiced by its Ambassador in Moscow, Markus Ederer. Of course, we were interested. We are now helping Russia’s Ministry of Healthcare and the Gamaleya Institute, who represent Russia in these talks. There are many matters that have to be addressed, including technical and legal questions, such as personal data protection. This is a matter of concern for the EU as well, and we have to get to the bottom of it, including by coming up with a unified technological solution. It is up to the professionals to sort out these matters, but unfortunately our Western colleagues are not ready to engage in meaningful efforts in this sphere.
I have already referred to what France said about the Russian jab. This was followed by a statement from the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who stated publicly that they do not need the Russian vaccine and called on everyone to reject it. This is sad. We are all in the same boat here, facing a common threat, and the Russian vaccine has proved its safety and effectiveness. We are getting enthusiastic feedback from all those who buy and administer it. The EU’s position on this matter is politically tainted. Let me reiterate that once we agree with our European colleagues on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates, it will be up to the governments of specific countries, not Brussels, to decide whether to allow foreign nationals to enter their territory. In this sense, you know that for example Hungary has been using Sputnik V for quite some time now, and the vaccine has positive reviews. I will be visiting Hungary next week, and we will discuss this topic there.
Question: This university has a strong focus on both theoretical issues and the practice of cross-border cooperation. We have seven projects which are part of the cross-border cooperation programmes you have mentioned. They are of great importance to us. However, a great number of events under these projects have been cancelled because the borders are closed. This is one of the negative consequences of the pandemic. Can you comment on the negative effects of the pandemic on the cross-border cooperation between Russia and the EU?
Sergey Lavrov: I have just talked about this matter. Situations like this one, global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, must bring countries together. When the WHO initially suggested suspending patent protection for all vaccines to ensure that all people on this planet could get vaccinated, including in countries that do not have the financial, technical or medical resources, the first person to support this idea was President Vladimir Putin. He voiced his support in April 2020, during the G20 summit on countering the coronavirus. The United States is still to express its support for this proposal. The European Union has not taken any action either.
I have mentioned many examples of the EU’s prejudiced attitude to cooperation with us. The latest initiative on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates has encouraged us to hope that we can pursue a pragmatic path and that common sense will be the main criterion and a measuring stick for respective decisions.
All similar meetings before the pandemic were crushed by the Brussels bureaucracy. For many years before 2014, our relationship with the European Union relied on a multi-divisional political infrastructure. There was a biannual summit for heads of state, an annual meeting between the entire Russian Government and all members of the European Commission, annual meetings between the Russian foreign minister and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as 17 sector-specific dialogues. We had an agreement on shaping four common areas, each with its own roadmap. There was a special route towards visa-free travel. Our annual schedule of contacts was quite busy. All those efforts backslid when the Crimeans voted for reunification with Russia, in the face of direct threats of physical violence from the new authorities in Kiev – whose Russophobia was directly supported by the Europeans. It is paradoxical. They made a huge mistake. All efforts to normalise the situation in Ukraine went down the drain. The opposition (whose obligations were sign-matched with the EU’s guarantees) could not care less about the EU and staged a coup as soon as the next morning. The EU tried to put a brave face on it and said that democracy had triumphed as if it was not clear how Russophobic those putschists were.
Right now, we are ready to resume any contacts. We meet occasionally (mainly via videoconference) to discuss specific issues of world politics such as the Middle East settlement between Palestine and Israel. Both the EU and Russia are members of the quartet of international mediators, along with the United States and the UN.
We have a dialogue on Libya. Russia participated in the recent conference on Libyan settlement in Berlin.
We also have dialogue on several other issues. For example, when it comes to the Balkans, the EU persists with its stance that it is their territory so it must not be touched, and they do not see Russia there. It is their mindset: when it works for them, they will involve Russia, depending on the circumstances; but when Russia wants to be involved and they do not want it, Russia must mind its own business. This is the entrenched logic and mentality of our European colleagues. There are some sensible politicians in Europe who understand that this course leads to a dead end. However, the Russophobic minority, as we call it, runs the show. It is a minority but it is very aggressive.
Question: We had to adjust some of the activities under the current cross-border cooperation projects due to the pandemic. Two new programmes have been planned for 2021-2027. Is there any chance that the borders will reopen and that we will get an opportunity to hold some kind of joint events with our partners from Lithuania and Poland? If I’m right in thinking, businesses can travel now, but will participants in such projects have the same opportunity?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the cross-border cooperation programmes with Lithuania, Poland and Euroregion Baltic (ERB), we absolutely support them. We will continue to provide federal funding for these programmes. As far as I know, they are worth over 60 million euros, with Poland alone. This is a decent amount. Programme content is very important. We prefer to rely on the interests and ideas of those who live there and are directly involved in these programmes with their neighbours.
The development of a new seven-year plan has been slightly delayed due to the pandemic. Activities and projects that were to be completed this year, have been extended until 2023, as far as I am aware. Just a bit, but there will be a shift in the schedule.
As for travel, indeed there are some problems. First of all, there is the pandemic. You and the Far East have pioneered the introduction of e-visas. We have also been discussing this with Anton Alikhanov today. The project was suspended because of the pandemic, because the rules on e-visas were to come into force across Russia on January 1, 2021. But it will be resumed. This will make travel easier. You have a unique geopolitical position. It is important that you could be able to travel visa-free to Poland and Lithuania as conveniently as possible. We have such visa-free cross-border exchanges with Norway, and we have had them with Poland when this regime was only in effect between the Kaliningrad Region and the Polish border voivodeships. The Poles advertised this as their achievement, but then unilaterally terminated this agreement under Western sanctions.
We discussed this with the governor today. I believe that our Polish colleagues should take another look at their decision. We would be interested in them renewing that agreement. At the same time, it would be correct for our Lithuanian neighbours to agree to a similar arrangement. All those who live in this important region of Europe would benefit from it.
Question: Politics and the economy are so interconnected that sometimes it is difficult to say what comes first, the chicken or the egg, politics or the economy. You said 60 million euros provided by the Russian Federation is a decent amount. I will allow myself to disagree, because in fact, this is a very small amount for a large ambitious region, which you have referred to as Russia’s outpost in the West several times today. Our “visiting card” could look better. As a supporter of the cross-border cooperation programme, could you maybe influence or negotiate an increase in funding for these programmes?
Sergey Lavrov: I will not comment on the relationship between politics and the economy. Karl Marx did it before me. Moreover, there may be the chicken and the egg, but a rooster can also participate. Many options. As for the funding for these programmes, they say money is never too much. I think 62 million euros is much better than 5 million euros. There have been periods when funding was this low. It is definitely better to have more projects and to back them up with the appropriate funding, this goes without saying. But do not forget that the programmes are funded on a parity basis with the European Union. Such decisions are made with due account of all factors. I can assure you that many of our regions would also like to receive money for this kind of activity, but they do not. We always keep in mind the Kaliningrad Region’s special position and the need to make your external relations as comfortable as possible.
As for your projects being interrupted, I do not know the reason for this. If it is because of the pandemic, then it is not my call. I will not take on such a responsibility and have the Foreign Ministry insist that the projects be implemented despite the coronavirus restrictions. When it comes to the EU, they also look at these concerns. Your local sanitary authorities make these decisions.
Question: The issue of crossing borders is the responsibility of the Emergency Response Centre. To be fair, a great number of our proposals, including those made with the support of the Foreign Ministry, found their way into government directives. Many of the things that we asked for are already included in border regulations.
Sergey Lavrov: We will always support efforts concerning agreements and their fulfilment and developing cooperation. Still, we will never take the main role in deciding whether certain contacts are feasible for sanitary considerations. The coronavirus has forced us to postpone many of our plans, in other areas as well. I hope it will not be long now, although it is hard to make promises. After all, we all thought it would take a couple of months but you see how it has turned out.
Question: My question is about friendship, cooperation and new jobs. I come from a small city of Ozyorsk (Kaliningrad Region) which is lucky to be located on the Angrapa River that starts in Poland. When you became the first president of the Russian Rafting Federation, I was just dipping my toe into organising rafting trips in the Kaliningrad Region. Thanks to the local government (I would like to say special thanks to Alla Ivanova for her support), we had the chance to organise rafting trips across the border. The trips started in Poland and finished here. It was a one-time affair. But, for example, Poland and Belarus share the Augustow Canal where there is a free crossing season. Tourists only need to notify border authorities three or four hours in advance to cross the border in either direction by water. I have a similar dream for my own hometown. I can imagine how many tourists would be able to travel by the river from Poland.
Before the pandemic, 80 to 90 percent of vehicles were crossing the border here to buy fuel or to sell our neighbours’ fuel. Tourists had to be stuck in this traffic to cross. We have made certain arrangements and discussed them with our Polish colleagues. I would like to hear your opinion on the prospect of having seasonal border crossing points where they do not exist now. The Ministry of Tourism of the Kaliningrad Region has supported the idea of seasonal passing for both boats and bicycles – through the village of Zheleznodorozhny, which is now a local landmark.
What do you think about arranging seasonal border crossing points for tourists on bicycles and kayaks? Given limited capacity, what do we need to do to make this idea a reality? What steps would you recommend to take to make it happen?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not the president of the rafting federation; I am Chairman of the Supervisory Council of the Canoe Slalom Federation. That is for paddleboats, canoes and kayaks in swift water. In this sense, rafting is also a whitewater sport. Unfortunately, our attempts to unite the two federations have not been successful yet. The Rafting Federation wants to be autonomous. It is their right. But I understand those who love river rafting. I think it is one of the most pleasant kinds of recreation. You get some rest while doing physical activity and breathing fresh air.
I do not know how the agreement between Belarus and Poland works now. I was not aware of it.
We fully support your idea. But just a few minutes ago, I gave you an example of our Polish neighbours terminating an agreement on visa-free exchanges. They continue to stick to their logic. I seriously doubt that, if we suggest making an exception for tourists travelling by water between our countries during the navigation season, they will agree to that, considering their intention to block visa-free contacts. But we can try.
Question: I am from Ecuador, and here I study at the Institute for the Humanities. Will international students get jabs?
Sergey Lavrov: I am surprised that you are even asking. I proceed from the premise that we must offer this opportunity to everyone.
Question: So far, this has not been the case.
Sergey Lavrov: So you have not been vaccinated?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that this is wrong. We have gone to great lengths to enable international students to return to their universities. The Emergency Response Centre and Tatyana Golikova proactively supported our efforts. The fact that you have come to Russia for the academic year and will attend classes is already telling. On the question of vaccinating foreign students, I am at a loss.
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Anton Alikhanov): I think this is a shortcoming on our part. For example, we had a specific request from Tunisia. They wanted us to guarantee that their students will get the Sputnik V jabs right upon arrival or even before their departure. If, in this case, Tunisia has Sputnik V, since it was supplied to this country, then how come students can get the vaccine before departing for Russia, while upon their arrival here this becomes impossible?
Thank you for raising this question. It is an omission on our part. I will look into it.
Question: You wrote in an article the other day that Moscow maintains contacts with all political forces in Afghanistan. Could you elaborate a little bit what you meant by this phrase?
Sergey Lavrov: I referred to political forces, which excludes groups operating there and associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS. These are terrorist groups, and we do not view them as political forces.
The Taliban have a recognised political office. Kabul representatives, the country’s second highest-ranking official Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai held talks with this office and continue talking to its representatives. They are now in Kabul and confirmed their readiness to establish a dialogue with the Taliban in order to agree on the modalities of the transition period.
The Americans have had contacts with the Taliban for a very long time, not to mention China and the Persian Gulf states, while the EU has always been eager to join these processes, even though there was little added value in them.
Afghanistan is a country that has never been truly centralised in all its history. I am not even talking about a strict top-down structure, but about rudimentary understandings enabling the central government to take decisions on behalf of the entire nation. In all times the Afghan provinces benefitted from a great deal of independence. Their relations with Kabul, I mean the central government, could be loosely described in European terms as a confederation of sorts. Kabul respected the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Hazaras, and the Turkmens. There was an imprescriptible balance that enabled this country to exist. Every province had a great deal of autonomy.
We went through all of this in the Soviet era, when we were in Afghanistan and withdrew from this country. The withdrawal was very orderly. After our withdrawal, President Mohammad Najibullah stayed in power for three years, even though he was savagely executed afterwards.
When I became Foreign Minister in 2004, Afghanistan was the first country I visited in this capacity. At the time, the speaker of parliament was a former mujahideen fighter who led an armed fight against Soviet soldiers. Looking at him, let alone talking to him, was quite interesting. He started by sincerely praising the Soviet soldiers and said that unlike others who came there to fight, our soldiers behaved like real men, with dignity and never started shooting at the bushes just because they were scared.
We know this country well, and we have become convinced that trying to impose any other form of government on this country would be counterproductive. The Americans tried to establish what they called a “democracy” there, just like in any other country, and today they are doing the same in Libya. This includes the empowerment of women and respecting certain electoral norms. What norms can there be in Afghanistan, if during all election campaigns several million refugees voted from Pakistan? Ballot papers were carried to this country by donkey, and then filled in without any observers, be it from the OSCE or anyone else. Then the ballots were shipped back in bags on backs of donkeys through mountain passes and trails.
During the latest presidential election two years ago, when Ashraf Ghani was elected, it took several months to count the votes. After that, it was announced that it was the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, the second highest-ranking official in the country, who won, not Ghani. However, the Independent Election Commission ordered a recount, probably taking the cue from the United States. It took another three months to recount the ballots. They did not provide a single number, simply saying that the recount showed that it was Ashraf Ghani, not Abdullah Abdullah, who won the election. End of story. In this context, it would be naive to pretend that the people of Afghanistan can live by the Western precepts. Once again, this is an attempt to impose one’s so-called “values” on the rest of the world, while totally ignoring centuries-old traditions of other countries.
I believe this to be the main mistake. We are convinced, and have known this for a long time, that bringing the situation in Afghanistan back to normal is possible only through inclusive dialogue involving all the key forces. However, I have no doubt that instead of following the criteria that the Americans and NATO have been trying to impose over the past 20 years, we need to respect the traditions, history and customs of Afghanistan. We support the call by former President Hamid Karzai to launch this dialogue. The Uzbeks, the Hazaras, the Tajiks and all other ethnic and religious groups should be involved. There is no other way. I think that declarations by the Taliban in Kabul that they are ready to account for other opinions and are acting along these lines is a positive signal. They said that they were ready to discuss forming a government that would include not only the Taliban, but also other Afghan representatives.
Question: I am a citizen of Nigeria, and I received my higher education in Russia. I spent three years studying as a postgraduate. It usually takes at least one year to complete a PhD thesis. However, foreign students are issued a study visa for the period of study in Russia and after completing a postgraduate course, students have to move out of the hall of residence and go back home. And then they are supposed to find a way to obtain a visa in order to return to Russia to defend their thesis. Is it possible to extend the stay in Russia for foreign students so that they can defend their dissertation after the successful completion of their postgraduate studies? Coming back is a difficult, long and expensive process.
Sergey Lavrov: You have rightfully brought up this issue. I think this decision needs to be made. I will have a word with our consular services and other departments dealing with the issue of Russian visas. I think this is an absolutely justified presentation of an issue.
Question: In the process of shaping your success, did you draw on bad experiences of your acquaintances or the minds behind it?
Sergey Lavrov: It is difficult to provide a blanket answer that would cover all life situations. They say that smart people learn from other people’s mistakes. I’m not sure if it works for me. But whenever you see mistakes made by your partners, you do not want to see yourself in their shoes. I have never thought about it, but clearly, intuitively and instinctively, people in their profession who run into such situations draw conclusions for themselves.
I will not list the cases where, I think, our partners were wrong. I have done this many times today. The main mistake of the West is that it thinks of itself as an infallible maker of destinies and wants everyone to do as it says. This systemic problem in our relations with our Western friends stems from the fact that it is difficult for them to accept (I understand this) a situation where, after 500 years of domination in all spheres of life, including the economy, culture, geographical discoveries and military affairs - the West has found itself in a situation where this era is declining and what we call a multipolar world is taking shape, which includes - needless to say – China and also India, which is experiencing powerful growth. Just look at how active Turkey is in the international arena. You can agree or disagree with certain things, but it is an influential global player, just like Iran. The Gulf countries and Africa - a continent, which, just like Russia’s North, is home to our planet’s most important natural resources and Latin America with its growing self-awareness which is energetically promoting its agenda. Unwilling to have bad relations with the United States or Canada, they created their own group of countries - CELAC. Before that, there was (and still is) the Organisation of American States which, along with these countries, included the United States and Canada. While preserving the channel of communication, they want to have an association and a forum of their own, where they will uphold their identity rather than erode it in general liberal notions.
The PRC has been proclaimed the main threat to the United States only because it is becoming more powerful economically than America and because of the continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States wants to resolve these disputes in a way that would not be in China’s favour. The PRC has established a dialogue between the ASEAN countries and the countries that claim particular water areas which has led to the adoption of a number of documents. They are currently working on a legally binding code of conduct. All of that is unfolding as part of peaceful settlement. The “Indo-Pacific region” concept has become a manifestation of the West's attempt to maintain its hegemony. Not the Asia-Pacific region as it has been called until now, but the “Indo-Pacific region” in order to emphasise the Indian factor (Indian Ocean, India) and clearly trying to lure India into games that were publicly announced as efforts aimed at containing the PRC. The Quartet including the United States, Australia, Japan and India has already been created, and they are now trying to “equip” it with a military agenda. Exercises are being conducted with the engagement of “Indo-Pacific countries” such as France, Germany and Great Britain. The exercises are being conducted with an eye on the South China Sea in order to send a clear message to China. Importantly, a number of warships participating in the South China Sea exercises came there from Crimea, where they demonstrated, you know using what methods, their commitment to “the territorial integrity of Ukraine against Russian annexation.” Just as in the case of China, these are attempts to demonstrate in the Black Sea a course on containing Russia. These movements by the West are quite abrupt in a number of cases and, unfortunately, they will continue moving forward. The West is losing its hegemony. The threads of global control are slipping from Europe. It is painful. There is a desire to retain dominance using new aggressive and proactive steps. To this end, based on the Quartet that I have just mentioned, the “Asian” NATO is being outright proclaimed. Prior to that, Donald Trump tried to create a “Middle Eastern” NATO; now an “Asian” NATO will be created. As an organisation that has always claimed that it was “a defensive alliance only to defend its members if they come under attack,” NATO now sees its raison d'être in a global mission which was publicly stated by the NATO Secretary General. NATO will be in charge of the “Indo-Pacific region’s” security. It will take quite a long time for the multipolar world to establish itself. Not a year or two, not even decades. I think this historical era will not be too long, but it will not be very short, either. Our Western colleagues must realise that the realities and real politics, which Germany and Great Britain have always been famous for, preclude the behaviour that the West is now showing as it tries to subjugate everyone and everything to its will and to impose its own values, which are absolutely at odds with the values, traditions, and customs of the overwhelming majority of the global population.
Question: Please forgive this off-topic question that does not concern international relations. My youngest son is a fan of Spartak. But when I ask him why, he doesn’t seem to be able to formulate his reasons. When did you become a Spartak fan, and how and why did that happen?
Sergey Lavrov: I became a Spartak fan in childhood. I lived on the outskirts of Noginsk with my grandparents, in a wooden house with all the trappings of a traditional rural household. Imagine a street of wooden houses, and the last house in the row – unfortunately, it burned down long ago – seemed to me like the centre of civilisation. It was a hundred metres from the Spartak stadium. And on the way to that stadium, there was a water pump where I went to get water. Naturally, we went to the Spartak stadium when the local factory team was playing. In winter, they organised a team there for the Golden Puck tournament. We cut our leg pads from old rubber tires. Someone helped us make duralumin circles we screwed on those tires, and we skated like real pros. Later, unfortunately, I moved to Moscow, and that was the end of my hockey games. Well, in summer we played football there, which I still practise once a week on Sundays. This is the story. I hope that today's Spartak will also inspire young people to join the fan club of this great team. Only they need to play a little more lively and effectively for that.
Question: Today, you have indirectly referred to international non-governmental organisations, and I have a question in this connection: how big is their role in terms of Russia’s foreign policy? Many experts and political observers believe that the strengthening of international NGO could undermine the standing of countries in the future. Do you share this opinion?
Sergey Lavrov: This echoes one of the narratives pushed by our Western colleagues. They keep insisting that NGOs and civil society be included in multinational forums. There are very strict rules in this regard within the UN. It has the Economic and Social Council, which in turn has the Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations within its structure, and this has been the case for many years now. Within this committee there is a procedure for granting status to NGOs within ECOSOC. Candidates have to meet a number of criteria in terms of coverage, the transparency of contributions and other rules. In addition, the sphere in which the NGO works must comply with the ideals enshrined in the UN Charter. Thousands of NGOs have obtained this status. The procedures are quite demanding. There are just over 50 Russian NGOs there, which is a small number compared to the total.
We are interested in Russian organisations joining the ranks of ECOSOC. I have meetings with Russian NGOs every year. If you are interested, if you represent an organisation of this kind, let me assure you that we will resume these meetings once the pandemic is over. In between these annual gatherings, my deputies hold meetings with NGOs working in their respective area of expertise. This includes disarmament affairs, the protection of human rights, NGOs working on social matters, and those defending the rights of children. There are many Russian organisations that have built a positive track record in their areas.
That said, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe also has a human rights dimension, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which monitors elections, among other functions. In fact, they pulled off quite a stunt recently. When we invited them to monitor the elections in Russia, they said they wanted to send 500 people. Why so many? This is how we want it under our criteria – was the answer. But where are these criteria? These are our operational guidelines and judging by our experience we need 500 people in Russia, they told us. We then pointed out to them that we have been proposing to the OSCE for many years drafting election monitoring criteria and adopting them by consensus. In fact, this was an official proposal we submitted together with our CSTO and CIS partners. These rules need to take into consideration the size of the country, its population and other factors for determining the number of observers. The West has consistently rejected these proposals, saying that the rules the ODIHR created were the gold standard.
There were practically no Russians in the office before, and it is only now that we are trying to ensure that there is someone from Russia on the office’s staff. In fact, all these gold standards were developed by Western diplomats. As I said, the international law does exist. There is the Helsinki Final Act, there is the consensus rule within the OSCE. These are all international norms. They invented their own rules, they wrote them for themselves, setting out how to monitor elections and how many people should monitor elections in various countries, and where it has to be stated from the outset that the elections failed.
For example, this is what happened in Kazakhstan. During the recent elections, the first needs assessment mission issued a negative report right upon its arrival. We reminded them that as long as the West refuses to work together on drafting election monitoring rules, the only obligation set forth by the OSCE is that every OSCE member must invite international observers to national elections. Period. It is not even mentioned that this should be ODIHR observers. It just mentions international observers. In this sense, we have honoured our obligations.
We sent invitations to the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, as well as to representatives of CSTO inter-parliamentary structures, and many Western observers in their private capacity, who asked for this privilege. The Central Election Commission also invited observers. The OSCE human dimension holds two-week meetings every autumn and is headquartered in Warsaw. Unlike the UN, the West flatly rejects all our attempts to agree on criteria for enabling non-governmental organisations to take part in these events. Once again, they do not need any coordinated rules, since they already have their gold standard. As a result, you can have people at these meetings that should not be there.
For example, Tajikistan had to submit a protest after an NGO at the meeting turned out to be designated by Tajikistan as a terrorist organisation. But they did not need any approval to be able to attend. They just opened the door, and they were in. In this context, we said we would not be part of these activities, until Crimean NGOs are allowed to participate. And they granted them access.
When someone refuses to develop generally accepted criteria, all this does is make cooperation among NGOs more confrontational. NGOs serve as someone’s tools in many spheres of life. Attempts to dilute the intergovernmental nature of many organisations are gaining momentum. This is especially true for UNESCO, for one.
For example, Reporters Without Borders, a French NGO that is far from universal, assumes the role of trend setter on topics relating to press and mass media freedoms. At the same time, no one has any misgivings over the fact that right there in Paris RT and Sputnik have been denied accreditation at the Elysee Palace for many years now. When London hosted a conference on freedom of the media, somehow managing to put a UNESCO logo on it, a Sputnik correspondent was not allowed in. And the list goes on. There are also attempts to dilute the intergovernmental nature of other structures, including the UN, or replace them with other formats. As for the Summit for Democracy to be held by the United States in late 2021, the US already said that only democratic countries worthy of the invitation will be able to attend, and that civil society will also be strongly represented. Probably, businesses will be there too, especially considering the role companies play in cyberspace.
The question of who runs the internet is a big one. This has been on the agenda of the International Telecommunications Union for many years now. There is little progress, since the main assets are located on US territory, and the United States is not interested in ensuring transparency in this sector, so everyone understands why all these platforms decide to block Trump all of a sudden, then turn on Russian resources and politicians, and in general do whatever they please. But the problem does exist, and it is becoming increasingly topical.
We remain firmly committed to reaching out to non-governmental organisations whose ideas are consistent with UN goals, while understanding that states that founded and established the system should play a decisive role in it.