Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at a roundtable discussion with the participants of the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund in the videoconference format, Moscow, April 21, 2020
I am grateful to the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund for inviting me to take part in the discussion that opens, as I understand it, a cycle of lectures the fund will hold online.
Life compels us to find creative ways to continue the discussion on the future of humankind. They are highly relevant under the current conditions.
The coronavirus pandemic has become a major challenge for all countries and many international organisations. It should certainly compel us to ponder over what is happening in the world, and also to understand how we should live in the future and how we should advance to ensure peaceful, safe and stable future for all humankind.
It has long been clear, and the pandemic has confirmed it definitively, that we live in an interdependent and intertwined world. In the age of the free movement of people, capital, services and goods in the whole world, threats also move freely. We have faced terrorism, drug trafficking, other forms of organised crime, the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and now the threat of the pandemic that knows no borders and from which it is impossible to fence ourselves off.
It is clear that under these conditions we must adopt collective approaches to international relations. Concepts and practices of hegemony and domination are absolutely inappropriate in the 21st century. The world is confidently moving towards the formation of a new, more just and democratic system of international relations and a polycentric world order. This is not happening artificially; it is a result of a natural upsurge of many economies and financial centres. Economic and financial influence is naturally followed by influence in international politics. We are seeing these processes primarily in the Asia-Pacific Region, Latin America and also in Africa, whose resources are linked by many with the future of humanity in a very long-term perspective. The countries that are making strides in this way today and strengthening their national economies and financial opportunities also pursue an independent, nationally oriented foreign policy. And I must admit that many achieve quite positive and impressive results in this area.
The attempts we are seeing to impede this process are certainly doomed historically. Understandably, the countries that set the tune in international affairs for almost half a millennium want to preserve their privileged positions when they see their new competitors growing stronger. They are using different instruments, some of which are not absolutely honourable. Let me emphasise once again that the attempts to impede the objective process of the formation of a multipolar system are doomed historically. The understanding of this is reflected in many cases, in part, in the formation and functioning of the G20, where the G7 and BRICS countries are represented. Without their cooperation and consensus it is very difficult to resolve any serious problems in the global economy and finance, or in international politics, by and large.
Other associations in which the Russian Federation takes part also work under the principle of consensus. I would like to mention the SCO and other integration associations in the post-Soviet space – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the CSTO and the CIS.
I work under the premise that the current coronavirus crisis is compelling us to consider more seriously and probably more quickly the decisions that many international actors have postponed for various reasons. Unlawful unilateral sanctions and sanctions that were taken without regard for the UN Charter are doing tremendous damage to the people in many countries. I am primarily referring to countries like Iran, Syria and North Korea. Even now when these countries badly need equipment, medications and special protection gear to counter the pandemic, they cannot receive them because Western countries, primarily the US are categorically rejecting proposals to take a humanitarian pause and make an exception for goods that are essential for countering the pandemic. This is regrettable. An appeal to this affect has been forwarded by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also made a similar appeal. At the online G20 summit, President of Russia Vladimir Putin proposed green corridors that would be free of trade wars and sanctions so the countries in need could receive medications, food, equipment and technology.
Before going over to interactive communication, I would like to draw your attention to an important conceptual issue that we have paid much attention to recently. I mean the trend of our Western partners to make fewer references to international law or even remove it from the international lexicon altogether. Instead of the well-established term “international law” they are attempting to use a new expression, “a rules-based order.” We see how this concept is taking shape and being used by our Western partners in practice. Their approach to issues goes beyond universal, multilateral institutions. They want to uphold their exclusive position on these issues and do not want to negotiate.
Note that when there is a problem in well-established and universally recognised mechanisms, on which the West is facing resistance, in many cases it stops seeking consensus and simply takes this problem beyond the framework of multilateral structures. I am referring to what is happening in the OPCW with attempts to initiate votes to change consensus-based Convention documents and many other things.
We will certainly uphold UN-centric universal institutions and the entire system of international ties that have been formed based on the UN Charter. The principles of the Charter, primarily, the sovereign equality of states, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and peaceful settlement of disputes maintain and even enhance their importance today.
We are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory in World War II and the 75th anniversary of the UN. I think this is a good reason for all of us to unite and concentrate on consolidating universal mechanisms rather than on creating flawed alternative structures in order to replace multilateral diplomacy with different terms, such as “a rules-based order” or the newly coined expression, “the Alliance for Multilateralism.”
Those who want to support multilateralism must recognise that the only and true multilateralism is embodied in the UN which has unique legitimacy. Therefore, supporters of multilateralism must come to the UN and come to terms with all other countries there, instead of negotiating within the narrow circle of soulmates and imposing their opinion on others as universal and the only correct approach.
This is what worries us. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to discuss these issues. We are always trying to hear and consider the assessments made by Russian and foreign experts and political scientists.
Thank you very much for your attention. I am ready for more work.
Question: A question on Libya. Every unbiased person has long recognised that it is owing to the assistance of the Russian Federation that Syria’s legitimate government and the country have been saved. There is another hotbed in the region apart from Syria, that is, Libya. Do you think Russia could build a similar initiative on a specific and efficient settlement of the situation in Libya by creating an international coalition with Egypt, Italy and other countries of the region?
Sergey Lavrov: We are completely open to developing honest, well-balanced cooperation on any crisis issue, including the settlement of the conflict in Libya. You know this conflict started when our Western colleagues – NATO countries – crudely violated a resolution of the UN Security Council. The resolution was adopted in 2011 and provided for a no-fly zone over Libya. The resolution explained this provision: the air force of Colonel Gaddafi had no right to be in the air, and they did not fly. To secure the no fly zone, the UN Security Council authorised all interested countries to take the necessary measures to prevent Gaddafi’s air force from flying. Its aircraft did not fly. Meanwhile, the West flew NATO aircraft into the air, I believe crudely and brazenly, and started bombing Gaddafi’s army on the ground. In effect, the West acted on the side of the extremists (that were in the majority).
They decided to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, after which Libya turned into a black hole. Smuggled arms, militants and drugs streamed into black Africa, Africa to the south of the Sahara, the Sahara-Sahel region. Many terrorist manifestations that have struck root in Africa are linked with this period. Many illegal migrants moved northward via Libya. Europe is still suffering from this immigration pattern and finds it difficult to resolve the problem.
What can be done now? I am saying this not to continuously return to the question of who is to blame. But the question of what must be done is more important at this point. Russia, our Italian colleagues and many other European states and countries in the region have reached a fairly good understanding. We agree that this conflict does not have a military solution and that it is necessary to come to terms. Russia and many other countries, including Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar are working to launch a political dialogue. Let me recall that we actively supported the efforts of Ghassan Salame when he was UN special representative on a settlement in Libya. We tried to promote a settlement by proposing our own initiatives when we supported the Berlin process and tried to facilitate the success of the Berlin conference. At that time, we and our Turkish colleagues organised a meeting in Moscow for Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, head of the Presidential Council and the National Unity Government and Aguila Saleh, parliament speaker in Tobruk. Regrettably, at this meeting we did not sign any documents but at least we encouraged them to move towards compromise and consensus. We played the decisive role in persuading our German colleagues not to ignore the Libyan sides in preparing the Berlin conference. At first, they did not want to invite either Sarraj or Haftar, or any other Libyans and even their neighbours. We worked hard to convince them that this would have been a mistake. This is why the main protagonists – Sarraj and Haftar – attended the Berlin conference as well as Libya’s neighbours, including our Egyptian colleagues. To use a common phrase, our main message at the Berlin conference was that we were willing to support any solution if it was backed by Sarraj and Haftar. Regrettably, we did not receive a straight answer to this question in Berlin. So, we supported the ideas that were formulated in Berlin, but with the reservation that they must not be imposed on the sides, that it was necessary to persuade the sides to accept them. Unfortunately, we were right again because now the implementation of the decisions of the Berlin conference is stuck again and hostilities have resumed.
We have one simple initiative: let’s continue the political process once again. Ghassan Salame played an active, if not the main role in the Berlin process, but he resigned as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on Libya. Now his duties are performed by Stephanie Williams from the US, who was his deputy. I believe it is necessary to appoint a permanent representative on Libya as soon as possible. We are convinced that this representative must come from an African country that is located in the same region as Libya.
Now the European Union has decided to help monitor the observance of the embargo on arms supplies to Libya. This is a noble cause but… we have discussed this issue with our European friends several times in the past few months. I spoke with Josep Borrell, Heiko Maas and Luigi Di Mayo. I think the European Union must go to the Security Council and say, “The Security Council has announced an arms embargo and it must be fulfilled. We, the EU, want to carry out one more special operation on monitoring compliance with this embargo. It consists of such and such parts. We would like to ask the Security Council to support our approach.”
The fact that the EU is doing everything it can to avoid presenting its ideas to the UN Security Council makes us wonder about its motives. I hope we will soon be informed as to what they are thinking.
To sum up my rather lengthy answer, I would like to emphasise again that we support the idea of creating a platform on which all external players can persuade the Libyan parties to come to terms. We have seen attempts to bet on one side or the other in the past. From the beginning of the UN’s efforts to reach a settlement on Libya, we have supported contact with literally all sides. All of them have come to Russia. We have met with each of these political leaders at various multilateral venues. We are now happy to say that our partners who tried initially to take sides with one Libyan leader or another, now understand that it is much more productive to compel all of them to sit at the negotiating table and come to an understanding. This is what I consider necessary for all of us to do on the Libyan crisis.
Question: As you noted, we have been observing a perfect storm on a global scale since the beginning of 2020. How would you assess these trends’ impact on the EAEU countries in general and on Russia and Kazakhstan in particular? What must we do together?
Sergey Lavrov: I am confident that only together can the countries in the post-Soviet space get through this time with minimal losses. It so happened that the crisis broke out when we were about to take – and I am sure that this will still happen – very important, new steps in the development of Eurasian integration, where we already have the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. In the next stages, we plan to lift the remaining barriers, including the establishment of a single energy market in a couple of years. I believe that all these plans remain in effect, which was reaffirmed at the recent online summit of the EAEU member countries. Online meetings between prime ministers and ministers of specific sectors are also in the pipeline. I believe that we must strengthen joint multilateral institutions, such as the Eurasian Development Bank and the corresponding Eurasian Fund, which exist, operate and address a lot of issues that are very important for the member countries. I don’t have anything surprising to say here. Meticulous work to strengthen joint institutions. And, of course, we must take into account the experience of other integration associations that were established much earlier than the EAEU, above all the EU. Right now the European Union, like all of us, is going through difficult times, but this crisis coincided with the growing debate about the balance between the functioning of supranational institutions and the responsibilities of national governments. This is a very important issue; we can see how actively Brussels and many capitals are discussing it, including regarding the rights the national governments should have and the rights that are or will be delegated to central, supranational institutions. Of course, we also discuss this issue within the EAEU. We should always learn something useful from a crisis, and the way these issues are solved in the EU will be very useful for us in finding ways to address similar tasks within the EAEU.
Question: As you may know, some people in Poland believe that bad relations between Russia and the EU is a good thing. Do you think these relations, primarily economic, will normalise during the crisis following the pandemic? And if so, will the Polish government attempt to slow down this normalisation, or will Warsaw decide that the economy is more important than politics under the circumstances?
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you, this is a very interesting question.
You said there are people in Poland who believe it is a good thing that the relations between Russia and the EU are bad. I can assure you that there are people in Russia who are happy that the relations between Poland and the EU are not so good either. If we keep looking for things to gloat over, then instead of politics we will be engaged in politicking and trying to satisfy our own or someone else’s ambitions.
I remember the time when I became foreign minister. Historically, we have always had very complicated relations with Poland but in that period we probably had more cooperation mechanisms with Poland than with any other European country. We had the Committee for the Russian-Polish Cooperation Strategy headed by foreign ministers with the participation of deputy ministers of the economy, finance, trade and culture. We had a group on difficult problems, where historians would get together to honestly discuss both regrettable and happy pages of the Polish and Russian peoples’ past.
Moreover, some remainder of those relations still remain. Fairly recently, definitely after 2014, a Russian-Polish textbook came out on the history of the period of a century ago. It is not much but it is something. The book had a number of joint articles. Wherever opinions differed, two standpoints were presented – a Russian and a Polish one. It is much better than accusing each other via microphones without a chance to communicate. We used to have a joint award presented by the foreign ministers of Russia and Poland to cultural figures. I remember that together with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski we presented awards to Barbara Brylska and Viktor Yerofeyev. It was in Warsaw. The ceremony was very heart-warming. There used to be a lot of useful things.
All that is now “frozen”, including visa-free travel between the Kaliningrad Region and the adjacent provinces of Poland. I consider it to be a sad fact. If we all support contacts between people and openness of societies (and I think the Polish leadership also advocates this), how can we shut down visa-free travel? They say it was largely related to commercial interests: some people bought cheaper things abroad and then sold them with a profit at home. But the important thing is that there was communication between people.
Regarding ways for us to get out of this situation. The European Union – and we see and hear this as it is declared publicly – is approaching the moment when it will have to decide whether to review the “five principles” invented by Federica Mogherini for relations with Russia or to leave them intact. I know that Poland stands for keeping them in place. Many other countries also speak in favour of making no changes. A number of other EU members believe that the situation should be considered realistically, basically proceeding from the interests of the EU nations and the EU economies.
We will be ready to speak with the European Union under any conditions. In fact, we are doing it now. But the “five principles” are being employed by some countries to block the resumption of sectoral dialogues, and we used to have over twenty of them: in energy, culture, human rights, transport, healthcare, finance, and so on. We used to have two annual summit meetings. We used to have the Permanent Partnership Council (it exists only on paper now) to review assessments of progress on agreements across the whole scope of our relations. All that is now frozen. We are being accused, including by Poland, that Russia is trying to undermine the EU authority and speaks with the capitals of member-countries – Rome, Paris, Budapest – rather than with Brussels. It is not our malicious intent, it is just the circumstances as they are. If Brussels froze all the channels while the capitals of the member countries advocate the development of bilateral relations, we will definitely respond.
I sincerely hope that we will also overcome the current period with our Polish neighbours and, I dare say, friends (I have many friends in Poland), and attempts to artificially create pretexts for dividing our nations will not prevail. I assure you that you will see a very positive response from us to any proposals that are de-ideologised and are based on the present vital interest of the citizens of Poland and Russia.
Question: As you know, in the US, there has been a debate for several months about a possible withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty (OST). It is believed that the United States may make an official statement in September. In your opinion, is Russia ready to remain a party to the Treaty in the event the US pulls out? If so, under what conditions is this possible? Can the European partners of the Treaty influence this decision?
Sergey Lavrov: This issue is gaining relevance, given the timelines you mentioned. Experts who monitor the developments believe that Washington has already taken a decision. We believe that these assessments have a significant element of truth. We draw almost the same conclusions based on our contacts with the Americans, other members of NATO and the OST. Like in the case of the Intermediate-Range Missiles Treaty (INF Treaty) and the Open Skies Treaty, the Americans have already begun to actively (and have been doing so for a long time) advance the argument that Russia violates it. Although they do not have any reliable facts either in this situation or in the case of the INF Treaty. I will not go into details; if you follow this issue, then you know the compromises that have been reached regarding the main claim that the West presented to us. I mean flights over Russian territory near the borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We were ready to settle these claims with the understanding that Georgia would also open its skies for such flights. Then we would have opened areas over the territory of the Russian Federation adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such a compromise was reached, but then the Georgian side rejected it and said that it would not allow our inspectors to fly over its territory. This is the only real claim that remains artificially. It was possible a long time ago to agree on this, as we actually did. But our colleagues did not keep their word.
By the way, the Americans use a similar trick regarding the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although they officially stated that they would not ratify it, they nevertheless try to use its provisions to accuse us and, more recently, China of violating the CTBT. What is their purpose? As I understand it, the same as in the case of the INF Treaty. But as for the INF Treaty, it was necessary to justify the withdrawal from this Treaty, while in the case of the CTBT, it is necessary to justify why the Americans categorically and already officially stated that they would not join it. The same thing with the Open Skies Treaty. The current US administration conceptually and fundamentally objects to any kind of control over American military activity. Especially when such control is exercised on or over the US territory.
Will other countries follow the Americans? I doubt it. It seems to me that the Europeans understand that the OST has added value as an instrument of trust, predictability and transparency. We consider it as such. Our reaction to Washington’s possible decisions will depend on the wording of this decision, on what it exactly means. Of course, we will see whether any NATO allies will follow Washington, because the very added value that the Treaty now has will depend on it. But we will just have to see how it remains in the light of US plans.
Question: As the events in recent years have shown, the people in Kyrgyzstan have demonstrated increasingly less support for the EAEU while being more critical, in particular, about the free movement of goods and capital. Russia is providing assistance to our migrant workers but meanwhile, it is the poor performance of our national authorities that has become the subject of such criticism and given rise to scepticism among the population regarding the EAEU’s prospects. Do you think it is time for Russia to adjust its policy in CIS countries, in particular, in Central Asia?
Sergey Lavrov: What adjustments should be made?
Question: Stepping up the work with political groups and forces.
Sergey Lavrov: We are perfectly aware of the importance of our relations with our neighbours in Central Asia, South Caucasus and the European part of the CIS. We see the increased activity by the United States, the EU, Japan, China and Turkey in these regions, including Central Asia. There have been "5+1" formats, with five Central Asian countries and one being the USA, Japan or the EU. The Russian Federation proposed this format, and our Central Asian friends actively supported it. Two meetings have already taken place. This format may seem irrelevant as we have the CIS, the EAEU, the SCO and the CSTO - but none of these organisations allows Russia to directly communicate with all five Central Asian countries. I think that such a "5+1" informal association (Central Asia plus Russia) will be useful. We have already held two meetings of foreign ministers in this format.
As regards the EAEU meeting the expectations of its member states, you know that the organisation is receiving a lot of criticism; much of it comes from our Belarusian neighbours. The EAEU is a rather young association; it is much younger than the EU. Of course, we are making efforts to build on the EU's positive experience, while taking into consideration the mistakes made during the integration process - yet our foreign colleagues' experience will never be enough to solve all issues in the EAEU. We are slowly proceeding towards developing common markets, including energy markets, and this is going to be a crucial, gradual and qualitative stage in our relations. You should just take an objective look at the existing advantages and try not to take this for granted. Migrant workers were active prior to the establishment of the EAEU, and nothing bad happened. There were occasional problems, with an amnesty announced for migrant workers; this has taken place many times, including recently.
What does the EAEU have to do with it? Actually, the EAEU provided a legal framework for these efforts and now reaps the benefits of the movement of the labour force on a totally solid legal basis. We have provided substantial assistance to Kyrgyzstan in building the infrastructure required to ensure the free movement of goods, capital, services and the labour force; we also provide humanitarian support, including assistance to support the country's budget. The sky is the limit. But if there is an increasingly widespread opinion in Kyrgyzstan that something needs to be changed, it could be a reflection of a competitive process, competition for Central Asia in which our western partners have actively engaged. We believe that such competition is counterproductive. It is more efficient to cooperate in order to help Central Asian counties, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are particularly in need of such assistance, develop their economies, and ensure stability in the economic sector in general. We are ready to do this - but regrettably, our western colleagues are not. When the EU proposed its Central Asia strategy, no mention was made of the SCO, the EAEU and the CIS - the organisations in which Central Asian countries are involved in one way or other. They were just briefly mentioned as a warning which claimed that efforts should be made to prevent the EAEU, the SCO and the CSTO from hindering the EU's activities in Central Asia. Similarly, the EU's Eastern Partnership joint initiative for Caucasus and European countries in the CIS territory was aimed at competition and holding back Russia's efforts in these territories.
I would not necessarily see any need to take it into consideration if there is an opinion forming in Kyrgyzstan, due to such programmes and concepts, claiming that changes are needed in the country's relations with Russia. For instance, we are working jointly with China - both within the SCO and as part of cooperation that is developing between the EAEU and Chinese projects under the Belt and Road Initiative - to unite our resources and efforts in order to help Central Asian countries and ensure their national economies' concordant development and their becoming an essential part of the entire Central Asian economic complex. Currently, together with our Kyrgyz and Chinese colleagues, we are seeking a common approach to developing Kyrgyzstan's railway network, which will make the country not simply a point of transit to Uzbekistan but will run through its cities and towns and thus help create concurrent production facilities and economic opportunities.
If you, as a person who monitors these sentiments, have specific ideas as to how the EAEU bodies' activity could be adjusted in Kyrgyzstan or ideas regarding Russia's more efficient cooperation with Kyrgyzstan in stepping up bilateral relations, you can forward them to us; we will be pleased to consider them and then continue our dialogue.
Question: I would like to thank you for the help Russia renders to Serbia at this difficult time. This year on April 24, the UN will mark the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace for the first time. Do you think multilateralism can become relevant again while the status of Kosovo is being determined?
Sergey Lavrov: I did not know about this day. In my opening remarks I mentioned the multilateralism development initiative proposed by Germany and France. I am following this initiative closely. If the UN General Assembly has decided to mark this day, which symbolises support for multilateralism and diplomacy for peace, then I am very glad about it. The French-German initiative on setting up a group of friends of multilateralism is developing outside the UN, thereby putting into question the universal nature of the Organisation. I believe that multilateralism is embodied in the UN Charter. Multilateralism based on the principles of sovereign equality of states, non-interference and cooperation for the sake of peaceful settlement of disputes – is an absolute requirement of our time.
Thank you for giving me the lead: I will certainly find out how this day will be marked. We will try to make sure it is marked as widely as possible and help convey the ideas of multilateralism to all nations, so that we use this holiday to strengthen the UN and not to create competitive private mechanisms for promoting dubious ideas.
Question: Russia is Georgia’s third largest trade partner but the absence of embassy missions and trade offices has become an obstacle for large-scale movement of capital, goods, services and workforce between our countries. Is normalization of bilateral ties something that might be possible to speak about?
Sergey Lavrov: I fully share your interest in developing cooperation between Russia and Georgia in a big way for the sake of our two nations. It was not us who were responsible for severing our diplomatic relations. By and large, we and you have embassies that are called interest sections. Georgia has an interest section at the Swiss Embassy in Moscow, while Russia has an interest section at the Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi. There are no ambassadors but as I understand, they are headed by minister counsellor level people in both countries. This allows us to maintain ties and not only through our Swiss friends. There are direct contacts both in Moscow and Tbilisi. Life takes over.
Needless to say, if we had proper working embassies, it would be possible to solve the issues concerning economic, trade and cultural cooperation not only faster but also in a better way too. This is why we are prepared to restore diplomatic relations. But since it was not us who were responsible for severing these ties, we will just have to wait for our Georgian colleagues to approach this issue. Trade offices also suggest the existence of some agreements. I don’t think that the opening of a trade mission will make much difference and be of a great benefit but should such an opportunity arise we will most certainly consider this offer.
You mentioned that Russia is Georgia’s third largest trade partner. Georgia receives gas from Gazprom, this is a well-known fact. Regrettably, flights for the time being have been put on hold but I hope we will soon resolve this problem. The most important thing for us is not to be subjected to a Russophobic campaign in Tbilisi. There were excesses during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. They made us think about the security of Russian citizens although the Georgians told us later on that they would be safe.
I am closely following the statements by Georgian leaders, including those made by President Salome Zourabichvili. Recently, she came out with a rather crude and aggressive statement about Russia and its goals in the region. Naturally, when it comes to public opinion, such statements do not help create the right atmosphere. When Ms Zourabichvili moved from France and became the foreign minister of Georgia, she visited Moscow and I went to Tbilisi. We discussed the withdrawal of the two remaining Russian military bases from Georgia and finally achieved success. This agreement was later on approved by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. A legal document, an agreement with the participation of our defence ministers was drafted on the basis of our declaration. I’d like to recall one interesting moment that shows deal-making skills of the sides and our interest in preserving good relations at that particular time. Let me repeat: we talked about full withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia. Two bases were withdrawn under the 1999 agreement and two still remained there. A question was raised about them at a round of negotiations and President Putin decided that if Georgia did not want to keep them, we should withdraw them. This was done. Mutual consent to establish a Russia-Georgia anti-terrorist centre near one of these former bases became part of this agreement. Russian and Georgian specialists were supposed to work in it. This was a symbol of our partnership: we are withdrawing bases that have lost their topicality for bilateral relations but we are establishing a centre because terrorism is our common enemy (the situation in the Pankisi Gorge and the rest of the region was turbulent). So, we agreed to establish this centre. All the agreements were signed, the bases were withdrawn but Georgia simply refused to abide by its own decision to set up this Russia-Georgia anti-terrorist centre. I believe that if the achieved agreements were respected, the subsequent course of events could have been different. This would have been a gesture that would have created a foundation for confidence and cooperation in a very sensitive area. This always promotes rapprochement. We are ready to positively respond to all constructive steps made by our Georgian neighbours. We are sincerely interested in this.
Question: Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov said that Azerbaijan is waiting for the international community to take effective steps for implementing the UN Security Council’s resolution on resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you think there are relevant international institutions capable of living up to these expectations, especially amid the current crisis? Which mechanisms are required to make the adopted but not executed resolutions work?
Sergey Lavrov: The resolutions you are talking about are well-known documents. They were adopted at the height of the conflict and, above all, stipulated a complete cessation of hostilities and transition to a settlement. Indeed, they reaffirmed the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan, but they also contained a demand to stop the war and proceed to talks. Since then, talks were launched many times. There were so called Key West agreements of 2001 and subsequent agreements in various formats reached with and without Karabakh’s participation. Now we have a firmly established format of the talks: Baku – Yerevan – OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh settlement represented by three co-chairs – Russia, France and the United States – and a representative of the current OSCE Chair. It is a good and useful format. It was this format that fulfilled the UN Security Council’s demand to stop the war and begin talks.
There are the Madrid Principles as well as the documents drafted by the Russian Federation in 2010-2011, the so-called Kazan document. There are draft documents disseminated a year ago (April 2019) at the meeting of Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers as well as the co-chairs in Moscow. They are being discussed now. These documents provide for movement toward a settlement using a stage by stage approach, with the resolution of the most pressing issues at the first stage, such as the liberation of a number of districts around Nagorno-Karabakh and relaunching the transport, economic and other communication lines.
I am sure that when we reach a decision to sign these documents it will be a very important step in implementing the UN Security Council resolution that we are talking about and that, I will say it again, stipulates a cessation of hostilities and the start of talks. The talks have begun. Now the parties need to reach an agreement. This is what we are seeking as co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Question: I would like to ask you a question regarding Spitsbergen, I mean the famous Spitsbergen Treaty signed in Paris in 1920 and our tug-of-war with Norway. The Russian position is clear, as are the Norwegian interests. However, there are over 40 countries that signed the Treaty in addition to Russia and Norway. At present, the world media holds that only Russia is opposing Norway. But in fact there are many more dissatisfied parties. Do you think it is worth joining efforts with other countries and trying to form a coalition with them, given the Treaty violations by Norway?
Sergey Lavrov: I agree. Actually, we have never rejected such a possibility. We acted in parallel: both within the framework of our relations with Norway and in the course of setting up a coalition in defence of the 1920 Treaty.
As you know, we have not yet established a constructive dialogue with the Norwegians. I have sent several letters to my counterpart, Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, including the latest one this past February in which I quoted specific facts to outline our concerns and named the Treaty’s articles which in our opinion should be observed more scrupulously, and suggested holding consultations. The fact that our Norwegian colleagues and neighbours, who have always been known for their respect for international law, are evading the very idea of consultations does not make their position more convincing.
I will not go into details, but the possibility that you mentioned is in our sights. Those who want to defend the Treaty more vigorously include the parties who are doing it for their own benefit based on the rights provided by the Treaty, and some would like to use the Russia-Norway situation to push us to the forefront and wait for the outcome. There is also a third category of people who very much want the Norwegians to infringe on our rights as much as possible and eventually create conditions for us to wind down our activities: to stop carrying out our tourism projects and producing coal through Arktikugol in Barentsburg. We understand this very well. We can see the entire set of these geopolitical games and the tasks for protecting the status of Spitsbergen based on international law.
Question: In the context of the Union State, citizens of Russia and Belarus are concerned with the de facto resumption of border control by Russia during the pandemic. Rumours have been circulating that subsequently, there may be a fully-functional border between the two states, which is an apparent step towards disintegration of the union. What is your opinion on the issue?
Sergey Lavrov: We do not see any grounds for introducing a border regime. Our interests lie in the Union State developing in full compliance with the principles, goals and vectors that were established by the 1999 Union State treaty. Among other principles, the treaty includes the parties’ obligations to create equal conditions for the citizens of Belarus and Russia in any field of activity – be it the economy, culture, legal relations, etc. In the majority of these areas, equal rights were formalised by separate agreements and treaties. Currently, several spheres remain that require equalisation – specifically, healthcare services for Russians in Belarus (conditions for them are slightly different) and hotel prices. But these are minor issues and will most probably be resolved.
As concerns crossing the border, about two and a half years ago, when our Belarusian neighbours unilaterally introduced visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals of around 80 countries, that decision was not agreed upon with us and thus created a situation when foreign nationals that must have a visa to travel to Russia entered Belarus without any visas. With no border control between Belarus and Russia, foreign nationals who must obtain visas to enter Russia, as per the agreement with their country of nationality, could freely and, therefore, illegally enter Russian territory. It was then that we proposed that Russia and Belarus agree on a common visa policy and share the lists of those individuals who are banned from entry, the lists compiled on a mutual and reciprocal basis. We needed a common approach to granting visa-free travel to nationals of respective states. We developed a relevant agreement. It was initialed in December 2018 and has been awaiting signing for almost a year and a half. The Russian Government granted us the power to sign the agreement back in December 2018. I think signing this agreement will, to a large extent, relieve the concerns that you mentioned and remove any remaining reasons for those who wish to create a full-fledged border between the Union State countries.
I think our Belarusian colleagues will, in the short run, somehow communicate their stance to us and confirm the fact that they are ready to sign the document that was initialed a year and a half ago. At any rate, quite recently, Belarus and the European Union (EU) signed an agreement relaxing their visa regime – a readmission agreement. It was a helpful move. We have a similar agreement with the EU. So, the solution to the problem you mentioned has been ready for a year and a half. We have the powers to sign it and hope that our Belarusian colleagues have the powers to do so as well.
Question: If the European Union falls completely apart, do you think that its current members could be accepted in the EAEU?
Sergey Lavrov: The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is open for accession to any country that shares the principles set forth in its core documents.
As for the future of the European Union, I cannot imagine such an outcome, even theoretically.
In this context, the best solution would be to establish contacts between the EAEU and the EU. We discussed proposals to this effect back in 2015, and Brussels is still exploring them. The Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) has submitted the corresponding proposals on behalf of the EAEU to the European Commission several times. The response was initially outright negative, but Brussels became more receptive to dialogue with the EEC once it realised that EAEU member countries have delegated many of their functions to the supra-national level. So far this has been limited to technical matters, such as technical regulations, rules governing various sectors, etc. But this is already a start. These are practical steps that we can build upon to build up our cooperation. We stand for promoting a strategic partnership across the Eurasian continent.
After all, Eurasia covers a huge territory shared by the EU, the EAEU, the SCO and many ASEAN countries as well. It is also here that most of the projects as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are carried out. It is for this reason that back in May 2016 at the Russia-ASEAN Summit held in Sochi President of Russia Vladimir Putin proposed establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership that would be open to member countries from all these associations, including the EAEU, the SCO, ASEAN, as well as European Union countries and the EU itself.
Sharing this vast territory gives us substantial comparative advantages. It would be strange for us not to benefit from these advantages and instead to continue down the road of confrontation (I have already mentioned the confrontational scenarios, including the Eastern Partnership and EU’s strategy on Central Asia). What we stand for is building a Greater Eurasian Partnership by gradually reaching mutual understanding in an increasing number of spheres with a clear benefit for all the parties involved. I think that moving in this direction would make it easier for the European Union to overcome its internal challenges, while the EAEU will be open to cooperation in the interests of its member countries.
Question: In the beginning you talked about the common energy market and the need for EAEU countries to work together in order to overcome the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In this context, I have a question on the price of natural gas. We all know that pricing in this sector is not just a question of business, but largely a political matter. Armenia and Belarus have been watching Russia reduce prices for EU countries, even post factum, for example for Bulgaria. Friendly Moldova currently buys gas at a lower price than Armenia. This begs a question why Russia does not cut prices for EAEU countries first before extending this policy to other countries? After all, this would provide other countries with an incentive to join the EAEU and to work with it, because this would offer major economic benefits.
Sergey Lavrov: I understand your question and I see your logic, but in this case we need to follow this logic all the way through. When the price for Armenia and the Republic of Belarus was two or three times below market prices it was regarded as a given, and no one treated it as a matter of politics. Everyone said that this is what they are entitled to. I believe that allies are definitely entitled to economic advantages. There is no doubt about this for me. However, considering the current price, there are contractual obligations that have to be honoured. I strongly believe that our allied relations will be taken into consideration when reviewing the recent requests from our Belarusian and Armenian friends. It would be probably unfair to bring this up only when the situation becomes the direct opposite to what was happening three or four years ago when we established this pricing mechanism with due regard for our obligations as allies.
As for Armenia’s case, Russia’s Energy Ministry and Gazprom oversee this matter. Armenia’s domestic tariffs have been one of the recurring problems for the past several years. These tariffs hinder the application of the most beneficial pricing mechanisms. I will not go into any details on this right now.
If we are talking about allied relations, it would be fair to suggest that they should cover all areas. As far as the economy is concerned, we have high hopes that the court proceedings that have been initiated in Armenia over the past few years against joint ventures, including the South Caucasus Railway, will be settled without mixing in things that are unworthy of allies. I am being completely open when mentioning this, since Russian companies faced a number of challenging situations. I hope that we will be able to resolve these matters to our mutual satisfaction.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin recently had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan. They see a path for developing our allied relations and strategic partnership. Let me assure you that both sides are committed to resolving all issues along these lines.
Question: On behalf of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, we would like to thank the Foreign Ministry for its assistance with returning our leading Siberian scientists from their business trips abroad, specifically, from the United States.
Currently, international research and technical cooperation projects and programmes are being curtailed. What measures and programmes does the Foreign Ministry plan to use to restore international research links after the coronavirus pandemic? What new opportunities in terms of science diplomacy are opening up for Russia in this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: The Foreign Ministry is not responsible for orchestrating links in science. We always support scientific ties but they are established directly when a specific research community in our country or abroad asks for our help with finding a partner or communicating certain ideas and proposals to a partner that has already been designated. We always do this and will continue to do it. However, by definition our work does not cover the substantive nature of the contacts between our academic institutions and their partners abroad. It is not our turf, as they say.
If our colleagues in Novosibirsk or any other research centre need our assistance with restoring links or transferring information when this pandemic is over and all the restrictions are lifted (although communications are so developed these days that it should not be a problem at all), we will do our best to help.
Don’t get me wrong, we can’t physically say: “Go ahead, go to Italy or France tomorrow to start developing a vaccine or some new mechanism.” When you feel you are ready and your partners are ready but something is standing in your way, if we can help, we will be happy to do it.
Regarding the second part of your question, I think science diplomacy serves the interests of everybody without exception. During more peaceful times, before we were lumbered with this calamity, science diplomacy was put in the context of soft power: presumably, we can develop contacts and show how open and interesting we are, we can be partners in important matters – and in this way influence the general political situation. I think that now science diplomacy is becoming mainly a tool for creating antidotes for common problems that are threatening the whole of humanity. At the same time, science diplomacy has not lost its function of maintaining contacts between people. But now it is not so much a soft power with which one country can influence another as it has become an instrument for building good neighbourly relations in everyone’s interests. It is not a means of somebody achieving their goals at the expense of somebody else. Therefore, we will support science diplomacy in every possible way.
Once again, it is up to scientists to determine how it should develop and the areas where joint efforts need to be applied. If you keep us informed about your plans, it will be a great help to us when it comes to offering you assistance.
Question: Thank you for this opportunity to ask a question. It concerns the issue of the Republic of Moldova’s constant neutrality which you are most likely aware of and have heard about in the course of your work. We are always very sensitive about and watching closely the relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union. Any tension between Russia and the EU countries directly affects the situation and sentiments in Moldova as well as Moldova’s relations with Russia. What do you think about the prospects of Moldova’s permanent neutrality? Can we count on Russia’s possible support in this matter, in strengthening this status and promoting it internationally?
Sergey Lavrov: Not only can you count on our support but you already have it. Since the very beginning of the post-Soviet stage in the history of Moldova, when, thanks to Russia’s involvement, it was possible to settle a fierce conflict in Transnistria; when foundations for solving this problem were built on a steady long-lasting ground, the basic principles determining Russia’s policy were developed. According to these principles, we support resolving the issue of Transnistria’s special status within the framework of a united, territorially integral and sovereign Moldova that ensures respect for its neutrality. In other words, this stance means two very simple things. We will not support attempts to drag Moldova, along with Transnistria, into NATO. This is absolutely out of the question. And we will not support any attempts to take away Moldova’s statehood. Based on these two principles which, in my opinion, fully serve the core interests of Moldova as a state, I guarantee that we will always be able to find a solution to Transnistria’s problem. If all the participants in the 5+2 process acted based on this premise, I think the problem would have been resolved a long time ago. Unfortunately, it is not exactly the case. Some of our Western colleagues are still pursuing a slightly different agenda that is mainly determined by their overwhelming desire to reinforce and expand the North Atlantic Alliance.
Question: Quite frequently, Russian journalists, scientists, scholars and other people are declared personae non grata in Central Asian countries. One example is Russian anthropologist Sergey Abashin whose stance differs from the official stance of Uzbekistani officials. There have been similar cases affecting French, Azerbaijani and other scholars in Iran, Pakistan as well as some other countries, too. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s response has been slightly different from that of your foreign colleagues. In your opinion, is the MFA limiting its work to consulting in these matters?
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly speaking, I have not heard about it. If you send me backup material, we will be able to answer your question. Overall, international law and the Vienna conventions stipulate that any country has the right to declare anybody a persona non grata without providing an explanation. To be more specific, I will need more information. Please send me your material on this and we will make sure to give you a response.