The Minister’s meetings
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Austrian Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg, Vienna, August 25, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have had a constructive and substantive conversation with my Austrian colleague, Alexander Schallenberg, on a wide range of bilateral and international matters of mutual interest.
Relations between our states are progressively expanding despite the sanitary and epidemiological restrictions. Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attended the St Petersburg International Economic Forum as a guest of honour in June. On August 6, President Vladimir Putin and Sebastian Kurz again spoke online at the opening of a cement plant in Russia built by one of the largest Austrian firms.
We have welcomed the mutual interest in fully restoring our interparliamentary, interdepartmental and interregional exchanges. In September 2021, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko is to visit Vienna to attend the Fifth World Conference of Speakers of Parliament. Heads of regions of our two states are scheduled to meet in Salzburg in autumn 2021.
A lot of attention was given to trade and investment ties. Austria is one of Russia’s key economic partners in Europe. About 1,500 Austrian companies are successfully operating in our country. We expect new agreements to be reached during the session of the Mixed Russian-Austrian Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation in Vienna scheduled for October this year. The Russian-Austrian Business Council will meet a day earlier.
We analysed the progress in the most important joint projects. We commended the level of cooperation in the energy sector, including Gazprom and the OMV concern’s efforts to build the North Stream 2 pipeline, as well as their involvement in infrastructure projects in Russia.
We discussed the prospects for cooperation in innovation-driven industries, including efforts to digitalise the socioeconomic sector, combat epidemics and adapt to global climate change. We emphasised the importance of the resumption of tourist exchanges; mutual recognition of vaccination certificates as soon as possible would facilitate this process.
We highly appreciate our cultural ties and ties in education, healthcare and the like, which we have continued to maintain remotely. The intensity of these contacts has even increased. This can be largely ascribed to a Russian-Austrian public forum, Sochi Dialogue, thanks to which broad academic and expert circles, as well as students and schoolchildren have been involved in these useful activities. The programme for the Year of Russian Literature and Theatre in Austria and the Year of Austrian Literature and Theatre in Russia is being implemented.
During my visit, I plan to meet with Sochi Dialogue activists and members of the business community to discuss relevant plans with them.
We thanked our Austrian partners for their caring attitude to the burial sites of Russian soldiers, as well as the Russian soldier memorials in Austria. We praise the overall culture of preserving historical memory [in Austria]. I support Mr Schallenberg, who noted the scrupulous and helpful efforts of the Mixed Russian-Austrian Commission of Historians.
We discussed international matters, giving particular attention to the situation in Europe, including the deplorable state of relations between Russia and the European Union. Contacts with Brussels have been reduced to the minimum as a result of the EU policy aimed at deterring Russia. On our part, we said we were ready to engage in a pragmatic dialogue with the European Union and its individual members only on the basis of equality and mutual respect and move towards reaching agreements in areas that are of mutual interest.
Our colleague mentioned the situation related to Alexey Navalny. Just to recap; he is serving time for economic crimes and damage he and his brother caused to the French company Yves Rocher. Importantly, speaking about the blogger, our Western colleagues have for some reason stopped mentioning the need to complete a probe into his alleged poisoning. I will not go over disconnects and inconsistencies inherent in this matter. Anyone who is interested in establishing the truth should read the German government’s official responses to the parliamentary inquiry. They were read out at a Bundestag session, and the minutes are available. It makes a very entertaining read.
Alexander Schallenberg reiterated Austria's position on Crimea. By way of a reminder, I spoke about how the Crimean residents decided on returning to Russia and under what circumstances: after the coup and after the ultras came to power, neo-Nazis began to issue threats that they would drive the Russians out of Crimea and sent armed militants there. Events like the Crimea Platform are part of the fake politics category and are based on far-fetched ideas that are embodied in this kind of “staged performances.” Ukraine is likely to surprise us with its decisions more than once going forward. Only the other day they said they had “privatised” the Day of the Baptism of Rus. So it cannot be ruled out that Mr Zelensky will at some point resolve that the New Year holiday can be celebrated only in Ukraine, because everything else is not Ukrainian.
I would just like to remind you how Austria-Hungary formed its approach to Crimea. In May 1787, Catherine II visited Crimea. She was accompanied by foreign diplomats and Emperor Joseph II, who arrived there incognito. Here’s another interesting fact. In March 1897, the Austro-Hungarian Embassy in St Petersburg sent a request to the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Empire asking it to allow Austrian national Ginze to take home 100 grapevines from Crimea. Permission was granted and the perennials were delivered to Austria. It may well be that the grapes for some of the Hungarian and Austrian wines, which we will be sampling at lunch today, were harvested from the vines that originally came from Crimea. We have a lot in common if we take a look at our history.
I would just like to mention once again the importance of a candid conversation on any subject whatsoever. We are open to it. Most importantly, contacts should be based on concrete facts, not some considerations of ideology-driven solidarity, which we have been increasingly seeing on the part of our Western colleagues on matters such as Ukraine.
We are interested in continuing a dialogue with our Austrian partners on other international issues such as the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and the Balkans, to name a few.
Overall, our talks were productive. Let's remain in touch. We have a busy agenda today and tomorrow. I would like to express my gratitude to our Austrian hosts for their hospitality.
Question: My question is about the interaction between Russian and Austrian civil societies. The Russian government has an opportunity now to give the foreign agent status to any Russian citizen, whose hotel bills are paid for or who gets financial support [from abroad]. Can Russia guarantee that this measure will not apply to Russian nationals taking part in projects by Austrian and Russian civil societies as part of the Sochi Dialogue forum?
Sergey Lavrov: Your question stems from the insufficient knowledge of the matter and a complete lack of information. If this is of interest to you, you can read the laws effective in the Russian Federation and the numerous comments made on them.
I would just like to remind you how the topic of foreign agents emerged in Russian political life. We had to respond to the actions being taken by the United Sates and some of the European countries that targeted our citizens. As you know, the foreign agent law has been effective in the United States since 1938 and it is still actively applied. For example, our RT television channel and Sputnik agency were declared foreign agents. They were required to label information they supply as material produced by foreign agents, something they are doing. This is not our choice but if requirements like these exist, we have to meet them. When we reciprocated by declaring Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe foreign agents, they flatly refused to inform their audience and users of their foreign agent status in the Russian Federation. Our courts keep imposing fines on them.
We have never been the first to start doing things like this, but if our media and our citizens are being discriminated against, if they are labeled foreign agents and are persecuted accordingly, we will respond. This is not about revenge, but rather about ensuring parity in our relations in a particular area. A foreign agent is an individual or a legal entity who receives funding from abroad and is involved in political activities. Those who maintain humanitarian or cultural contact do not fall under the foreign agent law.
So, I recommend once again that you read the laws and the comments that have been made on more than one occasion, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Question (for both ministers): Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that Austria would not take in refugees from Afghanistan. If Washington or official Brussels decide to pressure Vienna into doing it, how do you plan to hold your ground? Will the experience of accommodating refugees from Chechnya be taken into account when accommodating refugees from Afghanistan in Austria?
What lessons can the West learn from the failed campaign in Afghanistan?
Sergey Lavrov: Illegal migration has long been a serious problem for Europe. It is one of the consequences of the reckless undertakings that our Western colleagues, NATO led by Americans, got involved in over the years.
Speaking about the lessons that the United States could learn from the situation in Afghanistan, the main lesson is that they should not try to teach others how to live, let alone force them to do something. We have seen it in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans wanted to force everybody to live the way they see fit. We should all deal with our own problems, especially because each country has plenty of them.
Nothing good came out of the four military campaigns I mentioned. There has been a surge in terrorism, an unprecedented growth in drug trafficking; illegal migrants have been flooding Europe since NATO bombed the Libyan state to dust. The bottom line is: do not interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs and do not use force in violation of the UN Charter.
Question: The Foreign Ministry’s official representative warned yesterday that there would be “consequences” for those who attended the Crimea Platform in Kiev. What should Austria expect?
Sergey Lavrov: We have taken note of how our colleagues view the free expression of the Crimeans’ will, which happened in response to the coup d'etat in Ukraine, and in response to those putschists’ threats “to drive everything Russian out of Crimea.” This threat has not gone anywhere, because the President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky recently said in an interview that people who live in Ukraine and consider themselves Russian should go to Russia. Unfortunately, this is no different from Kiev’s threats to the Crimeans in February 2014. The current Ukrainian government is guided by ultra-nationalist neo-Nazi ideas, which manifest themselves in the laws adopted in Ukraine such as the law on education, on languages, and on indigenous peoples. The new legislation currently being discussed as part of Ukraine’s “state policy in the transition period,” is just uprooting everything they were required to do under the Minsk Agreements. The Ukrainian authorities are obviously unwilling to comply with them. The laws Ukraine has adopted actually preclude the fulfillment of Ukraine’s commitments with regard to the special status of Donbass, including people’s linguistic and cultural rights, with regard to amnesty and holding free elections in Donbass under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
It is astounding that we have to present these facts, which speak for themselves and can neither be denied nor questioned, to our Western colleagues. We did this during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Russia. They have nothing to say to this and still they continue to blindly support the Ukrainian authorities in their attempts to seek attention to their country – not even to the country, but to its government – and make every effort to wheedle more concessions, money, political gestures of support out of the West.
The Crimea Platform is not a real event. The real thing is what I saw here in Vienna today, where I laid a wreath at the monument to Soviet soldiers who liberated Vienna and hoisted the Austrian flag on the local municipality. This was the real thing, and also the way the guard of honour was arranged. I have already thanked Alexander Schallenberg for this respectful attitude to our common history.
If people want to engage in virtual politics, they do not need any pandemic to do this and are doing it already. But if we want to engage in real politics, we need to be guided by the reality. I was briefed here on the decisions that were made in Kiev. They include demands that Russia should immediately open up to representatives of various international organisations who will inspect how human rights are respected and observed in Crimea (this might not be obvious, of course, at least to those who prefer to ignore the facts). Anyone who has looked at the facts should be perfectly aware that we have repeatedly invited special representatives of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the UN to come and see how things stand when it comes to human rights in Crimea. The overwhelming majority say they would come to Crimea “with pleasure,” but they have to enter from Ukraine. We ask if they are interested in human rights or political games. If it is about human rights, just fly directly to Crimea or drive across the Crimean Bridge from Russia, just come and see everything with your very own eyes. Those who do come to visit perfectly understand what actually happened and continues to happen in Crimea. But those who want to support this uncanny Kiev regime just need a chance to declare they “want Kiev to win in this dispute.” This is a dead end. Everyone understands this, but this solidarity shown by the members of NATO and the EU at the Crimea Platform event, which looked like a show, is still there. Only, they seem to understand solidarity wrong. There is nothing we can do about this.
There is also something else. I also talked about it to Alexander Schallenberg and many of my Western partners from the EU. The EU has decided to deny Schengen visas to Crimean residents. That is, if what happened in Crimea was the expression of residents’ free will, then they are being punished (in violation of international conventions) for their political views, for voting for Crimea’s reintegration with Russia. This is what it is. And what really happened. But, even if one agrees with the view of the West and those who wrote the Kiev “declaration” approved on August 23, let's say, hypothetically, it was an annexation. In this case, what do the Crimean citizens and their right to get a Schengen visa and travel around Europe have to do with anything? If it was an annexation, then no one asked them. Armed people came and “invaded” the peninsula. What are the people being punished for? Again, from whatever angle you look at it – from the perspective of our logic, which reflects the realities, or from Kiev’s and the West’s invented logic – Crimeans are being punished for nothing.
So do come and visit. I would really like to invite you and all the journalists present here. We are ready to bring you to Crimea, to show you everything, without limiting your contacts. Be our guest. It will be better than listening remotely to some assessments that have nothing to do with reality.
Question: Is it possible to reach agreement on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates between Russia and Austria in the current circumstances? It would be helpful for reviving cultural, business and humanitarian exchanges.
You have just invited journalists [to Crimea]. What would Russia say about a visit to Crimea by an Austrian delegation?
Sergey Lavrov: I would be all for it. The more people visit Crimea, the more objective their understanding of life on the peninsula and in this region of Russia would be.
I will try to partially answer the question addressed to Minister Schallenberg. Does Austria want to send a delegation and see with their own eyes what is happening there? I am certain Austria does. But I don’t know whether it is ready to go against European solidarity.
As concerns recognising vaccines, it is possible. Any EU country can follow Hungary’s example before the European Medicines Agency issues its official decision.
I do not want to appear an impolite guest. Minister Schallenberg made an important statement. Please put it on record that the Foreign Minister of Austria is not interested in finding out what is actually happening in Crimea. But I still would like to invite him to Moscow and other Russian cities, as well as to Crimea.