Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister of the Republic of Serbia Nikola Selakovic, Moscow, April 16, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
My Serbian colleague, Nikola Selakovic, and I had good, trust-based talks encompassing all the major aspects of our cooperation, partnership, the bilateral agenda, and regional and international affairs.
We affirmed that despite public health restrictions, our strategic cooperation continues to dynamically expand across the full range of our relations.
We devoted special attention to our joint efforts against COVID-19. Serbia is among the top nations in Europe in terms of vaccination rate which is due, in part, to the use of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, as the Minister noted today. We agree that this cooperation should continue for the sake of protecting citizens’ lives and health. We expect the launch of Sputnik V production in Belgrade scheduled for May to make a practical contribution here. The first tests were conducted there just recently, and they were successful.
We place a great deal of importance on the continued work of the Russian-Serbian Intergovernmental Committee on trade, economic, scientific and technological cooperation. Its co-chairs have already had three in-person meetings in the past few months where a wide range of issues were discussed, including additional measures to restore the steady upward trend in trade, which diminished last year for obvious reasons.
We underscored that implementing large, landmark projects, primarily in energy, is a key area of economic cooperation. Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) [Petroleum Industry of Serbia] is operating successfully. Its main stakeholder and investor is Gazprom Neft. NIS is an engine of Serbia’s economy. Last year the company accounted for 13 percent of the country’s budget revenues. FDI in the company exceeds $3 billion.
The Serbian railway improvement programme is making a significant contribution to infrastructure modernisation. Russian Railways International is playing an active role in it through the use of Russian export loans.
We focused on various aspects of cooperation between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In the autumn of 2019, the EAEU and Serbia signed a free trade agreement. We are close to completing the procedures required for the agreement to take effect.
We talked about our plans to further develop cooperation in the defence industry and update and improve the legal framework in some areas. We noted that Serbia maintains an interest in cooperation and contact with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), as well as the similar approaches to maintaining security and peace in Europe taken by the CSTO and Belgrade.
We discussed the international agenda. Our cooperation in foreign affairs is based on our commitment to the principles of international law and the UN Charter, including non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries, peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to the principles enshrined in the Charter.
We agreed to continue to coordinate at various forums, including the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
We reaffirmed our commitment to continue helping our Serbian friends defend Belgrade’s legitimate rights with respect to Kosovo. We will continue to speak in favour of maintaining this issue as a priority at the UN Security Council, with a view to seeing Resolution 1244 implemented in full. The resolution provides for an agreement to be reached by Belgrade and Pristina on the status of Kosovo, which has to be approved by the UN Security Council.
We noted that thanks to Serbia’s proactive approach, and the energetic support of Russia, the illegitimate attempts to secure Kosovo’s membership in Interpol, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and other organisations were neutralised. We will continue these efforts.
During our discussion of the situation in the southeast of Europe, we voiced our support for the efforts of the Serbian leadership to forge constructive and neighbourly relations with all countries in the Balkans. We believe this balanced policy by Belgrade is contributing to the preservation of peace and stability in this challenging region of Europe.
We agreed to remain in contact at the level of ministers, deputy ministers and heads of departments at our ministries in keeping with the Plan for Consultations between the Russian and Serbian foreign ministries for 2021-2022, which was signed during my visit to Belgrade in December 2020.
I am grateful to my colleague for the positive talks.
Question: You spoke with your colleague from Serbia about international and regional problems in the Western Balkans. I believe you also focused on geopolitical movements. Do you see the idea of a Greater Albania invoked by Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti as a real, tenable idea and a solution to the Kosovo problem? How would you comment on the alleged existence of a kind of non-paper by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa arguing that the break-up of Yugoslavia is not over yet? What is Russia’s position?
Sergey Lavrov: These are unacceptable, provocative and very harmful statements. Talk of a Greater Albania has been going on for years. We always call on our colleagues from the European Union and NATO, who act as Pristina’s patrons, to put an end to these sentiments and plans and not to allow this rhetoric to escalate.
As for the problem of borders in Europe as a whole, including the borders of the states that appeared in the place of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, let us recall how our Western partners, including the European Union and NATO (of which Slovenia is also a member) aggressively demand that post-war borders in Europe not be revised. But they usually do this when Russia is forced to stand up for its fellow countrymen, its compatriots. And when those who enjoy the West’s patronage have to deal with this issue, the position in Brussels and other European capitals is completely different.
I think that these are very dangerous games. There is UN Security Council Resolution 1244, it has not been cancelled. Responsible politicians (especially the heads of European governments), I believe, have no right to express any ideas that blatantly undermine the very concept of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, according to which the UN Security Council respects Serbia’s sovereignty, and Kosovo’s exact status is to be determined through negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said, we will support any solution that is acceptable to Serbia.
Question: Today Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov laid out Russia’s position on response measures to US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan in Moscow. What is the gist of these measures? When will employees of Russian diplomatic missions leave Washington? Will Russia’s response be equivalent? When will Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov return to Washington? Will he return soon or not at all in the current conditions?
Sergey Lavrov: Anatoly Antonov continues consultations. The situation is quite complicated and it is necessary to analyse it in detail, all the more so since some things in Washington are not entirely comprehensible. Today, Yury Ushakov also recommended that Mr Sullivan travel to his capital and hold serious, detailed consultations.
Literally right after the news conference, we will issue the Foreign Ministry’s statement on measures that were approved by President of Russia Vladimir Putin in response to Washington’s openly hostile, utterly unprovoked actions towards Moscow, Russian citizens, individuals and companies, and our financial system.
We have long been telling the Americans that the disparity in the numerical strength of diplomatic missions of Russia in the US and the US in Russia is unacceptable. We have discussed this topic for many years. Instead of looking for mutually acceptable, compromise solutions, the US merely obstructed the operations of our Embassy, consulates-general and the Russian mission at the UN.
In accordance with the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations and Russian law, including the Labour Code, we are initiating a process to stop the practice of hiring citizens of Russia and third countries at American diplomatic missions. This practice is fairly widespread and used by the Americans on a large scale. We do not engage in this practice, so we are introducing parity on this issue.
The second disparity in this area is as follows: in addition to their embassy and consular personnel the Americans send several hundreds of employees on short-term trips to Russia every year. In this way, they substantially increase (double or more) their capacity to work in Russia, with goals that are not always above board. We are well aware of this. Now we are putting a stop to the practice of uncontrolled and unlimited short-term trips by Department of State employees for work at US diplomatic missions in Russia. We will suggest parity in this respect, say, 10 employees going from Russia to the US and 10 from the US to Russia per year.
Speaking about the personnel disparity, I must mention another problem that is quite serious. In all, there are about 450 diplomatic and administrative employees of Russia in the US and of the US in Russia. Out of these 450, all Americans are distributed among the Embassy and the consulates-general. Our employees are affiliated with the Embassy, two consulates-general and the Russian Permanent Mission to the UN. The UN is not an office servicing bilateral relations between the US and Russia and has nothing to do with bilateral ties. Therefore, if we want parity, it would be correct not to count our employees with the UN mission – about 150 people – in the total number. In other words, we have 300 employees on the bilateral front in the US. If we are to continue this “exchange of courtesies”, we will ask the Americans to bring down the number of their diplomats involved in bilateral relations with Russia, to match the number of our employees in our Embassy and two consulates-general.
We have also wanted to regulate one more area for a long time but to no avail. Our countries have a memorandum of understanding on open ground. As for the Open Skies Treaty, a multilateral document, it is already hanging by a thread. The US has withdrawn from it and is not going to come back. As for the aforementioned bilateral memorandum on open ground, starting from a certain category of diplomats (advisers and below), it is necessary to notify the authorities of the host country when any of these employees are going to travel beyond a 25-mile radius around the city where their diplomatic mission is located. The Americans completely ignore the requirement to send such notifications. There was a recent incident when representatives of the military attache office travelled in central Russia without any notification. They simply ignored a question by an authorised representative and said they were not going to deal with this. We have decided to start the process of withdrawing from this memorandum. We will approach the trips of diplomats beyond the limits of their host cities on a case-by-case basis.
Ten diplomats were included on a list that was given to us with a request for them to leave the United States. We will respond in kind by proposing that 10 US diplomats leave Russia. Poland also announced the expulsion of our diplomats. We will respond accordingly as well.
Speaking about personalities, some time ago (before President Joe Biden announced the package the other day), the Americans added eight Russian government officials (from the Presidential Executive Office, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, etc.) to a sanctions list. Today we will publish a list of eight officials representing the upper echelons of the administration in Washington. They will be also included on our sanctions list.
Sectoral sanctions have been announced as regards Russian national debt and related transactions. For obvious reasons, we do not have comparable levers of influence on the US on such a scale. That said, our specialists think that the Russian economy can cope with this scale. I think this is what will happen. We have always found, and will find, a way out of any situation. We also have opportunities to impose painful measures on American business. We hold them in reserve.
There is one more measure. We will limit and suspend the activities of American foundations and NGOs on our territory. In reality, they are openly meddling in our domestic politics.
There is much talk about President Biden’s proposal to hold a bilateral summit. We have already responded positively to it. Now we are studying different aspects of this initiative.
Question: Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko said in Belgrade yesterday that Russia is ready to join the dialogue of Belgrade and Pristina on the condition that it is mediated by Russia. What kind of response do you expect from Belgrade? What kind of role in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina should be offered for you to agree in the new format of talks?
Sergey Lavrov: We do not impose anything. We do not force our services on anyone, especially not on our friends. Let me stress again, we are prepared to support any position taken by Serbia and to respond to any proposal from Serbia’s leaders on steps to be taken by us.