Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with TASS news agency, Moscow, April 29, 2020
Question: This is our first online interview. How familiar are you with this format by now? I know you are holding online meetings, and even met with your BRICS colleagues via this format. How much more time, do you think, will we have to work online?
Sergey Lavrov: It’s anyone’s guess. It’s unusual, but fun. As we have repeatedly pointed out, online meetings will never replace face-to-face meetings, especially confidential meetings, but nevertheless, using modern technology in these circumstances is a convenient approach because people must continue to talk to each other. Indeed, in addition to telephone conversations, which have always been part of our diplomatic activity, we are now increasingly using video conferencing. A video conference with the BRICS foreign ministers took place yesterday. Russia chairs this association this year. Tomorrow, we will hold a Normandy format videoconference with foreign ministers, where we will discuss who is acting, or not acting, on the recommendations approved at the Normandy Four summit in Paris in December 2019, and how they are proceeding.
Next week, after the holidays, we will continue to use this format. I’m not sure how long this will last. The health authorities will decide on this based on the actual epidemiological situation. These evaluations are used to compile reports for international leaders. As you may be aware, governments around the world are thinking about the time when they will be able to start putting together measures to exit the crisis. Related instructions were issued yesterday by President Putin at a meeting with the governors. So we are now in the hands of Mother Nature and the efforts that people are making so nature does not cause too much harm.
Question: Unfortunately, the pandemic is leaving its mark on our lives and, in some ways, has greatly darkened the upcoming Victory Day on May 9. We are ten days away from it. However, President Putin said an aerial parade would take place. Of course, there will be fireworks as well. Frankly, the holiday will look a little different. We were expecting many foreign guests to come here. Given the circumstances, how can Victory Day - a great holiday that no one will ever take away from us - be celebrated internationally?
Sergey Lavrov: I completely agree with you. First, none of the foreign guests has yet said they will not come to Moscow for the parade when the new date is set. All foreign guests, including the heads of state and governments, as well as a large group of WWII foreign veterans, have shown understanding for President Putin’s decision, announced in mid-April, on the need to reschedule the parade, which will be held in full, as he emphasised, this year. We are proceeding from the premise that the guests who confirmed their participation for May 9 will, of course, consider the possibility of coming to Moscow on a new date.
Of course, one cannot ignore the international celebrations for the 75th anniversary of Victory in World War II, the Great Patriotic War. As you may be aware, the UN adopts a corresponding resolution every five years. Five years ago, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory, the General Assembly adopted a resolution by consensus, which emphasised the enduring nature of this feat, and pointed out that the UN was created thanks to Victory. Its Charter says that saving future generations from the disasters of war is its main goal.
Just a few days ago, President Putin and President Trump marked another milestone in the march of the victors - a meeting on the Elbe River. I believe this was a very important and emotionally charged message telling us that we must put security interests and the interests of saving lives, rather than some geopolitical considerations, above all.
In addition to the functions and statements I mentioned, a draft resolution by the UN General Assembly is being prepared, this time on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Victory in World War II. The CIS states, China and a number of other UN member countries co-authored it. We hoped to be able to time the adoption of this resolution to Victory Day. Like five years ago during the 70th anniversary, the plan was to have a special discussion at the plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly. Like other UN agencies, the General Assembly is now working remotely and isn’t holding large meetings, or small ones, for that matter.
We have reached an agreement with our partners who co-sponsored this resolution that we will be aiming for the time when the General Assembly resumes its normal work and then convene such a meeting. Exhibits and film screenings were planned, not only at the New York-based UN headquarters, but our foreign missions elsewhere as well. Of course, one way or another, there will be commemorative functions on Victory Day dedicated to those who fought against Nazism. We instructed our foreign missions, Ambassadors and Consul Generals to organise, with consideration for the requirements of the local epidemiological authorities and the epidemiological situation, visits to the memorial sites in commemoration of the Soviet soldiers who fell on WWII battlefields. The burial sites will, as always, be maintained in proper condition. A series of events with exhibits and media events will, of course, take place, but given the circumstances, most of them will most likely be held online. Rest assured that one way or another this date will be properly marked by all of our foreign missions.
Question: More and more people are saying that this current global situation will change the world order, and that the world will be different. So as the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, as a major diplomat, what do you think the new world order will be like? What specifically will be different?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not think anyone can give a definite answer at this stage. There are at least two trends, but there may be more. The first trend is many countries, leaders, political scientists, politicians, and public figures advocating the need to combine efforts and in every way promote multilateral approaches to global problems because isolationism, attempts to maintain distance from global problems, hiding behind national ‘fences’, have failed. And the second trend suggests exactly the opposite: where it is impossible to rely on a government in a particular region, where the healthcare system is not well-developed, where agencies that must ensure order and monitor people’s movement are not doing too well, one had better fend for themselves. If my country is wealthier than many, I can just take care of my problems and let the rest struggle as they can. Of course, I am a supporter of the first approach, as is the Russian Federation. Russia has always advocated the need to combine efforts and use collective methods for solving any problems.
The biggest danger would probably be, when we emerge from this pandemic, still not having any agreement at all on how to act in case of a new global threat. In this sense, what is happening now is so important, including on platforms such as the UN, the WHO, and the G20. All of these organisations, represented by their leaders — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the leaders of G20 currently chaired by Saudi Arabia — have called for pooling efforts and launching a large multilateral programme. Firstly, the programme focuses on developing an antidote to such infections and threats. Secondly, on providing assistance to those who need it (substantial assistance, for that matter). And, thirdly, on organisational measures to quickly mobilise the international community, when, God forbid, something like this happens again. This programme has been launched. It was supported by the EU and Saudi Arabia as chair of the G20 and it is designed to run for years. The announced amount of investment is 7.5 billion dollars. The specifics are open to additional consideration and study in order to understand how such multilateral interaction could be arranged in the most convenient way for each country. But the fact that we need such a programme is not questioned by anyone.
As long as we are talking about multilateralism, I would like to emphasise something I spoke about quite recently. It must be understood that only combining efforts universally is the right answer, a system that takes into account the interests of all parties. Over the past couple of years, we have been observing attempts to present multilateralism in a slightly different way: as the right of a certain group of countries to formulate a policy on a particular global issue and then make everyone else join something that was not developed in a universal format.
Germany and France launched an initiative last year to create an alliance for multilateralism. And they did it outside the UN, outside its organisational structure. Subsequent developments showed that their initiative was in fact a proposal for everyone to look to the EU as an ideal of multilateralism in its foreign policy. Now we have a question: how can anything be established on Earth that would be more multilateral than the UN? Those attempts to promote the approaches I mentioned, to present the matter in a way that suggests multilateralism is determined by more advanced democracies (this is what they obviously say between the lines), mean only one thing. When these states come with their initiatives to the UN, they find out that they need to take into account other opinions, to modify their approaches and seek compromise and consensus, but this, apparently, is not what they want to invest effort in. All they want is to push for their unilateral approaches that do not take into account the position of others. Well, this is how these ideas emerge about creating some special interest alliances outside universal bodies such as the UN, and then present these alliances’ decisions as the ultimate truth. This is the approach that we take issue with. We tell our Western, including European, colleagues that any problems must be resolved fairly and opposition should not be feared. Like it or not, there are 193 UN members in the world. If we all annually reaffirm our loyalty to the ideals of the UN Charter, then let our work be based on its principles, the main one being the sovereign equality of states.
Question: Do you think that behind these attempts to create such alliances and attacks on existing UN institutions, and the WHO (US President Donald Trump said it must be reformed in a conversation with President of France Emmanuel Macron), with statements about the inefficiency of the UN as a whole during the pandemic, “the new world order” (about which I spoke) that these are attempts to establish new international agencies under the pretext of reform? To what extent is the Russian Foreign Ministry and Russia as a whole committed to maintaining the existing institutions, of course with due consideration for new realities?
Sergey Lavrov: We have always advocated a careful attitude towards the UN-centric world arrangement that was created after World War II. We have not invented anything more stable or reliable.
The UN system has unique legitimacy. It is also unique in embracing the problems that the UN itself, its specialised agencies, funds and programs are tackling. It would certainly be unforgivable to lose the wealth of its multilateral mechanisms that reflect the interests of all the member countries in this global organisation.
There is no doubt that nothing lasts forever under the Moon and nobody is perfect, as we all know. So, questions about reform and improving UN activity and its agencies are always on the agenda during the meetings of the inter-government and interstate bodies that run these structures and determine the work of their secretariats. This applies to the WHO that is continuously accumulating new experience. After each new epidemic and infectious disease it receives specialists and knowledge that are immediately put to use. New organisational units are established. This applies to any other international organisation, including the UN Security Council where the issues of reform are considered in a geopolitical context with a view to making it more representative. To achieve this, it is necessary to focus primarily on representation from the developing nations from all regions – Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The agenda of multilateral organisations is always aimed at improving their work. Any reform is not a one-time action. It is a continuous process because life goes on. New scientific and technological achievements, new technology and new cross-border phenomena are rapidly growing. It would be unwise and misguided to grow rigid and refuse to improve the opportunity for response from the international community to current challenges.
As for new organisations, there are no counter indications to any initiatives in this respect. But if an organisation is established based on its regional location or political affiliation as is the case with the alliances you mentioned, where Europeans and other Westerners create them outside the UN, this is a different story. Of course, we cannot accept their attempts to create a structure with a limited number of members (only those whom they consider democracies) but claim to resolve problems for the rest of humanity. With respect to your profession, there are quite a few examples of “an alliance being established for securing democracy” with the obvious message that there are “media and there are propaganda agencies.” Russia Today and Sputnik are obviously in the latter category. If the alliance that was declared assumes responsibility for resolving issues and assessing the activity of others, it will not be acceptable. UNESCO and different OSCE agencies deal with these issues. So, new organisations are okay if they are created without encroaching on the prerogatives of the existing universal structures that rely on the UN Charter that is approved by everyone.
Question: In September, the United Nations will be 75 years old. I talked with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres about this. Large celebrations for this anniversary were planned for the traditional high level week of the UN General Assembly. Guests of honour were expected to attend. As you said, it is difficult to predict anything now. What if the situation does not allow the participants to meet face to face in the UN building? Are there any consultations on how this anniversary, which is important for the world, will be celebrated if it’s not possible to hold a full session in the UN Headquarters in New York?
Sergey Lavrov: We still believe it is too early to make these forecasts. For the time being, we hope that our plans will be carried out (I am referring to a festive session during the high and top level week in New York in the last ten days of September). A declaration devoted to the 75th UN anniversary is being drafted; concerts, exhibitions and film shows are being planned. We are planning similar events in Moscow with the participation of the UN Information Centre and the UN Association of Russia.
Returning to planned UN events, I would like to emphasise again that for now we are all hoping that it will soon be clear whether it will be possible to hold UN General Assembly sessions, including the high-level week, in the usual format.
Question: If you please, I would like to go back to a topic which is crucial for all of us – the pandemic. As the fight against this terrible epidemic unfolds, there is an increasing number of those who want to determine who is responsible, investigate its origin. Various commissions have been set up including in the US Senate, there are many journalist investigations. More and more fingers are pointing at China. There are different kinds of conspiratorial inquiries in the US, there are alleged eggheads who are looking for the origin of the pandemic in Russia of all places. Should we already begin thinking about how to study and investigate this situation after the pandemic? How could this be done? Or should we draw a line and focus on combating the pandemic, leaving the investigation for the distant future?
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, I would like to say that we are sad about the rhetoric used, about attempts to point fingers at a certain country. You mentioned that the US is accusing China. Accusations against the People’s Republic of China are also heard in Europe, they were made in France and Germany. Statements are made that European countries are allegedly willing to demand tens or hundreds of billions dollars from China as compensation for failing to timely inform the world community. US President Donald Trump addressed this issue recently during a news conference and said that the US might also make such claims but much bigger than hundreds of billions US dollars.
We see all that. And it is certainly unfortunate. As you have just said, the key is to overcome the pandemic, and afterwards it is certainly necessary to investigate the causes of its emergence so as to work out an “antidote” to rely on in future. There are forecasts by scientists that this particular coronavirus may return and stay with us forever just like the flu or a number of seasonal diseases. And so it is certainly necessary to find out the causes. But not for the sake of being able to say “I was right. This is who is to blame. I did everything right, so go and vote for me” but for the sake of understanding of how to figure out the best approaches to overcoming this threat in future.
If we look at the actions being taken by the UN system, to be honest, I do not see anything blameworthy because the actions taken were fairly prompt and I think they were well-timed. One can always say, “You could have done something a day earlier.” Perhaps you could have. First, the UN system’s organisations are not something detached from its member states, they are set up and governed by the states, they have executive and managing bodies. The secretariats of these organisations are made up of citizens of the member states whereby the larger the country, its GDP and membership dues, the more citizens of that country make up the secretariat of that organisation. This is also true of the World Health Organisation. If we take the timeline of WHO action since January of this year, it convincingly shows that the Organisation was acting in full compliance with its Charter. And one more important consideration. The Organisation is not entitled to establish a certain regime in its member states. It issues recommendations. Even when the WHO declared the coronavirus emergency, it was a recommendation to the others. The Organisation could not have ordered everyone to declare a state of emergency. Each country, in view of the situation on the ground, either followed or disregarded this recommendation. This is a critical point that must be understood. The WHO is not alone in this work because there is also the UN Development Programme, UNICEF, UN Population Fund, Food and Agriculture (FAO), United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). Each of them had and has programmes to support the needy in developing countries, programmes that help improve, even if slightly, the socioeconomic situation of people, especially the poorest ones. The impact on the developing countries without such support would have been much more destructive, as they have so far managed to keep the pandemic from striking deep in their societies.
Question: You recently said that an online summit of the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, devoted to the coronavirus, was basically set. Is there a date or some hints when the five leaders of Russia, China, the USA, the UK and France will be able to go online and join forces in the fight against the coronavirus?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already spoken on this subject. We are ready for such a conversation. We believe that for the five leaders it will be important to make a joint statement with assessments and tasks concerning how we see the interests of the world community in joining forces to fight the coronavirus. The draft of such a statement is almost finished. We were ready to gather last week, and this one too, but some of the five leaders asked for extra time to determine their policies.
Question: So, the date has not yet been set, has it?
Sergey Lavrov: No, it has not. I would like to emphasise once again that this video conference of the five leaders will be devoted exclusively to the fight against the coronavirus in furtherance and in support of the decisions taken by the UN General Assembly, the G20, and the World Health Organisation on a consensus basis.
At the same time, we continue to prepare for the main summit of the leaders of the UN Security Council permanent member states, which was proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2020. This initiative was supported by all the leaders of the other UN Security Council permanent members. Now we are working on the conceptual content of this summit. There is agreement, an understanding that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability and global security in all its dimensions, including military, political, economic and humanitarian. It will focus on all pressing tasks on the world community’s agenda today, on how the five permanent members of the UN Security Council can exercise in the present conditions the responsibility that the UN Charter has entrusted them with.
Question: With the pandemic, the Foreign Ministry had to take on a new role, helping our compatriots return home and coordinating these efforts. On this front, the Ministry has gone to great lengths, working around the clock. TASS news agency covered these developments and saw that the Foreign Ministry has done a great deal, but has been facing criticism which I believe to be unjustified. Where are we at this point in time? How many people are still stranded abroad and are waiting to be repatriated? What could be the solution to this problem in the short term, in your opinion?
Sergey Lavrov: This type of activity is not new to us. There have always been situations when our compatriots found themselves in challenging circumstances while abroad. Of course, this has never happened on such a scale. Still, supporting our compatriots experiencing difficulties abroad is one of the main tasks of our foreign missions.
We have been facing a tense situation with the coronavirus outbreak. Some people had left Russia for a long-term period, to study or as interns, while others were travelling as tourists. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people.
This is a challenging situation, since it is not just about a Russian citizen who must return home, it is his constitutional right. There are also circumstances that are directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak in the Russian Federation. The country’s authorities and the Government Emergency Response Centre to Prevent the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus in the Russian Federation have adopted decisions primarily designed to minimise the negative implications from the ongoing pandemic. Preserving the life and health of the Russian people is the main priority. This vision underpinned the parameters for repatriating Russian nationals in terms of their numbers and the regions where they intended to return. This is extremely challenging work that requires multiple agencies to constantly coordinate their efforts in order to develop a special algorithm and improve it through trial and error, since mistakes are unavoidable in situations of this kind.
You mentioned that we have been facing some criticism. It is always useful and never one hundred percent unjustified or unfair. There is always a grain of truth in it. It is therefore essential for everyone to understand that when helping Russians we follow the government guidelines on countering this threat as well as measures taken at the federal level.
We can understand the feelings people have when they cannot board a plane home. But you also have to understand what I just said: there is a government policy whereby people have to submit the required information, while also taking into consideration specific factors on the ground. The Foreign Ministry advised the Government Emergency Response Centre to make important adjustments to the repatriation algorithm that guides our actions. The Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation is in charge of approving repatriation lists based on the information submitted through the Government Services portal. Based on the experience from this scheme, as well as recommendations from our ambassadors and consuls general, we submitted a proposal to the Government whereby our ambassadors would be vested with the authority to add people to the repatriation lists regardless of whether they are on the list compiled by the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media, or face a dire humanitarian situation or not.
A repatriation flight has just returned from New York with 257 people on board, including 90 people from the so-called humanitarian list. It was the Russian Ambassador to the United States who put them on the plane. As I express my gratitude to our diplomats I cannot fail to mention that many ambassadors, embassy and consular staff members have come up with creative and unconventional solutions. For example, in Nepal the ambassador and his staff have set up a tent camp at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Kathmandu to provide accommodation for those who did not have any money left. In New York, Nepal and Argentina, and in almost all countries, embassy employees have been using their personal funds to buy basic necessities and provide food for our stranded compatriots.
The plane from New York finally brought home 19 school students who were taking part in some shady programmes in the United States, and no one actually knows how they got there in the first place. The Russian Government did not know anything about this. We have yet to receive a clear and detailed explanation to this effect from our US colleagues. The US Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan attempted an explanation, saying that there was no need to worry, since some students have already returned home, some no longer wanted to leave, some were with their host families, while others were transferred somewhere else. These explanations are unacceptable to us. We need to know the location of every underage citizen, of every school student, where they are and why they are there. We also have to understand how minors were able to get on an international flight. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are working on it together with the Russian Education Ministry.
There is one more point I wanted to make. The Government has promptly taken a decision regarding Russians who have so far been unable to board repatriation flights and have run out of money, since they did not plan to stay abroad for so long, and were unable to return home. The Government allocated funds, and the Foreign Ministry has been distributing them following the corresponding guidelines in order to support our compatriots as long as they are abroad. There are per diem payments for adults and children. This money really helps. Let me reiterate that nobody is perfect, and a lot of things had to be done without any preparations, in keeping with the decisions taken at the federal level and considering how many people we were able to take back to the Russian regions of their destination.
I would like to once again thank our colleagues from other agencies, and all those who work at the Emergency Response Centre for their constructive approach to dealing with the concerns raised by our foreign missions. I would also like to extend my special gratitude to our diplomats abroad. They have done everything to offer maximum comfort to Russian nationals stranded abroad, and have volunteered their personal time to do so.
Question: I join you in your words of acknowledgement but I also would like to ask you about one very important thing. True, this is more about your forecasts and assumptions. The world is closed, borders are closed and there are no flights. I can only address this question to you. When will borders open? When will flights resume? When will people start to interact normally again? Proceeding from your forecasts, views, understanding and conversations with your colleagues, when and how will the world start opening back up? Borders are closed even between the CIS countries, not to mention farther abroad. How gradually or quickly will this happen in practical terms?
Sergey Lavrov: We already spoke about this at the beginning of our conversation. In practical terms, whether this is fortunate or not, the Foreign Ministry is an executive body that is not obliged to make a decision on this score. It must be made on a collective basis. I would like to emphasise once again that during his regular meetings with the regions and government members and academia, President of Russia Vladimir Putin is continuously setting tasks the implementation of which will make it easier to decide on criteria, timeframe, phasing and speed of lifting the current strict stay-at-home orders. As you know, the President instructed his colleagues to submit proposals to this effect by May 5, 2020. They should take into account the collective views of the federal executive bodies and the specific situation in every region. We are hoping that these measures will set a timeframe that will make it possible to carry out most of what was planned for this year in Russian diplomacy.
Question: You know the famous photo, the best photo of the 20th century, which was taken by TASS photo correspondent Yevgeny Khaldei. It is called “Victory Banner over Reichstag.” I am putting this question to you because you liked taking photos at one time. If you took a photo of the future victory over the pandemic, what would it depict?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a very good question for a world contest. I suggest you patent this idea.
Question: May I ask you straightaway to head the contest’s organising committee?
Sergey Lavrov: We will see. If this idea gains traction and the organising committee is established, I will think about joining it. I know that this photo must not depict any building symbolising some country.
Question: I recently bought an interesting photo album. It contains many of your photos. Since the pandemic victory contest will be international, which of your photos would you add to the future album? I mean expressly your photo.
Sergey Lavrov: I would add a photo that has not yet been taken. We have a wonderful photographer in the ministry, Eduard Pesov. We will meet on the day of victory over the pandemic and will try to take photos of all our friends. We will see how they will look on this remarkable day.
Question: I will take you at your word. Thank you!