Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Serbian Information Agency BETA, Moscow, February 19, 2018
Sergey Lavrov: As our Serbian friends told me, the programme they prepared includes a meeting with the President, the Prime Minister, the First Deputy Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister of Serbia. We will also have a cultural programme dedicated to the great anniversary of our relations, including a visit to the Church of St Sava. First Deputy Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister of Serbia Ivica Dacic and I will speak at meetings with the public.
The agenda is traditional and includes all aspects of bilateral relations, primarily our interaction on trade, and economic and investment issues, although we are unlikely to get into details on these topics since there is an Intergovernmental Commission that works comprehensively with them. From the Serbian side, it is headed by Mr Dacic. We will concentrate on our ties in scientific research, healthcare, education and culture, as well as our regular political consultations. We will mostly focus on international issues, such as the situation in Europe, the Balkans, and cooperation in the UN. We will touch on the need for full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on the Kosovo settlement.
Question: How, do you think, the aggravation of relations between Russia and the West in the wake of the Ukraine crisis affects the Balkans and the relations of the countries of that region with such global powers as Russia, the United States and the EU?
Sergey Lavrov: The Ukraine crisis is not behind the current state of relations between Russia and the West. Rather, it is a consequence of the policy that the Western countries, primarily the United States and NATO countries, conducted after the end of Cold War. Instead of taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime historical chance to form a truly pan-European structure of security and cooperation, the West opted for NATO expansion breaking all the promises made by the leaders of the United States and many European countries in 1990 to the effect that the Alliance would not advance a single inch eastward. This was not enshrined in any treaty or legal document (perhaps, it should have been), but a so-called gentlemen's agreement was reached back then, which was, in fact, trampled upon by our Western colleagues. Perhaps, in the future, we will make better use of our judgment in order to be able to tell a gentleman from someone who is not. However, the official documents from the US archives, which were recently declassified, unequivocally show that such iron-clad assurances were provided during a dialogue between the Soviet Union and the United States, Moscow and Berlin, and Moscow and Paris.
The developments in Ukraine did not come as a surprise to us. They came, as I said, as a consequence of the policy pursued by NATO. After the Cold War ended, three waves of NATO expansion took place, and each brought NATO military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. Now, they want to involve the Balkans in this game by putting the Balkan countries in a position to make a choice: you are either with the West, or with Russia. They required Ukraine to make the same choice and, as a result, Ukrainian society and the state snapped, which led to an unconstitutional coup and a dramatic increase in the role of radicals, including neo-Nazis, in our neighbour’s domestic political life. This is certainly a matter of grave concern, but we are committed to the Minsk agreements, and we hope that these agreements, which were not just "gentlemen's'" agreements, but legally binding, and were enshrined in the UN Security Council resolution, will be implemented.
Question: The European Union has recently passed an enlargement strategy promising to grant membership to Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, provided that they meet a number of criteria. Serbia is mainly called on to resolve the situation in Kosovo and to bring its foreign policy into conformity with the EU line. As far as I understand, this eventually means introducing sanctions against Russia. Are you afraid that Serbia might take this step? In fact, the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic has said that his policy prioritises accession to the European Union.
Sergey Lavrov: We do not see any risks in the fact that countries of the Balkan region and other countries on the European continent want to expand relations with the European Union, including accession to the EU. They are informed about the accession criteria, and they should independently decide to what extent these criteria suit them, and to what extent they meet the national interests of the relevant state. Of course, they should draw conclusions on the advantages and practicability of any specific actions to expand their external ties with anyone.
We do not raise any problems in the context of expanding common economic space in the most open manner possible. I consider it incorrect to counter-pose relations with the EU to relations with the Eurasian Economic Union being expanded by regional countries, Serbia, in the first place.
Russia and Serbia have signed a free trade zone agreement. Two months ago, Belgrade and the Eurasian Economic Commission launched talks on establishing a similar zone between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union. I believe that this is a pragmatic and open approach on the part of Belgrade, which strives to exploit advantages in the West and in the East. You see, the Eurasian Economic Union is a voluminous market, with 180 million consumers, and it boasts favourable opportunities in infrastructure and in some other areas.
One can say the following regarding the European Union’s requirements on recognising Kosovo. The EU demands that every prospective EU member-state join the EU’s common foreign and defence policy. The very same philosophy and mentality that help incite tensions in Europe and that guided those who expanded NATO and presented European countries and Ukraine with the following choice ‒ either they side with the West or Russia ‒ come into play here. This is an extremely misguided practice. I regret the fact that the EU, trying to expand its influence, is following this logic that was manifested in the Eastern Partnership programme, formulated by the EU for six post-Soviet states several years ago. Despite assurances to the contrary, this programme is also being implemented on the basis of the same ultimatum: either side with Russia or Europe. It is bad that our European colleagues from Brussels continue to think in this manner. We would rather revert to a concept that has been repeatedly proclaimed in Brussels and other European capitals. In France, Charles de Gaulle advanced his own concept of a united Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural region, and we are now talking about a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Quite recently, this philosophy proved topical once again. To the best of my knowledge, a clause on the need to advance the idea of establishing a common economic space between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been included in the programme of a future coalition government after inter-party talks in Germany. In this context, I would also like to mention the so far reserved initial technical contacts between the European Commission and the Eurasian Economic Commission from which the Brussels team tried to shy away until recently.
As I see it, this is the most promising long-term trend. One should not think of establishing some walled-in military-political or economic alliances. One should assess the situation from a wider perspective and look further ahead of the four-year horizon in the run-up to regular elections in any European country. And one should see the very positive opportunities that would open up if all of us are guided by an interest in joint work for the sake of our own citizens in each country taken separately and on the entire European continent. To my mind, the policy being pursued by Serbian leaders proceeds from precisely this factor.
While mentioning Serbia’s priorities, namely, the task of accession to the EU, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic has never said that this would be done at the expense of Russia. On the contrary, he noted that Serbia continues to see the Russian track of its foreign policy and cooperation guidelines to be highly important. I am confident that this meets the interests of the Serbian nation.
Question: Some people in Serbia say that President Vucic will be able to observe this course of action for a long time, playing both sides, but he will have to choose eventually.
Sergey Lavrov: It will be the choice of the Serbian leadership. I am certain the choice will be made with the full understanding of the responsibility to the Serbian people. If the Serbians support the requirements set by the European Union, it will be their choice. And the President, as any head of state, must of course, follow the attitude of his people. I think, President Vucic fully realises this responsibility.
Question: Lately, one of the European Union’s explanations for its increased attention to the Balkans has been growing influence of other world powers there such as Russia, China and Turkey. Do you think this influence is actually growing? What is Russia’s idea of its presence in the region in terms of political, economic and military affairs?
Sergey Lavrov: We see our presence as solely constructive. We are not concerned at all with the fact that the countries you mentioned (China, Turkey and others) are interested in developing cooperation with the Balkans. In this age of globalisation, I do not see any obstacles to mutually beneficial cooperation.
Most importantly, this must be an actual sincere intention to carry out certain projects to mutual benefit rather than mark one’s presence in the region as opposed to someone else’s.
Russia has never, in the history of the Balkans, brought confrontation to the region. Instead, Russia has always tried to eliminate it and help the Balkan people to stand up for the interests of their statehood, ancestors, their spiritual, religious, cultural and civilisation roots. Now this is exactly the logic we follow in developing our cooperation.
If you take Turkey, we are working with Turkey to increase the opportunities for the Balkan states to get Russian gas. The Turkish Stream project is progressing at full speed. We are open about it. We are willing to take any decision with consideration for the interests of the Balkan states and the European Union. Our agenda there is absolutely transparent, without any covert intentions.
I want to say that, as opposed to such an open course that pursues cooperation with the countries in the region and the states that want to work there openly and constructively, we can see attempts by the United States and the EU, for example, to inject anti-Russian elements in their Balkan policy. Not in a single capital, in the Balkans or elsewhere in the world, do we run around offices, not to mention say publicly that one should not be friends with any of our Western counterparts. Washington and some European capitals send their envoys to the Balkans for this very purpose. They say: don’t be friends with Russia, refuse to cooperate with them in any area.
As an example, you mentioned the requirement for Serbia to adopt the EU’s foreign political slogans and approaches, including the anti-Russian component. This is very unfortunate and sad. I really hope that those promoting this course will eventually understand this. This course goes absolutely against our joint declarations made after the end of the Cold War (including in the OSCE) regarding the fact that a country must not strengthen its security at the expense of others. As I said, this is exactly what they are trying to do by fitting the Balkans into a policy of dividing lines and the policy of surrounding Russia with NATO military infrastructure, which is a grave violation of those “gentlemen’s” agreements reached at the time by comrades and gentlemen.
Question: How can you explain the massive Russian presence in the Balkans through the media, through “soft power” and NGOs in recent years?
Sergey Lavrov: I was just speaking about it. We are interested in preserving our historical, spiritual and cultural links with the Balkan friends. We are promoting economic projects without imposing them on anyone. We offer the terms of the projects and take in an absolutely normal way any decision the partner makes after studying our proposals. Of course, we are interested in developing cultural relations. I have mentioned the St Savva Church, we are taking part in its reconstruction and I hope the result will be good. This is a very important project. The Serbian leadership pays great attention to it. We are interested in being present in the information space of friendly countries some of which we have centuries-old relations with. If you look at the statistics, I don’t know the exact figures, but I am sure that the figures on the percentage of information space in the Balkans occupied by Russia and by the Western media, respectively, would be quite convincing. If there is to be pluralism of opinions, which the West constantly advocates, it would not harm the radio listeners, TV viewers and users of social networks to have an additional viewpoint.
Question: Russia is against NATO expansion. Does Moscow intend to oppose the expected accession of Macedonia? What does Moscow feel about the fact that Serbia, which has proclaimed its neutrality, takes part in more exercises with NATO than with Russia and the CSTO?
Sergey Lavrov: The expansion of NATO is a mistake and at the same time a violation of the most “gentlemanly” agreement which I have already mentioned and which has now been amply confirmed by official archival documents which the US has declassified. It was common knowledge anyway, but the publication of these archival documents gave added proof of how it all actually happened.
We have repeatedly warned our NATO colleagues that this policy (and we have already seen three waves of expansion, and another is in the offing) not only undermines all that was agreed upon in the 1990s (that no party would seek security at the expense of others) but is perhaps the most serious challenge to European stability and security. They are trying to keep the continent divided into two parts. These dividing lines are being pushed eastward closer and closer to our borders. Actually, considerable contingents of NATO countries – the USA, Britain, Germany, Italy and Canada – are already deployed on the border with Russia.
All this runs counter to the agreements and, most importantly, inflicts colossal damage on the efforts to ensure stability and security on the European continent. Nothing of what NATO is doing today increases anyone’s security, including the security of the Balkan states which, incidentally, do not in any way threaten Russia’s security. Nothing of what is happening now is a step toward increasing NATO’s capability to react to real and not imaginary threats. I do not see that the three waves of expansion have made NATO more effective, for example, in combating the terrorist and drug threats, including those emanating from the Balkans where the absolutely unfounded, illegitimate unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence created a territory which is the embodiment of corruption, what is called a “black hole.” Examples of how extremists and terrorists take advantage of the situation abound. The West chooses not to speak about them publicly, but I know that the Western countries are worried and they draw attention to these facts in their contacts with Pristina. But hardly anyone listens to them anymore.
So we make our assessment of NATO expansion known to all our partners, be it in the Balkans or anywhere else in Europe. We hope that what is happening now and to what extent it meets the basic interests of this or that people will be fully taken into account while adopting their sovereign decisions.
Question: What about Macedonia?
Sergey Lavrov: I have said that we do not single anyone out. We say what we see and what we think. We are ready to discuss all countries without exception. I think admitting Montenegro to NATO was absolutely artificial and unnecessary.
Incidentally, we have noted that referendums are becoming a less and less popular method of determining popular sentiment when making consequential decisions.
Question: Is Moscow ready to support the complete normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina which would envisage Kosovo’s admission to the UN?
Sergey Lavrov: What we see now is undoubtedly the consequence of a flagrant violation of international law. Back in 1999, for the first time after the start of the Helsinki process and the creation of the OSCE, member countries of the OSCE perpetrated aggression against another OSCE member country. This was unprecedented and it marked the beginning of a whole string of very sad events. Russia played the decisive role in stopping this aggression in order to put the situation on course towards a political settlement. The result of these efforts was the adoption of Resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council which seals the position of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo as part of Serbia.
On the matter concerning Kosovo, we back not so much Serbia as the decision of the highest international body responsible for international peace and security. Nobody canceled UN Security Council Resolution 1244. This should be the starting point. We have agreed to the European Union assuming the role of mediator in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina which had got under way. I think this is right, such a dialogue is needed and it should be based on Resolution 1244 of the UNSC. The European Union sought from the UN General Assembly the powers to mediate and it got them. The Resolution was passed. We hope very much that Brussels will take further steps to at least make some progress.
You used the term “complete normalisation of relations.” This was conjured up by the European Union. As far as I remember up until now Brussels has not explained to us what this term really means. We believe that the initiatives Brussels put forward in the framework of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which have been backed by both Belgrade and Pristina, must be implemented. In the first place I am referring to the obligations of the parties, in particular Pristina, to create a community of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo. I think four years have passed since the obligation was assumed. Nothing has been done because Pristina’s leaders do not want to keep their promise while the European Union is reluctant to press them too hard solely due to geopolitical considerations not wishing to admit that the geopolitical project of unilaterally proclaimed Kosovo’s independence is not moving in the direction it was conceived to follow.
I would like to stress again that we come out exclusively for the solution of all the problems Belgrade and Pristina have through dialogue between them. We expect that the European Union as the mediator will behave in a responsible as well as a resolute manner. We will accept any decision agreed upon between the leadership in Belgrade and Pristina representatives.
Question: Including Kosovo’s seat at the UN?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think it makes any sense at this point to talk about Kosovo’s place at the UN. They already speak about Kosovo’s place in the European Union. One can talk about Kosovo’s place anywhere. But as long as an agreement has not been reached which suits both Pristina and Belgrade, UNSC Resolution 1244 is in force, which recognises the Autonomous Province of Kosovo as part of Serbia.
Question: Naturally, a question about the Nis Humanitarian Centre. I understand this is a sensitive topic in the relations between Serbia and Russia. For several years now a solution to this matter has not been found. Does Moscow intend to continue to seek a diplomatic status for the staff of that humanitarian centre considering the tough negative stand of Serbia’s partners in the West and the statement of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to the effect that it is a very painful subject for him which he does not want to raise?
Sergey Lavrov: I have heard other statements from President Vucic. First of all, this is not something invented. It follows from the 2012 agreement whereby the Centre was created. It envisages the signing of agreements on the terms of its activities, privileges and immunities of the staff of that international organisation because it is registered as an international organisation just like the representative office of the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as some other organisations. This is number one.
Secondly, in addition to the fact that the solution of the issue of immunities and privileges is envisaged by its founding agreement, I have to say that this is not about diplomatic privileges, but about service immunities, like in the case of the ICRC which I have already mentioned. If our colleagues from NATO still doubt whether this is a humanitarian centre and not what they call “a spy nest,” I advise them to look at the reports which the assistant to the US military attaché in Serbia was to write after visiting the Nis centre. He had been invited there and he has seen everything that was of interest to him.
I am convinced that it is ridiculous to pretend that the centre poses a threat to anyone. Incidentally, there are four Russian citizens working there (all the rest are Serbs, not many, 12 or 15 people, if I remember rightly). We are talking about them when we mention the obligation of Serbia and Russia to sign an agreement on their privileges and immunities. Speaking about comparability of Serbia’s cooperation with NATO and with the Russian Federation (you have mentioned it) a huge American military base, Bondsteel, feels very comfortable in Kosovo. By the way, it was created on the basis of and in accordance with the principles sealed in UN Security Council Resolution 1244. We were never invited to visit it and I don’t think UN people ever visited it either although the UNSC Resolution was the pretext and the basis for setting up the base.
The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in question deals exclusively with cleaning up the aftermath of natural disasters. For instance, it played a very important role in dealing with the consequences of a colossal flood that hit Serbia in 2014. In addition to Serbia assistance was also rendered to Macedonia, Slovenia, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina. So the international character of the centre’s activity is not only sealed on paper but is implemented in practice, too.
In this situation we remember the repeated assurances given us to the effect that the Serbian leadership does not believe it is reasonable to go back on the understanding sealed in the agreement on the establishment of the Centre. Anyway, the privileges and immunities we are requesting for the four staff members from Russia are by no means greater than the privileges already enjoyed by the servicemen at the US Bondsteel base and which are enjoyed by NATO counties’ servicemen when they conduct numerous exercises, as you have rightly pointed out, on Serbian territory.
Comparing the contacts between Serbia and NATO on the one hand, and between Serbia and Russia on the other I would not proceed from arithmetics, from who met whom and held joint events and how many times. We have great respect for Serbia’s leaders adherence to the principle of military neutrality. We see an interest in the development of relations (like in the economic sphere) in the military –political field with both the West and the East, including with the Russian Federation and as part of Serbia’s interaction with the CSTO. But the question of the Nis humanitarian centre has become so odious and the facts (four Russian citizens) are so much out of proportion to the hue and cry raised in the West that any right-minded person looking at the situation would realise that it has been artificially created and, as the saying goes, “it’s not worth a farthing.”
Question: Why do your staffers need immunity? What will happen to the centre if the agreement is not reached?
Sergey Lavrov: Look, the agreement to establish the centre, which was signed in 2012, provides for signing a separate document that will set forth the conditions for the operation of the centre, including privileges and immunity for its staffers. The personnel of the representative offices of other international organisations, and the Humanitarian Centre is an international organisation, are granted privileges and immunity in Serbia, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, while engaging in parallel processes, also provides assistance in resolving humanitarian issues. Incidentally, the Nis Centre has already cleared a large area of explosives left from the NATO aggression. We are not urging anyone to do anything against the interests of one’s own country, however, there are such things as international agreements and national sovereignty.
Question: Do you plan to talk about the Humanitarian Centre during your visit to Belgrade?
Sergey Lavrov: As I already said, the agenda includes the entire spectrum of issues covered by our bilateral relations.
Question: Do you expect the decision on this issue to be taken any time soon?
Sergey Lavrov: We’ll discuss it. We remember the discussion of this subject and believe that all agreements we have reached are in force.
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