Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a news conference following a video conference of foreign ministers of the SCO Member States, May 13, 2020
We have just completed the SCO Member States foreign ministers’ video conference where we discussed the general state of affairs in the region and the world and the SCO priority goals in connection with the spread and consequences of the novel coronavirus infection. We thanked our colleagues for supporting the Russian chairmanship’s proposal to hold this SCO foreign minister extraordinary meeting on this sensitive and important topic.
Today, we noted that the pandemic had dramatically changed the daily routines of the people and had significantly impacted the entire international relations system. Of course, the current situation is a major challenge for every country and international organisations and relations, including the SCO.
The SCO Member States reaffirmed their focus on the collective search for answers to this challenge and their commitment to put forth decisive joint efforts to overcome COVID-19. We are talking about coordinated universal actions under the auspices of the UN based on the WHO’s achievements and, of course, decisions and recommendations made by the G20 and other associations. The participants focused particularly on overcoming the negative trade, economic and social ramifications of the pandemic and stated the importance of making sure that measures aimed at protecting people’s lives, restoring global economic stability, and stimulating sustainable growth are based on international legal norms and principles, and rejection of unfair competition and unilateral economic and financial sanctions that are imposed in violation of the UN Charter and the UN Security Council’s prerogatives.
We reviewed priority steps to give additional momentum to SCO cooperation on a bilateral and multilateral basis. We highlighted the role of the Meeting of Heads of SCO Member States Services in Charge of Ensuring Sanitary and Epidemiological Wellbeing. This mechanism is developing a single regional infection alert system based on coordinated approaches and algorithms. The participants in today's videoconference spoke in favour of drafting and approving an action plan to promote and deepen cooperation in this area during the upcoming SCO summit in St Petersburg. The common approaches of the SCO Member States’ foreign ministers are included in the statement adopted today in connection with the spread of the coronavirus infection.
We also discussed the general situation in the territory of SCO responsibility in terms of maintaining security and stability, and reiterated our commitment to energetic assistance to promote a settlement in Afghanistan using the capabilities of the successfully functioning SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group.
The Member States are set to further strengthen coordination within the UN and other multilateral platforms, and to strengthen the SCO position and role in global and regional affairs. We agreed to pay particular attention this year to events related to the 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII and the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Today, we discussed promoting a draft resolution at the UN dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the organisation, as well as matters related to preparing and holding the 75th session of the General Assembly scheduled for autumn 2020 in connection with the anniversary.
We also informed our colleagues about implementing the action plan, as part of Russia’s SCO chairmanship, that has been adjusted due to the coronavirus infection. We hope to hold all scheduled events. Some will inevitably be held as video conferences. We plan to hold full face-to-face key meetings, including the Council of Foreign Ministers, and of course, the SCO Summit.
Question: The Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, noted that the United States has put into service over 200 laboratories all over the world, including in SCO countries. What do you think about this situation? What measures will be taken to ensure biological security in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: We have repeatedly drawn public attention to the establishment and development of biological laboratories. The majority of them are under Pentagon aegis. The US is creating them all over the world, including SCO, post-Soviet states. There is a fairly dense network of these laboratories along the perimeter of the Russian Federation and near Chinese borders.
We believe that the need to ensure transparency and verify the research at these laboratories has always been vital for biological security. We have long advocated the creation of a verification mechanism in the framework of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction. This would make it possible to control and ensure the transparency of the efforts of all countries on preventing the development of biological and toxin weapons.
Since 2001 (almost 20 years), Russia and the majority of other countries, including China, have advocated an agreement on drafting a relevant protocol to the said convention, which would create a mechanism for verifying the commitment to not develop biological weapons. The US is just about the only country to categorically oppose this proposal. Now the problem has been aggravated. Washington’s reluctance to ensure the transparency of its military biological activities in various regions of the world suggests many questions: what is taking place in reality there and what goals are being pursued? We are conducting an active dialogue on this subject with all of our partners and have raised these questions in the SCO as well.
We have some positive progress. We have signed a memorandum of understanding between the Government of Russia and the Government of Tajikistan on ensuring biological security. We are drafting a similar document with our colleagues from Uzbekistan and holding talks with Kazakhstan, Armenia and our other neighbours in the post-Soviet space. I consider this work to be very practical. It would remove any concern over the emergence of such infectious diseases.
I am deeply convinced that all countries must approach this issue on a universal basis. Let me repeat that an agreement on creating a verification mechanism for the universal Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction would be the optimal approach for everyone in the international community. Needless to say, we will continue working at this.
As for the SCO, a special set of documents is being drafted for the summit in St Petersburg this year. This package is aimed at ensuring sanitary and epidemiological security. A special section will be reserved for the issues of biological security. I am sure our experts will do a good job and help the SCO leaders adopt decisions that will promote the transparency of activities for biological security on a universal scale.
Question: Several accusations have been leveled against China recently, in particular, that the coronavirus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan or that the coronavirus was somehow beneficial to Beijing. Were these issues discussed within the SCO?
Sergey Lavrov: We discuss the objective situation and facts within the SCO space. The organisation is not authorised to conduct investigations. It aims to ensure open, fair and effective cooperation on issues related to overcoming the consequences of the coronavirus infection. This is what we discussed.
The SCO hosted a series of events. I have already mentioned the mechanism within which the heads of sanitary and epidemiological services meet. The Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) has developed an action plan on epidemic response. It is based on a statement made by our leaders two years ago at the SCO Summit in Qingdao on the need to increase cooperation on epidemic response mechanisms. This action plan will be submitted to the upcoming SCO Summit this year.
Moreover, a video conference for SCO medical experts was held on April 1, 2020. They agreed to draft a consolidated document summarising the experience of COVID-19 response actions in our countries. I have no doubt that our Chinese colleagues will actively cooperate and provide the information gained in overcoming the outbreak of the coronavirus in their country.
On May 28 of this year, the SCO Healthcare Ministers’ video conference will be held. There will also be a very substantive discussion based on the above expert opinions being developed in the appropriate formats. The SCO Secretariat has proposed establishing a coordination council to focus on coronavirus response efforts.
When we talk about the need to clarify the causes of the coronavirus infection, I believe that this is a justified question. But we need to address the problem from the point of view of the need to save as many people’s lives as possible and to understand how we can control this pandemic in the future. According to medical evaluations, it could stay with us for a long time, if not forever, like other infectious diseases (such as the flu). So it is important to understand the causes of the infection from this point of view. As far as I know, Chinese officials have expressed a willingness to collaborate with the WHO on this. I believe that every country in the world would be interested in this. We are against the fact that this scientific and humanistic approach, aimed at the reliable protection of humanity in the future, has become politicised and used for unscrupulous competition.
Question: Earlier today, you mentioned that the Afghan settlement situation is deteriorating and, as far as we can understand, the implementation of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban is barely afloat. What is Russia’s vision for a way out of this situation? Given that, perhaps, the efforts of the United States alone are nor enough, would it make sense to undertake a collective effort to move this process along? Is Russia planning any meetings with the countries in the region to discuss the situation in Afghanistan?
Sergey Lavrov: We have no doubt that an Afghan settlement is possible solely if the interests of the Afghans themselves are taken into account, as well as the legitimate interests of the countries in the region, including Afghanistan’s closest neighbours. We believe that this approach offers the best way for moving towards a settlement. To this end, several years ago, we formed a group of countries and invited their representatives to Moscow, where we established what is now called the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan. They include Afghanistan’s neighbours and all, without exception, countries which, in one way or another, have a decisive influence on the Afghan parties’ positions, including the United States.
The Moscow format was convened several times. The participants reiterated the need to work in this direction to develop sustainable and reliable approaches to a settlement. This does not mean that we were against other avenues to promote fair agreements between Afghan society’s major groups. In order to facilitate the search for approaches that would be acceptable to everyone, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, we began to work in a Russia-US-China format, with Pakistan joining at some points. This was not a separate or exclusive settlement format. We have always pointed out that we would move only along lines that are acceptable to Afghanistan and its neighbours.
These efforts ̶̶̶ ̶ which are diverse, as you can see – have led to approaches that allowed us to move forward. At some point, the United States decided to almost entirely focus on bilateral talks with the Taliban. We have nothing against that with the understanding that the talks be based on the criteria I mentioned and do not contain any secret agreements that do not take into account the interests of the Afghans and all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.
We welcomed the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, although we warned that it was important to engage the neighbouring countries more actively so that they could also have their interests taken into account.
We are not happy with the fact that the agreements between the United States and the Taliban are stalling. We can see the reasons this is happening and are willing to help overcome them. To do so, we need to return to the original understandings that were achieved within the Moscow format and the work of Russia, the United States and China, which consist of ensuring what we call the “inclusiveness of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”
The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group became operational awhile back. A roadmap was developed at the Bishkek summit in 2019, within which the SCO can actively promote the settlement interests in Afghanistan. Today, we agreed that this roadmap would be adapted to current circumstances, including the ones that have taken shape after the agreement was reached between the United States and the Taliban, which has not been acted upon yet. I hope that the SCO will be able to make a constructive contribution to overcoming the dead end at hand. For this, it is necessary for our US colleagues return to this collective effort.
Question: The European countries have developed and are using a system for labour migration during the coronavirus pandemic. Charter flights from Ukraine and Romania are arranged to deliver seasonal workers to Germany and Finland, Austria and other more prosperous European countries. Will a labour migration system be opened in the SCO space, perhaps between Russia, China and the Central Asian countries? Flights between these countries are now suspended and workers cannot leave their countries. Could this affect the most important branches of the economy?
Sergey Lavrov: We have not introduced any restrictions on labour migration either in the SCO or any other organisation. The only group of migrants that we would like to send home are those that have violated the rules of their stay on the territory of the Russian Federation, but this group is not too big. Nobody is asking the overwhelming majority of migrants to leave Russia. Also, the government has adopted decisions that allow them to postpone applying for their permits, to extend their work permits, and to resolve other bureaucratic issues that have been made more complicated by the restrictions and self-isolation.
We are not planning any changes in the policy on labour migration. I have not heard about any changes in the legislation or position of our SCO partners, either.
Question: Considering the essential identity of the SCO countries’ views on the results of World War II, does it make sense to work together on preventing attempts to falsify history by glorifying Nazism? In what formats can this be done? What measures on celebrating the 75th anniversary can be held by the SCO?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, we have common approaches to assessing the events of the war. The leaders of the SCO member countries and foreign ministers have repeatedly expressed these views in their joint statements.
The 75th anniversary is yet another occasion to recall wartime events. Needless to say, this task is becoming even more topical due to the sharp increase in attempts to revise the results of WWII and the commonly known causes of the war. Of course, this is becoming more important.
Within the SCO framework we have bilateral intergovernment and non-government mechanisms with many countries for discussing issues linked with the assessment and analysis of the historical events of WWII. We don’t yet have a collective mechanism for discussing these issues but interest in establishing one is growing.
Yesterday we held a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CIS member states via video conference. We agreed to support informal meetings, seminars and conferences for historians in the CIS. I think this format will be useful in the SCO. At any rate, the SCO scientific community is obviously interested. I think it will be helpful to make this proposal. We will certainly inform you about any progress in our efforts in this area.
I already mentioned some specific SCO events. During the summit in St Petersburg this year, the SCO leaders will make a relevant statement. Our countries are co-authors of the resolution on the 75th anniversary of creating the UN. This event became possible due to the allied victory in WWII. Every SCO country will hold its own events, and some are already being held. Most SCO countries, primarily the CIS states, conducted events devoted to Victory Day on May 9. Today, we exchanged our impressions of how actively and sincerely our citizens took part in them. There will also be collective events, including some timed to the end of WWII in September.