Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Trud newspaper, published on August 21, 2020
Question: The UN marks its 75th anniversary this year, and will hold its 75th General Assembly. Will any new matters that have not been on the agenda before be raised? What questions does Russia intend to work on?
Sergey Lavrov: True, the United Nations is marking its 75th anniversary this year. This anniversary has special significance for Russia as a founding member and a permanent member of the Security Council. We believe that it should help further strengthen the UN’s central coordinating role in world affairs, unite international efforts in countering challenges and threats the world is facing today, and build relations among nations in the spirit of genuine justice and equality.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world, significantly curtailing the initial plans for this anniversary session. Most of the events of the high-level week, which is de facto the prime event of the year in international politics, as well as the meetings scheduled for the next few months will take place online. The choice of this format was dictated by necessity, but it should not affect the status or significance of the discussions.
As for the agenda of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, its draft is already available and covers a wide range of matters in almost all spheres of international relations, from strategic stability to sandstorms. As expected, questions relating to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and overcoming its consequences will be high on the agenda.
During the upcoming session of the General Assembly, Russia will uphold its principled approaches. This includes promoting a positive, unifying agenda, consolidating support for building a polycentric international order, ensuring strict compliance with the UN Charter, countering attempts to promote the concept of a “rules-based order” as an alternative to international law, and solving regional crises and conflicts by political and diplomatic means.
We will continue our efforts to step up international cooperation in fighting terrorism, adopt truly universal, inclusive rules of responsible state behaviour in the information space, strengthening the existing treaty frameworks on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation and developing new ones, as well as opposing any attempts to distort the history and outcome of World War II as unacceptable.
Of course, we will promptly respond to any new issues that may arise.
Question: Our relations with the European Union leave much to be desired. The mutual sanctions are still in place, and many cooperation programmes have been frozen. What are the chances for warming on this track?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it would be more appropriate to address this question to our EU colleagues. It was their initiative to suspend many inter-industry formats and political dialogue; some promising projects were paused, including those aimed at building a common trade, economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. At the same time, they told us that any significant improvement in relations will depend on the implementation of the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the conflict in southeastern Ukraine, to which Russia is not even a party. Unfortunately, this artificial and short-sighted correlation remains to this day – which suits Kiev perfectly. They ignore their obligations under the Minsk Package of Measures, not even trying to hide their interest in using the unsettled conflict to maintain sanctions pressure on Russia.
We can see that the pandemic has clearly accelerated mental processes in the European Union. They are increasingly using the ‘greater strategic autonomy’ in international affairs rhetoric. President of the European Council Charles Michel initiated an intra-EU discussion on the pros and cons of the current approach to relations with Russia. We are looking at this process with a certain interest, although we don’t have any big expectations regarding it – the ideologically blinkered and inert thinking in relation to our country is too persistent in some EU states, even to the detriment of their own national interests. However, this is their choice, and they are responsible for it.
I would like to add that we are by no means opposed to the EU's greater independence in international affairs. Some time ago, we even offered Brussels to cooperate on crisis management and the development of military technical capabilities. Even today, we consider the EU as a potential participant in the Greater Eurasian Partnership concept proposed by President Vladimir Putin. We believe this would benefit the European Union as well, combine regional integration potentials and facilitate European economic operators’ access to Eurasian markets.
We hope that a sober analysis of the multipolar world will eventually prompt the EU to rethink its obviously outdated approaches on the Russian track. For our part, we, as before, are always open to honest and mutually beneficial cooperation.
Question: NATO remains active on our borders, and our relations remain strained. What are the Russian Foreign Ministry’s conceptual approaches to easing tensions on the western track?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me remind you that cooperation between Russia and NATO was curtailed in 2014, and it was not our initiative. All the improvements in our relations, including the dialogue and cooperation mechanism – the Russia-NATO Council (RNC) – were lost overnight. Today the RNC, an ‘all-weather’ dialogue format we jointly created in 2002, has become a platform where NATO countries are trying to lecture us on the Ukrainian settlement, although NATO has no role to play in it. It is obvious that the Ukrainian crisis is being used as a pretext, and is not the real reason for the alliance to return to its old ways of ‘containing’ Russia.
Now, just like during the Cold War, they are fighting Russia ‘on all fronts,’ including information and propaganda campaigns, and that is their new raison d'être. NATO is increasingly active on the eastern flank, close to our borders, where exercises are carried out and military infrastructure upgraded. The alliance continues to expand its zone of military and political influence, inviting more and more countries under its umbrella allegedly to protect them from Russia. Since there are no real threats to security, these steps do little except create and deepen new dividing lines in Europe.
We have repeatedly proposed that NATO take the path of de-escalating military tensions and reducing the risks of military incidents on the continent. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, we proposed an initiative to show military restraint, to move military exercises away from the Russia-NATO contact line, and other transparency measures. Russia has cancelled major exercises close to the borders of NATO countries, and has moved large military training events farther inland.
However, the alliance is not showing any willingness to reciprocate. It has adopted the policy of ‘containment and dialogue’ with regard to Russia, but in reality, there is practically no place for real and open dialogue on pressing problems there.
Question: Ukraine has been consistently undermining the Minsk agreements. It did not carry out the main provisions of the agreements adopted in December 2019 at the Normandy format summit in Paris. Does the new status for Donbass depend entirely on Ukraine under the Minsk agreements, or are there other solutions? What is the position of the United States, considering that Washington allocated $250 million for arms deliveries to Kiev?
Sergey Lavrov: You are right to mention the Minsk agreements. This document was approved by the UN Security Council and Ukraine was among its signatories. It contains a provision (Paragraph 11 in the Package of Measures) that provides for, quote, “carrying out a constitutional reform in Ukraine … providing for decentralisation as a key element (including a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions agreed with the representatives of these areas), as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.” All this had to find its way into Ukraine’s new constitution, which should have entered into force by the end of 2015, as stated in the same paragraph.
Enshrining the special status for Donbass in the constitution is key to achieving a settlement in Ukraine and resolving security matters, as well as socioeconomic and humanitarian issues.
At the Normandy summit in Paris on December 9, 2019, the participants, including President Vladimir Zelensky, unanimously supported the agreement on the need to have Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk agree on all the legal aspects of the special status for Donbass in strictly keeping with the Minsk Package of Measures.
It is time that our Ukrainian partners stop fooling everyone by coming up with excuses for not doing anything to carry out their existing commitments.
To settle the conflict, the United States should stop adding fuel to the fire by supplying arms to Kiev. This begs the question: does Washington actually want peace in Ukraine, as its representatives continue to claim at various international venues?
Question: What are the prospects for Russia to improve its relations with Georgia, a neighbouring country?
Sergey Lavrov: Over the past 12 years, Russia and Georgia have been interacting outside of the diplomatic context. Let me remind you that it was Tbilisi who severed diplomatic ties following the South Ossetia gamble by Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.
Russia has maintained its unwavering commitment to mutually beneficial and friendly relations with Georgia. We strongly believe that this meets the national interests of both countries and peoples with their common past and shared culture, and millions of intertwined human destinies. We fully support the policy initiated in 2012 by the government of the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia alliance to normalise our bilateral relations. We proceed from the premise that the further we go down the road of normalising our relations, the better. Nothing prevents this from happening as far as Russia is concerned. As for our Georgian partners, they have clearly lacked consistency on this front, and have been prone to seeking momentary gain by playing the anti-Russia card from time to time.
However, life always sets things straight. Today, Russia has firmly established itself as Georgia’s second largest foreign trade partner, second only to Turkey, with $1.33 billion in trade (2019). It is to Russia that Georgia has been selling two thirds of its wine over the past several years. Russia retains its leadership in remittances to Georgia, which totalled about $430 million last year. Russian tourists (1.5 million in 2019) also want our two countries to build closer ties.
In late 2013, Russia and Georgia resumed regular coach service between the two countries, and air service was restored in October 2014. Verkhny Lars, the only checkpoint on the land border between Russia and Georgia, started working around the clock. Our countries stepped up contacts in culture, sports, research, religion, as well as business ties. Against this backdrop, we even started working on offering visa-free travel to Georgian nationals.
Unfortunately, the June-July 2019 events in Tbilisi derailed this positive momentum, when the President of Russia suspended air service with Georgia in response to a provocation by Georgian nationalists and radicals. We hope that air service will resume in the near future. We closely monitor the developments in Georgia itself, while waiting for the sanitary and epidemiological situation in the region and around the world to get back to normal, and regular air service to other destinations to resume.
Political discussions between Grigory Karasin and Zurab Abashidze had to be halted due to the pandemic, and we expect them to resume in the near future. The same applies to the Geneva International Discussions on security and stability in the South Caucasus. I think that we could make better use of the potential offered by the Interests Sections at the Swiss embassies in Tbilisi and Moscow.
Russia has always treasured its friendly ties with the kindred people of Georgia, with whom we lived in a single country for many centuries, even if the name of the country changed several times. We strongly believe that overcoming the existing differences and restoring and developing full bilateral relations meets the long-term interests of our countries and people.
Question: In your view, what is behind the recent aggravation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, and how likely is it that it will escalate into a large-scale military conflict?
Sergey Lavrov: The border conflict of July 12-16, 2020, became the second largest violation since April 2016 of the 1994 Ceasefire Agreement, drafted with Russia’s mediation. At the same time, this is the first time in 26 years that we are seeing highly intensive clashes involving field artillery, mortars and strike drones directly on the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, rather than along the line of contact in Karabakh.
A number of causes led to this conflict. It goes without saying that the unresolved Karabakh problem is the root cause. Add to this the extremely overheated public space on both sides of the border. The geographic factor served as a trigger of sorts, namely, the Armenian side’s decision to reactivate an old border checkpoint located 15 km from Azerbaijan’s oil-exporting pipelines caused great concern among some and an unjustified response among others. Eventually, this led to a confrontation with the most unpredictable consequences.
To stabilise the situation, the Russian Foreign Ministry urged the conflicting parties to immediately cease fire on July 13. I had telephone conversations with my colleagues from Armenia and Azerbaijan and met with representatives of organisations uniting Russian citizens with Azerbaijani and Armenian backgrounds. Both diasporas should be fully aware of their responsibility for complying with the Russian Federation’s laws and for fostering an atmosphere conducive to the normalisation of relations between Baku and Yerevan.
All this time, Igor Popov, the Russian Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, communicated directly with senior officials of both countries’ foreign ministries. As a result, the parties reached a ceasefire agreement starting from July 16 with active Russian mediation, although not from the first attempt.
The situation became more or less stabilised in August and remains relatively calm on the border and the line of contact. Mutual public accusations are subsiding. We expect the negotiating process on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement to resume as soon as possible. We are working on this with our partners from the OSCE Minsk Group.
Question: Will Russia be able to achieve the abolition of the non-citizen status in Latvia and Estonia, a practice that is humiliating for our compatriots there? Being non-citizens limits their political, economic and social rights.
Sergey Lavrov: We consider the situation with the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia and Estonia to be discriminatory. Statelessness is a shameful social phenomenon practiced in these countries and mainly applied to Russian-speaking residents, depriving them of basic democratic and socioeconomic rights. It is outrageous. The number of stateless persons there is declining extremely slowly, mainly as a result of deaths or emigration of the Russian-speaking population. Latvia currently has 216,900 non-citizens (about 11 percent of the population); Estonia, 75,600 (about 6 percent).
The authorities of these Baltic states do not recognise ‘non-citizens’ as belonging to national minorities, thereby excluding them from the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The non-citizens have no voting rights, they cannot establish political parties, participate in transactions with land and real estate without the consent of the municipal authorities, are not allowed into the civil service, the military service, the police, the service as judges or prosecutors, etc.
International organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council, monitoring bodies of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and others have published multiple recommendations and have repeatedly appealed to the Latvian and Estonian authorities to take steps to ensure that their language policy and legislation do not lead to direct or indirect discrimination.
For example, in August 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination published a conclusion on Latvia’s report, expressing concern about the educational reform, as well as the non-citizen problem. In March 2019, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticised Estonia for having a large number of persons with undetermined citizenship. In April 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee issued recommendations on the situation in Estonia, expressing concern about the limited scope of amendments to its citizenship law that excluded certain categories of children of non-citizens; about the strict state language fluency requirements for the naturalisation procedure; and the adverse impact of undetermined citizenship on political engagement.
The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe on National Minorities, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and a number of other international agencies also condemned the discriminatory policies of Riga and Tallinn.
The Latvian and Estonian authorities’ reaction to international criticism remains inadequate given the gravity of the situation. In this regard, we are confident that EU membership should not be viewed by the Baltic states as a political cover-up for their illegal actions.
For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry consistently defends the interests of non-citizens. We use the capabilities of the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe control mechanisms to protect the rights of national minorities. We insist on addressing the statelessness problem in the course of bilateral contacts with the Baltic states, including political consultations, noting that the observance, by Latvia and Estonia, of the generally recognised international standards guaranteeing equal rights to obtain citizenship is an important condition for progress in building neighbourly bilateral relations.
Question: What role will Russia be ready to play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in addition to the Middle East Quartet) to revive talks, in view of the critical situation resulting from the statements by the United States on Jerusalem?
Sergey Lavrov: It is true that the situation with the Middle East Peace Process is nearing a critical point. There is no doubt that this resulted from Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the only and indivisible capital of the State of Israel and to transfer its embassy there. We proceed from the premise that the Jerusalem problem, like all other so-called final status issues, should be resolved through direct talks between the two conflicting sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians. Anticipating the outcome of these talks only complicates efforts to find a solution. The universally recognised international legal framework of the Middle East Peace Process, which includes UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, as well as the Arab Peace Initiative, proceeds from this understanding.
We strongly believe that against this backdrop the efforts by the international community are very much relevant for facilitating the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks and achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between the parties under the auspices of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators, which includes Russia, the United States, the EU and the UN. This was the point made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his remarks at the June 24 videoconference of the UN Security Council on the Middle East Peace Process. Russia supports this call.
This multilateral mechanism is designed to accompany the Middle East Peace Process. However, it is currently paralysed due to the uncooperative position of the United States. Washington said it would continue working within the Quartet only to promote its peace plan, known as the “deal of the century.” In this context, we said that we were ready to continue working on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in a troika with the UN and the EU, with the option for other regional powers and organisations to join our efforts.
In addition to this, it has to be noted that restoring Palestinian unity on the political platform of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation is a major prerequisite for resuming direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. In this context, we welcomed the timely steps by Fatah and Hamas to overcome the long-standing division, as announced on July 2, 2020 during an online joint news conference by the authorised representatives of Fatah and Hamas.
As for Russia, we will continue working with the Palestinians in order to consolidate and carry forward the positive momentum. We intend to hold a meeting of the main Palestinian parties and movements in Moscow, as soon as this becomes possible considering the sanitary and epidemiological situation. In early July 2020, President of Russia Vladimir Putin talked on the telephone with President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas who responded to our proposal positively. Hamas leaders also informed us that they were ready, in principle, to take part in an event of this kind.
Question: Kosovo Serbs are still essentially deprived of their rights. Russia stands for a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo problem, but nothing has changed. What efforts could promote the diplomatic solution to the conflict between Belgrade and Pristina?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the Kosovo issue, I would prefer to focus not on the conflict between Belgrade and Pristina, but on the consequences of the shameless annexation of part of Serbian territory. It was executed by armed militants consisting of Kosovo Albanians with the connivance and direct support of the West, including the NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999. Following this outrage, a self-proclaimed quasi-state was created on the territory of a Serbian autonomous region. This was done unilaterally, in circumvention of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which is the basis of the settlement. The political leadership of that quasi-state blatantly ignores the international law, the legitimate demands and interests of the Republic of Serbia and Serbian people, and strives to legalise the current state of affairs, including themselves, by any means at their disposal.
At one point, through great efforts and painful compromises, the negotiation process was launched. In 2010, the UN General Assembly empowered the European Union to become an intermediary in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Later, very important decisions were agreed upon, including on the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo. Plans called for a gradual transition to the mutually acceptable agreements, first of all, on ensuring the safety of Serbs in the region. However, Kosovo stonewalled all of these decisions.
The dialogue is currently stagnating. That said, there is no alternative to it, regardless of anyone’s desire to cut the Gordian knot. Brussels and Washington are boosting efforts to relaunch the negotiation process. It is important to keep in mind that a serious and honest conversation is needed about the future relations between Belgrade and Pristina. It would only bring results if the legal interests of Kosovo Serbs, their concerns and international law are respected. External assistance must rule out blackmail and arm twisting of one side while encouraging questionable political appetites of the other side. The alternative to the dialogue would be very dangerous to everyone.