Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister of Iceland Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, Moscow, November 26, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
We held useful and meaningful talks. Ties between Russia and Iceland have a long history. In October 2018, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. However, informal ties between our countries go much deeper in history.
This year we met with Mr Thordarson on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, when our conversation focused on Arctic issues. Today we discussed this subject again, and we also held an in-depth discussion on a number of other current issues, primarily those related to our bilateral cooperation.
We expressed a shared commitment to its progressive development in the interests of our nations and stability in the Euro-Arctic region. We welcomed the relaunch of our political dialogue, including at the top level. As you know, President Vladimir Putin met with President of Iceland Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson on the sidelines of the International Arctic Forum The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue in April.
Ties between our parliaments are being revitalised. In October 2019, Speaker of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of Russia Vyacheslav Volodin met with Althing Speaker Steingrimur Johann Sigfusson during the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament. Mr Steingrimur Sigfusson was invited to visit Russia in 2020. We hope he will accept this invitation.
Despite the sanctions pressure, we managed to reverse the negative trend in trade last year, when bilateral trade increased by over 20 percent. This is a positive development, even though our trade is only estimated at $50 million so far. However, we have agreed to keep this positive trend up and to make it sustainable. The mechanism of regular Russian-Icelandic consultations on trade and economic cooperation has a special part to play in this. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in the second quarter of 2020.
We noted the Icelandic businesses’ growing interest in the Russian market. This led to the establishment of the Icelandic-Russian Chamber of Commerce, which includes over 30 Icelandic companies, last month.
We noted with satisfaction our expanded interregional ties. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, the Kamchatka Territory, Chukotka, and the Murmansk Region are interested in interacting with their Icelandic partners. This is more than just a show of interest. Important projects involving innovative technology, telecommunications and geothermal energy are already being implemented in a number of Russian regions. In particular, geothermal energy is used as generating capacity for the energy bridge project connecting Kamchatka with the Kuril Islands and, in the future, Japan. Icelandic companies are involved in implementing this.
Icelandic companies are involved in upgrading the Russian fishing fleet, such as designing modern ships and supplying equipment.
Last month’s events are notable as well. The Skolkovo Foundation signed an agreement on cooperation with the Icelandic Innovation Centre. Last year, Russian S7 Airlines initiated regular service to Iceland during the summer season. Since the experience was positive, it began selling tickets for next season. Largely because of that, the tourist volume from Russia to Iceland was up by almost 20 percent last year, and our Icelandic colleagues are interested in consolidating this trend.
We talked about ways to strengthen our legal framework. A number of documents are in the works. We agreed to expedite the procedures needed for them to enter into force and the signing of those that have not yet been agreed on.
Our countries share memories of the joint struggle against Nazism. Russia gratefully remembers Iceland's contribution to forming and supporting Arctic convoys. We mentioned today that President Putin invited his Icelandic colleague, President Johannesson, to visit Moscow on May 9, 2020, to participate in celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory.
We noted regular positive interaction between our respective foreign ministries. Iceland presides over the Arctic Council (AC) from 2019 to 2021, and Russia will take the presidency afterwards. Today, we exchanged detailed views on how to build this key Arctic forum’s activities. We are on the same page regarding most issues. We have just signed the Joint Statement, which emphasises and symbolises the continuity of the AC presidencies of Iceland and Russia.
We discussed a number of international problems, the situation in Syria, Ukraine and Iran, our interaction at the UN Human Rights Council and other UN-related matters.
We agreed to keep in touch. The minister invited me to visit Iceland. I would like to do so. We will agree on the specific steps to make such a visit possible.
Question: The number of non-Arctic countries wishing to take part in Arctic exploration is continually growing. What do you think about the potential expansion of the Arctic Council?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, many countries are interested in this region. The Arctic Council members are not opposed to the cooperation of non-Arctic countries in implementing many projects in the north, in the high altitudes. There are no plans to increase the membership of the Arctic Council. Nobody has suggested this.
Any country can receive observer status, and 13 states already have it. We do not have any objections to other countries’ practical, non-politicised participation in the work of the council provided they fully respect the fundamental decisions made by the Arctic Eight.
Question: The Syrian Democratic Forces are again accusing Turkey of violating its commitments on the security zone. They interpret Turkey’s military operation in the area of Ayn Issa as Ankara’s striving to establish control over the M4 international motorway. What does Moscow think about these developments?
Sergey Lavrov: We have no information on Turkey’s intention to violate the October 22 Russia-Turkey memorandum. I would like to advise the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish political leaders in general to fulfil what they have promised. Immediately after signing this memorandum on October 22 of this year, we secured support for its implementation by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish leaders that enthusiastically promised to cooperate. Several days later the United States changed its position and announced its withdrawal from Syria but forgot that it had to protect oil fields from being seized by the Syrian government. At that point the Kurdish leaders instantly lost their enthusiasm for cooperating in the Sochi agreements and again placed their bets on US patronage. Nothing good will happen if they hold this position. They should understand one absolute truth: the rights of the Syrian Kurds can only be ensured on condition of Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. For this purpose they should start a real, comprehensive dialogue with the Syrian government. When the Americans announced their withdrawal from Syria, the Kurds suddenly expressed a willingness for this dialogue but then later, again switched over to a somewhat unconstructive position. I would advise our Kurdish colleagues to be consistent and not to engage in dubious activities for considerations of expediency.
Question: There are concerns that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is again preparing to stage a provocation with the use of chemical weapons in Idlib. What do you think about the recent report by the OPCW Director-General on Douma?
Sergey Lavrov: We regularly receive reports on preparations for provocations in Idlib. This information is confirmed in most cases. We make it public jointly with the Syrian government and maybe this is why these provocations have not been staged. That said, we know that they are being prepared and that provocateurs from the so-called White Helmets take a direct part in these preparations. The White Helmets were established and led by British secret services with the support of some Western countries, including the United States.
I think it is absolutely obvious to everyone that the White Helmets took part in several staged events, including those in eastern Ghouta in April 2018. The facts that have been presented to expose these provocateurs were more than convincing. We discuss them in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A conference of the participants in the Chemical Weapons Convention is taking place now. There is no escape from the facts that show the dishonesty of many experts in this organization, who have prepared reports on Douma in Syria and a number of other questionable stories. We are hoping that the OPCW Director-General and the other staff members will be strictly guided by an unbiased attitude and will not take specific instructions from any country. At this point we doubt that the OPCW executives are abiding by these principles.
Question: The WADA Compliance Review Committee recommends suspending Russia from international competitions for four years. How would this affect the country’s image? Do you consider this fair?
Sergey Lavrov: To begin with, this is just a recommendation by the committee for now. It must be reviewed by the Foundation Board. I would not rush to a hasty conclusion.
There are those who want to put Russia on the defensive, accused by everyone, anywhere, in any area of international life, in conflicts, the economy, power supplies, gas pipelines, and trade in military products. Russia is ever violating or doing something that doesn’t benefit one or several Western countries. They believe that the more accusations like this are made, the better for their anti-Russia reasoning. We know perfectly well that it is these countries that engineer such situations.
We will uphold the need for an honest conversation on any issue with a view to ensuring an unbiased review of the actions of every country in the international arena. It is hard to imagine this situation where one or two countries (for example, Russia and China) are responsible for anything and violating everything while every other country follows the rules which they have written themselves without asking anyone, and compels others to respect these rules.
We respect international law, which primarily implies justice and equality. Everyone must explain his actions, but rarely do we get sensible explanations that conform to international law, from our Western partners.