Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following the 24th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, Vienna, December 8, 2017

Wednesday, 13 December 2017 09:26

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude and appreciation to the OSCE current chairman, Austria’s Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, and his associates for the excellent organisation of the chairmanship and the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting.

Surely you are up to date on the substance of yesterday’s discussions at plenary sessions. Pointed questions were raised and conflicting, sometimes opposite positions were stated.

We noted – and I believe it is hard to argue with this – that the security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic region has fallen on hard times, to put it mildly. Military-political tensions are escalating, including as a result of NATO’s course to “contain” Russia and continue its unchecked advance to the East, including the buildup of its capability there. The suppression of dissent, attacks on freedom of the media, language and education rights, and of course the continuing rise in neo-Nazi sentiments, which is not meeting with a fitting response, not least in the European Union, are causing concern. That said, several countries are indulging in groundless rhetoric about Russian “propaganda” and “hybrid threat” to avoid responsibility for many appalling violations of principles underlying OSCE activities. Division between OSCE countries impedes the unification of efforts to effectively counter real, not perceived threats common to all: terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime.

Russia and its CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) allies prepared several draft resolutions on consolidation issues for the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Vienna, including the need to fight terrorist ideology pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2354, foster integration processes in our common space and the need to firmly oppose the demolition and desecration of monuments dedicated to the victors of World War II.

On behalf of the Russian Federation, in our national capacity, we also submitted a draft resolution on reforming the OSCE’s human dimension activities. Unfortunately, our Western partners proved unprepared for a frank discussion of outstanding issues raised in these documents. These decisions were not coordinated. We will continue to work on these topics as we move along.

The CIS member countries have distributed their statement on the unacceptability of desecrating memorials dedicated to those who defeated the “brown plague.”

We have supported a generally good document on the military and political aspects of security (the first basket): on small arms and light weapons and stockpiles of conventional weapons. Regrettably, because of disagreements, draft documents on strengthening military stability and on the 25th anniversary of the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation were not coordinated. Nevertheless, we hope that this dialogue will continue. We believe that military and political issues should be discussed substantively and constructively, without any politicisation. If this is the case, we will take a major step towards restoring trust.

This OSCE Ministerial Council meeting has approved a modest but important document on the need to intensify the OSCE’s efforts on cyber security. We hope that a number of other documents on economic and environmental issues, which are currently under discussion, will also be approved.

Regarding the third (humanitarian) basket, we welcome the newly adopted document on the suppression of trafficking in persons and another document, co-sponsored by Belarus, Italy and the United States, on preventing sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Protection of children is among the unquestionable priorities in the OSCE’s human dimension.

Unfortunately, many other documents on humanitarian issues that were slated for consideration were not adopted primarily because of the unconstructive position of several countries. For the fourth year in a row, this position has prevented, for instance, the coordination of decisions on fighting Christianophobia and Islamophobia, as well as the declaration on fighting anti-Semitism that the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted in 2014. In an attempt to avoid condemning the attacks against Christians and Muslims in Europe, our Western partners try to justify the need for generic calls for universal tolerance. I believe that this is absolutely inadequate. This is an ostrich position. Yesterday, with our Hungarian colleagues, we held a special event dedicated to the infringement of Christians’ rights, citing specific facts. We also demonstrated how serious this problem was. Europe with its Christian roots, of course, must not sit on the fence in upholding Christians’ rights. It’s a pity that the humanitarian part of our agenda, a resolution on media freedom and pluralism, could not be adopted due to the openly politicised position of certain countries.

We addressed an array of issues related to overcoming conflicts in the OSCE space. Shifts for the better were noted in Transnistria settlement, including the opening of a bridge across the Dniester and reaching agreements on a number of issues related to citizens’ everyday life, including in education and mobile communications. The document that we adopted today welcomes the “small steps” tactics and the upcoming “5+2” meeting at the end of this year. Today, a statement on Transnistria was adopted, welcoming the progress that has been made. In this context, I would like to note that progress was made because Chisinau and Tiraspol directly agreed on specific steps to make people’s everyday life in Transnistria and Moldova more comfortable and convenient.

I also urge our Ukrainian colleagues not to neglect their obligations enshrined in the Minsk Agreements and, just as Chisinau communicates with Tiraspol, open a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. This is not even a recommendation but a demand that was approved by the UN Security Council when we unanimously endorsed the Minsk Agreements.

We also coordinated a statement by the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, the United States and France) on a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh, reaffirming the well-known principles that a settlement should be based on.

As you have heard, the discussion on Ukraine was rather tense. Despite all the differences, I will single out the main points. Nobody is questioning the fact that there is no alternative to the Minsk Package of Measures; all parties support the OSCE efforts to facilitate the resolution of the conflict in Donbass both in the framework of the Contact Group and through the work that is being done by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, because of the destructive position of our Kiev colleagues, we could not approve a declaration reflecting these approaches. The Ukrainian side tried to pack it with absolutely politicised, ideological and unacceptable provisions. Nevertheless, to reiterate, nobody called into question the relevance of the Package of Measures or the fact that it has no alternative.

Once again, a statement in support of the Geneva discussions on the Trans-Caucasus could not be adopted due to disagreements between the parties involved.

To reiterate my previous point, the most important thing is that we had a frank conversation on key issues in the Euro-Atlantic region. There was a lot of rhetoric and polemics, which is perhaps natural. We believe that such extreme views that are sometimes inevitably expressed in the course of discussions must not impede the subsequent practical work on drafting decisions. Even in this difficult situation in Europe, as well as the world at large, we all say that there can be no “business as usual,” but it is essential to cooperate where this is in the interest of the parties concerned. The OSCE provides a good opportunity for this, i.e., to coordinate decisions that will be based not on the rhetoric of confrontation but on the need to identify the shared elements in the positions of all sides and adopt agreements reflecting the consensus that will be ensured through a balance of interests, not some interrogative approaches.

I’m convinced that the OSCE has preserved its potential. To ensure that it is realised in full, it is necessary to take practical steps to reform the organisation. Introduced by Russia jointly with our partners, the proposals on drafting the organisation’s charter and formulating procedural rules for all of its institutions, including the ODIHR, in particular with regard to election monitoring, streamlining OSCE mission activities in member countries, as well as a host of other matters, have been on the table for years.

We welcome the fact that perhaps for the first time in the OSCE’s entire history, in November, the Secretariat prepared a document showing the status of the projects that are financed from off-budget contributions. Until recently, in response to our persistent attempts to find out how the extra-budgetary funds were being used, we were told that this was up to the donors. If you are donors and you want your project to be carried out the way you conceived it, no one can stop you from doing so directly. However, if you come to the OSCE and say that you are giving money for a project in Country X and pin an OSCE flag on it, then, in my opinion, elementary decency requires that you disclose what kind of project this is and what its objectives are.

I am convinced that we still have a shared goal that was set at the Astana Summit in 2010, i.e., to create an inclusive community based on cooperation and indivisible security across the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space. If this political obligation, which we all assumed at the highest level in Astana, indeed shapes the practical steps of all member countries, then I am sure that we will be able to achieve more positive results than the ones we noted today.

Question: The OSCE Ministerial Council meeting revealed that the parties take different approaches towards various conflicts in Europe. Thus, the main focus was on the conflict in Ukraine. This is especially disturbing from Azerbaijan’s perspective, considering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There was no evidence of such a selective approach at a recent session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna. Shouldn’t the OSCE Ministerial Council act just as objectively?

Sergey Lavrov: The resolution of any crisis always involves a combination of two approaches. These are some basic principles and direct contacts between the sides, a search for a balance of interests and compliance with the agreements that are achieved at various stages to prevent subsequent backsliding on them. Many years ago (at least seven), Russia and its partners proposed adopting an OSCE document listing principles constituting the foundation of what you have described as the same approach towards all conflicts. Of course, our Western partners said this would not do because each crisis had its specifics. That’s true. This is why, in addition to the general criteria that mediators should be guided by in resolving a conflict, the specifics of each conflict should be taken into account. For instance, with regard to Transnistria, the ongoing process involves not so much the cessation of violence (there is practically no violence there due to the presence of Russian peacekeepers) as getting things back to normal on the practical, everyday level. In Ukraine, the top priority is to stop violations of ceasefires that are declared regularly. The OSCE says there has been no shooting for several days and that heavy equipment can be disengaged. The Kiev authorities say this is according to OSCE data, but according to Ukrainian data, several shots were fired. This is specifically the problem that the disengagement of forces in the village of Luganskaya that the Normandy format leaders agreed on last October in Berlin has come up against.

Of course, it is important to understand what the priority in each conflict is at a given moment. However, it is also essential to rely on some general, as you said, “equal” approaches. These include, above all, direct dialogue between parties to a conflict, as in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Unfortunately, it has yet to make serious progress but we believe it’s encouraging that this year dialogue was conducted at the presidential level and several times at the foreign ministers’ level. We will continue to work in line with the collective approach of the Russian, US and French co-chairs. At this session, we have reaffirmed it once again. It contains the principles of a peace settlement that the sides have approved but have yet to translate into the language of practical steps. This is not an easy task but we continue to work on it.

Question: Yesterday, you had a meeting with your Ukrainian counterpart Pavel Klimkin. As we know, you discussed the exchange of prisoners. What did you agree on? Did you talk numbers and dates? Did you address the issue of exchanging Ukrainians held in Russian prisons for Russians held in Ukrainian prisons?

Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, at the meeting with Pavel Klimkin, which took place on his initiative, we talked about the implementation of the framework agreement what was reached following the visit to Russia by Viktor Medvedchuk, coordinator of the Ukrainian government delegation in the Contact Group on humanitarian issues. As you know, he brought a proposal with regard to exchanging about 300 Donetsk and Lugansk representatives for over 70 Ukrainian citizens [held] in the self-proclaimed republics.

As you also know, at President Vladimir Putin’s request, Mr Medvedchuk got in touch with these republics’ leaders and urged them to support this approach. Everyone agreed with this and yesterday my Ukrainian counterpart and I simply discussed certain details regarding the numbers, as well as the need to verify certain information. I believe advisors to the Normandy format presidents will meet in Minsk tomorrow, where preparations for this exchange will be the main topic.

The issue of people held in Russian prisons was touched upon indirectly. We explained that Ukrainian citizens who are also Russian citizens are being held fully in accordance with our law; no consular access is provided in their case because they are Russian citizens. Ukrainian citizens who are being held on charges of committing some serious crimes have consular access and can meet with their relatives when necessary.

Question: Yesterday, you had a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after which a statement was posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website saying in part that progress in the political process in Syria in the Geneva format, as well as preparations for the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, are linked to the total elimination of terrorist groups in Syria. Now that the elimination of ISIS has been announced, are there plans for some joint operation in Idlib?

Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, ISIS has been dealt a complete and final defeat. The President has made such assessments. The remaining pockets pose no serious threat. They will be suppressed.

The situation in Idlib remains difficult. We are working with our Turkish, Iranian and Syrian colleagues to set up a de-escalation zone in this part of Syria and ensure its effective operation. There are no joint plans with the United States with regard to this particular area in Syria. I believe this is absolutely non-productive.

Question: Yesterday, Washington stated that Moscow was secretly deploying ground-launched cruise missiles on its territory, thus violating the INF Treaty. Can you comment on this? Does Washington comply with this treaty?

Sergey Lavrov: I’m not aware of this information. I’m ready to look at these reports. Then perhaps I could be more specific. However, generally, President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly commented on our adherence to the Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) and looked into the background of the issue at the time the treaty was signed. The Soviet Union had only ground-launched missiles. The United States had air- and sea-launched missiles as well. So, by signing the treaty on the elimination and destruction of such missiles, of course, we seriously disarmed ourselves in this particular category of armaments. However, since then, as part of our Aerospace Forces modernisation programme, we have created sea- and air-launched missiles not prohibited under the INF Treaty. In this context, it is not clear why anything needs to be violated in the first place. If these media reports are generic, groundless, then perhaps we should not even waste time on them.

Question: Russian citizens are being persecuted in Turkmenistan and their rights are being violated. In particular, animal rights activist Galina Kucherenko went missing yesterday. Can Russia get information about her fate, as well as the fate of [other] Russian citizens who have gone missing in Turkmenistan, in particular the country’s former foreign minister Boris Shakhmuradov?

Sergey Lavrov: Boris Shakhmuradov was a citizen not only of Russia but also of Turkmenistan. When a person with dual citizenship is in conflict with the law or law enforcement agencies, in accordance with generally accepted law-enforcement practice, which has no alternative, his case is dealt with under the law of the country where he is at the given moment. Nevertheless, we inquired Turkmenistan’s previous authorities about his fate, as we always do the moment Russian citizens end up in a crisis situation.

I did not know anything about the woman who went missing yesterday. However, we never ignore cases that become known to us concerning any Russian citizen in any country in the world, be it Turkmenistan, the United States or European, Asian or African states.

Things happen everywhere. Nowadays, unfortunately, along with openness and opportunities for traveling all over the world, citizens are becoming less vigilant. I understand this woman engages in NGO activities protecting animals? I will ask my colleagues to bring me up to date. We will instruct our ambassador to ask our Turkmen colleagues if they know something about her fate.

Question (translated from English): Yesterday, you had a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after which you said the North Korean leadership was expecting security guarantees from the United States. What was the secretary of state’s reaction to this? Do you think this is possible? My second question concerns the situation with the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Kremlin’s statement says that the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could split the international community. Does Russia plan to take any steps in this context?

Sergey Lavrov: Our position on North Korea has not changed. We are convinced that steps should be taken to de-escalate the situation. Perhaps it would be better to say this publicly. In September, our US colleagues indicated that there were no plans for any military exercises near the Korean Peninsula until spring. We read that signal as willingness – provided Pyongyang maintained calm – to start paving the way for dialogue. We passed this signal to Pyongyang. It did not say “no.” However, exactly two days later, an emergency, snap large-scale exercise was announced in October, which nobody had expected. After the exercise, Pyongyang still made no abrupt moves. Then, as if to deliberately provoke such abrupt moves, it was announced in late November that another exercise would take place in December, which, as I understand, is still ongoing: It’s the largest US-South Korean air exercise on record. After it was announced, another missile that, from all indications, had ICBM characteristics was launched. I am not trying to justify this launch. We condemned it and urged North Korea to fully comply with the UN Security Council resolution. However, the United States acted as if it wanted to provoke yet another reckless adventure, and it did so.

Now of course, it will be more difficult to create conditions for resuming dialogue. Still, we are convinced – and the North Koreans have repeatedly told us so – that they need security guarantees, especially in a situation where Washington is trying to pull out of the deal on Iran’s nuclear programme that was made a couple of years ago and provides for Iran to fully abandon its military nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Now, when I hope we can open dialogue on the North Korean issue, on the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula, naturally, many will be asking the question (it has already been mentioned in public) about how to convince North Korea that if agreements on dismantling [its] nuclear programme are reached and sanctions are lifted, the next administration [in the United States] will not scrap that agreement in one or two years. This is a very serious matter. You know, what is said cannot be unsaid, but this is what the situation is like.

In reply to your second question, I will say that yesterday I asked Mr Tillerson how the United States thought the peace process should move forward. There is no getting away from the fact that this statement is at odds with all existing agreements.

You said it has divided the world community but if it has, it has divided it in two very unequal parts. Mr Tillerson replied that there were nuances as to how this decision would be carried out (there is a six-month waiting period and then an architect would need to be hired, etc.) and hinted that nevertheless, the United States hoped for a “deal of the century” that would resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue in one fell swoop. We would like to know what this is going to look like now.

By the way, it may be recalled that until recently, US emissaries who visited the Middle East and talked to Palestinians, Israelis and representatives of other countries in the region, publicly called for shifting the focus on the approach toward the Middle East peace process in favour of the Arab Peace Initiative that was adopted in 2002, which stipulates that as soon as the Palestinian issue is resolved and a Palestinian state created with corresponding parameters, the entire Arab world would recognise Israel and normalise relations with it.

In its plans, which were discussed in the course of numerous trips to the Middle East, the current [US] administration promoted reverse logic: first, normalisation of relations between Washington and the Arab world as a whole, and after this happens, the Palestinian issue would resolve itself. If the administration promoted this approach, which reverses the sequence [of events] under the Arab Peace Initiative, its announcement regarding the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem has seriously complicated its course toward normalising relations with the Arab world and then resolving the Palestinian issue.

I asked Mr Tillerson to explain the rationale behind these moves. Even from the perspective of the line that the administration has followed until recently, this statement makes no sense. Today, the UN Security Council will address this topic at its meeting. We hope that at this meeting, our US colleagues will explain how they envision further movement and in what direction.

Question (translated from English): Yesterday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that to make progress on ending the long-running conflict in Georgia and Moldova, as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh, [the United States must] condemn Russia’s efforts to stifle access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Can you comment on these remarks? When will you be ready to recognise the territorial integrity of Georgia and end the occupation of our regions?

Sergey Lavrov: Perhaps there is nothing for me to comment on since Mr Tillerson urged you, not me, to condemn Russia. Do it. We respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, just as we respect the territorial integrity of the two newly independent states: the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia.

Question: One topic of [your] conversation with Mr Tillerson was Ukraine. Following that conversation, the Foreign Ministry issued an official statement saying that while considering the situation in eastern Ukraine, the Russian side noted that there is no alternative to the Minsk Agreements. Does the United States call into question the fact that they have no alternative? What is the US position?

Sergey Lavrov: They [Americans] expressed no doubts about this. As already noted, during yesterday’s discussion, all speakers said that the Minsk Agreements must be observed (at least I did not hear any different opinions).

The question is not what others think – the question is what is going on in Kiev. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov publicly called for the Minsk Agreements to be scrapped and to think of something else instead. He even added that the Ukrainian army and security forces would soon acquire sufficient capability to tackle this issue without these agreements. Given that the United States is the main curator of the Ukrainian authorities, we urged it to face up to its responsibility and call its protégés in Kiev to account so that they do not make such statements. Unfortunately, so far, Western curators have not provided this kind of tutoring to the Kiev authorities. We are being led to believe that Kiev is being quietly, informally prodded toward compliance with the Minsk Agreements. However, I have never heard anybody say anything negative in public about the game that is being played by the Kiev authorities. The only criticism from the United States and certain European [countries] has come over the Kiev government’s attacks on an anti-corruption agency established with the US’s direct participation (somebody was arrested, somebody was jailed and somebody was charged). I believe that the zeal with which the Americans are demanding compliance with the anti-corruption schemas that were developed with their participation should be applied to demands regarding compliance with the Minsk Agreements. This is all there is to it.

Yesterday, I also commented on the topic of UN peacekeepers that the Ukrainian side wants to use in order to bury the Minsk Agreements.

The Minsk Agreements provide for the deployment of OSCE observers whose movements are to be coordinated with the side whose territory they will be present in or would like to patrol. Since there were some security issues, we proposed arming them long ago. European countries refused. They said the OSCE had no peacekeeping experience. Then President Vladimir Putin proposed creating a UN peacekeeping mission to protect OSCE monitors. Wherever they would go under their mandate, subject to approval by the party concerned, UN guards would accompany them. This does not violate the Minsk Agreements. Unfortunately, even though the United States took an apparently positive stance (at least, we heard this from Kurt Volker), our Ukrainian colleagues want to turn a UN peacekeeping mission into what amounts to an external administration in Donbass that would deal with all issues needing coordination through direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. Instead of mutually acceptable agreements on the issue of amnesty, a special status for Donbass and elections, this administration, according to Kiev’s plans, would address issues related to bringing the region back into Ukraine’s fold without a special status. This is not being said in public but we know that if their scenario became a reality this is what would eventually happen.

Mr Tillerson did not support the “anti-Minsk” approach from such extreme positions but expressed willingness to continue looking – based, I hope, on our proposals – for some generally acceptable options with regard to the UN that would not undermine the Minsk Agreements.

Question: What is the situation regarding the enlargement of the monitoring mission of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Rumour in Azerbaijan’s expert community has it that Azerbaijan is refusing to grant its agrément to the appointment of Russia’s new ambassador, Georgy Zuyev, over his pro-Armenian stance. Is there a new candidacy for ambassador or is this just a rumour?

Sergey Lavrov: The issue of increasing the number of OSCE monitors on the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh was discussed in 2016 at a meeting of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan with the participation of the US secretary of state and the French and Russian foreign ministers in Vienna and in June in St. Petersburg with the participation of President Putin. After that, a general agreement was submitted to the OSCE. I know that the OSCE special representative is working to coordinate the practical parameters of its realisation.

Regarding our new ambassador to Azerbaijan, who will be sent as soon as current Ambassador Vladimir Dorokhin’s mission is over, I have seen the rumors you have mentioned on the Internet. We never asked the Azerbaijani government for agrément on Mr Zuyev. However, all this talk as to who has what connections and how this affects politics, of course, is not quite in line with modern civilised standards.

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