The Minister’s meetings
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet, August 23, 2021
Question: Despite the EU sanctions against Russia, Hungary has tried to maintain pragmatic economic and political relations with Moscow in recent years. Are there any unresolved issues that you would like to discuss during your visit to Budapest?
Sergey Lavrov: We take into account the fact that the EU and NATO membership imposes certain obligations on Budapest, which, among other things, involve Hungary’s participation in multilateral sanction regimes against third countries even when it runs counter to its national interests. On the whole, we believe that such cases of coercion towards bloc solidarity have no place in the 21st century. Moreover, sanctions are an inadequate political instrument, and what is more, they are futile when applied to Russia.
As for Russian-Hungarian relations, especially in trade and the economy, they are free from tangible irritants that could not be removed in the course of regular working consultations. Our recipe for success has stood the test of time. It is based on healthy pragmatism, respect for each other’s interests and mutual resolve to work constructively.
I would like to note with satisfaction that cooperation between our countries has reached an unprecedented level. It became possible, above all, thanks to the strong political will of the Russian and Hungarian leaders and their mutual wish to develop multidirectional bilateral ties, which undoubtedly meets the aspirations of our nations.
Question: The EU sanctions have taken a toll on Russian-Hungarian trade. What opportunities are there for developing bilateral economic links in this increasingly hostile international environment?
Sergey Lavrov: The anti-Russian restrictions imposed by the European Union in 2014 have cut the trade between Russia and the EU by more than half. While in 2013, the trade between Russia and the EU was estimated at $417.7 billion, in 2020 it stood at just 192.2 billion. Hungary is not the only affected country, of course. Some of our other trade partners in Europe have suffered from the consequences as well.
It is important to point out that the EU sanctions are mostly hitting the more recent EU members harder while seasoned members are even managing to benefit from the situation, as my colleague Peter Szijjarto has repeatedly stressed by quoting rather telling statistics.
On my part, I can confirm that Russia is ready to develop trade and economic cooperation with Hungary to the extent that our partners in Budapest are ready to achieve. Opportunities for restoring both mutual trade and cooperation in investment, science, technology and industrial production are still there, by all means. Our economies largely complement each other.
It is good to see that, despite the obstacles created by Brussels with the sanctions, we manage to not only consistently proceed with our flagship projects launched earlier but also to identify new fields where we can jointly work together. In this context, I should mention our successful coordinated action to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. I would just like to remind you that Hungary remains the first and only EU country to have licensed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and purchased significant amounts of it. We are discussing the possibility of producing the vaccine in Hungary as well.
Overall, I can say that Russia-Hungary relations enjoy good prospects in terms of economic cooperation. This conclusion is based on the favourable dynamic of our bilateral trade which between January and May 2021 increased by almost 35 percent year-on-year.
Question: Last time Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban had a meeting was in Budapest in 2019. The Hungarian Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow scheduled last year had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. When can we expect the next high-level meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: Despite our mutual readiness to continue regular in-person contacts at the high level, our countries’ leaders have to consider the risks posed by the pandemic. We expect that the direct dialogue between President Putin and Prime Minister Orban will resume when the sanitary and epidemiological situation becomes more stable.
Question: A number of European countries do not trust Russia. They are criticising the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, saying that Europe will become even more dependent on Russia. What needs to be done to rebuild trust?
Sergey Lavrov: We consider the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline a solely commercial, mutually beneficial project. Concerns that it will make Europe more dependent on Russia are groundless. It is more accurate, we believe, to speak about a positive interdependence because Russia is also interested in selling its goods, in this case, energy, to the Europeans.
The launch of Nord Stream 2 will provide for an additional diversification of gas delivery routes without increasing the volume of gas deliveries at this time. Sustainable gas supplies to European customers will travel the shortest route, which will help to reduce the environmental impact. In addition, we are not abandoning the existing agreements on gas deliveries to Europe; however, the transit countries will have to compete for the right of transit, instead of trying to dictate their own conditions.
Thus, strategically speaking, Nord Stream 2 will improve Europe’s energy security for decades ahead. That is why the interested European capitals are set on finishing the construction of the pipeline.
As for trust, it is a complex issue. It is well known that trust takes years to build, while it can be lost in an instant. As long as we are speaking about energy, I should remind you that starting from the 1960s, we have never given cause to distrust our reliability as a hydrocarbon commodity supplier. Let us recall the cold February and March of 2018, which were nicknamed the Beast from the East. Who mobilised urgent additional deliveries of gas to the freezing Europe?
By the way, our trust in many of our European partners in the energy sphere has been seriously undermined. In May 2019, the EU adopted amendments to the so-called gas directive of the Third Energy Package, tailored to the Nord Stream 2 project. They were adopted post factum, when the main investments had already been made. It was a blow to one of the fundamental principles of market relations: the protection of the rights of conscientious investors. Naturally, this dented our confidence in the reliability of our partners.
It takes time to rebuild trust. The first constructive step by the European Union could be abandoning the attempts to politicise its trade and economic interaction with Russia. As President Vladimir Putin said during the Davos Agenda 2021 online forum in January, “we need to approach the dialogue with each other honestly, discard the phobias of the past and look to the future.”
On our part, we are always open to constructive cooperation based on equality, mutual respect and consideration for each other’s interests. Now the ball is in the EU’s court.
Question: Ukraine does not recognise its Russian and Hungarian minorities as indigenous peoples. Ukraine's new education law restricts the use of these ethnic groups’ native languages. Do you think there is any chance this unfavourable situation will change?
Sergey Lavrov: The continuing degradation of fundamental human rights in Ukraine is definitely alarming. On July 21, Vladimir Zelensky signed a discriminatory law, On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine. Along with the previously adopted laws on the state language and on education, the new legislation seriously infringes on the interests of Russians, Hungarians and other peoples historically living in various regions of modern Ukraine. In fact, we are witnessing an artificial division of the country’s population into categories with different sets of rights, which is very similar to the theory and practice used by Nazi Germany.
Kiev's steps to impose the ideology of nationalist intolerance in Ukraine, primarily in relation to Russians, are absolutely unacceptable. As a reminder, in early August, Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language Taras Kremin proposed all non-Ukrainian-speaking residents of Ukraine should leave the country. Vladimir Zelensky in an interview published on August 5 recommended that Russians should “leave and seek a place in Russia.” We regard such statements as inciting ethnic hatred. Incidentally, this is a crime in the European Union countries.
We have repeatedly alerted specialised international agencies at the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, and UNESCO about such excessive manifestations. We will continue to push for Kiev to fulfil its obligations to respect human rights, including the cultural and educational rights of ethnic minorities. It is important that the Kiev authorities hear public criticism from European politicians. The so-called quiet diplomacy our Western colleagues often resort to is clearly not working in relation to Ukraine.
Attempts by the EU countries to secretly negotiate with Kiev over the exemption of the EU languages from the restrictions while leaving Russian as the only language banned, lead to double discrimination of Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine, in relation to the Ukrainian language as well as to European languages.
The Law on Education adopted on September 1, 2020, fully eliminated schools with tuition in Russian. At present, children can study in their native language only in elementary school (grades 1 through 4) while profoundly learning Ukrainian, which is mandatory. At the same time, schoolchildren being educated in the official languages of the EU member states have been granted a deferral until 2023. Russian-speaking students have been denied such a delay.
Other exceptions from the total Ukrainisation are Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks who were granted the right, as indigenous peoples of Ukraine, to receive education in their own languages. At the same time, the Ukrainian population statistics are indicative about the percentage of those groups actually living in Ukraine: 3,000 Crimean Tatars (out of a total of 280,000), about 400 Karaites (out of 2,000), and 120 Krymchaks (out of 1,500).
I would like to remind you that millions of Russians are living in Ukraine, and the overwhelming majority of the country's residents speak and use the Russian language.
Question: President of Russia Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden declared at their meeting in Geneva in June that they do not want a new cold war. Is the current security situation comparable to that period of tension?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not think that historical parallels of this kind are appropriate. The current global military-political situation has indeed similarities with the cold war period, but the two periods also have drastic, fundamental differences. In any case, at present, we are far from the worst point of the Soviet-American confrontation like the Caribbean crisis of 1962, when we were literally on the brink of a nuclear war. However, one cannot ignore the current disagreements between major global players, which, unfortunately, continue to deepen.
One of the reasons for this is Washington's policy of containing the development of Russia and China. The unilateral dismantling of the system of arms control agreements, the buildup of US military capabilities in the European and Pacific theatres are definitely part of this policy.
Nevertheless, a joint statement was adopted following the Geneva meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States, confirming their mutual adherence to the principle first declared 35 years ago that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed. On the American side, this was the second step this year – after the New START extension – towards restoring a responsible approach to key aspects of international security.
The first round of the US-Russian strategic stability dialogue held on July 28 in Geneva to follow up on the June summit between their leaders was encouraging news as well. The two countries should also start collaborating on cybersecurity and establish systemic cooperation in responding to common challenges. The president of Russia has clearly indicated, including publicly, that the two nations can achieve results in all areas – but only through negotiations and finding a balance of interests that would suit both sides.
Be that as it may, we are realists and understand that the path towards de-escalation will be difficult. Unlike in the Cold War era, Russian-American agreements are not the cornerstone of everything, although much still depends on them. There are far more players and factors influencing the international security situation today. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia will continue to make its significant contribution to maintaining global stability by pursuing a responsible, pragmatic and predictable foreign policy aimed at neutralising threats and challenges to global security, as well as at creating favourable conditions for the peaceful development of all states.