A regular Russia-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting took place in the framework of the Russia-ASEAN partnership. This is an annual event that is usually used as an opportunity to sum up the results of the year’s work and discuss plans for the future.
The participants paid special attention to the implementation of the agreements that were reached at the Russia-ASEAN summit chaired by President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in May 2016. The summit set the task of bringing Russia-ASEAN relations to the level of strategic partnership. Today we have recorded steady progress toward this goal.
We agreed to consider additional agreements that will allow us to work more effectively in priority areas of international policy, primarily the fight against terrorism.
At the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Singapore in November the participants will review many Russian initiatives in this area, including the proposal to establish cooperation between all countries of the region, Russia and ASEAN on countering foreign terrorist fighters. Several years ago Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) created an international data bank on foreign terrorist fighters that makes it possible to monitor their movements all over the world. It has already been joined by dozens of states. Terrorists are moving from Syria, Libya and other countries of the Middle East to Central and Southeast Asia at a fairly quick pace. Russia and Indonesia will head relevant working groups as part of the partnership that is developing with the participation of the countries that are cooperating with ASEAN.
In addition, we told our ASEAN partners today that Russia’s FSB and the Ministry of the Interior are expanding advanced training courses on countering terrorism and drug trafficking that are available for representatives of the region’s states.
The second area of general interest that aligns with the priorities of our international activities is countering cybercrime and ensuring information security. The ASEAN countries are interested in starting this work. We agreed to review potential forms of such cooperation.
Another area that is of great interest for our partners is combatting natural disasters, which includes their prevention and response efforts. A relevant document will be drafted for the East Asia Summit that will take place in Singapore in November as I have already said.
The economy is yet another area in which we implemented earlier decisions, some of which were adopted by the leaders of Russia and ASEAN in Sochi in May 2016. During the past year trade between Russia and the ASEAN countries increased by more than one third and is about to reach $20 billion.
Representatives of the ten member countries took an active part in the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Many of these countries will be represented at the Fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September. The Russia-ASEAN Business Dialogue is traditionally part of this forum.
There is also a new area, cooperation in education, which was also discussed at the previous summit in Sochi. We hope that the first session of the working group on Russia-ASEAN cooperation in education will take place on the sidelines of the events that will be held in the region in October on the issues of education of all participants in the East Asian Summits. Every year we increase the number of scholarships for ASEAN countries whose citizens want to study in Russian universities.
One more area of progress that was approved in Sochi in May 2016 was the development of contacts between ASEAN, the EAEU and the SCO. Their secretariats have already established working contacts. Now we are drafting roadmaps for future contacts. All these measures are part of the efforts to form the Greater Eurasian Partnership about which President of Russia Vladimir Putin first spoke at the previous Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi in May 2016.
Conceptually, from the viewpoint of the security and cooperation architecture in the Asia-Pacific Region, all participants of today’s Russia-ASEAN meeting as well as the ministers reaffirmed the need to rely on the work carried out at the East Asia Summits – and the initiatives of Russia, China, India, Indonesia and other countries – which is aimed at creating an inclusive, open, non-bloc mechanism of cooperation on the issues of security and joint action on countering challenges and threats.
ASEAN does not welcome recent attempts to restructure this work on a bloc basis by introducing new ideas imposed by a narrow circle on all others. There is no support for such attempts. I think our common task is to maintain the dialogues that have risen up around ASEAN and rely on this association, considering its thoughtful and well-balanced approaches to international issues aimed at searching for compromise, consensus, mutual respect and consideration of interests.
Many bilateral meetings were held with the foreign ministers of China, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore. All talks were quite useful because they are a chance to speak with our partners about the state of bilateral relations, as well as international and regional affairs.
Question: Have you invited your current partners to join the Greater Eurasian Partnership and the Agreement concluded by the Eurasian Economic Union with China? What was their reaction?
Sergey Lavrov: It is important to understand that the Greater Eurasian Partnership is not something that one should join. It’s not a pre-drafted project coordinated by a narrow circle of original participants who tell the others that there are terms and conditions on which we will interact with you. Not at all.
During the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi in May 2016, President Vladimir Putin urged our partners to look at the broad geopolitical and geoeconomic picture of our entire large region which includes the vast continent of Eurasia and Southeast Asia supplemented by island nations. Nature and God destined all this space, especially in the presence of modern forms of business activity, to be united by certain shared principles. The underlying idea is very simple and is based on the fact that the Eurasian Economic Union and the SCO, whose membership partially overlaps that of the EAEU and ASEAN, are already present in that region. So, the proposal by President Putin was to look for natural forms of cooperation that meet current and future needs of each and every one of these associations and their respective members. Hence, our first steps. For example, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the SCO and ASEAN secretariats. A roadmap is being drafted to align this interaction in a strictly substantive manner. Agreements are being drafted between the EAEU and China, and between Russia and China to encourage such multilateral trends in our bilateral contacts. We work with what life gives us.
I think that this Greater Eurasian Project is more of a goal, and we invite all the countries located in this vast geopolitical space to pool their resources and identify ways to achieve it. Also, let's not forget that the EU is part of the same space. We have always emphasised when we talked about establishing cooperation between the EAEU, the SCO and ASEAN, that the doors are open to the EU as well, if it’s interested. I think, no one doubts that the EU should be interested if you think about purely pragmatic economic interests.
Question: Can we talk about a single international position on Syria? To what extent can we talk about it in the context of cooperation between Moscow and Washington with regard to settling the situation and having the refugees return to Syria?
I would like to touch upon one more topic. The US Senate Intelligence Committee discussed Russia’s interference with the US elections and concluded that Russia is increasingly using social media guided by the principle “less news – more memes.” So they are accusing our country of trying to manipulate US public opinion with the help of funny pictures posted online. What do you say to that? We know that you like funny pictures with captions.
Sergey Lavrov: It's simply ridiculous when someone claims that funny pictures are used to undermine US democracy. This, I believe, is an extreme form of paranoia.
It’s unbecoming for US lawmakers to create such sensations out of thin air. We did not invent social media, and we did not insist that they be open to all comers. It appears there are too many willing participants. Literally today, I read that some Ukrainians were arrested and accused of manipulating social media in foreign countries. They were arrested on US orders. There are many crooks out there around the world, which has been proved many times. They steal money and engage in other unscrupulous dealings.
We repeatedly offered our US colleagues to tackle cybersecurity issues in earnest, without idle talk or indiscriminate accusations. They, at the level of President and Secretary of State, show interest in taking this to a professional basis and creating a corresponding group, a working mechanism to discuss issues that are of any concern to any of us. However, nothing substantial has happened yet.
We are actively promoting cybersecurity internationally. Several years ago, in conjunction with the SCO countries, we submitted draft rules of responsible behaviour in cyberspace to the UN. This draft is being discussed, and we would like to speed up these discussions. However, we have seen lately that the United States is, in fact, the only participant that has lost interest in this work, is just middling and even trying to slow down the process. Also, keep in mind that the International Telecommunication Union has been discussing internet governance democratisation for years now, and the United States is not at the forefront of democracy fighters there, either.
With regard to the first question on whether there is a basis for actions on Syria, the answer is yes. It was created when UN Security Council Resolution 2254 was adopted and clearly stated the need to resolve the Syria crisis on the basis of the UN Charter principles, including respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of that state and recognition of the right of the people of Syria to determine their future without any nudging or guiding imposed from the outside. It clearly states that the way to a settlement lies, above all, through cessation of hostilities and suppression of the terrorist threat, working through a new Constitution, a general constitutional reform, and holding elections under UN supervision. These are the foundations underlying the work of the international community. At least, the Astana “troika” is working based on them.
There are some external players who would like to decide for the Syrians on who should lead their country, how it should be built, and what should be written in their Constitution. We do not support such attempts and consider them counterproductive. Our initiative is part of the Astana process. It was approved by the currently most representative forum of the Syrian people (I mean the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi). It consolidated the agreements reached by the government and the opposition on forming the Constitutional Committee. The names of the members of the government delegation were submitted in May to Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who will facilitate this committee’s work. It took a while to form the group of opposition representatives but, finally, it was presented just a few days ago. It remains to form the third portion of this Constitutional Committee from representatives of civil society. This is also a tall order, but we will help draw up a list that would be acceptable to the government and other Constitutional Committee members.
With regard to our interaction with the United States on refugees, I wouldn’t claim that we have it. President Putin discussed this matter with President Trump during the summit in Helsinki. State Secretary Pompeo and I also discussed this issue in Helsinki and later over the phone.
The United States is fairly reticent about the idea of restoring the infrastructure necessary for the people to return to their homes.
Just like the EU, the United States publicly says that it is ready to deal only with supplying essential humanitarian goods. Everything else related to restoring the infrastructure and national economy in general ought to wait until the political transition process begins (they are not saying “until the regime changes”), clearly referring to transition from the current forms of government in that country to some other, which will be more acceptable for those who criticise the Syrian government for all its sins, real or not.
We are convinced that if we follow this line of thinking, we will be punishing the people who stay, live, and don’t flee Syria, remain on the territories controlled by the government, and the refugees who would like to return to their homes in this land.
If the EU were guided by its fundamental interests, which many EU countries are now advocating, it would be interested in creating proper conditions for the refugees returning to Syria from Europe.
At this stage, Lebanon is interested in this. Refugees have begun returning home in small groups (several thousand people have come back to Syria). We are assisting them in this process through our military and military police.
We conduct similarly successful talks with Jordan. Here, too, we will see good results in the near future.
We hold similar conversations with Turkey, which hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees (over 3 million). These are the countries directly involved in our efforts.
In addition, we worked with the UN at an early stage, at the level of the UN Secretary General, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was interested, and Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements presented its position at a meeting of the Astana troika as part of the Astana process in Sochi on July 30-31.
With regard to other UN agencies, in addition to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, we have a feeling, which we would like to double-check, that they are also geared towards the position of the West and wait for the West to condescend and change its position. Based on that, we have not yet seen UN representatives on the territory controlled by the Syrian government which needs assistance in rebuilding critical systems that have been destroyed. I hope that this impression of ours is false. Such a coincidence can be accidental.
This is where we are at now. This work is in full swing. There is still much left to do and also to finish off the terrorists, who still remain, in particular, in Idlib.