Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on the results of Russian diplomacy in 2018 Moscow, January 16, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are delighted to welcome you to this traditional news conference on the results of our foreign policy performance last year.

We would like this meeting to take place, just as before, in the form of a direct dialogue. Therefore, I will try to keep my opening remarks as concise as possible, especially since President Vladimir Putin has already spoken about our approaches to the main current topics more than once, including at his annual news conference held on December 20, 2018, as well as during the interviews he gave to Serbian newspapers yesterday.

It is needless to say that the international situation remained complicated. The conflict potential increased last year, primarily because of the stubborn unwillingness of some Western countries led by the United States to accept the realities of the objectively developing multipolar world, as well as because of their desire to continue to force their will on others by means of pressure and economic and propaganda instruments. There have been attempts to steamroll multilateral institutions and erode their international mission and to replace the universal norms of international law with a “rules-based order.” This term was recently coined to camouflage a striving to invent rules depending on changes in the political situation so as to be able to put pressure on disagreeable states and often even on allies.

It is alarming that various non-consensual initiatives are advocated beyond the framework of international institutions, and that decisions taken behind closed doors by a narrow group of the select few are presented as the opinion of the international community.

We see no cause for optimism in Washington’s unilateral actions taken to undermine the crucial international legal instruments of strategic stability. We saw the latest example of this at the Russian-US consultations on the INF Treaty held in Geneva yesterday. Taken together, this is increasing mutual mistrust and militarising foreign policy mentality.

In this situation, we continued to pursue a multidirectional foreign policy focused on protecting Russia’s national interests. We worked to strengthen the positive trends on the international stage, to find collective solutions based on international law to the problems all countries are facing, and ultimately to promote a fairer and more democratic polycentric world order in keeping with objective modern realities. Towards this end, we closely cooperated with our allies and partners at the CSTO, the EAEU, the CIS, BRICS and the SCO, as well as working constructively in the key global governance bodies, primarily the UN and G20.

As part of our presidency of the EAEU, we worked to strengthen the organisation’s international standing. We did our best to align the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative and to promote the Russia-ASEAN strategic partnership, including in the context of President Putin’s initiative for creating a Greater Eurasian Partnership based on the logic of harmonising our integration processes and open for accession to all countries and associations both in Asia and in Europe.

International terrorism has been dealt a defeating blow in Syria. This allowed to preserve the Syrian state and to launch economic recovery and the return of refugees back home. In keeping with the decisions taken at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, the guarantor countries of the Astana Process – Russia, Turkey and Iran – worked hard to help form the Constitutional Committee by convincing the Syrian Government and the opposition to approve the list of its potential members. This has created conditions for a political process in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 in the interests of a lasting settlement of the Syrian crisis.

We supported the positive trends on the Korean Peninsula based on the logic of the Russian-Chinese roadmap for a settlement. Of course, this calls for reciprocating Pyongyang’s constructive moves.

Another major result of the past year was the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea at the fifth Caspian Summit. This convention seals the coastal states’ exclusive rights to this unique body of water and its mineral and other resources.

We made significant efforts to ensure international information security and to fight cybercrime. In December, the UN General Assembly approved two resolutions on this matter on our initiative.

We paid special attention to the further development of contacts with the multi-million Russian world. The 6th World Congress of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad on October 31 − November 1 held in Moscow.

We expanded humanitarian, research and educational ties, and supported various initiatives aimed at introducing the world community to the best achievements of national culture and art. We assisted foreign countries in the training of their national personnel.

The FIFA World Cup was a highlight last year – a real triumph of public diplomacy. Millions of foreign guests visited Russia and saw modern Russia together with its citizens with their very own eyes.

This year, we intend to step up efforts in all the key areas. Among our priorities is the promotion of creating a truly universal antiterrorist coalition under the auspices of the UN, mobilising the international community to more effectively combat drug trafficking and other types of organised crime. We will help consolidate positive trends in Syria and on the Korean Peninsula, resolve other crises and conflicts, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Ukraine, where there is no alternative to the full and consistent implementation of the Minsk Agreements. As before, we are interested in restoring normal relations with the US and the EU on the principles of equality and mutual consideration of interests. We will certainly continue to respond appropriately to the increased NATO military activity and its military infrastructure being moved closer to the Russian borders.

Our undoubted priority is to ensure the national security and other favourable external conditions for Russia’s dynamic development and improving Russians’ welfare. We are open for creative interaction with all those who do not make bilateral relations hostage of volatile political environment or use them as a tool to achieve geopolitical advantages, but are willing to cooperate honestly and find mutually acceptable compromises based on mutual benefit.

In conclusion, I would like to note that a few days ago, on January 13, Russia marked Russian Press Day. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I would like to greet everyone here, primarily the workers of the Russian media as representatives of the entire Russian journalistic community on your professional day. We highly appreciate your work, and efforts to promote high professional standards in the global information space, and your values of honest and unbiased journalism. We are ready to continue close and constructive interaction with the media in a variety of formats. I can assure you that we will certainly continue to pay heightened attention to ensuring free and unhindered work of journalists, and to work to maintain the effective observance of the existing international guarantees by all states.

Thank you. I am ready to answer your questions.

Question: What additional measures can Russia take considering that the term of detention has been extended for Kirill Vyshinsky several times? Is there a possibility of exchanging him or taking reply actions against our Ukrainian colleagues?

Sergey Lavrov: We have spoken more than once about the actions we have taken through various international organisations and journalist unions, as well as within the framework of our bilateral contacts with different countries, calling for influencing Kiev to stop persecuting a journalist for his professional activities under absurd charges of treason.

I don’t think that the idea of exchange, which some people may consider interesting, can help convince the Ukrainian authorities to strictly comply with their obligations regarding journalistic activities. Such ideas would only encourage those who are ready to use journalists as small change in the pursuit of their sinister goals. I can assure you that we will do our best to ensure the primacy of law so that Kirill Vyshinsky is released and takes up his profession again.

It is not the only problem with journalists in Ukraine. Nearly all the Russian media outlets represented here have been either prohibited from working in Ukraine or restricted in their activities.

Question: If the United States withdraws from the INF Treaty after all, will Moscow consider the extension of the Treaty?

Sergey Lavrov: As I already said, yesterday we provided our constructive proposals that allowed the US to make expert conclusions on the 9М729 missile, which they claim was created in violation of the Treaty parameters. However, the US delegation came to the talks with a pre-set position which was presented in the form of an ultimatum demand that we destroy the missile, its launchers and all the related equipment under the Americans’ supervision. They turned a blind eye to our request for analysing our proposals and the real specifications of this missile. Likewise, they refused to listen to our proposals regarding access to information on our concerns about the Americans’ non-compliance with that Treaty if we take action to allay the Americans’ suspicions. They rejected all our proposals. The logic of the American approach as expressed yesterday is as follows: Russia violates the Treaty, while the US does not. Therefore, Russia must do what the US demands, while the US does not have to do anything. This approach is not at all constructive. It obviously is part of the policy for destroying all the agreements in the sphere of strategic stability, starting with the ABM agreement. The INF Treaty is another victim. Many countries fear that the US administration also intends to pull out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as well. We hope this is not the case. We are ready to keep working in order to save the INF Treaty.

I hope that those European countries that should be interested in this more than others will do something constructive instead of docilely following in the US wake, adopting NATO decisions that only blame Russia, ignoring the facts we provide and are ready to provide. I hope that they will try to influence Washington so that it takes a more responsible position regarding all members of the international community, primarily the Europeans.

As for the START Treaty, we are doing a great deal, as you know, to remove all the possible hitches and to ensure its extension. But we do have logical questions about the US efforts to exclude a significant number of strategic offensive arms from the accountability by presenting them as conventional weapons. We have informed US and other Western experts about our concerns. We hope that professionalism and a responsible attitude to the international community will take priority in Washington’s approach to the dialogue on strategic stability.

Question: There were a lot of questions in the United States over the fact that President Donald Trump did not share the content of his conversations with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, including with his official representatives. Is the Kremlin influencing the transparency of these conversations?

Sergey Lavrov: It is difficult for me to comment on what is happening in the United States and President Trump accused of being a Russian agent. I would say this is a lowering of the standards of journalism for the American press and a thankless job. I cannot believe that journalists in the United States sincerely and professionally deal with these problems. There is such a thing as the culture of diplomacy, the culture of negotiations, the culture of communication at the interstate level. This implies following the decorum, approaches and norms accepted in each of the parties in interstate relations. As far as I know, the US Constitution authorises the President to set and carry out the country’s foreign policy. We know that this right is now being attacked by Congress. They write a lot about this, including your colleagues. But this does not make these attacks constitutional or legitimate. I will not comment on the actions taken by the US Administration in accordance with the President’s and his Administration’s powers.

Since you have raised this topic, I would like to make the following point. Maria Butina is charged with having certain subversive motives for her interactions with Americans. They could charge literally any Russian citizen, a public official or someone like Butina, who wants to receive an education and interact with American and other foreign colleagues. They get accused of espionage and promotion of certain goals that are illegitimate and contrary to the interests of the United States. But if you look at the circle of contacts of American diplomats in Moscow, the scope of their Russian acquaintances, you will see that the Russians, who are under illegal American sanctions, are primary targets for the attention of American diplomats. Yet, no one charges US diplomats for communicating with people they are prohibited to contact and who are barred from entering the United States as outcasts.

There is another example of the absurdity of what is happening. Prosecutor Robert Mueller has been working for almost two years now. He interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of people, but found no leaks that would confirm alleged collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian Federation. No facts and no leaks were presented, which is very strange for the American political system. Leaks usually happen instantly there. There have been some; several facts have been mentioned regarding Ukraine’s involvement in the US election campaign, but not Russia.

Here is one example. Michael Flynn served as President Trump’s national security adviser for several days. I read with interest what he was specifically accused of. Prosecutor Mueller accused him of two things: first, Flynn called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before President Trump’s inauguration and asked him not to reciprocate in response to the sanctions that Barack Obama imposed on Russia in the last days of his presidency, urged us not to take the path of escalation and confrontation. Was that so bad? Was it against the interests of the American people or the American government that a potential member of the administration urged us not to harm the American diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation, not to take away property or expel diplomats? This was one accusation against Flynn. The second charge against him was that he also asked Ambassador Kislyak to influence Moscow’s position on the resolution discussed in the UN Security Council, which required Israel to stop building new settlements in the occupied territories. Since the Obama administration decided not to block adoption of this resolution and, unlike in the previous cases, to abstain rather than vote it down, Flynn, according to Mueller, asked the Russian side to veto this anti-Israeli resolution.

I am not talking about the substance of the mater right now, whether it was necessary to adopt that resolution or not. But he essentially called on the Russian side to defend the position that the United States had been promoting in the UN for decades. Here are two accusations against this person. I do not know what sentence he will get. But the absurdity of the situation is obvious to me. This is just one example of the bacchanalia going on around the so-called Russian dossier.

Question: Recently, Russia and Japan began a new round of talks on a peace treaty, which should be aimed at taking bilateral relations to a new level. The treaty must be supported by both nations. Like, probably, the whole of Japan, I do not understand that you set a precondition for us. It lies in the fact that Japan, above all, must recognise all the results of World War II, including the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over the disputed islands. Is this not an ultimatum? You do normally criticise ultimatums in diplomacy. One gets an impression that Russia is again demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. I do not understand Russia’s logic. We are discussing the ownership of the islands. If Japan recognises Russia's sovereignty over the Kuril Islands, then the question will be closed and there will be no problems. Then what are we going to negotiate?

Sergey Lavrov: I already spoke on this subject immediately after the talks with my Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono. I reiterate, the recognition of the outcome of World War II is not an ultimatum, not a precondition. This is an unavoidable and inextricable factor in the modern international system.

With the support of the Soviet Union in 1956, Japan became a member of the UN, signed and ratified the UN Charter, in which there is Article 107. It states that all the results of World War II are unshakable. So, we do not require anything from Japan. We urge our Japanese neighbours toward practical actions in line with their obligations under the UN Charter, the San Francisco Declaration and a number of other documents, including those you mentioned.

What does our position regarding the need for Japan to align its approaches with the UN Charter mean? The term “northern territories” is included in your country’s legislation. It is included in a number of laws, including the one adopted in September 2018 which ties implementation of the joint initiative by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on joint economic activities on the islands to the need to return the northern territories. No one agreed on that. This is directly contrary to Japan’s obligations under the UN Charter.

So, this is not a preliminary requirement, but a desire to understand why Japan is the only country in the world that cannot fully recognise the outcome of World War II.

Of course, there is still a number of other passing details. I do not want, again, to go over the problem of the military-political alliance with the United States, the deployment of US bases in Japan. All this was covered in sufficient detail.

Our leaders also spoke about the need for qualitative improvement, as you rightly said, of our relations in the economy, trade, culture, science and international affairs. To resolve any complex issues, not only under a peace treaty – there is a number of other issues to be resolved with our Japanese colleagues. Of course, it is necessary for us to feel like we are partners in the international arena, not countries standing on the opposite side of the barricades. But Japan joined a series of sanctions imposed on Russia which hardly fits into the understanding of achieving a qualitatively new level of relations. Japan joined the anti-Russian statements adopted by the G7. On all UN resolutions that are of interest to Russia, Japan votes not with us, but against us.

Just before his visit to Russia, Taro Kono was in Paris where a meeting of the ministers of defence and foreign ministers of France and Japan was held. A declaration was adopted following the meeting. After you read it, of course, you will understand that we are still very far from not just being partners in international affairs, but even being cognizant of the need to look for constructive approaches that will bring our positions closer.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to note that this Japanese-French declaration at the end of the “2+2” meeting contains an obligation by Japan and France to coordinate their actions as part of Tokyo’s G20 presidency and the G7 presidency of Paris. This raised questions on our part, because the G7 is part of the G20. The chairman of the G20, which is Japan this year, should provide proper conditions that allow consensus to be developed by all 20 participating countries, rather than work only in the interest of one group within the G20. I hope this was just a misunderstanding when formulating the language of this declaration.

In our practical steps, we proceed from the fact that our Japanese colleagues with their inherent professionalism will contribute to developing consensus solutions that unite both developed and developing countries, in a word, all the G20 members, and will also take into account the interests of all other states since the decisions of the G20 touch upon matters that concern all members of the international community.

Question: What do you think about the further development of the Union State after fairly strong statements by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko? What further steps could be taken if one side is obviously against this?

Sergey Lavrov: I am simply surprised at the din in the media and elsewhere over this issue.

The Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State is an open document. It was possible to read it immediately after signing. It is also possible to refresh memories about it now. The document contains many ideas that united us and encouraged us to establish a union state at that time. The treaty provided for the adoption of the Constitutional Act, the formation of the Union Parliament, and the establishment of the Court of the Union State. At that time Moscow and Minsk agreed to all this of their own free will.

However, it became clear with the passage of time that the formation of a common constitution, common parliament and common court was not yet possible. But we do not insist on this, either.

During the recent contacts of our presidents in December (three December meetings) our team and our Belarusian colleagues discussed those provisions of the treaty that concern strictly practical economic and trade issues, as distinct from a common constitution, parliament and court. I am referring to the treaty’s provisions on creating a common monetary unit and common credit and tax policies. They are directly linked with economic and financial relations within the Union State.

We had no disagreements with our Belarusian colleagues on how to take these strictly practical steps. As you heard, a working group headed by the economy ministers of Russia and Belarus was set up at the decision of our presidents. The group has been authorised to deal directly with the issues I have just mentioned. We are not inventing anything. Considering that our Belarusian colleagues are interested in many matters related to setting economic, monetary, credit and tax policies, we are asking them to look for ways of bringing closer our positions on the issues that were supposed to be resolved by the treaty 20 years ago and that directly concern the problems that Belarus wants to see resolved, including the so-called “tax manoeuver.”  

I hope that pragmatism will prevail over the attempts to look at this routine situation as reflecting some geopolitical plans inside or outside the Union State.

Question: German Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that is, Heiko Maas will soon visit Russia. What will you discuss with him?

Sergey Lavrov: Now I will also be accused of a plan to capture Germany.

As for Mr Maas’s visit, as he announced himself, we will primarily discuss the situation in Ukraine and Syria. There are decisions on both issues, which should be carried out. We are ready to discuss them.

Question: Several countries, including the United States, do not recognise Nicolas Maduro as the President of Venezuela. What is Russia’s stance on the matter?

Sergey Lavrov: Our stance is to avoid any interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Throughout the entire Venezuelan crisis we did our best to support efforts to establish a dialogue between the government and the opposition, including the efforts of the countries in the region. We know that this dialogue, which many Latin American countries counted on, eventually fell apart because the so-called irreconcilable part of the opposition was influenced from abroad, mainly by the United States. The said influence made that part of the opposition irreconcilable. It is deeply regrettable. We have heard statements that allow for a military intervention in Venezuela, and statements that the United States will recognise or may begin to recognise President of the National Assembly Juan Guaido as the legitimate President of Venezuela rather than Nicolas Maduro. All this is very disturbing and indicates that the United States continues to break down unfavourable governments as its priority strategy in Latin America and other regions. We can talk about this in more detail later.

Question: Jair Bolsonaro has taken office as the President of Brazil. He is dubbed the Trump of the Tropics. Are there any concerns that he could be a Trojan horse for BRICS?

Sergey Lavrov: President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro contacted our representatives, including State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who represented our country at his inauguration. He confirmed his intention to ensure continuity in relations with the Russian Federation and to participate in the further development of BRICS, in which Brazil took over the presidency this year. Literally the other day, our Brazilian colleagues made us aware of their presidency plans, the schedule of ministerial meetings and the summit, and the programme that they propose to other members of this group. I do not see any reason to assume that Brazil will play a destructive role in BRICS. On the contrary, the country affirms that the group is one of the priorities in Brazil’s foreign policy.

Question: Asked about Paul Whelan, who was officially charged with espionage, your American colleague demurred and said that he could not and would not go into detail. Can you update us on this case? Is it true that American diplomats are just about to visit him? Was there any talk about an exchange? Is this the reason for launching a new phase of diplomatic pressure on Russia? Have three other countries who stated that the man was also their citizen – Canada, the UK and Ireland – made new attempts to get in contact with Paul Whelan to influence the situation?

Sergey Lavrov: US Ambassador Jon Huntsman has already visited Paul Whelan. An Irish diplomat either has visited him or is going to see him. We have got a request from the American Embassy for another visit and we will satisfy it.   Britons never mention the 1965 Consular Convention signed by Moscow and London, under which access must be granted to a national detained in the other country. They do not use two-way diplomatic channels to invoke this convention, probably, because previously they either did not answer or formally turned down our numerous requests to be granted, in compliance with this Convention, access to Julia and Sergei Skripal. They might realise that they themselves have rendered this convention void. Even so, if we receive such a request, I can assure you that we will act in a more civilised manner.     

Regarding the detention itself, our competent bodies informed us about the circumstances of Paul Whelan’s arrest. His family was informed about the situation and his detention conditions. We have received no complaints about these conditions. However, it is pitiful that the countries whose citizenship Whelan holds, including Canada, are strongly demanding that he be freed without delay while some of them have even started threatening to impose sanctions. I will not speak now about the Russians who are languishing in US prisons, as no action is taken on their case nor is any human concern even shown for them, although in the majority of cases the charges against them are absolutely fictitious or unsubstantiated.   

Paul Whelan was detained while committing an unlawful act at a hotel. This was also reported. Incidentally, about 20 US nationals are held in Russian penitentiary institutions and detention centres, over half of whom do not hold dual citizenship. At the request of the US Embassy, American diplomats are regularly granted access to them. We did not hear any high-profile statements in connection with their detention like those that are being made on Paul Whelan. It might be worthwhile to think why this is happening. 

The investigation is underway. If your question implies that Whelan’s arrest might be motivated by the desire to exchange him for a Russian national, it is absolutely untrue. We never get involved in things like this. He was caught red-handed.

Question: Last year Russian diplomacy achieved impressive successes in Syria. What actions in the spirit of unity and the struggle of opposites will be taken in the east of the Euphrates after the departure of US troops?

Sergey Lavrov: This is a very important issue. On the whole, the Syrian settlement process is making headway, although slower than desired and with problems that were hard to predict before. Nonetheless, progress is obvious. We are convinced that the fight against terrorism should be completed. Now the main hotbed is the Idlib zone where almost all of the militants have been taken over by Jabhat al-Nusra, a banned organization that the UN Security Council qualified as terrorists. We are highly interested in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreements on the Idlib zone. But they do not give carte blanche to terrorists that continue shooting at Syrian troop positions and civilian facilities from the Idlib zone, including the demilitarised area, and who are trying to attack the Russian Khmeimim air base.

We hope that President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in contact soon. A meeting has already been scheduled, and this will be the central issue of the talks.

As for the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the US has indeed announced its intention to withdraw from there. It is common knowledge that it has established about two dozen military facilities there, including fairly big and strong military bases. It is no secret either, that the US supplied arms to the Kurdish self-defence units that collaborated with it. This gives rise to the following question that is of interest, in part, to our Turkish colleagues: what will happen with these arms and military facilities? We are convinced that the most rational and the only correct solution to this issue would be to put these territories under the control of the Syrian Government, Syrian armed forces and Syrian administrative structures with the understanding that the Kurds should be provided with all the necessary conditions in the places of their traditional residence.

We welcome and support the contacts that have been established between Kurdish representatives and the Syrian authorities with a view to coming to terms on ways to restore life in a unified state without outside interference.

There is a problem with the American plans. First it was announced that the withdrawal would take place in two months, then in six rather than two months and later on that the withdrawal may be delayed. That brings to mind a quote by Mark Twain “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.” This is also an American tradition.

There is still another big problem – the Al-Tanf zone with a radius of 55 km, which was illegally set up by the US. It contains Rukban refugee camp access to which is practically closed. A humanitarian convoy that was organised with our support and the consent of the Syrian Government entered this zone several weeks ago. Contrary to US assurances, representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent and the convoy were not allowed to meet with the refugees directly. Control over this was given to militants, including terrorists that live, conduct training sessions undisturbed and receive material and other support in Al-Tanf.

Nobody knows for sure what happened with these humanitarian goods – whether they were received by the refugees to whom they were sent or if militants used them in their own interests. Now our UN colleagues are calling for a second convoy to this place. The situation is indeed hopelessly bad – there are between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees there without access. Supporting the position of the Syrian Government, we insist that this time complete safety and transparency be ensured and measures taken to make sure that the goods are delivered to the refugees rather than illegal armed units.

In addition, as a power that occupies that part of Syria, the US is fully responsible for the destiny and living conditions of the civilians there. After all, the US service personnel in Al-Tanf are supplied with all they need from Iraq. If food and other essentials are delivered to US troops, it is easy to do the same for the refugees, using the same routes.

Question: As is known, the Kurdish people live in countries of the Middle East. They complain that their political issues have not yet been discussed, and that no attempts to solve their problems have been made. What is your position regarding the future of the Kurdish people in Syria and Iraq?

Sergey Lavrov: Our stance is very simple. The issues concerning the Kurdish people in Syria, Iraq or anywhere else in the world (these are not the only two countries where these people live) should be addressed in accordance with the national legislation of the respective countries.

The rights of national minorities, such as the Kurdish people living in Iraq and Syria, must, of course, be ensured with the help of dialogue between these minorities, their representatives, and central governments. We firmly advocate preserving and respecting the territorial integrity of every state in this region. In recent years, these countries have been subject and remain subject to severe trials relating the aggression organised against Iraq, then Libya, and now, Syria. It is vital for us to avoid the redrawing of borders here. I believe that the Kurdish people in both Syria and Iraq understand the necessity of reaching mutually acceptable agreements with the central government, which would take into account their interests without undermining the territorial integrity of the respective states.

Question: Foreign Ministry representatives, including Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko yesterday, have on many occasions criticised the idea of changing the name of our neighbouring state, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. You have repeatedly mentioned the UN Security Council resolution on this matter. I would like to clarify what Russian diplomats mean when they refer to this UNSC resolution? Do you want to somehow thwart the Prespa agreement? Are you dissatisfied with it?

In this connection, I would like to get a clearer picture of the situation in the Balkans. You criticise the United States and NATO for expanding their positions in the Balkans and not just there. The United States and NATO respond that they are only trying to stop your aggressive actions in the region. What is happening in reality?

Sergey Lavrov: Good question. I have never heard anyone say that the implementation of a UN Security Council resolutions can be viewed as an attempt to get in the way of resolving the issue of the resolution - I mean the resolutions that launched the UN mediation process between Skopje and Athens on agreeing on the name of Macedonia. We have always been supportive of this dialogue and have advocated that a solution be found in a manner that is acceptable to the public, the people and, of course, the governments of Greece and Macedonia.

We are not against this name, and our position was articulated and announced. We ask questions about the legitimacy of this process and to what extent it is based on the desire to find a consensus between Athens and Skopje, or on what you just said - the desire of the United States to “drive” all Balkan countries into NATO as soon as possible and to put an end to any Russian influence in the region. That’s what we talk about.

Of course, we cannot agree with those who say that Russia has no place in the Balkans, as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said not long ago. She said that the EU is already working in the Balkans and anyone else has no business doing anything  there. However, when we met on the sidelines of the OSCE meetings in Milan in December, she said that she was misunderstood. Perhaps, it was a misunderstanding, because not just the EU, but also NATO is playing the main role there now. Where there is the EU, there is a place for NATO, and, perhaps, its place will be more important.

We always wanted the UNSC position - which was that the resolution should be legal - to be respected. When a name is confirmed by a document signed at a level that is not consistent with what the constitution, for example, of Macedonia, requires, we have questions about how legitimate this process is. When the Parliament of Macedonia adopts a law on amendments to the constitution and also a law on languages which President of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov refuses to sign, as required by the constitution, this also raises questions with us. When we are accused of mortal sins and troubles that somehow manifest or may manifest themselves in the Balkans, we have a question: what do our Western colleagues think about the shameless campaign waged by the West in the run-up of the referendum in Macedonia? At that time, the heads of government of the EU countries, the NATO Secretary General, the leaders of the European Commission and the EU in general, went to Skopje and urged everyone to vote for membership in NATO and the EU by way of changing the name of Macedonia. That’s what they were calling for. Not a name change that would reconcile Macedonia and Greece, but voting for membership in Euro-Atlantic bodies by changing the name. I think the impropriety of such an approach is clear.

I mentioned in my opening remarks the trend, which can now be seen in the approaches of the United States and its closest allies, to replace the term and the concept of international law with some rules-based order. Regarding the name of Macedonia, there is a UN Security Council resolution, which is part of international law, that requires respecting the constitutions of Greece and Macedonia and looking for a solution within this framework. But instead of a law-based approach involving the adoption of a law that would be signed by the president of Macedonia, a rules-based approach is being used. A rule was made up according to which, contrary to the Macedonian constitution, a decision may be signed at the level of minister rather than the presidential level, and the results of a referendum can be ignored, etc. The rules that are now being advanced in the Balkans, and not only there, are fairly dangerous and reflect obsession and the desire to “drive” all the Balkan countries to NATO as soon as possible.

I read the other day that the United States has been having quite a long critical discussion with respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina to the effect that the Serbs are playing a destructive role in Bosnia. Recently, a think tank in the United States said that it is time to abandon the Dayton Accords, because the Serbs will slow down the entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO. That is, the goal is set, this time again, and it is not about the well-being of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its three constituent nations, but Bosnia and Herzegovina joining NATO. This is something we cannot agree with, because it represents the mentality of the past century, if not the century before it. In a situation where we all declared a desire to build a common economic and cultural space and to ensure indivisible and equal security in the Euro-Atlantic area, this is nothing short of replacing international law with NATO-centric, rather than universal, rules. Examples of this abound.

Question: The UK Foreign Office has confirmed to me that they have requested consular access to Paul Whelan. I just wanted to clarify: you are saying that they will only be allowed that if Russia is allowed consular access to Sergey and Yulia Skripal, and also why is there so little information surrounding the actual charges laid against him?

Sergey Lavrov: I said something different. I said that the United Kingdom is refusing to respect its obligations under the 1965 Consular Convention. And I said that at the moment I am not aware of a request from the British Embassy under the aforementioned Convention for consular access to Paul Whelan. But I immediately added that if there is such a request, we will not act in the same way as our British colleagues. We will act based on our obligations under this Convention and on diplomatic propriety.

As for the details on charges brought against Paul Whelan, this is open information. He was passing certain materials he should not have. Or actually, as I understand it, he was receiving certain materials. But I can assure you that there is immeasurably more information available about what is going on with Paul Whelan than there is about where Sergey and Yulia Skripal are now. This is totally ridiculous, forgive my unparliamentary expression, but it has been almost a year, and not only we don’t have any access to these people  in response to our numerous requests based on the same Consular Convention, but we are not even told where they are and have not even seen them. So there is more than enough reason for us to question the actions of the British legal system, but we are committed to resolving all problems through dialogue, naturally, and based on respect for each other’s interests. It is unacceptable to treat the Russian Federation like a country to which no one owes anything while it has all the obligations to everyone (as we sometimes observed in the behaviour of some of our Western colleagues). Let's cooperate, let's work on the basis of equality.

Question: Last year trade between Russia and China set a historical record by exceeding $100 billion. China is Russia’s largest trade partner. How do you regard the prospects of trade and economic relations between Russia and China?

Sergey Lavrov: It is true, last year we really reached a record level in trade and there is more to come. We and our Chinese friends share quite ambitious plans that were discussed during the meeting between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of China Xi Jinping, during Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last summer and Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia during the Eastern Economic Forum and other contacts our leaders had on the sidelines of international events held by BRICS, G20 and other organisations. Our economic representatives that prepare meetings between heads of state also meet regularly. The latest meeting summed up the results of activities carried out by about 60 organisations operating in various areas of our cooperation. We are developing and already granted support to about 70 projects worth over $100 billion in various spheres such as energy, including nuclear energy, agriculture, transport and cooperation in space. As you know, our space agencies coordinate global navigation systems, GLONASS and Beidou. I believe that our prospects in trade, the economy and investment are very significant.

Let me also comment on our close cooperation and common approaches in international affairs, such as cooperation within BRICS and the SCO as well as in the context of developing ties and harmonising processes with the Eurasian Economic Space and the Belt and Road Initiative. In the United Nations, including the Security Council, we share common approaches to settling conflicts based on international law and dialogue strictly by political means, whether it is the conflict in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, or the Korean Peninsula. Our relations are developing steadily and progressively in all areas.

Question: Next month Poland will host a US-organised summit on the Middle East that will be primarily devoted to Iran. Will it be attended by a Russian representative? What do you think about the idea of holding this summit, considering that it is organised by the US but in Poland? Some media call it anti-Iranian.

Sergey Lavrov: I was just going to ask who organised this summit because the Polish Foreign Ministry announced it as a joint US-Polish initiative whereas during his tour of the Middle East US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the US will hold a summit in Poland. Indeed, we received an invitation and the agenda that is primarily devoted to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, problems with now the Iranian missile programme, and Iran’s actions in the region.

If the forum is focused on the Middle East, the key issue – an Arab-Israeli including Palestine-Israeli settlement – is not part of it. As you said yourself, it seems that the entire agenda is aimed at promoting US approaches on deterring Iran in that region. This is the official US position.  Obviously, the summit in Warsaw is aimed at achieving this goal.

It is also confusing that the invitation reads that ministers of the participating countries should not worry about the final document of the summit because its co-chairs US and Poland will write it themselves and present it as a joint summary without any possibility for other invitees to contribute to its wording. Frankly speaking, this is not routinely accepted. It appears that about fifty ministers have been invited to bless the document that the US will write itself, with all due respect to Poland. These are the reasons why we have huge doubts that the forthcoming summit will help to find constructive solutions to the problems of the Middle East.

As for the Iranian aspect and possible influence on relations with Poland, these are your bilateral affairs.

Question:  I would like to ask you about the fate of a specific individual.  Today you spoke several times about Russian citizens whose interests are consistently protected by Moscow if their rights are violated in different countries. There is a young man by the name of Marat Yeldanov-Galustyan who has been kept in prison in neighbouring Azerbaijan on false charges. Azerbaijan is cynically ignoring all of Russia’s requests for his extradition. What measures are being taken to help Galystyan?

Sergey Lavrov: During our bilateral contacts we regularly discuss issues related to our citizens who find themselves in a difficult position in a CIS or any other foreign country. Let me assure you that we discussed this particular issue during recent talks with our colleagues from Azerbaijan. I hope that, relying on dialogue and solutions based on legal norms, we will be able to find a way out that will suit everyone and return this person to Russia.

Question: In an interview with RIA Novsti at the end of last year you said that you expect “adequate politicians” with a responsible perception of reality to emerge in Ukraine. What are the criteria for being “adequate”?

Sergey Lavrov: I think that people in any country want to see adequate politicians. As for what is taking place in Ukraine now, I am far from being the only person who would like to see adequate policy there. It is enough to simply read the Ukrainian media and some websites.

As for the criteria for being adequate, these are respect for one’s own commitments, the Constitution and other laws. Everything else is inadequate, starting from the anti-constitutional coup d’etat when nationalists came to power and began to openly demand, like Dmytro Yarosh, the extermination or expulsion of Russians from Crimea. President Poroshenko’s policy seemed adequate to us during his election campaign, promising he would be “the president of peace.” But when he became the head of state, he no longer uttered such words. He is instead making bellicose statements and promises to liberate the so-called “occupied territories” and is categorically refusing to fulfil what he signed himself – the Minsk agreements. Subsequent decisions adopted by the leaders of the Normandy format are also being subverted, including those on the disengagement of forces and weapons in Stanitsa Luganskaya, Petrovskoye and Zolotoye and the Steinmeier formula on linking the special status of some districts of Donbass to the holding of elections there.

I can speak at length on this subject. We have more than enough facts. Speaking about adequacy, one of the criteria is an ability to abide by one’s own Constitution and commitments signed onto when joining international conventions. The Ukrainian law on education and the draft law on the status of Ukrainian as an official language directly violate Ukraine’s Constitution. You know this very well.  They also violate Ukraine’s international obligations. Literally in December the Verkhovna Rada rejected the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, in part, on repealing Article 7 of the Law on Education. Commitments show that people are willing and able to negotiate.  

Question: Why is Russia rejecting the possibility of the return of its citizens from Ukraine back to the country? Didn’t Ukraine propose to exchange Kirill Vyshinsky for Roman Sushchenko? Everybody seems to know about this offer, but there is a whole list containing a dozen names. Ukraine offers an exchange; however, you refuse it.

Sergey Lavrov: As you know, just over a year ago, back in December 2017, with the participation of Viktor Medvedchuk we reached an exchange agreement. We agreed upon the lists of people to be exchanged, and repeatedly verified them. Everything was agreed upon. On the day of the exchange, when the people were brought to the location in order to be transported back to their homeland, the Ukrainian side said that it will not hand over 23 people agreed upon for transfer back to Russia; it said that literally at the point of transfer for the detainees and arrested persons. I refuse to even go through the reasons for this right now; it has nothing to do with the subject matter. It was said that these people had nothing to do with events taking place in Donbass, but the fact is, these lists were verified several times, the names were agreed upon, and Ukraine failed to keep another promise.

We still maintain the processes responsible for continuation of the Donbass prisoner exchange held within the framework of the “all for all” prisoner exchange stipulated by the Minsk agreements. These issues are currently being discussed in the Contact Group, but we are not seeing any particular constructiveness on the part of the Ukrainian government representatives.

As for the people detained in the Russian Federation without any relation to the events in the Donbass - we have a Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukraine also has a Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmila Denisova. As I understand, she is now in Russia; they are currently discussing these issues. I hope this dialogue will be effective, too. If it proves possible to reach any agreements, we will fulfil them.

Question: This question is about our nearest partners not only geographically. Kazakhstan is switching to the Latin alphabet. What is planned in relations with Astana for Moscow to remain a key partner for Kazakhstan.

Sergey Lavrov: As for our partners in the CSTO, the CIS and the EAEU, we have very good relations with them all, including Kazakhstan. As you know, it is one of the most frequent venues for talks. Our presidents meet several times a year and regularly talk on the phone. We have a shared position on promoting the Eurasian Economic Union as members of this union.

It is true that Kazakhstan is making decisions that involve moving the Kazakh language to the Latin alphabet. This was our Kazakh friends’ decision. At the same time, we cannot see any steps to restrict the Russian language and Russian-speaking people’s rights in Kazakhstan. At any rate, we constantly monitor these issues. Wherever our fellow citizens live, we always give priority to their rights and interests and the need to uphold these rights and interests in the countries of their residence. These issues are top priority on the agenda of talks with Kazakhstan and all other countries, where our compatriots live, including the CIS, Europe, the US and other regions.

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