Briefing by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, March 11, 2016

Tuesday, 15 March 2016 06:37

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui’s upcoming visit to Moscow
On March 14, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui will pay a working visit to Moscow. He is due to have talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a number of meetings at Russian ministries and government agencies.
We regard the visit of the head of Tunisia’s foreign policy service, who is also co-chair of the Russia-Tunisia intergovernmental commission for trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, as an important step towards the further consolidation of the bonds of friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries.
I’d also like to recall that this year we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. Various activities timed to coincide with this event will take place both in Russia and in Tunisia. Information about them will be made available by the Foreign Ministry and our Embassy in Tunisia.
We are satisfied with the dynamic development of Russia-Tunisia ties and the intensity of the political dialogue that is traditionally marked by a high degree of trust. In March 2014, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a working visit to Tunisia. In May 2014, the fifth meeting of the intergovernmental commission took place in the Tunisian capital. In September 2014, Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi visited Moscow. In November 2015, State Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin visited Tunisia.
Mr Jhinaoui’s visit to Moscow will help synchronise our positions on key aspects of the international agenda, address in substance the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular in Libya and Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and coordinate joint steps in these, as well as other areas. Russia is willing to support any constructive initiatives to normalise the situation in hot spots in the region by peaceful means, based on respect for generally recognised norms of international law. We reaffirm the need for collective efforts to fight the terrorist threat.
Comprehensive bilateral cooperation will feature prominently in the upcoming talks. A special focus will be placed on the preparations for the sixth meeting of the intergovernmental commission that is due to take place on March 29-April 1 in Moscow.
Tunisia is among Russia’s important trading partners in Africa. The volume of bilateral trade turnover in 2015 was $827 million. We hope the decisions that will be made at the upcoming meeting will make it possible to significantly improve last year’s indicators.
The rise in terrorist activity in Tunisia has affected our tourist industries. In 2015, only 52,000 Russia tourists visited Tunisia, compared to 262,000 in 2014. We act on the premise that as the security situation in Tunisia improves, positive dynamics in tourism will be restored. It is important to note that the safety of Russian citizens is our unquestionable priority.
Russia-Tunisia cultural ties continue to expand. In keeping with the current cultural cooperation programme for 2014-2016, preparations are underway for a number of joint projects, including bilateral days of culture.
The upcoming visit to Moscow by Foreign Minister of the Arab Republic of Egypt Sameh Shoukry
On March 15-17, Foreign Minister of the Arab Republic of Egypt Sameh Shoukry will be in Moscow on a working visit.
The Minister will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a wide range of international, regional and bilateral issues.
Mr Shoukry is also scheduled to meet with Russian State Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and other officials.
Egypt is one of Russia’s leading partners in the Middle East and North Africa. The two countries share many years of friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation based on genuine respect for each other’s interests. Russia welcomes Cairo’s active role in international and regional affairs. The upcoming visit will be an opportunity to explore all the major areas of joint work aimed at deepening foreign policy cooperation and promoting the entire range of bilateral cooperation.
The foreign ministers of Russia and Egypt will pay close attention to the resolution of crises which currently abound in the Middle East. Developments in Syria, Libya and the Arab-Israeli peace settlement process will be in the focus of an in-depth discussion. Among issues on the international agenda, a special emphasis will be placed on combatting terrorism and extremism.
Naturally, a substantive discussion of urgent bilateral issues will be aimed at further advancing the bilateral relationship in accordance with current high-level agreements, which expand the mutually beneficial partnership in trade, the economy, culture, science, humanitarian sphere and other areas.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in the upcoming meeting of the Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad
On March 18, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will chair a regular meeting of the Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad. Participants in these quarterly events discuss the current state of relations with Russian communities abroad.
During the March 18 meeting, representatives of the ministries and agencies concerned and both houses of the Federal Assembly, which are part of the commission, will discuss the implementation in 2015 of the State Programme to Assist Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots Living Abroad, and draft plans for the execution of presidential and governmental instructions issued following the 5th World Congress of Compatriots Living Abroad, which took place in Moscow in October 2015.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming meeting with Foreign Minister of the Republic of Abkhazia
Vyacheslav Chirikba and Plenipotentiary Presidential Envoy for Post-Conflict Settlement of the Republic
of South Ossetia Murat Dzhioyev
On March 18, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with Foreign Minister of Abkhazia Vyacheslav Chirikba and South Ossetian Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy for Post-Conflict Settlement Murat Dzhioyev.
The officials will coordinate their positions ahead of the next round of Geneva discussions on security and stability in the South Caucasus. They will also discuss current issues of regional cooperation.
Attacks on Russian diplomatic and consulate missions in Ukraine
We have recently witnessed a number of outrageous acts by aggressive thugs in Ukraine against Russian diplomatic and consulate missions in Kiev, Lvov, Odessa and Kharkov. All of you have seen videos and TV reports on these events.
The Russian Foreign Ministry sent a note to the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine, in which Ukraine’s attention is drawn to the offensive excesses of the extremists. It was noted that their actions were encouraged and at times directed by Verkhovna Rada deputies, and Ukraine’s political and public leaders. This unambiguously proves the pre-planned nature of such provocations, while Ukrainian law enforcement personnel have yet again failed to provide an adequate response.
Particular indignation was caused by the desecration of the Russian national flag, which was torn down from the flagpole in front of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Lvov. This offense was perpetrated by Verkhovna Rada deputy Vladimir Parasyuk.
The Russian diplomatic and consulate missions suffered grave material damage. The lives and safety of their personnel were threatened.
Perhaps it is a secret for those Ukrainian citizens who take part in those pogroms, but let me say that it is not some cheap fun, and the material responsibility is born primarily by your fellow-countrymen who will have to pay for all that with their own money. When you burn cars, break down doors and throw stones at the windows, be advised that you do it at your own expense. 
In the note, the Russian side demanded that Kiev brings to account and punishes all the individuals involved in those illegal actions. Moscow hopes that in future the Ukrainian authorities and law enforcement agencies will ensure all the necessary conditions for Ukraine to fulfil its international obligations with regard to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states: “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.”
The responsibility for any possible provocations against the Russian diplomatic and consulate missions in Ukraine and for all negative consequences lies completely on the Ukrainian side.
I would like to expand on the topic and to stress that, unfortunately, we have not yet heard a response from our Western partners to the barbaric assaults on the Russian missions in Kiev, Kharkov, Lvov and Odessa. It is clear that the actions of the vandals had been carefully prepared and directed up to the smallest detail. There are no doubts that their actions carried a potential threat to the missions’ staff and their families.
Yet those actions were not followed by any initiative reaction from the international community, from our civilised Western colleagues. The absence of the reaction forced Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to state unequivocally in his interview to REN TV that ignoring those acts of vandalism in not in line with any civilised standards or long-time traditions in international affairs. However, no reaction followed. This is an unprecedented case in the history of diplomacy. The inviolability of diplomatic missions is the foundation of inter-state relations, and the cases of its violation have always been an emergency with a prompt reaction from the international community.
Not long ago diplomatic missions were attacked in the Middle East. Let me remind you how they ended, how the international community rose against it in a united front. Russia always states its unambiguous stance on the inadmissibility of attacks on diplomatic or consulate missions regardless of Russia’s political views, regardless of what sort of ties, contacts and level of relations it has with a particular country.
I would like to lay special emphasis and draw the attention of our civilised Western colleagues, those who have not heard or seen that the principal initiator of that horror in Lvov was a Verkhovna Rada deputy, a man who personifies the Ukrainian authorities, and consequently is a good example and indicator of the values reigning in modern Ukraine today. Someone may think that this is the way “Europeans” behave but in reality that is not the case.
All this creates an impression that our Western colleagues have gone too far with anti-Russian rhetoric and have really crossed the line in encouraging such actions. They may not see it, and their media may not report it, but this can be remedied by watching the Russia media.
I would like to point out that yesterday Russia’s Permanent Representative to the OSCE Alexander Lukashevich made a statement on this issue at the meeting of the organisation’s Permanent Council. In addition, Mr Lukashevich asked several questions: “Why don’t Washington and Brussels pressure Kiev to investigate the death of Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin? Why don’t they demand that the Ukrainian authorities release thousands of political prisoners?”
All this is happening with tacit agreement or, let us call things what they are, with direct incitement of the extremists’ actions against Russian diplomatic missions, and with encouragement in top-level statements.
The answer is evident. Nobody cares about the destiny of Ukrainian individuals or group of people. Everyone cares exclusively about their own political interests.
I would like to address those who took part and is taking part in those pogroms. Do you really think you are so cool when, clutching eggs and brilliant green disinfectant, you try to ransack Russian embassies? Do you really feel you are strong at that moment? Do you think you are patriots of Ukraine? I want to remind those who are storming Russian missions right now that they had a chance to prove their love for their homeland, their patriotism when Ukraine launched mobilisation. We all remember how it ended. Half of those who were called up hid away at their relatives’ in Russia, and the rest – in social networks.
The upcoming round of Syria talks in Geneva
Let me give you a brief overview of recent developments in the process of political settlement and reconciliation. You may be aware of these things better than I, but in order for us to move on and discuss other substantive issues, I would like to take a moment and say that, as we have heard and now know, another round of mediated talks, aka proxy talks, between Damascus and various opposition groups will be held in Geneva on March 14 under the auspices of the UN and with the direct participation of UN Secretary-General Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. These contacts will be made with the help of the moderators. The Russian side will be represented by Research Director of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies Vitaly Naumkin, a well-known orientalist and expert on regional conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.
Someone asked me today what needs to be done to make Damascus participate in these talks. I think nothing needs to be done because Damascus stated a while ago and confirmed by its actions that it does participate in these talks. We haven’t seen any statements to the contrary. We believe that this decision has been made and will be implemented. I would appreciate it very much if we could avoid all informational provocations. The fact that Damascus is willing to take part in these talks was duly noted and confirmed. We have an understanding that the Syrian side will be represented by Syria's Permanent Representative to the UN Bashar Jaafari. There’s also information about who will be participating from the opposition groups. Notably, the list of participants is still to be determined. We would like all the opposition groups to act constructively, so as to not thwart the process.
The talks will last longer that just one day. Most likely, they will last for a while. I reiterate that it’s about the proxy talks with the participation of the UN representatives, the moderators. There is such a format of dialogue between Damascus and various private opposition groups.
Two ISSG working groups continue to operate constructively and successfully. One of them deals with humanitarian cooperation and is doing just fine. The other one deals with the ceasefire and is co-chaired by Russia and the United States. As you may be aware, this group includes the military and is used to maintain contacts between the Russian and the US military. The Defence Ministry regularly provides detailed accounts of its activities.
Situation in Daraya, Syria
In the past few days some officials in the media are actively spinning the story connected to the humanitarian situation in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus besieged by the Syrian government forces. Anything is used for this purpose: interviews with “eyewitnesses” and heartbreaking pictures of children, as well other means of creating an aggressive emotional impact. It is remarkable that this media background is hijacked by the so-called Riyadh opposition group for their tactic of setting down preliminary conditions for intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva. Some days ago they threatened again that they would not join the above dialogue with the Syrian government representatives until the Daraya blockade is lifted, demanding that the UN should send emergency humanitarian aid there.
This hardline “maximalism” resembles setting forth countless new conditions to push through their agenda, as well as some sort of self-publicity. Apparently, all this is caused by a desire to derail the fulfillment of the ceasefire agreements, to prevent the launching of a steady and effective political process aimed at reinforcing the current truce and ultimately at creating the best conditions for resolving all the humanitarian issues.
Are there humanitarian problems in the area I spoke about? Of course, there are. The question is – where aren’t there such problems in Syria? And how long will it take the international community, including the Syrian opposition, to understand that the humanitarian situation in that country is on the verge of collapse? I would like to say that humanism cannot bear politicising and double standards. In this connection it would be quite reasonable to ask a question why such ardent defenders of the Daraya population, which is indeed suffering, forget about the other hotspots of the tragedy, and completely ignore, for example, the critical situation in the center of Deir ez-Zor Province with over 200,000 residents, or the situation in Foua and Kefraya in the Idlib Province. We would like to remind you that Foua and Kefraya residents have approached the UN Secretary-General asking for the protection of civilians from massive terrorist attacks.  Terrorists are already making mine field lanes and digging tunnels in preparation for an imminent attack of local towns. Why do we not hear from the people, who draw attention to the humanitarian situation in some regions and ultimately speculate on human grief and pain, about the sufferings of many thousands of residents in the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maksoud in northern Aleppo? The district from which disturbing reports about the continued shelling and assaults by terrorists are coming? We would like these questions not to remain rhetorical; we would like to get an answer to them.  
The logic of settlement is the logic of peace which, unlike the logic of war, is constructive, not destructive. Accordingly, we call on all the interested parties to consolidate efforts to solve specific problems for promoting the comprehensive settlement of the Syrian crisis rather than scrutinize under a magnifying glass an occasional failure in the humanitarian access. We want our call to be heard loud and clear.
Statements by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
We’ve taken note of recent statements by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that the activities of Russia’s Aerospace Forces in Syria and its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean “has fuelled the humanitarian crisis and driven more people to Turkey’s borders.” He also said that Russia is “using many different means to try to divide the NATO alliance.”
I’d like to remind you that Russia has stated more than once that it is operating in Syria openly and transparently, based on reliable information and strictly with the aim of liquidating ISIS and other terrorist groups, which are the source of the terrorist threat in Syria and the Middle East. But Mr Stoltenberg has not abandoned his deliberate attempts to present a distorted view of the Russian aerospace operation in Syria. Also, he refuses to see Russia’s consistent efforts to bring about the cessation of hostilities in Syria and to create conditions for launching UN-sponsored negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition as soon as possible.
We see obvious attempts to blame Russia for the consequences of the NATO countries’ reckless and blunderous attempts in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years. It is these actions that have provoked the largest migration crisis in Europe since WWII. Despite Mr Stoltenberg’s statements, the facts point in the opposite direction. One of the obvious results of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operations in Syria is a major reduction in the number of refugees there.
As for Mr Stoltenberg’s reference to Russia’s alleged attempts to “divide the NATO alliance,” Russia has never tried to divide or otherwise affect the alliance. On the contrary, we have always, both openly and behind closed doors, encouraged the members of the international community to consolidate the efforts to settle regional crises and resist real rather than imaginary threats.
Had we wanted to divide the alliance or isolate ourselves from it, we could have invented many pretexts for shutting the door and ending any cooperation with it. However, despite the incongruous, aggressive and sometimes outrageous statements made by NATO leadership during these years, we continue to express our willingness to keep the door open. We are not doing this because we like to listen to these statements. But we believe that large countries such as Russia and the NATO countries should be aware of their responsibilities to their citizens and to the citizens of the countries, for example in the region, to which they are responsible as major powers for preventing or settling global crises and for dealing with new challenges and threats. It is for this reason and not because we enjoy these absurd statements that we keep our door open and express this to our NATO colleagues whom we still regard as such.    
We believe that the above statements and these specific conclusions are just another propaganda move aimed at justifying the alliance’s actions in Europe and other regions by the need to deter Russia.
Official statistics on refugees in Europe, January 2016
In addition to political views, there are facts and statistics. This data does not come from Russian NGOs. I would like to cite a few figures.
According to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (I think Mr Jens Stoltenberg should trust this organisation), in January 2016, over 97,000 new asylum seekers were registered in EU countries. This is 13 percent less than in December 2015. The trend towards a decline in the number of refugees is obvious and officially recognised. Syrian citizens account for 33,000 of asylum applications, Afghan citizens for 13,500, and Iraqi citizens for 11,000.
I’d like to ask Mr Stoltenberg a question: Isn’t it obvious that people are not fleeing Afghanistan because of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces’ (ADF) operations in Syria? It seems to me that every fifth grade school student ought to know this, at least in our country.
The report also says that compared to December 2015, in January 2016, the number of Syrian asylum seekers dropped by 7 percent. Applications from Syrian citizens have been falling for the fourth month in a row. The trend is clear.
These figures are further evidence of the fact that the increase in the number of refugees from Syria to the EU countries was not due to ADF operations, as Mr Stoltenberg and many other officials claim, but to ISIS’ terrorist activity. By contrast, our actions allow Syrians to look more confidently to the future.
I believe that the preparation of Mr Stoltenberg’s reports should be based on this data.
Acting Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow Robert Pszczel’s comments on conditioning Russian society
Recently, a political conference took place at the Martens Centre in Brussels where Acting Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow Robert Pszczel, who is well known to everyone, as we were told, urged his colleagues-in-the-trade to focus on conducting an information campaign in Russian society, aimed especially at young people. He contended that despite its exposure to Western values and lifestyle, Russian society still allows itself to be duped by the authorities.
It is great that Mr Pszczel has his own viewpoint, which coincides with the viewpoint of all other leaders and leading countries of the alliance. I believe it would not be a bad idea to consult, for example, the editions that people who work or visit Brussels on business always have at hand.
The US on the true causes of the Syria crisis and the flood of refugees to Europe, as well as Russia’s role in stabilising the situation in Syria
Regarding who dupes who, there is an interesting political analysis by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a representative of the famous family, which was published by Politico, I think on February 23.
I’ll cite one passage. Please note that this was not written by a Foreign Ministry official.
“We must recognize the Syrian conflict is a war over control of resources indistinguishable from the myriad clandestine and undeclared oil wars we have been fighting in the Mideast for 65 years. And only when we see this conflict as a proxy war over a pipeline do events become comprehensible. It’s the only paradigm that explains why the GOP on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration are still fixated on regime change rather than regional stability, why the Obama administration can find no Syrian moderates to fight the war, why ISIL blew up a Russian passenger plane, why the Saudis just executed a powerful Shiite cleric only to have their embassy burned in Tehran, why Russia is bombing non-ISIL fighters and why Turkey went out of its way to shoot down a Russian jet. The million refugees now flooding into Europe are refugees of a pipeline war and CIA blundering.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi’s concern over EU-Turkey agreement
We have noted the remarks by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who expressed concern over an agreement reached between the EU and Turkey on the repatriation of migrants.
We agree with the High Commissioner in that the migration issues the EU is facing are not unique. Other countries take in far more forced migrants even though their capabilities do not match those of the EU. We believe that the fact that the EU countries’ efforts to overcome the migration crisis are not producing much result is related to the lack of a coordinated approach. This situation is affecting the migrants and refugees themselves, whose rights, as you know, are often seriously violated.
We believe that the recent agreements on the collective repatriation of migrants from the EU without reliable guarantees of their protection in accordance with international law are cause for serious concern. We urge our Europe colleagues to take a more responsible approach towards their international obligations in this area.
The situation on the Turkish-Syrian border
We keep hearing numerous Turkish allegations to the effect that statements, specifically Russian statements, about our concern over the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border are groundless and unsupported by anything, that there are no facts, and so on. I’d like to say that under Security Council Resolution 2165 of 2014, which was later extended by Resolution 2191 and Resolution 2258 of 2015, the humanitarian assistance rendered by the UN and its partners across the Turkish border can reach its destination via two border crossings: Bab al-Salam (Aleppo Province) and Bab al-Hawa (Idlib Province).
The UN also supplies humanitarian aid via the Kurdish-controlled Nusaybin-Al-Qamishli border crossing (Al-Hasakah Province). Syria has allowed the transit, whereas Turkey gives its consent only from time to time and often with long delays.
The UN humanitarian monitoring mechanism established by Security Council Resolution 2165 is based in Gaziantep, Turkey, and is authorised by this resolution to monitor the loading of UN humanitarian aid and any subsequent cases of it being opened by the Turkish customs authorities, with reference only to cargoes transported through Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa. The UN observers are not permanently stationed at the said border crossings.
All in all, there are 18 official border crossings on the Turkish-Syrian border (and a number of unofficial ones), many of which are used, among other things, for humanitarian deliveries (other than UN-sponsored). There are no independent outside monitors watching this process, nor any supervision. This transit can be controlled only by Turkish officials.
Aside from humanitarian convoys, commercial freight traffic is active on the Turkish-Syrian border, while illegal arms supplies can go through improvised border crossings that were used by smugglers even before the Syrian conflict, especially at night.
Being that Turkey more frequently repudiates allegedly “groundless” accusations of their maintaining cross-border lifelines to illegal armed groups in Syria, including terrorists, we’d like to suggest that Ankara, as a goodwill gesture, invite international observers to its border crossings to monitor Syria-bound cargoes. This will be the simplest way to dispel the myth (if, to believe Ankara, it is a myth) about its involvement in illegal cross-border deliveries and movements and debunk all “groundless accusations and insinuations.” What could be simpler? We’d like to hear Turkey’s response.        
Dutch parliamentary hearings regarding the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash in Ukraine
We have not raised the issue of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash in Ukraine for a long time.
On March 1, the House of Representatives of the States-General of the Netherlands hosted regular hearings on the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash in Ukraine. The hearings involved Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. A sluggish Dutch media response to this event shows that the authorities in The Hague are delaying the investigation into the causes of the flight 17 crash. The authorities in the Netherlands that have failed to completely clarify the circumstances of the tragedy and to answer well-justified questions are now in a hurry to expose and prosecute the perpetrators. It turns out that only the relatives of the victims of the July 17, 2014 disaster in the skies over Ukraine want to know the truth. They regularly voice their discontent with the investigation proceedings and often ask the Dutch authorities loaded questions.
A criminal investigation launched by the Public Prosecution Service of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and a Joint Investigation Team also involving Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine is still plagued by uncertainty, and the overall situation is not transparent. Nothing is known about approximate deadlines for ending the investigation or initiating court proceedings.  The investigative methods being used to study about 50,000 testimonies by eyewitnesses from eastern Ukraine that have been collected in the form of text messages and using the Netherlands police website are raising many questions. Even local analysts doubt the necessity of including Ukraine on the investigative team.
All this leads to the conclusion that the criminal investigation is proceeding by fits and starts, and that it could become even more protracted.
As before, the situation around the flight 17 crash cannot help but raise justifiable questions for the authorities in the Netherlands.
So-called evidence falsified by the British Bellingcat blogger team concerning Russian leaders’ alleged complicity in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash
We are dismayed with the publication by the Netherlands media of assertions by UK organisation Bellingcat about the alleged complicity of Russian leaders in the July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 disaster in the skies over Donbass. They are citing as evidence various blurred photos whose origin is absolutely unclear, recordings of certain telephone conversations and the social media accounts of unidentified persons. To be honest, there is nothing new in Bellingcat’s methods. They have always used similar sources of information with regard to Russia, and they have also prepared their own open falsifications and planted them.
I would like to remind the media outlets in the Netherlands and in other countries (perhaps they have forgotten) that, Der Spiegel magazine accused Bellingcat of lies six months back. At that time, the German publication which accepted a similar false story as authentic had to apologise to its readers. In early 2016, the newspaper Trau of the Netherlands also conducted an investigation and established that 15 Bellingcat bloggers were inventing all this nonsense as a source of additional income. As you understand, these bloggers have no information at all and no idea of the disaster’s real facts. They are inventing news at home and sending it to various media outlets. In turn, television and radio company RTL of the Netherlands also doubts the Bellingcat findings and has noted openly that the bloggers have a very biased view of events, that they are using unverified data, and that they are focusing too actively on Russian officials who might be involved. At the same time, they are not justified in overlooking the role of the Ukrainian side.
Various Western experts and analysts have also voiced their opinion of Bellingcat. For example, a British political analyst said that a senior Dutch government or secret services official had advised the heads of the Joint Investigation Team to use Bellingcat materials. Otherwise their report would fail to interest anyone, he noted.
One is amazed, most of all, that state agencies of a country claiming the right to conduct a serious investigation into this tragedy are using Bellingcat materials. The Joint Investigation Team is actually taking this so-called “lead” in line with this “recommendation”. To be honest, one is terrified as to where this investigation may lead.
Reply by Dutch Safety Board head Tjibbe Joustra to the letter by Federal Agency for Air Transport Deputy Head Oleg Storchevoy
The Foreign Ministry has given careful consideration to the reply published on the Dutch Safety Board website by its head Tjibbe Joustra regarding the circumstances and causes of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 crash. This document is all but a formal reply to the letter by the Deputy Head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport (Rosaviatsiya) Oleg Storchevoy dated January 14, 2016.
The reasons brought forward by the Dutch Safety Board in its letter fail to provide any new insight into the situation, and do nothing but repeat the conclusions and reasoning of the MH17 Crash Final Report and its appendices. The Dutch Safety Board persists in rejecting well-grounded critiques of the technical investigation that are supported by facts and point to the lack of consistency and unreliability of the data underpinning this report. Russian experts have carried out additional experiments and research, which produced new and important information. Unfortunately, this evidence was refuted without justification as if it did not provide any ground for reopening the investigation. All this goes to show that the Dutch persist in their unwillingness to work together with Russian experts on determining the true causes of the MH17 crash, and instead tailor their reasoning to suit specific goals.
The Foreign Ministry is disappointed with the tick box approach by the Dutch which goes a long way towards exposing their unconstructive stance on this issue. We strongly believe in the need to continue professional and tedious efforts to elicit the true causes and circumstances of the MH17 crash over the Ukrainian territory. As before, Russia stands ready to provide the investigation every possible assistance, and Russian experts are also ready to contribute to these efforts, if we receive a request to this effect.
Article by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov
I see that journalists from Bulgaria are here with us today. Unfortunately, I have to touch upon a subject that is anything but pleasant.
I have to comment on an article by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov for a local daily published in the run-up to their national holiday, Liberation Day. Both the historic interpretation and the perspective on the current state of relations between Russia and Bulgaria are quite peculiar.
It is impossible not to experience deja vu hearing the repetitive anti-Russian accusations coming from some political figures who purport to be calling for dialogue but at the same time distort facts and fail to heed the opinion of their own constituencies. We have already seen and read such stories. This time again, with all due respect for the high office the Bulgarian people and its leaders entrusted to Daniel Mitov, we have to point to a number of substantial contradictions and provocative elements in this article, which carries  the pretentious title (as you can see for yourselves) “Bulgarian Memory and History Do Not Need a Regulator.” The elements in questions are hardly appropriate by themselves, and even less so in the context of the celebration by both Russia and Bulgaria of the latter’s liberation from the Ottoman rule.
Without pretending to act in the capacity of any kind of regulator, as Mr Mitov put it, or giving history lessons to anyone, let me note that not a single Russian official or the vast majority of Russians have ever taken or could have taken the liberty of speaking of the history of the Bulgarian people in a mentoring or disrespectful manner.
What is also striking is that Mr Mitov’s speechwriters have quite a vague notion of history. Let me give you an example. Mr Mitov writes of “Ukrainian, Belarusian and Finnish troops joining the Russian liberation army without regard to their own geopolitical interests.” As we all know, back then the now-independent Ukrainians, as well as the Fins, who were granted independence by Moscow in 1917, and the Belarusians were subjects of the Russian Empire. They fought shoulder to shoulder with the Russians and Bulgarians and were not subject to current political influences. We do not differentiate any fallen heroes by their ethnic origin. We have seen similar attempts, including last year, when someone tried to single out people of specific ethnic origin from the troops that liberated Nazi concentration camps. This was outright disgusting. What I’m saying does not refer just to the soldiers who fought the Russo-Turkish War.
Here’s another example in the same vain: the old bogeyman story about the so-called “Soviet Occupation” of Bulgaria in 1944−1947. Let me remind you that the Allied Control Commission in Bulgaria throughout this period included the USSR, as well as the US and Great Britain, and all the decisions were taken collectively. The Bulgarian people also know all too well the achievements of the Bulgarian state in 1944−1989 in science, economy, sports and many other areas.
In contract to Mr Mitov’s ambiguous perorations in this article, the fact that ordinary Bulgarians have a different perspective on our common history has been exemplified by thousand-strong wreath and floor laying ceremonies held across Bulgaria on March 3 at the monuments to the heroes of the liberation wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Assault on the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture’s vehicle
On March 9, assailants attacked the vehicle of the independent mobile group of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which carried Russian and foreign journalists, as well as human rights advocates en route from Ingushetia to Chechnya. I’d like to stress that President Vladimir Putin has instructed the Ministry of Interior to investigate the attack. Yesterday, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin strongly condemned the incident. The Foreign Ministry’s website has published tough and unambiguous comments without any sort of double talk. We are in control over this situation and focused on it. I’d like to say that among those injured was one your colleague, a Swedish Radio correspondent, accredited at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Persson Loefgren. We maintain close  contact with her and we have sent her a letter of support in which we offer her words of sympathy and indignation over the incident and wish her a speedy recovery, and expressing our readiness to assist her in restoring her lost documents. All this will be done. Let me repeat that such actions are unacceptable, they serve only to cause an official response and internal protest. I’d like the foreign journalists who work in Moscow to know about that.

Excerpts from answers to media questions:

Question: Let me defend the honour of the Bulgarian people
Answer: I have never called into question the honour of the Bulgarian people. I’d like to clarify that the honour of the Bulgarian people is exempt from any criticism. We will never doubt the feelings that the Bulgarians have toward us. I want to make this clear. We can have problems with some politicians or certain political movements. We understand that this is the result of the political climate. But as far as the Bulgarian people are concerned, I personally have many friends with whom I maintain regular contact, and therefore Russia’s relations with the Bulgarian people are in good state.
Question: During the celebrations of the anniversary of the Battle of Shipka Pass, when the Prime Minister and other Government members presented wreaths and flowers, all those present hissed at them. Bulgaria and Russia should have only one problem: who loves whom more.
Answer: I totally agree with you, I have no objections. I propose that this sentiment be captured in a joint document.
Question: We have recently returned from Syria, where we were fired on while in the ceasefire territory. Regardless of wearing media identifying insignia (helmets and body armour), we were shot at, apparently from the Turkish border. I’d like to thank General Igor Konashenkov of the Russian Armed Forces, Chief of the Directorate of Media Service and Information of the Ministry of Defence, who accompanied us. As a true Russian officer, he took the necessary measures to safely withdraw us from the area. I’m proud of being acquainted with Mr Konashenkov. Like 135 years ago, the Bulgarians and Russians were fighting under fire together.
I brought a small fragment from Syria, found near the town of Maaloula. Those who did this are inhumans. The town and all Christian churches have been ruined. Everything has been burned and destroyed. When we were liberated from Turkish slavery, the mosques still remained unharmed in Bulgaria. No one destroyed them as mosques are considered to be architectural heritage. They remained undamaged. I picked this fragment up to show everyone, and I’m ready to provide it to UNESCO and to reveal what happened in Syria. If this fragment is important, I’m ready to provide it to the Syrian Embassy. Those who did this are inhumane and have no moral values.
Maria Zakharova: Thank you very much for your kind and sincere words about General Konashenkov. I think he might be able to hear these words as the briefing is broadcast live. I’ll send your words to him.
Question: We have read that he was reprimanded. As the journalists who were involved in the incident, we are prepared to defend him. Three people were killed and eight were injured after we were fired on, but he saved us. That was scary; shells burst 300 metres away from us, followed by explosions at distances of 200 metres and 100 metres. We are media representatives, not military. We only escaped thanks to him.
Maria Zakharova: I think no one will offend General Konashenkov. I can tell you that other people have also expressed gratitude to him. We have received many letters from people who travelled to Syria and sincerely thanked the Ministry of Defence and its officers for the organisation, for risking their lives for you to see what was happening there with your own eyes. When Russian officials talk about it, it’s usually called propaganda. Whoever doesn’t believe us should believe you.
Question: I propose sending an UNESCO delegation to Syria in the company of General Konashenkov to see what’s happening there with their own eyes.
Maria Zakharova: Don’t think that we don’t raise these issues with UNESCO. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has met with Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General. They are concerned about the situation in Syria. UNESCO has published statements and reports, everyone is aware of it and realises that the only way to prevent or stop what you’re talking about is an actual, not mythical, fight against ISIS and terrorism.
Question: Do you think the issue of doping bans against Russian athletes is politicised? Does the Russian Foreign Ministry have levers of influence on the problem?
Maria Zakharova: I am not going to add anything to what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already said in his interview with the REN TV Company. The transcript and video are available on the Foreign Ministry’s website. I have nothing else to add.
Of course, we understand that this is all part of media and psychological pressure being applied on Russia, and now athletes are being targeted. It is surprising and disappointing for those who work in sports as a human activity traditionally associated with peace and reconciliation. When sports is used not for developing physical culture but as a tool for disassociating  rather than uniting people, not for solving problems but for inciting political conflicts, it is very sad and tragic,  not only for us, I think, but rather for international sports. We should address problems together, look for solutions and make consolidated decisions rather than use them to flare up mutual hatred. I invite you once again to read Mr Lavrov’s interview with REN TV.
Question: According to media reports and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, ISIS used chemical weapons against civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Kirkuk. The attack caused injuries among civilians and the Peshmerga military. We all know that chemical weapons in the hands of ISIS are a serious threat to all of us. Do you have plans to counter this threat? Is Russia going to help the Kurdish army deal with the chemical threat and provide assistance to the injured soldiers and civilians?
Maria Zakharova: My answer will be concise because we have repeatedly commented on this issue at our briefings.
Russia has more than once raised this question, namely at the UN Security Council. You are absolutely right that weapons of mass destruction are one of the most dangerous weapons, particularly if, even potentially, they land in the hands of terrorists or terrorist organisations. We are well aware of the possible outcome. Therefore, we have been raising this issue at the UN Security Council more than once and will continue to do so in the future.
As for practical aid, including medical etc., I need to find out more details and will provide you with complete information later.
Question: Washington has recently made a series of comments on Russia. Donald Trump described President Vladimir Putin as a strong politician, stronger than Obama. Mr Obama himself has made a few statements. What was Moscow’s reaction to these comments, were they of any interest to Russia? Why do you think the subject of Russia and the Russian-American relations regularly turns up during the US election campaign?
Maria Zakharova: As for the US politicians’ statements and those in other countries on the Russian leadership, it is up to the agencies concerned to comment on them.
As far as the US election campaign goes, we have noticed, too, that comments are often made on Russia and the individuals of the Russian political establishment. We are left with the impression that they cannot hold their elections without Russia. Why can’t they manage on their own, without us? We’ll be happy to watch from a distance. I am sure the American people have lots of real problems they are more interested in, such as social protection, medical insurance, US troops’ participation in legal, and mostly, unfortunately illegal military operations abroad. You see, this is what they should focus on.
Russia has never been and never will be a threat for America as a country or the American people. The problem could be that some people in the United States have no idea where Russia is. Perhaps, they think we are somewhere close, next to their borders and are threatening them? Perhaps, this is the problem and this is what they continually focus on? It is difficult to say. But why don’t they leave us alone this time? Surely they can do without Russia in their presidential race.
Question: Could you comment on latest media reports saying that Mikhail Lesin might have died a violent death? This version is different from the previous one.
Maria Zakharova: Late last night we indeed saw a media report referring to US investigators and authorised representatives in the US, who reportedly had concrete and clear information on the causes of death of the Russian citizen. I’d like to stress that we saw this report in the media and we double-checked it. These reports, indeed, proved true to fact. I mean, they were not plants or fakes.
Let me say that we have repeatedly asked our American colleagues for information via diplomatic channels, including the Russian Embassy in Washington. For several months, we didn’t receive from our American colleagues any concrete, substantial or real information that would shed light at least on some circumstances of this tragedy. Our Embassy in Washington made repeated inquiries. We’d like to address Washington and the Department of State as our direct counterparts and say that we have repeatedly posed this question over the course of several months. Much time has passed and we’d like to receive official information to preclude the emergence of speculation and for us to understand what steps should be taken in the future. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive information, but let there be at least something. It’s high time. This happened in early November 2015, six months ago. They should have identified at least some details. Given that we are referring to a Russian citizen, we hope that we’ll be provided with full information. At this point, I have nothing more to add. As soon as we have some official information, we’ll share it.
Question: There was a report earlier today that a Russian citizen, Denis Flinn, who was adopted by US citizens when he was 9 years old, decided to disclose that he had been a sexual slave of his adoptive parents for 10 years. Currently he is 23 years old and he has brought himself to tell the story only now. What is the Russian General Consulate doing and how is it helping him in this regard?     
Maria Zakharova: I’d like to dwell on two points. The Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Human Rights, Konstantin Dolgov, has issued detailed commentary on this issue. He has analysed this particular case and supplied all the information he has at his disposal. Second, we have been monitoring the fates of adopted children, including the cases that ”surface”, end up in courts, or are investigated in connection with tragic events in adoptive families, including injuries, deaths, or sexual violence, like in this case. Our Embassy and General Consulate are in contact with the US top officials, the Department of State and the local authorities on these issues. This situation, regrettably, is the rule rather than an exception. And we are also closely monitoring this matter. This is a reply to those who doubt the existence of such cases. Regrettably, there are many of them. Foreign Ministry Commissioner Konstantin Dolgov and Commissioner for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov have focused on bringing some clarity to these situations, including those ending in tragedy, that involve adopted Russian children in the USA.
Question: Earlier today PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Sergey Lavrov. Later he was received by President Vladimir Putin. How would you comment on the results of these talks in Moscow?   
Maria Zakharova: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on these talks in detail at an hour-long news conference held immediately after the meeting. I’d add that the talks were held in a friendly and constructive atmosphere. The two ministers discussed bilateral cooperation and interaction in regional structures and organisations. They also considered international and regional issues on the UN Security Council’s agenda, which attract the international community’s attention. Sergey Lavrov dwelled on the results of these talks in detail. You can access the transcript of the joint news conference granted by Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi on the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Question: The new head of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, told Senate that NATO in Syria should strategically counterbalance Russia in the entire region, adding that the US would maintain ceasefire until the international community changed its position on the Bashar al-Assad regime. Isn’t it humiliating for us to continue offering the Americans cooperation, while they make a point of emphasising their antagonism? You said that Russia “had never closed the door.” But isn’t it a case of Russia “knocking on a closed door?”
Maria Zakharova: It seems to me Mr Votel will be a serious rival to Gen. Philip Breedlove whose fame is a challenge for many.
This is yet another odd and irrelevant American statement that is fully divorced from reality. In reality we see military experts in Geneva working every day with maps, data and photographs. Their work leads to results all of us can see. The ceasefire works, although it is fragile and difficult to maintain. Its pattern is highly complex, but it works. Therefore, statements of this sort are made either by those who were originally against the pooling of Russian and US efforts in the fight against terrorism and the joint work on the ceasefire, or out of impotent rage. It’s hard to say. But our balanced and pragmatic position shouldn’t suffer from silly statements. We won’t “close the door.” We’ll wait, while actively offering joint work on global international crises.
Question: Are these issues discussed with the US Department of State?
Maria Zakharova: I can say that these issues regularly come up in telephone conversations between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry, which have become numerous lately. This is a two-way street: when our US colleagues have objections to a Russian statement, they say so too. For our part, we do ask these questions: Why do we need such statements, when our work has just started? These statements are not made by politicians or even legislators; they are made by officials. When we ask these questions, they are either answered or not answered for lack of anything to say.
Question: Our correspondent visited the beleaguered Kurdish-populated areas. His videos recorded frightful devastation in residential districts and clear signs of military crimes. In the town of Cizre, he was shown a basement, where, according to local residents, dozens of people had been burnt alive. The video shows the signs of these crimes. We are ready to provide it. Is Moscow planning to induce an investigation of these crimes, specifically via the UN mechanisms?
Maria Zakharova: We constantly raise these issues during our contacts with foreign colleagues, noting that these developments in Turkey cannot be regarded as normal or civilised. If self-styled civilised countries are looking on this placidly, we cannot help but ask questions. We also raise this subject at specialised organisations, including UN agencies. Moreover, we regularly discuss it at our briefings.
We will certainly study your content. If your data are confirmed, I think it will form the basis of our demarche on this theme.
Question: On Sunday, Paris will host a meeting on ceasefire in Syria to be attended by France, Britain, Germany, the US, and Italy. Why will Russia be kept out?    
Maria Zakharova: I have no information regarding this format. Meetings on a future truce in Syria and the situation in Syria are held in different formats. The ISSG is not the only format. There are bilateral meetings and meetings of self-organising countries. This is neither odd nor fearsome. There is nothing dangerous if some people want to meet and have a talk in a certain format. It’s a normal process, provided it is not at variance with the resolutions approved by the ISSG and the UN Security Council. Such meetings, including ministerial meetings, take place, for example, in Paris. Many meetings are held between regional actors. If countries feel this need, it’s their right. The important thing is that it shouldn’t interfere with the ISSG’s resolutions and actions.
Question: During the large US-South Korea military exercises recently, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said they had developed a miniature nuclear warhead. How would Russia respond to these statements and the overall situation in the region?
Maria Zakharova: You know, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about this in great detail in his statement today. We have repeatedly stated our commitment to a peaceful political settlement of the situation concerning the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation. Our position hasn’t changed and has become more relevant lately. But I urge you once again to read Minister Lavrov’s statements.
Question: South Korea has announced its decision to quit the Khasan-Rajin project.
Maria Zakharova: For this I’ll refer you to Russian Railways. They are implementing this project and can probably provide you with detailed information. We can request this information, but I think it would be better to contact Russian Railways directly.
Question: On March 7, Iranian aerospace forces conducted a ballistic missile test. The US Department of State responded by saying that if reports of the launch are confirmed, it plans to address the UN Security Council. What is Russia’s attitude to the missile launch?
Maria Zakharova: We have certainly taken note of the reports of recent ballistic missile launches in Iran, and we have witnessed the initial response of the United States and other European countries. We consider it important that any response be objective and well thought-out, taking into account all the peculiarities. First of all, it is very important to emphasise that the missile issue is not related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. We shouldn’t imply that it does, and we should prevent any provocative statements to this effect.
UN Security Council Resolution 2231 urges Iran to refrain from activities linked with developing ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons, including missile launches. At the same time, it should be noted that the previous UN Security Council Resolution, 1929, that expired on January 16, on the initial implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, called for completely banning such activity in Iran. It is also necessary to take into consideration the fact that members of the UN Security Council have deemed it possible to mitigate these provisions in Resolution 2231. We have no information that the missiles tested by Iran can deliver nuclear weapons.

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