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29 January 201618:55

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Moscow, January 29, 2016

146-29-01-2016

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Table of contents

  1. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s forthcoming visits to the UAE and Oman
  2. Talks between the Syrian government and the opposition
  3. Israeli-Palestinian peace process
  4. Developments in Libya
  5. The situation in Afghanistan
  6. The Minsk meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine
  7. On the beginning of ICC’s investigation of events in South Ossetia in August 2008
  8. The fate of an underage Russian girl in Germany
  9. Hearing of the January 13, 1991 case by the Vilnius District Court
  10. The latest developments in Montenegro
  11. Traffic accident in Estonia
  12. Excerpts from answers to media questions

 

 

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s forthcoming visits to the UAE and Oman

 

On February 1-3, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will pay working visits to the Middle East – the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Sultanate of Oman.

In the UAE capital, Mr Lavrov will be received by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and hold talks with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who co-chairs the Intergovernmental Russia-United Arab Emirates Commission on Trade, Economic and Technical Cooperation.

In Muscat, the Foreign Minister will hold talks with Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said and his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. After the talks, the sides plan to sign an agreement between the Governments of the Russian Federation and the Sultanate of Oman on the mutual renunciation of visa requirements for the owners of diplomatic, special and service passports.

During his meetings and conversations, Foreign Minister Lavrov will discuss with his partners in Abu Dhabi and Muscat a whole package of issues pertaining to the steady development of the traditionally friendly relations that link Russia with the UAE and Oman. Our common tasks and interests consist in maintaining a regular political dialogue, building up the trade and investment partnership and elaborating promising joint projects in the energy sector, metallurgy, industry, agriculture, infrastructure and other areas. Russia also aims to invigorate humanitarian ties, including cultural exchanges and cooperation in tourism.

At the talks, the sides will pay much attention to coordinating their positions on key aspects of the international and regional agenda. Abu Dhabi and Muscat are consistently pursuing a balanced foreign policy course and expressing understanding and support of Russian approaches and initiatives in the UN and other international organisations.

In this context, the sides will review in detail developments in the Middle East and North Africa, laying emphasis on the need to settle conflicts and crises in the region as soon as possible. Moscow considers important the formation of a large and efficient front in the struggle against terrorist threats in strict conformity with the provisions of international law. Considering that Russia, the UAE and Oman are taking part in the International Syria Support Group and the organisation of the talks between the Syrian Government and representatives of the opposition in Geneva, the sides will pay special attention to the exchange of opinion on issues concerning settling the Syrian crisis.

One more urgent topic to be discussed in Abu Dhabi and Muscat is the situation in the global energy market where the task remains the same — to decrease the volatility of oil prices and make them fair by reaching a steady balance between demand and supply.

We regard the forthcoming visits of Foreign Minister Lavrov as a major component of Russia’s purposeful efforts to promote versatile mutually beneficial cooperation with all regional partners, in part at the Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Dialogue Ministerial Meetings. We are ready to host a regular meeting in this format in Moscow in spring. Russia will review, acting in close contact with the UAE and Oman, its updated concept of ensuring collective security in the Persian Gulf, which takes into account such changes in the region as the settlement on the Iranian nuclear programme and considerable increase in the terrorist threats.

 

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Talks between the Syrian government and the opposition

 

As is known, talks between the Syrian government and opposition have been scheduled for January 29 in Geneva.

We have taken note of the statement made by Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, who, among other things, analysed and addressed the issue of launching these talks and the negotiation process.

We have a clear understanding and reliable information to the effect that a Syrian government delegation has arrived in Geneva, is ready for talks and is in close contact with UN officials and experts who are there now. I can say that Russian experts are also working in Geneva. A group of Syrian opposition representatives, formed as a result of the Moscow and Cairo meetings, is also ready for constructive interaction and work. There are no preconditions on their part; all issues have been resolved and they are completely prepared for the launch of the negotiation process after the corresponding agreement. This does not involve direct talks but a format that was coordinated directly by Staffan de Mistura.

Regarding the opposition group formed as a result of the Riyadh meeting, right now I cannot confirm that its representatives have declared their readiness to get down to work. We hope that such statements will follow.

We need to realise that an important and, hopefully, turning point has come in the search for solutions and ways to achieve a peaceful political settlement in Syria.

We urge all parties to become actively involved in the effort and abandon all preconditions in favour of the search for effective ways to achieve a political settlement in Syria.

We would like to reiterate our basic position, namely that the work (this refers to the Syrian opposition) should be built on principles of inclusiveness and broad representation. This is key to achieving a political settlement in Syria.

As of now, this is all I can say about what is going on in Geneva. The situation is rapidly changing. We will provide all information that we receive without delay. To reiterate, we are closely monitoring the situation in Geneva through the Russian permanent mission to the UN in the country and the Russian experts there and we are involved in the effort to provide assistance to the parties.

We are also in contact with our colleagues in Moscow. “Monitoring” should not be taken to mean some passive contemplation. It refers to proactive participation in the agreed-upon framework.

 

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Israeli-Palestinian peace process

 

The situation in this area remains tense and is punctuated by outbreaks of violence. As you know, we regularly comment on the situation. Unfortunately, there have been new discouraging developments. There have been two tragic incidents recently. On January 18, a 30-year-old Israeli pregnant woman was wounded in a stabbing attack in the settlement of Tekoa in the Bethlehem district. On January 23, the Israeli military shot dead a 13-year-old Palestinian girl in the settlement of Anatot. In all, Palestinian casualties have exceeded 160, including women and teenagers, and 29 Israelis have been killed since the outbreak of the clashes in October 2015.

Israel’s illegitimate settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territories is a serious destabilising factor. On January 21, the Israeli government announced a plan to expropriate over 150 hectares of fertile land in the Jericho area on the West Bank. If the project goes ahead, this will be the largest seizure of Palestinian land by Israel since August 2014 when about 400 hectares were annexed.

This dangerous course of events cannot but arouse concern. We urge sides to break this vicious circle of mutual violence. We are sure that under the present circumstances there is a pressing need for effective political and diplomatic steps to prevent further escalation and stabilise the situation. Moscow reiterates its willingness to provide any support to the conflicting sides, including through the Middle East Quartet, in an effort to deescalate the situation and find an essential level of mutual understanding between the Palestinians and Israelis to resume progress towards a two-state solution.

 

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Developments in Libya

 

The situation in Libya remains tense. On January 19, the Presidential Council, formed in compliance with the relevant agreements and led by Prime Minister Faiz al-Siraj, announced that nominations have been approved for the Government of National Accord, which will consist of 32 ministers. However, on January 25, the majority of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (the legitimate Libyan parliament) voted it down and asked the Prime Minister to submit, within 10 days, an amended list of candidates for the new Government that would be more consistent with the concept of crisis administration.

According to our information, local and transnational extremist and terrorist groups, primarily the Islamic State, are becoming more active in many parts of the country amid an acute domestic political crisis. The situation causes profound concern.

The impending threat cannot be warded off unless the intra-Libyan national reconciliation agreement is implemented. We call on all Libyan parties to be guided by the highest interests shared by the entire nation. We hope that Prime Minister al-Siraj, with assistance from Martin Kobler, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya, will draw up a list of ministers that would promise consensus and a vote of confidence in parliament.

 

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The situation in Afghanistan

 

Upon your request, we regularly return to the situation in Afghanistan.

Traditionally, Afghanistan experiences a lull in hostilities during the winter months. This time, however, the Taliban remain active and attack the government forces all over the country despite law enforcement operations. Problems persist in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan. Hostilities have resumed in Faryab in the northwest, and Badakhshan in the northeast. Grave concern is aroused by the Islamic State (banned in Russia), as it seeks to spread its influence to new Afghan provinces.

Kabul’s efforts to establish contacts with the Taliban have not borne fruit so far. The second meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States) in Kabul on January 18, reached agreement on only a part of the roadmap to organise talks. We are looking forward to the next meeting, due to take place in Islamabad on February 6.

 

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The Minsk meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine

 

I would like to draw your attention to the Ukrainian crisis, which we are monitoring closely. I am not only referring to diplomatic and other expert participation in relevant agencies’ work, or to diplomatic and political efforts in general. I also mean information coverage. We never miss an opportunity to call your attention to developments in Ukraine.

I would like to comment on the latest meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine. It was held in Minsk on January 27, and its participants continued an extensive discussion of the entire range of issues concerning intra-Ukrainian crisis settlement.

The agenda focused on political matters. As we know, settlement progress demands a direct and full-scale Kiev-Donbass dialogue, as detailed and outspoken as possible. That is one of the fundamental principles of the Minsk Agreements of February 12, 2015. Much to our regret, we have to acknowledge again that Kiev is not ready to comply with this provision.

In this context, it is very strange to witness the Ukrainian delegation’s attempts to discredit the peace efforts. I am referring to comments by some Ukrainian negotiators (not all of them) on the amendments proposed by Donbass. These comments were made on January 27, immediately after the Contact Group finished its meeting.

It would be natural to address their comments to other participants in the meeting, lay bare their stance and settle some issues with the Donbass representatives. Instead, they addressed their comments to the public in a clearly underhand move, displaying a non-constructive position that hampers efficient work. The same Ukrainian representatives regularly bring to the public eye details that disclose the essence of the talks, which runs counter to the initial understanding on their confidential nature. Such conduct cannot but raise concerns, and has been criticised repeatedly by the Contact Group itself.

Now is a decisive time that may determine Ukraine’s fate – the time to concentrate on constructive efforts instead of rejecting dialogue with Donbass and publicising issues what should be discussed at the negotiating table.

In this connection, we call on our Ukrainian partners to refrain from such steps in the future and hope that the OSCE representatives in the Contact Group will try to prevent them from happening again in the future.

I repeat, it is necessary to concentrate on detailed, substantive and effective work.

 

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On the beginning of ICC’s investigation of events in South Ossetia in August 2008

 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sanctioned the beginning of an official investigation of the August 2008 events in South Ossetia to be conducted ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

At that time, the military forces of the notorious Mikheil Saakashvili attacked a South Ossetian city of Tskhinval, its peaceful population, as well as a Russian peacekeeping contingent. Russia submitted to the ICC more than 30 volumes of the Russian criminal case to prove the crimes of Saakashvili’s regime against South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers.

However, the ICC prosecutor has placed the blame with South Ossetians and Russian soldiers, taken the aggressor’s side, and started an investigation aimed against the victims of the attack. Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice.

The Russian Federation is disappointed by the ICC’s decision to support Bensouda’s position. Russia stood at the origins of the ICC’s founding, voted for its establishment and has always cooperated with the agency. Russia hoped that the ICC will become an important factor in consolidating the rule of law and stability in international relations.

Unfortunately, to our mind, this did not happen. In this regard and in the light of the latest decision, the Russian Federation will be forced to fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC.

In addition to the many volumes of investigation materials and official documents to be considered and investigated by the ICC, it would be good if it took the time to talk with South Ossetia’s representatives, civilians, who can show their photo albums with pictures of the loved ones they had lost and tell the story of their families, parents and children. They could show them the places that used to be full of life, cut short by the actions of Mikheil Saakashvili and the armed forces that executed his criminal orders. I believe this would be an important addition to the work done by the ICC.

We should have started this conversation by asking how it was possible that Grad rocket launchers were used against civilians and how it happened that Russian soldiers were burnt alive.

 

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The fate of an underage Russian girl in Germany

 

It’s public knowledge what German officials have recently said about the problems surrounding the underage Russian girl residing in Germany.

I’d like to say the following in this connection. You probably know what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said regarding yesterday’s statements by his German counterpart, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Mr Lavrov’s statement was concise and it clearly formulated Russia’s position on this issue.

Everyone knows that the situation was confusing from the very beginning. But this happened for the sole reason that neither we in Russia, nor German citizens nor the girl’s family have heard any intelligible comments by German law-enforcement or other officials. This is how it all started. Had we heard clear and intelligible comments from the very start, had the family, who was obviously horrified by what had happened to the underaged girl and who sought the assistance of law-enforcement authorities, been told about what actions had been taken, then the public would not have had to do what it did, which is hold demonstrations to demand justice and to call for media assistance.

I’d like to remind everybody that this happened in a situation when information about what was happening to many other German women in many German cities around the same time was hushed up. All of us remember that German law-enforcement agencies, including the police, attempted to keep the matter quiet and to prevent information from spreading. The absence of a clear and transparent stance and law enforcement’s attempts to cover up or to pretend that nothing bad had happened brought us to where we are today.

In a situation like this, Russian journalists did their duty – they launched a journalistic investigation. They started by meeting with the girl’s family and then they addressed the problem to the German law-enforcement authorities, who refused to talk with them. Although these authorities provided their comments to German rather than Russian media, Russian journalists used that information to comment on the official German stance.

So what has happened as a result? By and large, a hate campaign has been launched against Russian journalists. Why? They are being harassed because they have done what they have been urged to do for years, including by international organisations responsible for the media, and that is to respect the principle of the freedom of speech. Did they do something bad? Why have they been made the victims of an information hate campaign? Why have they been made scapegoats? Another shocking thing is that German authorities have urged the people to disregard media reports on this issue. Good God! What does this mean, to disregard media reports? I’d like to remind you that the Western stand on a huge number of issues is based exclusively on media reports. It is media reports that form the basis of UN reports on regional issues. I’m embarrassed to tell this to our Western colleagues, but democracies are based on the freedom of speech and on a journalism free of political bias. In fact, everything we’ve heard said about this case is very surprising.

It’s gratifying that German officials have taken note of this situation. The case must be carefully investigated, and pressure must be lifted from the media. I believe the focus should be shifted away from hounding journalists to determining what really happened and finding a way to prevent a repeat occurrence of these events. The most important thing in these crisis situations is to create an instrument for informing the public so that people receive reliable information, then law-enforcement agencies can calm down the public and those individuals who have the right to receive this information and who consider that law-enforcement agencies should protect them rather than conceal information from them.

In light of unsubstantiated assertions and allegations that we are attempting to politicise the situation around the Russian victim who lives in Berlin, or to use it as an instrument for attaining our goals, I’d like to say that the issue concerns a Russian citizen. And so it’s strange that German officials have not made any statements, and they should have made them for the following two reasons at the very least: first, because they received a request to this effect; and second, because they were duty bound to inform the Russian side. Again, we did not learn about this issue from German law-enforcement agencies or our colleagues, but rather from the media. We owe thanks to journalists and the subsequent public outcry that forced the German officials to issue their statements and comments.

We don’t want this to happen again and prefer that such cases be open to the public and not hushed up. Russia has the grounds to demand a comprehensive, objective and prompt investigation into this case, and expects to receive full information about it. Contrary to what the German side claims, we are not interfering in Germany’s internal affairs, and we are not using this case, contrary to what many people claim, for propaganda purposes or to influence the complex internal debates on the migration issue in Germany. But we urge our partners to act consistently to protect human rights, all the more so when Berlin has never restrained itself from making statements on Russian human rights issues or even on our internal political affairs.

The Foreign Ministry of Russia and the Russian Embassy in Berlin are closely monitoring this situation. We continue working in close rapport with the girl’s family and lawyers to protect the victim’s rights and to secure the punishment of the culprits.

We also maintain close contact with our German colleagues. I can tell you that our immediate plans include a telephone conversation between Sergey Lavrov and Frank-Walter Steinmeier today. They will discuss this issue.

We strongly hope to receive the full amount of information from our German colleagues regarding this matter. If our German colleagues believe that we should not use the media to collect information about this case – I’ve mentioned the delicate nature of this stance − then  our colleagues should provide the requisite information in full and on time.

 

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Hearing of the January 13, 1991 case by the Vilnius District Court

 

On January 27, court hearings got underway in Lithuania regarding a group of Russian citizens accused of attempting to “illegally change the constitutional system of the Lithuanian state, interfering with the country’s independence and territorial integrity,” as well as committing “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” during the tragic events of January 13, 1991 in Vilnius.

Having reviewed the materials provided by the prosecutors, we have every reason to claim that the criminal charges brought against the Russian citizens lack any legal basis, while the assessment of the alleged conduct of these individuals is biased and infringes upon the presumption of innocence and the fundamental principles of international law.

Attempts by the Lithuanian authorities to rely on the judiciary to distort historical facts are a matter of grave concern. It is common knowledge that as of January 1991 not a single country had recognised Lithuania as an independent state. The collective recognition of the Republic of Lithuania came only in September 1991, when the country was admitted to the UN. Let me remind you that the prosecution materials also refer to January 13, 1991. Consequently, before that time, arguments based on a “constitutional system, the territorial integrity and independence of the Republic of Lithuania” seem inappropriate.

Russia hopes that the court proceedings will not be politically biased, that the defendants will enjoy the right to a fair trial, and that the court will be able to deliver a verdict without any interference from the authorities and based on fundamental human rights instruments.

Taking into account the medical status of Colonel Yury Mel, present at the court proceedings, we call on the Lithuanian court to show compassion by replacing the current pre-trial restrictions with less severe restrictions that do not involve holding him in custody.

 

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The latest developments in Montenegro

 

We are regularly asked to share our perspective on the developments in Montenegro.

On January 27, the country’s parliament, the Skupshtina, held a confidence vote regarding Milo Djukanovic’s government, which highlighted the lack of unity within the governing coalition. It is obvious that unity within the ranks of the Montenegro leadership is not as “rock solid” as they stubbornly pretend it to be. The result of the vote confirmed yet again the existence of deep divisions within Montenegrin society.

The current situation shows the need for a broad dialogue bringing together political forces and civil society from across the whole spectrum as well as the people of Montenegro in general for discussing, among other things, Montenegro' joining NATO, which is the most sensitive issue.

 

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Traffic accident in Estonia

 

According to a news report, a bus travelling from Riga to St Petersburg was involved in an accident near Ida-Virumaa, Estonia, on the night of Thursday, January 28. Among the passengers injured in the accident were several Russian citizens who are now being treated at the central hospital in this community. Representatives from the Russian consulate are in close contact with the local authorities, and a Russian diplomat is permanently present at the hospital.

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn has opened a hotline to provide relatives, and close ones of the injured, health status updates (tel.: +372 646 41 69, +372 646 41 70, +372 646 41 75). People can also reach Russian Consul Kim Shevchenko, who is present at the hospital, at +372 519 13 023.

 

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***

I would also like to inform you of a new feature. Let me remind you that the Foreign Correspondents Association is proactively operating in Russia. It is headed by Mohd Adib Al-Sayed. It is my pleasure to announce a new initiative, which will become customary, at least for 2016. At all news briefings at the Foreign Ministry, Mr Al-Sayed, if present, will be the first to ask a question. I believe this initiative to be right, fair and reasonable: Mr Al-Sayed is in close contact with foreign reporters and is fully aware of the issues they are interested in.

There are many foreign reporters, including those who are unable to attend briefings, since they are often the only representatives of their respective media outlets and have to be present elsewhere. They will now be able to ask Mr Al-Sayed to represent them at the briefings.

 

Excerpts from answers to media questions:

Question: The United States European Command specified opposition to ‘Russian aggression’ as one of its priorities. How would you comment on that? What measures are being taken in this respect?

Maria Zakharova: The United States is not the only country that has talked about ‘Russian aggression.’ Other countries have been widely promoting this issue – perhaps, instigated by Washington. The claims about a ‘Russian threat’ and ‘Russian aggression’ are going from one speech to another. Moreover, they have been included in various documents on the military strategy in different countries. Many go even further and include this insinuation in bilateral documents and multilateral agreements.

I believe that emotional arguments must be supported by facts and evidence. In the updated strategy of the United States European Command, Russia is referred to as a global challenge, one that requires a global response, with counter measures against Russia being a key priority. All this is being carried out in order to substantiate, theoretically or conceptually, their actual movements to bring their military infrastructure closer to the Russian border. Obviously, the goal has been set and now it needs simply to be fed to the people. How do you explain to ordinary people why NATO is encroaching on Russian borders? You need a substantive and simple pretext. It’s already been devised − so-called ‘Russian aggression.’

The timing of these declarations is not a coincidence. The publication of those documents, including some that I mentioned, coincided with the Pentagon’s budgetary requests. This is a good rationale for increasing military expenses. As you know, behind any expenses there is a lobby that is very strong in the US. According to these budget requests – and we have facts and figures – the US Department of Defence expects to increase its expenses on military activity in Europe by over four times in 2017 in order to restrain Russia. And they need to explain to the people, including those living in the US, who are concerned with purely practical issues such as healthcare, education and culture, why it is necessary to increase the expenses on arms in the region where there are no armed conflicts and where countries are willing to cooperate. It’s possible to justify those expenses by creating the myth of a Russian threat. The increase, according to the budget requests, would be from $790 million to $3 billion to $4 billion. An explanation is necessary, therefore Russia is being presented as a global threat.

We monitor and analyse all this information and will consider the US’ military preparations, including its European strategy, when planning our own defence measures. Those who are familiar with Russian history understand that nobody can scare us. I believe, with the current level of media saturation, they won’t be able to deceive the public in their countries and elsewhere in the world about their true intentions and about who is actually provoking this tension. I would like to draw your attention to the negative effects of the confrontational stance that was, unfortunately, taken by some of the elite in Washington. This could result in serious consequences for global stability.

Question: Could you comment on a statement by Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski who complained today that Poland is quite unlucky with its Eastern neighbour because, in his opinion, Russia is the main source of insecurity?

Maria Zakharova: Regarding statements by Polish representatives that Russia is a source of insecurity, I believe that a reply to the previous question will become a logical continuation of a reply to your question. If an enemy image is being actively forged somewhere using very substantial financial investment, then people somewhere else would feel insecure and would live in fear. All these aspects are interlinked. We realise that all these stories are part of one and the same media campaign. This implies the creation of an enemy image in order to intimidate and to instill a feeling of instability and insecurity on the European continent. Therefore Europe needs someone to support this campaign. Unfortunately, Warsaw is currently relaying messages being sent out by Washington. They are all actors from one and the same operetta. The reasons for this are obvious. But it’s absolutely unclear what Warsaw needs this for. They are talking about bad luck and insecurity. But, to feel secure, one simply needs to start cooperating in various areas. We are open to this dialogue, we are ready to expand economic and political relations, to address the most complicated issues linked with our history. This constructive option is linked with cooperation. There is another option, whereby one experiences phobias, fears, permanent insecurity and is receptive of US messages promoting the idea that Poland is being threatened. One can live endlessly with one’s own phobias and fears. Poland itself should choose whether to opt for cooperation, an idea to which Russia is open, or to continue to live with mythical images and to believe in them.

Question: How could you comment on statements by NATO’s supreme allied commander, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, that for too long, the United States has “hugged the bear” of Russia, and that now it’s time to get tough?

Maria Zakharova: I prefer not to comment on the personal life of Mr Breedlove.

Question: You have said that a Syrian government delegation has arrived in Geneva and is ready to hold talks. Does the Foreign Ministry know who heads this delegation, and does it include Syria’s Defence Minister who visited Moscow yesterday?

Maria Zakharova: You should better ask the Syrian side about the lineup of the Syrian delegation. The Syrian Embassy in Moscow is ready to issue comments. I believe they will submit this list to you. Why should we perform the work of our Syrian colleagues? They are always ready to contact the press.

Question: The Syrian opposition is accusing Russia and Iran of hampering the Geneva talks by not fulfilling the latest UN resolution, which calls for the halting of military strikes and for an end to the besieging of cities. What does Russia think about these accusations?

Maria Zakharova: The accusations of some representatives of the Syrian opposition’s delegations that Russia is allegedly guilty of undermining or torpedoing the Geneva talks are pure nonsense. Russia helped launch initial talks between Damascus and the opposition and a political-diplomatic resolution of this situation.

I would also like to recall what scenarios prevailed only a year ago, and who consistently called for launching of cooperation between Damascus and the opposition. It was precisely the Russian Federation. To invest a colossal amount of political capital in formulating this agenda only then to resist this agenda is not our method. On the contrary, these methods are practiced by entirely different forces and players. We have been and remain committed to dialogue, one which should be equitable, and based on the need for establishing an all-inclusive opposition delegation that would represent wide segments of Syrian society. This is not because we like this or because this is our political pre-condition for implementing our personal opinions or political ambitions but because, judging by our assessments and those of our experts, the Syrians are insisting on these principles. The explanation is simple: if a certain group of persons, individuals or public movements is not included or specially excluded the long-term development of the political process may backfire or simply fail. Most importantly, we should now see to it that as many opposition organisations or public activists as possible be able to discuss their concerns and to share their perceptions of how the movement progresses. Of course, the agenda of the relevant dialogue should include all the main aspects required for a political settlement. This implies a future for Syria, after a political settlement has been reached, as a united, integral and democratic country, one which would allow people from different religious denominations, with different views and convictions, to be treated as equals, and where everyone’s voice would be heard and respected. Proceeding from this and current problems, it’s necessary to formulate a platform for moving forward. Certainly, the involvement of those who are being excluded today would hamper the process. It’s necessary to lay the correct foundation from the very beginning. This does not amount to pre-conditions to satisfy our own ambitions. On the contrary, this is a realisation of the fact that the Syrian political settlement should rest on a clear and very solid foundation. Therefore, if we call things by their own names, all statements that Moscow is torpedoing something or that it wants to do this are simply far-fetched and false.

Question: In January, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Saudi Arabia, where he made several statements. In particular, he called for reaching a final solution on the destiny of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and made forecasts on Syria’s development without the incumbent President. He also laid responsibility for the pressing humanitarian situation in the country on the Syrian government only. Could you comment?

Maria Zakharova: Several days ago, I heard these statements about the “final solution to the issue,” as you’ve just said, in particular, regarding the destiny of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But I haven’t seen the source, and I can’t exactly say whether the phrase “final solution” was uttered, or it was a media product. It is necessary to specify what was said in reality. Certainly, this statement evokes troublesome associations. Hence we need to turn to the source. Any statement about the final solution to any issue, especially the one related to a political crisis, the existence of peoples, etc., is a very dangerous thing. Let’s not forget about the historical events which happened only several decades ago.

As for the forecasts about the future of Syria in case President Bashar al-Assad leaves, I’d like to stress our principled position, which is that these issues fall within Syrian cognizance and in the hands of the Syrian people – no other state can decide how the Syrians should live. This point needs to be explained. No state, but only the people itself can produce the right prescription, since it is the people that will live according to this prescription. Many times, we have observed situations in the region when people were told about their future life, from the best or sometimes false motives. Sometimes these plans were bloomy and the future looked optimistic. Now we can see the outcomes of such approaches – we don’t need to look far for examples.

As far as Syria is concerned, the scenario which entails a prescription from the outside that will not correspond to reality mustn’t be repeated. In this context, any assumptions stating that someone knows what is better for Syria and what the President should do and when he must leave, etc. – all this can turn Syria into a new Libya. There are many examples in front of our eyes.

We all should be very careful in our statements, in particular when Geneva talks to resolve the crisis are underway, as we hope. The talks between Damascus and the opposition are a delicate and fragile process. Many members of the Vienna format, the International Syria Support Group, do whatever they can to help launch this process and make it efficient. Therefore, any such statements should be viewed from the perspective of whether they facilitate this process or hamper it.

Question: We have got information that a diplomatic group from North Korea plans to visit Russia. Could you specify if there is any information on this meeting? Who will be present there? What is the time and location of the meeting?

Maria Zakharova: We received many questions on this issue before the briefing, so I will answer both you and other agencies and media representatives.

North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Pak Myong Guk will visit Russia on January 29 – February 3. A bilateral intergovernmental agreement on the exchange of persons who violated the law on exit and entry and the stay of foreign nationals and stateless persons is to be signed on February 2. We believe that signing this agreement will promote further improvement of the bilateral legal framework. The Federal Migration Service will act as the parent agency on the Russian side.

Question: Recently, renowned British political analyst Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS analytical agency, made a bold statement during his lecture in Baku, that the talks on Nagorno-Karabakh should involve the European Union. How would you comment on this statement? Certainly, Mr Sammut is not an official representative, but he was one of the first to criticise the work of the Minsk Group.

Maria Zakharova: I think that you have interpreted this statement in the right way. We should regard it as an expert opinion. Basically, it is necessary to ask participants about the existing formats, as they can deem these opinions and proposals as topical or not. The academic community proposes lots of ideas. An opposite idea could be produced at the same time in any other part of the world. Therefore, academic circles, political analysts and public activists do research or practise journalism to express their views and search for possible outcomes based on their points of view. This is scientific research and political analysis. As for the structure, this is the question to the participants of the processes established by the relevant regulatory documents and to the parties themselves.

Question: How would you assess the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EAEU) attractiveness, given current geopolitical turbulence? Many countries are seeking to join this organization, including Iran, as we hear in persistent rumours.

Maria Zakharova: I think your question already contains the answer.  A way out of turbulence is to become involved in constructive integrational processes that are not directed against anyone but, on the contrary, are aimed at international cooperation and implementing in practice its postulates. It is quite likely that countries and parties will find these integration processes to be the safe haven that will protect them against international turbulence. It is only cooperation based on mutual respect and consideration for each other’s interests that can provide a guarantee against this turbulence, economic turbulence included. I think that this format is attractive from the point of view that you’ve mentioned.

Question: We are keeping a watchful eye on the international audience: It is highly concerned over the consistency of Russian statements, estimates and actions. Russia provides  air support to some parts of the Syrian opposition. Earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry, among others, criticised the West for its support of the moderate Syrian opposition. Let me quote what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last year: “The Russian side regards this approach as short-sighted, because the majority of the so-called ‘moderate members of the opposition’ eventually end up selling their services to terrorists” Are we doing today what we criticised the West for?

Maria Zakharova: You are comparing how the Russian and US approaches support the opposition, including as part of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operations. I think there are many radical differences here, but there are also some fundamental points that distinguish our support for the opposition from what is being done by the so-called “coalition.” The first and main distinction is that Russia’s support for opposition groups in Syria is rendered with the permission and knowledge of, and in close coordination with official Damascus. This is a point of fundamental importance. Operations conducted on the territory of a sovereign state by this or that country should only be pursued solely with the sovereign’s consent. In our case, we have been requested to do so by official Syrian authorities. As far as the so-called “coalition” is concerned, as you may know, none of its members has been issued this right by official Damascus – at least this I know for certain. They have neither coordinated their actions, nor cooperated with the official Syrian authorities. On the contrary, they kept declaring that they didn’t regard Damascus as legitimate authority and did as they pleased.

When we speak about supporting certain opposition forces, we clearly identify the goal that we are pursuing. We support these opposition groups in their fight against ISIS. There is no question of any other goals, such as building up their potential for subsequent political growth, opposing Damascus, or creating their own forces and their cultivation in a political and military sense. We are speaking about the need to consolidate efforts, since, “thanks” to our Western colleagues, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that ISIS has emerged as a universal evil. We are speaking about the opposition that puts the interests of the state and the Syrian people, not  personal political ambitions, above anything else and is fighting ISIS terrorists, who  either seek to destroy or enslave, as the case may be, the Syrian people. This is a very important distinction.

Our Western colleagues (and they don’t even hide this) are supporting the Syrian opposition with a totally different aim. A case in point is their opposition  to the regime. Is this a noble goal? Does any international legal document, such as approved by the UN, entitle any state to support any armed group fighting the country’s legitimate regime, including by providing arms, materiel, and money? Where do they get the right? Not only is all of this illegal, but it is also at odds with all fundamental international principles.

Let me mention yet another point. From the very start, we have identified several fundamental things as our end goal, something that our Western partners haven’t done. First, our main practical objective is fighting terrorism. The main goal, to which we are heading and inducing the international community, is a political settlement in Syria on the basis of the principles I’ve already mentioned. One of these is a united democratic state, where people will live on the basis of equality, mutual respect for each other’s interests and faiths, etc. This is our end goal. But the aims pursued by our Western colleagues have constantly changed. As we remember, they first supported the “Arab spring.” When this “project” (and it was a 100% project) fell through, another goal – regime change – was announced, and this is something different from support for a democratic change. An open fight against the regime ensued and it was only a year ago that everyone suddenly recovered their eyesight and was able to see international terrorism. This is yet another important distinction from what we are doing versus what they are doing – our goals have been declared from the start. We said that Syria’s internal political problems should be solved by the Syrian people themselves. As far as terrorism is concerned, we are supporting official Damascus at its request and doing so absolutely legitimately. We haven’t seen anything like this approach practiced by our Western colleagues.

Question: Several months ago, Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office and Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that Russia is unable to differentiate what actually constitutes so-called moderate opposition. We now see that the situation has changed. Is the fight against ISIS the main yardstick?

Maria Zakharova: Let me see whether I understand what you meant. Our Western colleagues continue to claim that Russia is not bombing terrorists but rather opposition forces, and that we are trying to rout what we call moderate opposition. This is untrue for several reasons. There is information that the Russian Defence Ministry makes available. And another major element is that we have never said that we are fighting any Syrian opposition. You won’t find those claims anywhere. And, concerning Syria’s internal affairs, we never said that we fully support the policies of President Bashar al-Assad or consider them to be absolutely correct. We never said this. But we said both publicly and over the course of our contacts with the Damascus authorities that the situation is very serious, that our Syrian partners have made a number of wrong moves. We said that there is Syrian opposition, which calls on the government to respect people’s rights, and which has the right to do this. We never said that all forces that stand against Damascus are terrorists and should be fought as such. We pointed out opposition forces, and said that even those armed opposition forces that are fighting Damascus must not be defined as terrorist groups. We said this very clearly. We even used the term “patriotic opposition.” What does it denote? It refers to people who are acting based on the interests of their country but see them differently. So in this case, there is no contradiction in our stance.

While urging from the very beginning the launch of a political process involving  talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, we also said that any peaceful opposition force must be represented in the opposition delegation, including those groups that, unfortunately, found no other solution but to use military force against the government. .. However, terrorist organisations such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups that use similar methods must be excluded from the negotiating process. Our stance on this issue is absolutely clear and has not changed. It has been corrected to reflect the current situation, of course, but the basic principles are the same.

Question: Discussions have been ongoing for the past few months about Russia’s assistance to Greece in 2015. Can you comment on media publications and statements of the former and current members of the Greek government, who say that Athens had discussed the possibility of Russian financial assistance, but which ultimately failed to arrive, forcing Greece to cooperate with the EU and its creditors? Some media publications go as far as to say that during their talks in Moscow in 2015 Greek officials discussed the possibility of minting a new Greek currency in Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has recently become more active in social networks. I think this is very interesting and useful for those professionals who are monitoring the stance of Russia and its foreign ministry. Are there any instructions for Russian diplomats on working in social networks, especially those who are posted abroad?

Maria Zakharova: I don’t believe there are serious political analysts, politicians or experts in Greece who haven’t noticed Russian assistance or Russia’s cooperation with Greece. I can’t believe this, as one cannot but see the obvious. As for practical issues, please show me the publications you’re referring to so that I can read them to answer each of your questions next time.

As for our work in social networks, we have been given internal instructions, but they mostly concern technical aspects of working with social media. In fact, these are not instructions per say, but rather materials helping embassies, for example, to open their accounts or pages in social networks.

I can tell you about this work. It began about five years ago, and the Foreign Ministry was one of the first Russian authorities to start working systematically in social media. We opened a Twitter account, followed by accounts on YouTube and Facebook, and the ministry as an organisation has an account on Flickr. Our embassies also have accounts in some other social networks that are popular in particular host countries like China, for example, which has national social networks. Having launched this work as an organisation and having opened our first accounts, we drafted recommendations for our embassies on how to work in social networks. As for what our diplomats and the ministry and embassy staff do in social networks, these networks are just another medium of our diplomats’ work and life outside Russia. Hence, they should work properly, as befits a diplomat representing his country, who should respect the host country and its traditions and customs. As I said, what we have are technological or technical recommendations. You should know that people from different age groups are working in the Foreign Ministry and Russian embassies, including young people for whom social networks have become a customary and even inalienable part of their lives, and older people who are used to working with the traditional media, who have nevertheless willingly joined the global trend and have opened their own accounts after requesting technical recommendations for doing this.

Question: Could you comment on yesterday’s report by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, specifically his proposal to resume the Russia-NATO Council’s operations?

My second question is about Syria. What would be Russia’s attitude to talks involving, apart from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, if they are invited by the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura? Could it be that in this situation Russia wouldn’t recognise the outcome of the talks?

Maria Zakharova: I didn’t see Secretary General Stoltenberg’s report and so far I have no reaction thereto.

As to whether it really mentions possible cooperation with Russia, who should answer this question? We didn’t stop the (council’s) work, nor did we do anything that could be held up as an example of Russia’s suspending, slowing down, or interrupting its work with NATO. We’ve repeated time and again that these tools, specifically the Russia-NATO Council, have been created to deal with complicated issues, occasionally even conflicts, and that suspending these mechanisms is unreasonable and contrary to cooperation objectives. We know full well that the international tools or structures like the Russia-NATO Council can never address only the easy issues, because this is an organisation for countries with different interests, agendas and national policies to promote cooperation and address conflicts. We repeatedly told our partners, both publicly and behind the closed doors, that the existence of mechanisms which they tend to switch off in  difficult situations makes no sense.  It’s fine if they indeed are willing to resume their work. This means they’ve realised that we must move forward. For our part, there can be no change of position, because we have always said that we regard the functioning of all dialogue formats as important for preventing or settling conflicts.

Our position with regard to your second question on Syria and the terrorist groups is one of principle and that it is inadmissible to include terrorist organisations. This is our position and we never depart from it.

I think we should reformulate your question for one simple reason: Media representatives have repeatedly asked about our attitude toward the possibility of including terrorist organisations in delegations. I think it is high time we asked how others approach the inclusion of these terrorist organisations in the negotiating process. Why should we alone have an opinion to this matter? Our position of principle is as follows: If this organization is terrorist – with terrorist slogans and actions – how can we give our consent? To reiterate, terrorist organisations must not participate, because they are terrorists. If we are fighting terrorism, this fight should be based on uniform principles without any double standards or exemptions, where some terrorists are declared “good guys,” while others – “not so good guys.” Therefore, terrorist organisations are terrorist organisation, and this is our unchanged position of principle.

Question: If talks on Libya fail, will Russia support an initiative to intervene militarily in that country?

Maria Zakharova: I’ve already commented on Libya. I have nothing to add.

Question: Is it a problem that Salih Muslim of the Democratic Union Party is involved in the Geneva talks? Do you have precise information on his participation? What will be Russia’s reaction if his party is not involved?

Maria Zakharova: Russia’s reaction was described by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov several days ago. He dwelled at length on the participation of Kurdish political forces and representatives in this process.

Our position on the participation of concrete Kurdish representatives is this: it is up to the UN to comment on the invitations sent by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. I think this is a correct position, because it is they who have convened this meeting. There is a UN Information Centre in Moscow, a very important structure that covers the UN activities for the Russian-speaking public. It is very active. We are grateful to its former head, Alexander Gorelik, for his constructive cooperation. Its new head, Vladimir Kuznetsov, has made an active start as well. I think he will be pleased to answer your question and clarify which Kurdish representatives are involved in the negotiating process. We won’t encroach on his territory.

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