Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid following talks, Moscow, June 21, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
We had long, in-depth and productive talks. The dialogue was constructive and substantive. As you are aware, this is Ms Schmid’s first visit to Moscow after being appointed to the high position of OSCE Secretary General.
We know Helga Schmid as an experienced and highly professional diplomat and look forward to continuing to work with her in her new capacity. We hope that the interaction will be productive, including from the point of view of improving the situation in the OSCE, which has seen better periods in its history. We have a common opinion on the need to improve the organisation’s work.
We stand in solidarity in our belief that due to its wide geographical coverage and a comprehensive approach to security in all its dimensions, as well as due to the rule of consensus, the OSCE is quite capable of playing a more weighty role in international affairs, primarily, in the Euro-Atlantic region. Russia is confident that in order for this to happen, it is necessary to reinstate the culture of mutually respectful and equal dialogue and the search for compromise, which was once inherent in the OSCE.
Unfortunately, not all OSCE participants share this point of view. Today, we offered examples showing the persistence of geographic and thematic imbalances in the work of the OSCE executive bodies. We all inherited these from the 1990s, when the desire to divide the countries of the common European space into “teachers” and “students” was clearly manifested. Obviously, this leads nowhere, and these imbalances must be corrected as soon as possible.
At the last meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council, which took place in Tirana on December 3-4, 2020, Russia put forward a proposal to regularly discuss ways to improve the OSCE’s effectiveness. This is not about revising the fundamental principles or commitments. On the contrary, the goal is to return the OSCE to its original purpose as a core pan-European organisation for discussing and making collective decisions in military-political, economic-environmental and humanitarian security.
We hope that today's talks were useful for the Secretary General and her team in terms of continuing efforts to find common ground between various ideas dedicated to increasing the OSCE’s effectiveness.
We had an in-depth discussion of the current tasks in the above three dimensions of OSCE activity, the work of its specialised institutions and in its field presences. We touched on administrative, fiscal and personnel issues. Various difficulties have piled up here as well.
Russia confirmed its willingness to participate on the OSCE’s constructive work to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and cyberthreats, as well as organised crime and human trafficking.
We believe the OSCE must find a niche of its own in overcoming the debilitating economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, including by developing steps to support the hardest hit industries, ensuring the social and economic rights of the people, and strengthening Eurasian trade and transport connectivity. In the humanitarian sphere, protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, including in education and use of the native language, preventing manifestations of neo-Nazism or radical extremism, fighting Christianophobia and Islamophobia, as well as upholding traditional values, remain our unconditional priorities.
We had an in-depth discussion on the prospects for settling the internal Ukraine conflict, which can only be settled through the full and consistent implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures. There is no alternative to this, which the participants in the Normandy process and other OSCE member states have expressed many times. We re-emphasised the importance of the OSCE's assistance in establishing a direct dialogue between the parties to the conflict – Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk – in the Contact Group. So far, the Ukrainian authorities have been trying to dodge this.
We spoke in favour of enhancing the effectiveness of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. As a reminder, we said that it must clearly and impartially record all ceasefire violations, and instantly respond to and include in its reports all cases of civilian deaths and injuries in Donbass, clearly indicating the guilty party.
As you may recall, in late 2020, the SMM finally released a report on the civilian victims of the conflict from January 1, 2017 to September 15, 2020. In a clear and very convincing manner, that report confirmed what we have known for a fact for many years: Donbass’s civilians suffer mostly from Kiev’s actions. There were three times more fatalities from shelling by Ukrainian armed units than from return fire from the government-controlled territory. We look forward to a release of a similar document for the entire period of the conflict, a report on destroyed civilian infrastructure, as well as on manifestations of aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism in Ukraine.
The SMM is mandated to monitor the observance of human rights throughout Ukraine. However, the Mission often neglects this task. I think all the facts that I am mentioning must be clarified as an immediate first step. The SMM must realise in full its responsibility for clearly and truthfully communicating these facts to the OSCE and the international community.
We exchanged views on the current situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistrian settlements, and progress in the Geneva discussions on security and stability in the South Caucasus. We touched on certain aspects of the OSCE field missions in Central Asia and the Balkans.
We conveyed our wishes that the OSCE Secretary General will have constructive meetings in the Federation Council and at CSTO headquarters, and fulfilling participation in the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security hosted by the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation. We emphasised that productive OSCE cooperation must be projected onto all regional entities within the OSCE area of responsibility. I mean the EU, NATO, the CSTO and other regional entities as agreed at an OSCE summit many years ago.
I believe the talks were quite constructive. We would like to wish Ms Schmid productive work in her new area of activities in general and during her stay in Moscow to implement a rich and very useful programme.
Question (addressed to Helga Schmid): Ms Schmid, I would like to draw your attention to the situation with journalists’ rights in Latvia, where for a second year now, at least 10 of my fellow journalists are under criminal prosecution. Searches were carried out in their homes, and equipment and documents, as well as bank cards, were seized. They have signed a pledge not to leave the area. They are being persecuted for cooperation with Russian news agencies Sputnik and Baltnews. They are being formally accused of violating a “sanctions regime” although neither the above journalists, nor the Baltnews or Sputnik agencies are under sanctions.
This is political persecution. This is what I think. They are being mistreated for their journalistic position and work. In this regard, my question is: Ms Schmid, does the OSCE have a properly functioning mechanism to ensure the protection of the rights of journalists in situations like this? Is the OSCE capable of taking any control of this situation in Latvia and pursing a settlement based on OSCE principles?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Helga Schmid): We discussed this during the talks. Ms Schmid made exactly the same case as she just did. I can't say I agree with her. At the very least, the issue of how the EU sanctions affect freedom of the media deserves a separate discussion at the OSCE. Moreover, it remains unclear why criminal cases were open for wrongdoings that, according to the EU, were committed by journalists from Sputnik and Baltnews.
This issue remains on the negotiating table with the OSCE, and with the new OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro, who will soon visit the Russian Federation.
The statistics on how many Russian-language media outlets operate in a particular country should be studied to determine who owns a respective media outlet.
To reiterate, we discussed this. For us, the issue remains open. Criminal prosecution of journalists cannot be justified by statistics of any kind.
Question: A parliamentary election was held in Armenia. How do you assess the impact of its results on the stability of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the region as a whole?
Sergey Lavrov: The election has just taken place. It is still unclear how these results will affect political life in the new conditions. We will wait until the government is formed.
We believe that the Trilateral Agreement of November 9, 2020, which ended the war, as well as the Agreement of January 11, 2021, which launched the process of coordinating the specific forms of disclosing all economic activities and lifting the blockade, work and meet the interests of all parties involved.
Question (to Helga Schmid): You mentioned that the Minsk agreements are the basis for solving the problem in Ukraine. What can the OSCE do today to make the Ukrainian leadership abide by these agreements?
Sergey Lavrov (adding after Helga Schmid): We discussed this topic. People are suffering. Once again, I drew attention to the fact that at the Normandy format summit in Paris in December 2019, a document was considered, which was agreed upon by experts and aides to the leaders and submitted for approval. The first item was the withdrawal of all forces, resources, and heavy equipment along the entire contact line in Donbass. This was agreed upon and even approved. Vladimir Zelensky refused to accept this very point, which, as Helga Schmid now said, is crucial for people’s well-being and ensuring their security. He supported withdrawal only at three locations, but their coordination is still ongoing. In other words, instead of solving this problem once and for all by protecting people on both sides of the contact line, Vladimir Zelensky perpetuated the problem and made it worse.
Question (addressed to Helga Schmid): No long ago, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Ukraine had reached an agreement with Turkey on defence cooperation. Also, exercises with the armed forces of the two states in the Black Sea have not been ruled out. Does this contribute to stability in a region marked by tensions?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Helga Schmid): We have very clearly and unambiguously outlined our position regarding attempts to pull Ukraine into NATO. There is no doubt that serious and responsible states are well aware of what is at stake. We maintain a dialogue with our Turkish colleagues. We plan to sit down for talks again soon; I believe we will cover this matter.
Question: After the summit in Geneva, the White House announced plans to continue its humanitarian supplies to Syria. Do you agree with the extension of the UN mandate in this area?
Sergey Lavrov: The American side brought this issue up. Let me remind you that the entry point in the province of Idlib is the only point through which humanitarian aid is delivered to Syria from the outside and without the involvement of that country’s government (as required by international humanitarian law). Despite the energetic efforts of our Turkish colleagues, the terrorist organisation Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which holds many civilians hostages, is still playing a decisive role there. Of course, they need the humanitarian supplies. The Syrian government is willing to provide this without exceptions from the principles of international humanitarian law.
Since April 2020 (for over a year now), the Syrian government has been willing to send humanitarian convoys to the civilians in Idlib via Damascus. Unfortunately, our UN colleagues and those with a different point of view have so far been unable to agree on this obvious and completely legitimate approach. To reiterate, we are interested in helping overcome the humanitarian challenges. We just need to keep in mind that, in addition to this transition to the terrorist-controlled part of the Idlib province, there are even more serious things from which Syrian civilians are suffering. I am talking about the stifling American Caesar Act, which is directly aimed at severing contacts that may help restore the infrastructure in Syria and improve the humanitarian well-being of its people; the illegal occupation by the US forces of the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, where hydrocarbons and other natural resources of Syria are being pillaged. On top of that, the proceeds are used to finance projects that are perceived by many as emboldening separatism and provoking a breakup of the single Syrian state.
The policy of the West, the EU and the United States regarding the creation of conditions for the return of refugees is another matter that has a much stronger influence on the position of civilians in that country. All the aid that the West is collecting (and it is collecting it without Damascus’ participation in violation of UN rules), is not aimed at creating conditions for the dignified return of the refugees to have basic education, power and water services there, but for their returning to the refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon with the clear goal of having them stay there for as long as possible.
If the combination of these factors is recognised as something that influences the humanitarian situation in Syria, we are ready to discuss them as a package. To do so, our Western partners need to firmly stop unilaterally interpreting particular issues and recognise their responsibility for the overall situation in the humanitarian sphere in Syria.
Question (addressed to Helga Schmid): At the behest of the official Ukrainian authorities, the dialogue not only with the breakaway Donbass republics, but also with its own people, has come to a halt, or more specifically, with the portion of the population who do not fully agree with the incumbent authorities’ policy. I am referring to the closing of three TV channels for far-fetched reasons. What does the OSCE think about this situation? What does it think about this Zelensky administration policy? Is this part of finding a way out of the situation or further escalation?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Helga Schmid): We are waiting for Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro to come to Moscow. By the way, we let her know about this outrageous development, but she hasn't responded yet.