Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Belarusian media for the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, Moscow, June 23, 2017
Sergey Lavrov: I am glad to welcome you here and I’d like to congratulate you on the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which is coming in two days.
Question: Mr Lavrov, thank you for agreeing to answer our questions on the eve of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries. For the majority of Russian and Belarusian citizens this is a fairly formal figure because our bilateral relations are much deeper and longer than a quarter century. At the same time for journalists and experts 25 years is a significant period of intensive cooperation – sometimes not very easy but indisputably important. We would like to hear your objective assessment of the greatest successes of our cooperation in the past 25 years.
Sergey Lavrov: You are certainly right. Twenty five years is a moment in the history of our relations that are rooted in the ancient past. For many centuries we have lived together and asserted the independence of our lands and peoples, and our spiritual and cultural proximity. The intertwining of human lives in the literal sense – Russian-Belarusian families and children – creates a special atmosphere and foundation in our relations. I think this foundation is solid and reliable enough to last into the distant future.
As for the period during which we lived as independent states after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the Russians and the Belarusians were the first to understand the detriment of the collapse of relations that took shape in the previous period and that met the vital interests of the people in our independent countries. This is exactly what provided the impetus for our movement towards integration, which later on was embraced by other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on a broader geographical plane. The 1999 Treaty on the Creation of the Union State between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus and the bilateral 1998 Treaty on Equal Rights of Citizens were important bricks in the building of our Union State, which allow us to derive huge benefits from our advanced integration plans and decisions. Therefore, the Union State as such is certainly our biggest gain, even though we still have to complete many plans that are mentioned in the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State. In any event, we must do an inventory, and we suggested this to our Belarusian friends. Importantly, this cooperation does not rest only on Moscow-Minsk relations. Practically all Russian regions (a bit over 80 – so practically all) maintain ties with their partners from Belarus. We regularly exchange visits both at the Government and regional level. The two-way traffic never stops, allowing us to maintain very close daily cooperation and enhance our allied relations.
We have common defence tasks. We have a joint force that reliably ensures the security of our countries and our Union State. Furthermore, we are most active in developing and coordinating our allied relations in the CSTO.
I would also like to mention the humanitarian and cultural aspect. Russia and Belarus are continuously hosting each other’s festivals. Their performers and public movements are in close contact, consolidating the human contacts that are so important in the modern world.
As for our foreign policy affairs, we are developing the closest cooperation possible between us in the context of the two-year programmes of coordinated foreign policy action, which allow us to synchronise all of our actions on a daily basis.
This is far from an exhaustive account of our relations in the past 25 years but I tried to cover our major achievements.
Question: What did you mean when you said it’s necessary to carry out an inventory?
Sergey Lavrov: You should read the Treaty on Establishing the Union State, and it will become clear what has already been accomplished, and what has not. I will not go into these details now. I believe everyone can do this by themselves.
Question: The main idea of the Union State deals with equal opportunities both for the citizens of Russia and Belarus. Two decades on, we can see that joint work should be expedited in certain fields. In what areas will rights soon be jointly standardised?
Sergey Lavrov: The 1998 Treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus on the Equal Rights of Citizens stipulates standardised rights in all spheres . It goes without saying that there are so many areas where it was hard to accomplish this in one go. Although just over ten years have passed, much has been accomplished when it comes to labour and economic activities, such as methods which guarantee the right to work and leisure, education and healthcare. Efforts have been made to equalise all rights to a considerable extent, if not by 100 percent. As I have already pointed out, this includes various aspects of labour activity, retirement, education and the payment of grants. Life continues to develop all the time, and Russia, for example, has introduced the Unified State Exam. Belarus stipulates similar requirements that differ somewhat in terms of their methodology. It has now been decided to harmonise these tools, so as to eliminate all inconveniences. At any rate, Belarusians now graduating from high school under their own methodology have every right to enroll at Russian universities without any restrictions, and vice versa. This is very important.
We still have a little to accomplish though. It is necessary to specify certain healthcare nuances. We are currently expanding the list of citizens’ categories, eligible to automatically receive free treatment in both countries. One issue is related to different legislation concerning real estate property rights, as well as payments for treatment at health centres and for hotel accommodation. We are bringing this up with our Belarusian friends. Experts maintain the required contacts. I believe these are sufficiently minor points.
However, certain things requiring urgent solutions sometimes arise. This concerns the mutual recognition of driving licences for self-employed or other business people. On June 16, members of the Union State’s Cabinet of Ministers passed the appropriate resolution in St. Petersburg, that is, two weeks after this issue started making us apprehensive. This matter has now been resolved completely. I believe that any other nuances that may arise (because well-coordinated national legislations are, nevertheless, developing rather individually) will be quickly resolved without inconveniencing our citizens in any way.
Question: You have already mentioned that Russia and Belarus coordinate their respective foreign policies. This year, the EU lifted its sanctions on Belarus, and their relations have become somewhat warmer. However, Russia has cooler rather than warmer relations with the West. How does Moscow react to such actions by its ally?
Sergey Lavrov: As far I understand, only a portion of the sanctions on the Republic of Belarus has been lifted.
With regard to the rapprochement between Belarus and the European Union, we are not allergic to that; there is no jealousy whatsoever. It is a natural desire of any country, including the Russian Federation, to seek mutually beneficial ties with all its neighbours.
Notably, there was no cooling with regard to the European Union on our part. We remain convinced that Russia and the European Union, just like Belarus and the European Union, or our other EU neighbours, should cooperate transparently, equitably and openly.
We never asked our partners in the post-Soviet space to make a choice, or decide who they want to be with, Russia or the West. However, our Western colleagues have posed this question repeatedly to the post-Soviet countries. The first Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2004, when the EU foreign ministers publicly demanded Kiev make a choice between Russia and Europe, is a case in point. I believe that this is an ugly and subversive policy, which is still affecting the Ukrainian people, and many others as well, as it was used and conducted not only in Ukraine.
Our Foreign Policy Concept says that we are in favour of an equal and advanced strategic partnership with the European Union. This principle remains unchanged in our doctrines. As soon as the European Union is ready to abandon its current absolutely dead-end policy (and we can already see signs of it), we will be willing to return to the path of progressive development in the interests of the citizens of the EU and Russia.
To reiterate, there is a number of indications that many members of the European Union are beginning to realise the absolute futility of the current policy. They have long disliked the fact that the EU policy towards Russia is dictated by the Russophobic minority, which abuses the EU principle of solidarity and requires everyone to accept their extremist and utterly anti-Russian approaches. They are unwilling to accept the positions of those who advocate sensible relations with Russia, or to meet them halfway.
We told our partners in the post-Soviet space, including our partners from the Republic of Belarus and our EU colleagues, that we would not want the well-known Eastern Partnership programme to be used to present the so-called focal countries with a false choice. We were willing to cooperate with this project from the get-go, and suggested that Brussels look for projects which, within the framework of this programme, will unite the EU countries, and countries that are focal for the Eastern Partnership programme, and which will also ensure Russia’s participation. Unfortunately, little has been achieved since then. However, we are not making a tragedy out of this, even though we are aware that some people want to turn this process, which is aimed at achieving useful results, into some kind of an anti-Russian venture.
I would like to emphasise once again that we are fine with any country willing to cooperate with any other country in the socioeconomic, humanitarian or cultural sphere. This is enshrined in our documents. In our foreign policy, we use the term “multi-vector principle” to refer to it. Based on its geographic location, Russia cannot base its foreign policy on any other approach. By the same token, given its geographical and geopolitical position, Belarus is entitled, and I would even say obligated, to seek good relations with all its neighbours.
The fact that our neighbours are beginning to see the light and have begun to turn away from their sanctions policies with regard to the Republic of Belarus is a welcome development. I hope that they are not doing it as part of another attempt to tear Belarus away from Russia, but simply because they have realised that sanctions lead nowhere and never result in anything good, including for those who commission or carry them out.
Question: It is not uncommon for East European neighbours to overreact to any planned joint exercises by Russia and Belarus, while turning a blind eye on the fact that NATO infrastructure is moving closer and closer to the borders of the Union State. Only recently, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite said that her country’s proximity to Belarus posed a threat to the Baltics. In your opinion, how should we respond to statements of this kind? Are we ready for further attempts by NATO to strengthen its positions to the west of our borders?
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, it is not the first year that we have been hearing laments and wailing over the joint exercises held by Russia and Belarus. We are currently preparing the West 2017 exercise. The Union Shield 2015 exercise was held two years ago. Back then, we heard the same outcries that Russian troops would enter Belarus under the pretext of participating in an exercise and would stay there forever and occupy the country. This is nonsense in its purest form, especially when statements of this kind are coming from politicians aspiring to a respectable role within the European Union.
Both Russia and Belarus have denied on multiple occasions rumours that Russian troops were preparing to invade Belarus under the pretext of a military exercise and stay there forever.
Our NATO colleagues know all too well that they were invited to attend these exercises, and that they are transparent, just like all the previous joint military exercises held by the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. At a number of Russia-NATO Council meetings we made presentations on the exercises held by Russia with its allies and partners.
We try to do everything we can to maintain normal relations with Europe, strengthen trust and prevent any escalation or confrontation. We have seen time and again the kind of far-fetched pretexts used to justify all these preparations that are going on right now, with NATO infrastructure approaching our borders and new detachments being sent there on rotation, which means that there will be constant deployment, and other actions. If there had not been a government coup in Ukraine, when Russia had to protect people refusing to submit to neo-Nazi-leaning forces behind the coup, they would have come up with some other pretext. NATO has never changed its plans, which were always more or less aimed at cultivating the geopolitical space that, as they thought, was “up for grabs” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It is extremely regrettable that this strategy prevailed over proposals to devise a common approach after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, maybe under the OSCE umbrella, and based on equal and indivisible security for all in the North-Atlantic Region, instead of seeking to further strengthen NATO and permanently expand it in all directions, primarily to the east, and instead of exacerbating dividing lines in Europe.
When several years ago Russia proposed entering into an agreement to this effect, in order to confirm as a legally binding commitment what western leaders were solemnly saying about the need to prevent attempts to strengthen one’s security to the detriment of others, we were told that this political message should remain in the political realm, while the west will guarantee security only for those who join NATO.
This was an outright provocative stand, and it remains in place to this day, reflecting a sort of a NATO-centric attitude. There is nothing good about it, and it does not help build neighbourly relations or trust, or address concerns. Nevertheless, Russia is still doing everything it can, even in these conditions.
One year ago, the President of Russia Vladimir Putin supported the proposal by the President of Finland Sauli Niinistö to develop additional security measures for the Baltic airspace, including the issue of the so-called transponders. In July 2016, Russia submitted a proposal to this effect to the Russia-NATO Council. Not only did it cover transponders, but also other confidence-building and transparency measures. It has been almost a year since NATO has been thinking how to respond to these proposals, despite the fact that they are always the ones who call on Russia to be more predictable. This is how you can check whether they really mean what they are saying.
As for NATO building up troops and infrastructure, primarily in the Baltic countries and in Poland, using upgraded former Soviet bases and creating new ones, as well by redeploying NATO troops to the border with Russia, including from the leading western countries, I can say that I have a very high opinion of the military thinking and training in the US, Germany, Great Britain and other NATO countries. I cannot allow them to consider, even in the most distant and abstract terms, the possibility of NATO attacking Russia. All these developments are in line with the policy that emerged in late 1980s – early 1990s of cultivating the geopolitical space that was allegedly left vacant. Of course, all this runs counter to the assurances that were provided to the leaders of USSR whereby NATO not only did not intend to expand to the east, but even to have any military infrastructure in eastern Germany. I am not saying that we have to panic, escalate this confrontation and give in to this provocation aimed at dragging us into an arms race. We are confident that Russia and Belarus, through their joint military command, have everything it takes to prevent any provocation undermining our security.
Question: Just as any other partners, Russia and Belarus have similar views on some issues and diverge on others. Are there serious differences and problems between them, or only issues that can and are gradually settled?
Sergey Lavrov: There are no two countries that have settled all issues between them once and for all. First, we are talking about sovereign countries. And second, balancing partners’ economic interests is the key in any integration organisation. No balance remains static, because life goes on, the developing economy gives rise to new technologies, and the situation on the market changes, which in turn influences the economy of every party to international trade and investment cooperation.
This is also true of our relations in the Union State. I would like to say that Belarusian negotiators, especially in the economic block, persevere and can debate very well. Their Russian colleagues do their best to hold their ground. When we fell out over some aspects of energy cooperation, our experts spent much time and effort to create conditions for the April meeting between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, when they reached an agreement that settled the problems and eased tensions that had developed at this stage in our integration. I know there will be problems in future as well, and we will need to address them. But I am sure we will settle them in the same friendly manner and to our mutual benefit, as true allies should.
Question: An intergovernmental agreement on mutual recognition of visas is now being prepared. When will it be signed? Can we say that our countries have a common union view on the entire spectrum of migration policy issues?
Sergey Lavrov: We are working on a common perspective now. The Union Government approved a joint action programme for creating a common migration space by 2020 at the meeting on June 16 in St Petersburg. The recently established interdepartmental group for the coordination of migration policy will be the main working tool in this area, assisted by the first deputy interior ministers, who met in April and for the most part drafted the proposals that were approved by the prime ministers as part of the common migration space programme. That was an important step in shaping a unified approach to this difficult issue, given that we do not yet have a complete agreement on the list of countries for visa-free travel or simplified visa procedures.
We have plans for an agreement on a single visa space. The first step in this direction is reaching an agreement on mutual recognition of visas that we want to coordinate. This will require professional, technical and expert consultations. We are now starting them. Once reached, the agreement will help us significantly advance in forming a single migration space, and more, a single visa space.
Question: You have already said there are no plans to deploy Russian forces in Belarus. I would like to clarify a few related details. Setting up a Russian military air base in Belarus was once discussed. Is this no longer on the table? Is the issue of any other form of Russia’s military presence in that country being raised?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard anything about the military base plans lately. We acknowledged Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s decision made within his powers and competence. We treat his decisions with full respect.
Nobody is considering Russian military presence in Belarus without the consent of the Belarusian leadership. I would like to reiterate that the military exercises that regularly take place in Belarus and involve the Russian Armed Forces units are the result of coordinated decisions taken by the heads of state that are carried out in a transparent manner and in full compliance with their obligations within the framework of the Union State.
Question: At present, Russia and Belarus have joined the Silk Road Economic Belt project. However, there are sceptics that think it poses a threat of soft conquest of our markets. What prospects does this project have and what can it give to Belarus, Russia and the EAEU as a whole?
Sergey Lavrov: The world economy is not very stable and predictable. It is usually called volatile. More and more countries are coming to realise that stability should be primarily sought through greater integration. The formation of the EAEU, with the active role of our countries as initiators, reflects this trend. Let me note in parentheses that integration processes are also taking place in the CIS. One example is the free trade area for goods. Now experts are considering its expansion to services. So, these processes are developing not only in the EAEU but also on a broader geographical plane.
At the same time, as you will recall, when establishing the EAEU the heads of state affirmed its open character and their interest in working with other countries in the most diverse, universally acceptable forms. Now about 50 states are interested in establishing different forms of relations with the EAEU. Many of them would like to negotiate a free trade area. The first free trade area agreement was signed with Vietnam. Negotiations are being conducted with several other Southeast Asian countries and consultations with ASEAN are getting underway. This was agreed upon in May 2016 when Sochi hosted the summit of the Russian Federation and the ASEAN countries.
The openness of the common position of the EAEU countries implies their desire to establish ties with the neighbours of our integration association. China is the largest of them. It began to promote its initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road at approximately the same time as talks on the EAEU got underway. Eventually these initiatives formed the One Belt One Road concept. Last May Beijing hosted a very representative forum that was attended by about 50 leaders of various countries and organisations. They discussed ways of developing this concept. This includes advancing transport and logistics routes and economic cooperation on the vast space of Eurasia. I do not think it creates grounds for concern.
As for our actions in the EAEU, first, a couple of years ago the EAEU leadership and heads of state endorsed our efforts to harmonise our integration plans with those advanced by China under this concept.
Second, our leaders and the Chinese leader agreed to work on what is tentatively described as the Greater Eurasia Project that would include EAEU, China and the SCO. The accession of India and Pakistan added substantial economic weight to the SCO. Apart from the organisations I mentioned, ASEAN also expressed interest. If we consider the geographical parameters of this emerging cooperation, it is obvious that we should also look at the West where integration processes are developing in the EU, which is now undergoing a difficult period. It is enough to mention Brexit and some other examples of scepticism. It is in our interest for these difficulties to be overcome. Despite a sharp reduction in trade, the EU remains our main foreign trade partner. Incidentally, Belarus is our first partner in the CIS and fourth in the world.
Considering the active efforts to the east of the EU, I am convinced that Brussels will eventually understand that EU states will only gain from joining these efforts. When (and I hope it is a matter of "when" rather than “if”) this happens, we will witness the realisation of Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a common Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals. We are already talking about a common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. There are no grounds for apprehension. Nobody, at least from among our partners – the EAEU and SCO countries, China and ASEAN – is going to press anything on anyone. All decisions will be made on the basis of a balance of interest. As a country located at the junction of the processes developing between the EAEU and its eastern neighbours, Belarus has very good opportunities to organically merge with modern trends.
Question: There has been more talk lately that the Minsk agreements have exhausted themselves and that the time has come to move on to a different format, possibly involving the United States. How would you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard any serious opinions about the Minsk agreements having exhausted themselves. There is a lot of casual talk though, mainly in Kiev. Ever since these agreements were signed, the Ukrainian leaders have been looking for excuses to not observe them. The idea of going to the UN was spread at some point and stirred up for a long time, bringing confusion into the arrangement that relied on the OSCE. Then they began suggesting involving armed police from the EU, or an armed UN peacekeeping mission, etc. And yet, we just heard from President Poroshenko of Ukraine that the Minsk agreements should be fully implemented. These are just words of course, always followed by a series of interpretations by our Ukrainian colleagues in various formats and through various channels: the Minsk agreements should be implemented, they say, but not in the order stipulated. In Kiev, it is believed that the Ukrainian government should first get full control over the entire Donbass area, and after that fulfil its obligations to organise elections and enshrine the region’s status in the constitution. This is illegal, because the Minsk agreements, approved by the UN Security Council, stipulate implementation of all political reforms (such as amnesty, the law on the special status of Donbass permanently enshrined in the constitution, and elections under the OSCE control) before Kiev establishes complete control over that region. Without these political reforms, it will be impossible to guarantee the security of the people who now administer some of the districts in the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions, and who have led protests against the illegal coup d’état organised with the help of neo-Nazi forces. What happened – and is still happening – to those who objected to the presence and dominance of radical thinkers in the Kiev authorities (I am referring to the Odessa incident and many others that have not yet been investigated) makes me seriously question whether Kiev will be able to ensure the safety of these people. It is absolutely indispensable and inescapable to have guarantees in the form of special status, amnesty, and elections that reflect the will of people living in these areas. They are required by the Minsk agreements as a condition for restoring Kiev’s full control over the entire region.
Question: Is there any other format needed here, or should Minsk agreements be exclusively implemented?
Sergey Lavrov: Even during Barack Obama’s tenure, when we were asked these questions, we gave the same answer. If our European partners – who are helping us promote the Normandy format as a means of external assistance for the implementation of the Minsk agreements – are ready for this, we will not mind the involvement of our American colleagues. However, back then, it was deemed advisable to cooperate with the Americans alongside the Normandy format, not as part of this mechanism. As you know, there was a bilateral US-Russia channel at the level of representatives of the Department of State and Russian Presidential Executive Office. Washington then established similar bilateral channels with Berlin, Paris, and Kiev. When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Moscow in April, when I was in Washington and met with US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in May, while discussing the Ukrainian crisis with them, we confirmed our readiness to resume the bilateral channel if Donald Trump’s government finds this expedient. We thought it would be useful, but so far we have not received a concrete response.