Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Kurdish television channel Rudaw, Moscow, July 24, 2017
Question: Good afternoon, Mr Lavrov. Based on the recent visit by Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani to St Petersburg and his meeting with President Putin and you, how would you describe relations between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan at this stage?
Sergey Lavrov: We have traditionally good relations with the Kurds, including Iraqi, which date back to the 1940s and the 1950s when, along with his associates, the great son of the Kurdish people Mustafa Barzani stayed in our country.
Today, we have very good relations with the Iraqi Kurds. The General Consulate of Russia has been functioning in Erbil since 2007. The representatives of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq visit Moscow. We maintain contacts with all the political movements of Iraqi Kurdistan, and do so in ways that are not detrimental to our relations with Iraq as a state.
We expand our cultural and educational contacts. Each year, scholarships are assigned within the quota for Iraq. A separate quota is allocated to Iraqi Kurdistan. For three and a half years now, an office of Russia Today media group has been operating in Erbil to make sure the information reaches our viewers in Iraq and other countries directly. So, our relationship is good and constructive.
Question: Is it possible to say that Mr Barzani's visit was important for taking relations between Russia and Kurdistan to a new level?
Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say we reached a new level. To reiterate, we have traditionally maintained contacts for many years now, including with the Prime Minister and other representatives of the Kurdistan Region’s leadership. The recent developments come as a continuation of this trend, which I mentioned, which meets the interests of the Russian Federation and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Notably, the Kurdish expat community in Russia plays a major role in promoting our relations. It continues to contribute to strengthening our ties, once again, without damaging our relations with Iraq.
Question: I have heard Russian President Vladimir Putin speak very positively of the Kurds. To what extent is Russia ready to assist the Kurds in solving the Kurdish issue in the Middle East and helping them gain their rights?
Sergey Lavrov: We definitely have a very positive attitude towards the Kurds. We have long-established links; and we know each other very well. We take an interest in the Kurds - just like any other ethnic group on the planet - to achieve their legitimate aspirations and intentions, of course, with due account of the history of Iraq, including its recent history, following the events of 2003, when there was illegal aggression and US-led external forces actually destroyed the state, which is now being restored with great effort. All this, of course, affected the relations between Baghdad and Erbil. We know that many constitutional issues are still being resolved, including those related to the territorial aspects and distribution of budget funds and oil revenues. We steadily and consistently advocate that these and other issues be solved by Baghdad and Erbil on the basis of compromise and mutually acceptable agreements through a political dialogue.
We proceed from the assumption that the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds - just as those of other people - have to be pursued in accordance with international law. This also applies to the decision on holding the referendum, which, as we understand, has been finally taken in Erbil.
Question: What does Russia think about the forthcoming referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Sergey Lavrov: As I have already said, we see it as a manifestation of the aspirations of the Kurdish people. We understand that the overwhelming majority of the people in the KAR support the referendum. We expect that the final decision will be made with due account of all the political, geopolitical, demographic and economic consequences of this step, including the fact that the Kurdish issue has implications beyond the borders of present-day Iraq and has an impact on the situation in a number of neighbouring states. The Kurdish issue plays a big role and is in the forefront of the processes of crisis settlement now unfolding in the region.
We hope that the will of the Kurdish people will be expressed peacefully and the final forms of implementing the referendum results will be formulated in a way that would take into account all the factors I have mentioned, including the situation in the region and the positions of Iraq's neighbours. As far as I know the KAR leadership is in contact with Iraq's neighbour countries, with their capitals. We will be ready, should Baghdad and Erbil so decide, to contribute to the normal and mutually respectful advancement of this process.
History shows that all too often the holding of a poll does not mean that all the issues will be resolved overnight. These are processes which, I repeat, should be handled in a responsible manner considering the great significance of the Kurdish issue for the whole region.
Question: If after the referendum Iraqi Kurdistan decides to become an independent region, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will Russia be willing to continue maintaining relations with Iraqi Kurdistan?
Sergey Lavrov: I would rather not comment on hypothetical questions. I have already made clear our view of what is happening inside Iraq, specifically in the Kurdish Autonomous Region. We would not like to engage in guesswork as to how it would be put into practice. The situation in South Ossetia was of course somewhat different. South Ossetia was attacked by the Saakashvili regime. There is irrefutable evidence that Abkhazia was to become the next target of attack. In that event it was about protecting human lives. We had no choice.
Question: How do you see the future development of economic relations between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan in light of the fact that the volume of negotiations and contracts between Russian companies and Iraqi Kurdistan has grown?
Sergey Lavrov: We note the mutual interest in developing trade, economic and investment relations. We encourage these processes. As I have said, our relations with Iraqi Kurdistan in the economic and investment spheres do not cause any damage to the relations with the central government in Baghdad.
One of our major economic operators, Gazpromneft, has been working in Iraqi Kurdistan for some time. If I am not mistaken two fields are being developed in partnership in Iraqi Kurdistan. Another major Russian economic operator, Rosneft, signed agreements with partners in Erbil in February. Additional documents were signed during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. I think we are in a stage of fairly intensive economic interaction. We hope all the parties involved will benefit from the results.
Question: The ongoing conflict in Syria undermines the situation in the Middle East. Russia is taking an active part in settling the conflict. How do you see subsequent developments in that country? What else can the Russian leadership do to normalise the situation in Syria and to fight terrorism in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, we should speak of what the Syrian sides can and must undertake, because the final settlement depends only on them. This has been recognised by UN Security Council decisions which clearly state that only the Syrian people can decide the fate of their country whereas the international community, external actors and neighbouring countries are to do everything to root out terrorist threats and to create the most favourable conditions possible for Syrians themselves to agree at the negotiating table on what kind of a country they are going to live in. There are unavoidable and inescapable criteria in such negotiations, and this is also stated in the UN Security Council resolutions – the country should be democratic and secular. This is very important since a number of opposition figures, albeit pretending to be democrats, flatly refuse to admit the necessity of ensuring the secular status of the future state. And this should certainly be a country where all ethnic, religious and political groups enjoy equal rights, they should all be guaranteed security and proper participation in the political structure of the society. This is a general framework agreed on by everyone that should be the grounds for searching through particular forms of political settlement.
We make our own contribution, alongside other nations, to creating such conditions, starting with the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra in all its reincarnations, and other terrorist organisations which are recognised as such by the UNSC. We are also contributing to establishing conditions to secure the ceasefire between the Syrian Government troops and the armed opposition groups which do not want to have anything in common with terrorists. This is the key condition for an armed group to join the ceasefire and be recognised as a party to it. The third area of our activities is definitely humanitarian assistance to the people in distress. This is the goal of setting up the de-escalation zones we negotiated with Turkey and Iran within the Astana process, and we have already engaged the USA and Jordan to implement the zones.
On July 7, Russia, the USA and Jordan agreed on setting up the first such zone in Syria’s southwest. Literally in recent days the final details have been worked on how to coordinate the functioning of the zone in terms of arranging the monitoring of compliance with the cessation of hostilities regime and in terms of securing unimpeded access of humanitarian cargoes and border crossing by civilians in either direction. This approach which was affirmed in Astana and is now being put into practice (three more zones will be set up besides the southern zone) seeks to defuse the situation by combining both a cessation of hostilities and assisting in resolving humanitarian issues. Admittedly, the activity and effectiveness of the Astana process has significantly helped to resuscitate the Geneva process which had been frozen for nine months, and only was revived last January, which we welcome.
We are actively cooperating with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and all the participants in the settlement process represented by the region’s countries and the nations who are willing to help us find a solution, they are the European Union nations, the USA, a number of Islamic states from outside the region. Clearly, the key is to set up direct dialogue between the Syrian Government and the moderate armed opposition, that is, between those who have been parties to the armed conflict in Syria.
We do not oppose political opposition, including émigrés, joining the Geneva process. But the decisive role should belong to those who are on their land, bearing arms, who are standing up for the principles they follow yet remain loyal to the Syrian state.
Question: What are the results of the discussion of a new draft Syrian Constitution?
Sergey Lavrov: The process has just started. At one time we disseminated an approximate text of the Constitution as we saw it but not as something to be imposed on the sides from the outside. It was a kind of provocation, if you will. By that time (end of last year) not many people wanted to talk about the Constitution, and some of them proceeded from narrow self-serving considerations. Working for a settlement, each side pursued its own goals, and the introduction of a tentative draft by us was a trigger to step up activities in this area.
Why is it important? Those who said they will first replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime and then resolve all other issues, certainly did not think about their country but simply wanted power. Those who said there will be no political talks until a complete ceasefire all over the country was instituted were not being entirely honest either, because this was somehow not meant to include stopping the fight against terrorists.
Incidentally, for a long time our American partners under the Barack Obama administration were unable to distinguish terrorists from the normal opposition. We are achieving results in this area only now via the concept of de-escalation zones. Those who said that without complete victory over terrorism they were not prepared to do anything did not facilitate the normal functioning of the Geneva process and international efforts as a whole.
We are absolutely convinced that the work on Syria’s new Constitution will bring about the guarantees I mentioned for all Syrian groups. All ethnic, religious and political groups in Syria should feel protected by Syria’s new fundamental law. When these groups learn about the guarantees they will be granted it will probably be easier for them to agree on the division of power and specific nominations for positions in executive and legislative bodies and establish a system of checks and balances.
We supported the results of the previous round in Geneva when Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura suggested moving in parallel in four areas: Syria’s government with an opportunity to involve the opposition, drafting of the Constitution, preparations for elections, and fourth – the absolute need to continue to wage an uncompromising struggle against terrorism. I think that everyone understands the development of the Geneva process in this context with the exception of extreme opposition members that should be moved aside because they are proving their inability to negotiate.
Question: How does Russia think about the role and right of Syrian Kurds in settling the Syrian crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: As some of the groups I mentioned. I said all ethnic and religious groups should be part of these agreements and should be convinced that their rights will be insured in the Syrian state.
Question: We see that Russian-US dialogue on foreign policy issues is rather complicated. Can Russia and the United States revise their approaches to the problems that divide them and find a basis for constructive interaction, which is necessary for settling many conflicts around the world?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia and the United States, if they take a responsible attitude to the roles they are playing on the international stage, must search for ways to work together on the most complicated issues around the world, such as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and strengthening strategic stability. The role of Russia and the United States is unique in these spheres, as everyone admits. No other country can take their place.
We are certainly not happy about the current state of our relations. We have inherited many problems from the Obama administration, time bombs and decisions that were taken by the outgoing administration in a fit of agony, when they were completely demoralised by the election results and decided to spend the remaining time in the White House by doing disgusting things, especially considering its desire to further undermine Russian-US relations.
We see how difficult it is for some people in Washington to show common sense amid paranoid Russophobia, which is flourishing even though many months of investigations have not produced a single piece of evidence of Russia’s alleged interference in US affairs. Being a normal person in Washington is rather difficult now.
I didn’t even suspect that US politicians could succumb to this mass psychosis. I interacted with many of them during my time in New York. I am surprised at everything that is happening there now. Many of those who have succumbed to this political movement, which is completely abnormal for America, many of them are probably aware of this abnormality and believe that it must stop one way or another. Unfortunately, they are driving themselves up a very high fence, from which it will be very difficult to get down. This campaign must be allowed to run its course. I don’t think that anyone can influence it, but it will fizzle out, if only because, as I said, there is not a single fact to prove Russia’s alleged interference. Everything the US newspapers and television shows keep talking about has been concocted out of thin air. Sorry for this unparliamentary language.
We have reciprocated to the intention, which President Trump indicated during his election campaign, to find ways to cooperate with Russia. The first meeting, which was held in Hamburg on July 7 following three telephone conversations and which produced an agreement on the de-escalation zones in south Syria, has shown that we can work together and find solutions in both regional and global interests. We have agreed to create a channel for promoting the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis and to discuss the possibility of creating a joint working group on cybersecurity. I believe that this proposal remains topical. Some US Congressmen have accused President Trump of doing a deal with the devil. This is childish. If you are a normal person and you are concerned about Russia’s allegedly illegal actions in cyber space, you should be interested in holding a direct discussion with the suspect.
We have long advocated norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace at the UN and have submitted a document to this effect. We cannot be accused of trying to avoid this issue. I hope that the American public will not hobble the administration on this issue or prevent it from talking with Russia.
Question: What is Russia’s role in the settlement of the conflict between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
Sergey Lavrov: We have commented on this issue. We maintain contact with nearly all parties to this conflict. President Vladimir Putin has held several telephone conversations with King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Emir of Qatar Tamim Al Thani. I have met with my colleagues, including Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani in Moscow, and I also spoke by telephone with nearly all of our other partners that are in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Public comments have been made on this issue in Russia, including by President Putin. We want this crisis to be settled with due respect for mutual concerns and on the basis of solutions that will suit all parties to it. We support the mediation efforts taken by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. If all parties decide that Russia can do something within the framework or in addition to these efforts, we will be glad to respond to this request.
We see the efforts taken by other countries that are interested in normalisation in the Gulf region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has toured the region on a very active mission. As far as I know, France and Britain would like to help as well. We will support all actions that can prevent this crucial part of the world from becoming an area of a never-ending crisis.