Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, April 21, 2016

Monday, 25 April 2016 06:36

Table of contents

25 Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s visit to Russia

26 General Meeting of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO

27 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with OPCW Technical Secretariat Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu

28 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security

29 Meeting of the Russian Foreign Ministry Business Council

30 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s official visit to China to attend the fifth meeting of CICA foreign ministers

31 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier

32 Nagorno-Karabakh situation

33 Developments in Syria

34 Turkish support of terrorists in Syria

35 Situation with immigrants on Syrian-Turkish border

36 Publication of a current humanitarian bulletin on Ukraine by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

37 Assessment of press freedom in the world by Reporters Without Borders

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s visit to Russia

On April 24-26, Foreign Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Tedros Adhanom will pay a working visit to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with him on April 25.

The sides plan to discuss the main areas of bilateral cooperation in the political, trade, economic, investment and humanitarian fields. They will review the implementation of joint projects in energy, hydrocarbon prospecting and production, and construction of infrastructure facilities in Ethiopia.

 The ministers will conduct a detailed exchange of opinions on urgent global and regional issues, including the prevention and settlement of crises in Africa, primarily the Horn of Africa. They will also discuss in detail the issues related to countering international terrorism.

General Meeting of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO

On April 25, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will chair a general meeting of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO.

It will be attended by senior officials of the Presidential Executive Office, the Government Executive Office, deputies of the State Duma and the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly, federal ministers, regional governors and prominent figures in education, science and culture.

The participants will listen to the reports of the commission members and heads of its programme and regional committees. They plan to sum up the results of the previous review period and make specific decisions on further developing Russia’s cooperation with UNESCO.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with OPCW Technical Secretariat Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu

On April 26, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with the Director-General of the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Ahmet Uzumcu, who will come to Moscow with the delegation of the OPCW Executive Council.

At the meeting, they will discuss the implementation of Russia’s commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), notably the destruction of the remaining chemical weapons, the results of Syria’s chemical demilitarisation, the OPCW’s non-proliferation efforts to prevent precursors and components of chemical arms from getting into the hands of non-state actors, and other topical aspects of the activities of this prestigious organisation, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2013.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security

On April 27, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will speak at the opening of the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security. Invited to the forum, traditionally organised by the Russian Ministry of Defence, are heads of foreign defence ministries and international organisations, Russian officials, and respected academics.

The forum, which serves as discussion club and is gaining greater international prestige, will include discussions of pressing issues of global and regional security, including pressing issues of fighting the growing terrorism threat.

For our part, we expect that the professional and open exchange of opinions will foster a joint search for ways to address the backlog of global contradictions and misunderstandings.

Meeting of the Russian Foreign Ministry Business Council

A meeting of the Russian Foreign Ministry Business Council, chaired by Sergey Lavrov, is scheduled for April 27. The meeting, "Environmental, Climate and Arctic Agendas for Russian Business on the International Scene," is expected to gather representatives of Russia's major business unions and the largest Russian companies and banks, top officials of the Foreign Ministry, and other ministries and departments.

Following the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, which took place in Paris in December 2015, and the adopted Paris Agreement, participants of the MFA Business Council meeting will discuss the joint efforts by the state and socially responsible businesses to ensure Russia's long-term economic interests in the conditions of transitioning to sustainable development and implementing the green economy concepts.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s official visit to China to attend the fifth meeting of CICA foreign ministers

On April 28-29, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will make an official visit to China.

On April 28 in Beijing, Mr Lavrov will attend the fifth foreign ministers meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) member countries.

There will be an exchange of opinions on key issues on the international agenda, a broad range of issues related to ensuring regional security and, of course, the priority issue related to meeting new challenges and threats and strengthening the inter-civilizational dialogue. Particular attention will also be paid to the main areas of building up practical interaction in the framework of the CICA, as well as prospects for improving this multilateral dialogue mechanism.

During the talks on April 29, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers will address current issues on the bilateral agenda with a focus on preparations for Russia-China top-level contacts later this year and cooperation in multilateral formats, including at the SCO and CICA, and the sides will also consider key regional and global issues.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier will attend the Fifth Moscow International Security Conference, upon the Defence Ministry’s invitation, which will take place on April 27-28. On April 27, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have a meeting with Mr Zannier.

The officials are expected to exchange their opinions on current issues on the OSCE agenda and hold a substantive discussion of the activities of the organisation’s institutions and field presence, in particular the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

Nagorno-Karabakh situation

It may be recalled that a delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is going to Yerevan today. On April 22, he will have official talks in Armenia. Even though the talks and the visit itself were planned long before today, the situation regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, in particular the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, will be a central issue.

Russia has taken the utmost efforts on all levels (at the level of President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Foreign Ministry as co-chair of the Minsk Group) to ensure a ceasefire, alleviate tensions and normalise the situation.

It may be recalled that at the previous briefing on April 6, we stated that phone conversations had taken place between the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. On the same day, a corresponding agreement was reached in Moscow at the level of the chiefs of the general staffs of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

To consolidate the ceasefire regime, on April 7-8, Prime Minister Medvedev visited Yerevan and Baku on short notice. On April 7, Mr Lavrov held a meeting in Baku with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.

Now it is essential to exercise restraint and work towards restoring stability. We firmly believe that the sides should resume the negotiating process aimed at bringing about a stable peace settlement. We consider it important to intensify the efforts to reduce military risks on the basis of existing agreements.

We reiterate our readiness, as an international mediator for interaction with other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, to provide the sides with all necessary assistance in achieving this goal.

Developments in Syria

We regularly provide information and almost daily publish our comments about the situation on the ground, the talks in Geneva and discussions we maintain with our foreign colleagues via various channels. Today I will provide current information.

Tensions are growing at the lines of armed conflict in Syria, especially north and south of Aleppo, in the mountains of Latakia and east of the Orontes River. However, we can say the ceasefire, which was announced on February 27 is mostly holding, largely thanks to the efforts of the Ceasefire Task Force, which was established by decision of the International Syria Support Group and it co-chairs – Russia and the United States, the militaries of which maintain regular bilateral contact. Of course, our foreign ministries also maintain contact, and our foreign ministers regularly hold telephone conversations, about which we inform you in due time.

We reaffirm our commitment to the bilateral Russia-US agreements and UN Security Council Resolution 2268 on the ceasefire in Syria, which was unanimously approved based on these agreements. We expect all other parties involved to do likewise. Given the current difficult situation, it is vital to maintain an objective and principled attitude toward the ongoing developments and to work in a positive spirit.

In this context, we regret that some Western media – possibly not so much journalists but those who are trying to manipulate them in their interests – make hasty statements to the effect that the ceasefire in Syria has been thwarted or is breathing its last breath. Moreover, they place the blame for this squarely at the Syrian government forces.

What is really happening there? We see that terrorist groups and terrorists are desperately trying to derail the political process. This is obvious. There is no place in this political process for people and organisations that engage in terrorism. Having used the ceasefire to rest, recover and regroup their forces, Jabhat al-Nusra has again launched an offensive, involving militants who probably are not members of this group and sometimes even the leaders of other groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al Aqsa, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Sham. Jabhat al-Nusra representatives have initiated the creation of new alliances with illegal armed groups, such as Jaysh Al-Fustat and are creating joint staff agencies and trying to manipulate them. They are working on the principle that there’s safety in numbers. The jihadists are changing colour, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a recent news conference. They have not stopped their terrorist activities and continue to implement the principles of terrorism and extremism, using suicide bombers and shelling residential districts in cities and towns. The Kurdish district of Sheikh Maksoud in Aleppo has been hit the hardest. In light of the increased activity of Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, the Syrian Army had to redeploy units that were fighting ISIS in the east of the country to its western regions.

We see the destructive actions of Turkish authorities, whose strange activities on the Syrian-Turkish border are fanning tensions. The media have reported that the victims of Turkish border guards are defenceless people, including women and children, rather than armed terrorists or supporters of ISIS and other terrorist groups, who are freely moving across the Turkish-Syrian border. I will speak about this later.

We cannot accept the decision of the Ankara-backed High Negotiations Committee to suspend its participation in the indirect intra-Syrian contacts in Geneva as other than a show of solidarity with the jihadists’ actions on the ground. In our opinion, this can undermine the UN-backed political process in Geneva, which took us so much time and effort to launch. This can push Syria back into an all-out armed confrontation, which is definitely alarming. These actions show that this Syrian opposition body is neglecting its responsibilities before the Syrian people and has taken to using the tactic of blackmail and threats, while not proposing any constructive solutions. It can be said that their tactic of demanding preconditions has mutated into a tactic of direct blackmail.

We again urge all international and regional forces that can influence the Syrian conflict parties to use their prestige in the interests of a political settlement in Syria, prodding Syrians towards compromise solutions based on mutual accord, as this is stipulated in the ISSG and UN Security Council documents.

We will continue to promptly inform you about the situation on the ground in Syria, about progress at the Geneva talks and ISSG.

Turkish support of terrorists in Syria

Turkey continues its efforts to unhinge the situation in Syria while its  allies and partners turn a blind eye or possibly provide support to these actions. Ankara is providing direct and covert assistance to extremists and terrorists in Syria and is supporting their illegal activities. Russia is using various venues to inform the international community about these crimes. Since early February, we have circulated in the UN four informational letters circulated as official documents of the Security Council that have laid bare Turkey’s role in supporting terrorists in Syria. These letters provide information on the illegal trading in hydrocarbons by ISIS (S/2016/94 of February 1, 2016), the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, facilitation of their cross-border movement into Syria and the supply of weapons to the terrorist groups active there (S/2016/143 of February 10, 2016), illegal deliveries of weapons and munitions to the ISIS-controlled regions of Syria (S/2016/262 of March 21, 2016) and the smuggling of antiquities by ISIS (S/2016/298 of March 31,2016). They have been assigned appropriate numbers and are available on the UN website

It is odd that these documents, which provide detailed information about various Turkish schemes, have not attracted the attention of the international media, not even those known to conduct journalistic investigations and have journalists working in the Middle East and accredited at the UN. We are getting the impression that they have been told to disregard these documents or “strongly recommended” to ignore this issue altogether.

We’d like to draw your attention to these documents again and to express hope that the facts provided in them will be of interest not only to experts, journalists and other professionals, but will also become, with your assistance, an issue of broad international concern.

Situation with immigrants on Syrian-Turkish border

We have noticed a publication in The Times of April 20 that Turkish border guards opened fire on Syrian refugees crossing the Turkish-Syrian border in search of a safer place to live. Eight Syrians, mostly women and children, were killed as a result. The newspaper notes that this is not the first such incident. The tragedy on the Turkish-Syrian border is yet another incident of Syrian refugees being targeted by Turkish law enforcement agencies. According to journalists, Turkish border guards have killed 16 people, including three children, over the past four months. We are expecting Ankara and the international community to respond adequately to these journalists’ claims.

It is impossible to overlook developments on the Turkish-Syrian border. As I have already said today, we are not simply quoting media stories, but are submitting them to the UN Security Council. What else should be done, so that the international community would take notice and start acting at long last in order to stop this nightmarish situation unfolding on the Turkish-Syrian border?

I would like to mention one more issue. These reports make one doubt the correctness of the European Union’s decision to select Turkey as a receiving side and major partner in addressing the problem of illegal immigrants. One gets the impression that Turkish authorities have devised their own methods for dealing with refugees in line with a recently signed agreement between Brussels and Ankara. These methods can hardly be called new, but they are seen as something outrageous in the 21st century. In effect, Turkish authorities are simply eliminating this category of people approaching their territory. This principle is not new: No people, no problem. The number of these incidents is increasing steadily.

Quite possibly, EU leaders and specialised EU and other agencies should take a closer look at their so-called “reliable” partner. It appears that, after promising Turkey financial aid and visa-free trips, after enticing it with all this, the EU has simply decided to pay off Ankara, to renounce its principles and to turn a blind eye to glaring human rights violations in Turkey for the purpose of reducing tensions at home. This is an interesting scheme. We don’t have very many questions in the context of Turkey because human rights violations have been typical of this country for decades. At the same time, this is something new, as far as the EU is concerned, because this implies human lives. This implies human lives, rather than the destinies of people who are forced to leave their region in search of a safer place to live. Where are these human rights, about which our Western colleagues like to philosophise in their cozy offices? By the way, resolving this issue remains a top priority for them.

No sooner had the agreement entered into force than Ankara started threatening the EU that it would withdraw from this agreement unless Turkish citizens received visa-free access to European countries right away. Can you imagine the extent of cynicism that has been attained? A policy that kills women and children is being implemented before our very eyes in order to cover up one’s actions and to obtain certain favourable treatment. And this country is asking that visas be abolished in exchange for this! I remind you that all this is taking place in 2016. All dealings in the relations between the EU and Turkey, developments on the Turkish-Syrian border, everything linked with refugees, immigrants and people who have become hostages to geopolitical intrigue, including the violation of the EU’s own human rights obligations all resemble innovative 21st century slave trade to a great extent.

Publication of a current humanitarian bulletin on Ukraine by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Concerning the release of a current humanitarian bulletin on Ukraine by the UNHCR, we noted that, according to the UNHCR, the situation in eastern Ukraine remains tense. Quiet intervals give way to brief armed clashes, especially around the demarcation line in the Donetsk Region.

We share the UNHCR’s concerns with regard to the status of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Ukraine. According to the UN Office, IDPs are experiencing serious hardships due to lack of jobs in the midst of the economic crisis. Many still have to live in temporary shelters. We are particularly concerned about the announcement of the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy that social benefits and pensions for IDPs will be delayed until they complete the address verification procedure, which has not been settled by law. Some 500,000 people may be affected as a result, primarily pensioners and people with disabilities.

The UNHCR continues to monitor the situation with Ukrainian refugees and displaced persons in the neighbouring countries. Their total number now exceeds 1,363,000 people. Some 1,092,212 have applied for temporary residency in Russia.

We are concerned about the UN’s reports on difficulties the refugees face when crossing the demarcation line due to restrictions imposed by Kiev. Lengthy document inspections result in long lines while people have no access to food, water and essential services.

Considering the low level of funding on behalf of donors called upon by the UNHCR to aid Ukraine in 2016 (only 6 per cent of the required $35 million has been received), the Russian Federation plans to send part of its voluntary contribution to the UN Office this year in order to fund the activity in Ukraine, including the re-integration of the returning refugees and IDPs.

Assessment of press freedom in the world by Reporters Without Borders

The international organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has released its 2016 World Press Freedom Index. It reflects the current status of freedom of the press and is based, according to the RSF, on an assessment of media pluralism and independence, quality of legislation and the security of journalists in 180 countries.

It came to our attention that in the ranking over the previous period (2015), Ukraine went up significantly (by 22 points) in comparison to 2014, and moved from position 129 to 107.

For reference (and this analysis concerns only Russian media; we did not analyse the situation in other countries), in 2015, the broadcast of many Russian television networks was banned in Ukraine. State accreditation of 115 Russian media outlets was suspended. Seven journalists were deported from the country. A sanction list was introduced that included four Russian TV networks (NTV, Channel One, RTR-Planeta, Rossiya-24).

It is a well-known and widely acknowledged fact that Russian journalists were killed in Ukraine. Also, Ukrainian publicist and activist Oles Buzina who openly spoke out against the nationalist mainstream politics was shot and killed. It does not have to be proved that Ukraine uses every possible means to drag out the course of investigation of many crimes and violations involving journalists.

I will stress once again, we did not analyse the situation with, for example, Ukrainian media outlets in Ukraine – only those items that concern the Russian media in Ukraine.

We feel compelled to mention Oles Buzina because the circumstances of his murder and the lack of any progress in the investigation is an issue that international organisations are dealing with – at least we are urging them to deal with it.

We would like to understand what those bespoke criteria used by RSF experts are and what their concept for assessing freedom of the press is. It is impossible not to see the issues we regularly raise.

New details in the Malaysia Airlines Ukraine crash

I realise that this is a sensitive issue, because it concerns the feelings and emotions of the relatives of those who died. At the same time, we cannot ignore the new details in this tragedy and the way investigators are reacting to them.

As you know, two years ago, some media outlets, including those in the West, made absolutely groundless charges of looting with regard to Donbass militias. Now, new information on this charge has come to light. The Australian ABC TV and radio company posted a story on its website that should lead to certain changes in Canberra’s official position on the way it believes the situation unfolded after the crash.

According to the story, Demjin (Demyan) Doroschenko, an Australian freelance journalist of Ukrainian descent, who was near the crash site in July 2014, evidently collected hundreds of items from the passengers’ baggage. He claimed he had already handed some items over to authorities in Kiev and was ready to hand over the remaining items to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) or the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team for a payment to cover transport costs.

According to ABC, the AFP demanded that all items recovered at the crash site be turned over to local authorities in southeast Ukraine in accordance with the established procedure. He was told that these items should not be used to obtain profit or benefit and that Kiev and Kuala Lumpur could initiate criminal proceedings over this.

It is noteworthy that Mr Doroschenko was one of the journalists who, the day after the crash near Donetsk, spread looting allegations against the militias, which were subsequently denied by members of the Australian search team involved in collecting the remains. Now, while recognising that he illegally collected material evidence at the crash site, he is demanding compensation for transport costs.

Significantly, the story posted on the ABC website was not initially noticed or picked up by any local online or print media outlet and was ignored by Western reporters. All of this shows once again that this publication is definitely out of sync with the picture of the crash, its causes and those guilty in the tragedy that is being promoted in the Western media. It is impossible to talk about a complete and objective picture if new details and facts coming to light are ignored. How is this for objectivity?

We have received another confirmation that the ongoing investigation and the entire media narrative related to it are extremely politicised and that only the facts that contribute to this vision are noticed. Unfortunately, experts want nothing that shed light on the real situation. Or maybe experts need this but they are taken care of by those who have already formed their idea of what happened and are trying to impose it on others.

Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2016-2021

I’d like to draw your attention to an item that appeared in the Russian media, specifically in the daily, Izvestia. We stand accused of failing to comment on the Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2016-2021.

I’d like to say that not only do we follow these types of news items, but we always respond to everything related to our activity, including media criticism. Please do us a favour. If a story is being prepared that requires a comment from the Foreign Ministry please contact us before your story is published. We will always find a way to comment on it.

I’d like to point out that the Foreign Ministry is not an issue-specific agency on this matter but we are prepared to offer a comment “from our angle”. Today, a related comment will be posted on the Ministry’s official website.

Berlin authorities’ plan to hold a rock festival in Treptower Park

As you know, we regularly address the situation with war graves from WWII, which have the remains of our soldiers who gave their lives defending Europe, liberating our country during WWII and the Great Patriotic War. Unfortunately, we now find ourselves compelled to bring this issue up for public discussion and put a special emphasis on it.

We express serious concern about the intention of Berlin officials to give permission to host a youth rock festival in September this year in Treptower Park, which is a memorial site. We have nothing against such festivals in general. These events take place all over the world, including in our country. But we must realise that the festival, with the expected spectator turnout of about 50,000, will take place at the burial site of 7,500 Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of Europe from Nazism.

I do not want to think that modern Germany does not pay tribute to our soldiers; I do not want others to think that Germany has lost all gratitude to its liberators. Up to this point, we had no reason to doubt Germany’s official position on the issue. At the same time, we need to draw attention to this.

We are bringing this issue up for public discussion, not as a way to spite Germany, but we don’t seem to be able to get our message across to local authorities through diplomatic channels.

The Russian Embassy in Berlin has initiated a joint letter from the ambassadors of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan addressed to the mayor of the Treptow-Koepenick district and the Governing Mayor of Berlin, demanding that they choose another venue for the event. But judging by the initial response, and also based on the fact that the preparations for the festival are at an advanced stage now, we can conclude that the authorities have almost decided to hold the concert at the site.

I would like to remind you about the situation we discussed a few months ago. If you remember, in one of the briefings we cited a similar story that took place in Italy. The authorities of Montecassino organised a Christmas market in the immediate proximity of the Polish military cemetery, but the market was dismantled at the Polish Embassy’s request. Please note that the event was not even held at the memorial site, just in its vicinity – these are two different things. We also hope most grown people can understand the difference between a Christmas market and a rock concert.

We ask and urge the Berlin authorities to reconsider their decision. This move is absolutely unacceptable for us. We ask you to look at the experience of your European counterparts, where I think you could find a successful example of compromise. We believe that such activities at memorial sites are unacceptable and essentially amount to dancing on graves. Treptower Park is one of the most emblematic memorials to fallen Soviet soldiers.

To round up this issue, I would like to say that we have repeatedly discussed the situation with Soviet memorials and graves in Poland, and I must say there is another side to it. We receive a lot of letters, photographs and messages from ordinary Polish citizens in support of the Russian position. Moreover, they do not just write words of support; they apologise for the official position of Warsaw on the issue. They send us pictures, join the restoration of monuments, driven solely by their personal emotions and concepts of morality, trying to restore the monuments that have been destroyed or vandalised.

I would like to thank the Polish citizens and tell them how much we appreciate their concern for our soldiers. Thank you very much.

Developments involving Russian citizen Yury Mel

We receive many questions and demands from Russian activists who ask us to comment and report on the developments involving Russian citizen Yury Mel. In addition to written requests, we received a complaint 10 days ago that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not doing anything to protect a Russian citizen who is under investigation in Lithuania. I’d like to tell you what we are doing in this regard and about our assessment of the situation.      

Russian citizen Yury Mel was arrested by the State Border Guard Service of Lithuania on March 12, 2014 under a decision of the Vilnius District Court of June 10, 2013 on suspicion of “crimes against humanity and war crimes during his service in the Soviet Army in the territory of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.” The court ruled that he should be arrested and kept in pretrial detention.

Immediately after Mel’s arrest, the Russian Embassy in Lithuania took high priority measures to protect his rights in accordance with the Russian Consular Charter of 2010 and the Consular Convention signed between Russia and Lithuania in 1992.

In particular, our efforts have helped improve prison conditions for Yury Mel, who also received the required medical assistance and medicines for his chronic disease (an advanced form of diabetes) and was allowed to speak with his family on the phone and to receive personal possessions via his lawyer. We have coordinated the use of the Fund to Support and Protect the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad to deal with Mel’s financial issues, including legal costs.

The consular staff and the embassy doctor in Lithuania regularly visit Yury Mel, who has not complained about his health or mental state or confinement conditions. The detainment of Yury Mel has been extended again, this time until June 12, 2016.

The hearing of the January 13, 1991 case began on January 27, 2016. The defendants under this case include Yury Mel and 65 other retired servicemen, who have been charged in absentia by the Lithuanian authorities with attempted overthrow of the constitutional government of Lithuania. The schedule of hearings has been approved until the end of 2017, although pretrial detention cannot last more than three years under Lithuanian law. In the case of Yury Mel, the deadline is March 2017.

The Russian citizen’s lawyer is working actively to protect his client’s interests. In particular, a lawsuit has been filed with the Lithuanian Constitutional Court on the unlawfulness of the retrospective application of the article on “crimes against humanity and war crimes,” which was not effective in January 1991. There are also plans to file one more petition to change pretrial detention to stay of exit order.

We have been working to rally the support of Lithuanian NGOs and Russian-language media outlets, the public and politicians who do not support the official Vilnius position.

We are doing our best to bring this situation to the public’s attention and to promote the circulation of this information. We will certainly continue to comment on this case.  

The Consular Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Embassy in Lithuania are closely monitoring the situation with Yury Mel. We are using all the available legal measures under the Russian legislation and international treaties towards this end.

I agree that we provided few comments on this issue, but we will make them regularly from now on.

I’d like to tell those interested in this issue that materials reflecting our attitude to this trial were published on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry on January 29 and March 18, 2016.

Expulsion of Sputnik Turkey website editor-in-chief by the Turkish authorities

What is currently happening in Turkey concerns not only Russia. We continue to observe with apprehension the deteriorating situation in the area of freedom of the press in Turkey.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that there’s almost no response or pressure on that country coming from the EU, despite the fact that not only Turkish and Russian reporters, but also reporters, public figures, and political writers from European countries are being harassed, intimidated and persecuted by the Turkish law enforcement agencies. Moreover, we hear that Turkey needs more assistance in matters of integration, visa-free travel, etc. This country is getting bonuses for things that other countries get punished for. This is ludicrous.

With regard to our reporter, on April 19, the Turkish authorities denied entry to Tural Kerimov, Editor-in-Chief of the Sputnik Turkey news agency. The incident occurred at the Istanbul Airport. The Russian journalist was in fact deported to Russia without any clarifications. His press card and residence permit were taken away from him. As is already known, this Russian news agency was blocked in Turkey earlier.

Of course, such moves are in line with the general trend for suppressing the freedom of speech in Turkey. Ankara makes absolutely no bones about anything it does, and feels quite at ease doing so, because it knows it can get away with about anything. Frankly, I wonder what is it that Turkey has that allows it to subjugate the will of leading European politicians? Turkey is not just getting away with it. Under pressure from the Turkish authorities and officialdom, steps and actions are being taken that benefit Ankara in its attempts to suppress dissent.

Take, for instance, the "poetic story." There’s an interesting angle to this story. The German publicist really made a mistake by publishing his poem where he published it. He’d be much better off had he published it in Charlie Hebdo. He’d be a hero overnight then.

I will not dwell on this now. However, we believe such actions are unlawful and unacceptable. Once again, we call upon the European countries and specialised agencies to abandon wishy-washy declarations and take active actions with regard to Turkey, and certainly refrain from encouraging it in its pressure on the media.

Filing a lawsuit against Krym.realii reporter Nikolay Semena

We took note of a statement issued by the US Embassy in Russia, which "resolutely condemned the detention of the reporters by the Russian security services." The issue is about the Radio Liberty journalists. In particular, the US Embassy mentioned Nikolay Semena.

As you may be aware, Russian law enforcement agencies have already commented on what happened to him and why he was detained. This is not our area of responsibility, but we will definitely follow this story.

I would like to respond to the US Embassy. It is our understanding that Nikolay Semena is a Russian citizen. However, as follows from the statement by the US Embassy press secretary in Moscow, he is working for Radio Liberty, which is a US media outlet. According to a Government resolution of September 13, 1994, representatives of the foreign media must be properly accredited in order to be able to work in Russia. Working for a US media outlet, which has been confirmed by the US Embassy, Mr Semena was not properly accredited with the Russian Foreign Ministry (in accordance with the resolution, the Foreign Ministry engages in accreditation of foreign correspondents). Accordingly, we can confirm that this reporter working for Radio Liberty was not properly accredited with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Once again, such an accreditation is required for all foreign mass media reporters.

I would like to say that our colleagues from the US Embassy in Moscow are well aware of this accreditation requirement. We have routinely discussed this issue with them whenever they had any questions in that regard. They are aware of everything. They have never had any issues complying with this portion of the Russian legislation. But, as we now see, they have confirmed that this person had violated Russian law.

 Refusal to renew accreditation of Russian journalists in the Czech Republic

We have already made a comment in connection with refusal by the Czech authorities to renew the accreditation of Russian reporters Alexander Kuranov (Rossiya Segodnya) and Vladimir Snegirev (Vechernyaya Moskva).  We have posted the refusal on our ministry’s website. I would like to say it now so that it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone later that we will take similar retaliatory measures with regard to the Czech journalists. This is not our choice to do so.

For us, adopting such measures with regard to foreign journalists is always a big disappointment, because our job is about informing, communicating, speaking, arguing, and proving out point, rather than taking away one’s accreditation. Our job is to issue them for foreign journalists so that they can come to Russia and have legal employment status. We are doing our best. But we have publicly stated that any illegal or unmotivated expulsion of Russian reporters from foreign countries, or their harassment in foreign countries, will have similar implications here in Russia.

Representatives of the authorities of any particular state must be fully aware that whenever they sign a relevant document to stop the work of the Russian journalists, they will trigger a corresponding response from the Russian side. I repeat, this is not our choice. But we will do so for the authorities of other states and expert media communities to understand that they should not touch our people. And if you do touch them, you will be on the receiving end of retaliatory measures.

Turkish authorities’ introduction of visa regulations for Russian citizens with service passports

On April 12, the Turkish side officially informed us of its decision to partially suspend, "based on the principle of reciprocity," the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Terms of Mutual Trips of the Citizens, in connection with which, beginning April 15, 2016, Russian citizens with service passports are required to obtain Turkish visas. The owners of valid service passports who work at diplomatic missions and consular offices of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Turkey, as well as family members with valid service passports, will still be able to enter the country visa-free for the entire duration of their accreditation.

Visa-free regulations will remain unchanged for Russian citizens with diplomatic and regular passports.

Russian departments and organisations should take note of this new practice and be mindful of it when sending their employees on business trips to Turkey.

Recommendations for Russian tourists

The May and summer holidays are upon us. Many Russians who are planning foreign travels are buying vouchers or considering individual routes.

In this context, we’d like to call on tourists and travel companies and groups to take note of the following. First of all, we urge tourists to avoid extreme or dangerous routes, countries and locations. Please exercise basic caution when travelling abroad and respect local laws, customs and traditions.

We strongly recommend that you learn more about the country you are planning to visit, find out such things as weather, security standards, sanitary and epidemiological situation, and so on. In addition to online resources for tourists and guidebooks, you should use the projects that have been created by the Foreign Ministry and its Crisis Management Centre Department to help tourists.

The website contains useful reference materials, primarily related to personal safety, about 200 countries and territories. There is current information about the crime and medical situation for each country, as well as recommendations for individual cities and regions.

If you have more questions, detected mistakes when reading these materials or have other concerns, please ask. I’d like to remind you that we have social media accounts for this.

Warnings about crises or threats of crisis situations abroad are also posted on a daily basis on the ministry’s Twitter account @mid_travel, where we provide information digests about many, though not all possible problems you can encounter abroad. I am referring to notices of disrupted operations at airports and border checkpoints, natural disasters, large upcoming protest campaigns, as well as an increasing threat of terrorism.

You would do well to write down, or better still add to your mobile phone, the telephone of the emergency services department of the nearest Russian embassy or consulate and to subscribe to these agencies’ social media accounts. You can also find all this information on the Foreign Ministry’s accounts. The Foreign Ministry has signed an agreement with MTS under which MTS subscribers receive text messages with the contact information of our embassies upon arriving in their destination country.

We again strongly urge Russian citizens who plan to travel abroad to buy voluntary medical insurance policies. We also recommend travel agencies and media outlets focused on the tourist industry to remind Russian tourists about the need to obtain this important document when traveling abroad.

No one can be sure that everything will go well on your trip. A medical insurance policy will be invaluable if you need medical assistance in case of illness or injury, while the lack of insurance may lead to expenses which the tourist or his or her family will be unable to cover. You know that the majority of countries only have insurance medicine. Medical services are very expensive and often unaffordable for an average person, unless you have an insurance policy. So we strongly advise that you buy a medical insurance policy for foreign travel. When packing, please check that you and others travelling with you have medical policies, including children. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or to explain that having a medical policy is part of the culture in the country you plan to visit. If you have to choose between buying something for your holiday and a medical insurance policy, buy the policy. This is not something you can cut corners on, because if something happens abroad, you will pay many times more than the cost of travel medical insurance.

When our tourists go abroad without a valid travel health insurance, they make themselves vulnerable from the legal standpoint.

We’d like to remind you that Russian offices abroad are prepared to provide the necessary legal assistance. But they can only provide legal, consultative, information and moral but not financial assistance to Russian citizens who get into trouble abroad.  Under Article 14 of the Federal Law on the Procedure for Exit from and Entry into the Russian Federation, medical services and payment for the   evacuation of citizens for medical reasons, and for the return of the body back to Russia in case of death, shall be covered by medical insurance.

I cannot tell you what to write or not write about, but I’d like you to make an exception in this case.  Please don’t write that the Foreign Ministry or the Russian state do not care about Russian citizens when they say that Russians must shoulder these expenses themselves. We do care about them, which is why we strongly recommend that they buy travel medical insurance. 

Awareness and reasonable caution are vital for a safe and enjoyable holiday.

Statements by the commission of experts established to determine the number of victims of the Soviet totalitarian occupation regime, locate mass graves, compile information about repressions and mass deportations, as well as calculate losses and damages inflicted on Latvia and its population

Latvia’s commission of experts established to determine the number of victims of the Soviet totalitarian occupation regime, locate mass graves, compile information about repressions and mass deportations, as well as calculate losses and damages inflicted on Latvia and its population made a shocking statement the other day. It has assessed damages at 185 billion euros. I’m glad they can count so high.

We have been asked for comment. Here is our official position. We do not accept any claims about the Soviet “occupation” of the Baltic states and the related absurd statements regarding claims against Russia, including material claims, which are legally and historically unsubstantiated. This fully refers to the recent statement made by a representative of the Latvian government commission established to calculate the amount of economic damage done to Latvia.

The Russian position on this issue is well known. I believe that you should sometimes let people speak, people who can express not only the official stance but also their own views, considering that they lived there during the Soviet period and remember how it was.

We have asked our citizens through our social media accounts to comment on the Latvian commission’s statement. As you see, our Latvian colleagues have included demographic damages to their claims. According to social media subscribers, the best answer to these claims came from a user who identified himself as Alexander Krivov. I don’t know if he drew this diagram himself or found it online. The figures on the left show the rate of growth in Latvia’s population starting in 1950 and during the period of the “inhumane Soviet occupation”, as the commission put it. Beginning in 1990, the vector on the diagram takes a deep plunge, although the “occupation” ended by that time. This entry has not been assessed by us, but by users who have given it over 1,800 likes. Surprisingly, they also left over 6,000 comments. I believe Latvian representatives should read them. It is my wish that they read these comments seriously and that they do not take repressive measures against their authors. After all, Latvia is a democratic state. But they should do well to think about what their own citizens have written.

Answers to media questions:

Question: What is Russia’s stance regarding the French initiative for an international conference to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? How would you assess its chances?

Maria Zakharova: I’d like to say that presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov commented on this issue slightly more than an hour ago.

We are really concerned about developments on the Palestinian-Israeli track. Unfortunately, the situation has moved away from possible settlement to a lasting and drawn-out non-settlement. We are not satisfied, but are mostly worried and even alarmed by the situation at this juncture of the Middle East peace process. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, his deputies and other experts have explained more than once why we must not forget about the lingering Palestinian-Israeli conflict amid discussions of the Syrian crisis and the situation in Libya, Mali and the region as a whole. We believe that the unsettled Palestinian-Israeli conflict provides breeding grounds for trouble, including the recruitment of young people into terrorist ranks.

Young people, especially youngsters from problem countries and regions, don’t need lengthy explanations. They won’t read documents or expert opinions. What they need is a simple and clear message, preferably up to two sentences long. They have been offered such a message, according to which the international community, based on international law, promised to create two states. Since there is only one state, this injustice must be corrected through struggle as you can only achieve the truth through extremism and terrorism rather than through talks based on international law. These two or three phrases explain the essence of the problem, which the international community has tried to resolve these past decades. Resolutions were adopted, the Middle East Quartet took many decisions, and numerous talks were held in the bilateral and multilateral formats. But the young people prefer this short message, these two or three sentences that are stamped on their minds and, unfortunately, encourage them to act.

We believe that active discussions on this issue must resume and active efforts to resolve the problem must be taken. We talk about this with all our colleagues who come to Moscow, including French and US colleagues and all members of the Middle East Quartet. You know that we have been working energetically and fruitfully in this format, maintaining contacts on this issue.

We welcome any initiative in this direction that is constructive and can get the problem off the ground. But can this initiative do this? What is its essence? What result do our partners aim to achieve? We maintain contact with them, trying to understand the essence of this initiative. I can assure you that we are acting constructively and will accept constructive proposals. We are willing to discuss various initiatives in this sphere at bilateral and multilateral levels.

Question: Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding talks in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin. Ahead of his visit, Mr Netanyahu made a number of statements that were regarded as provocative, in particular, in Damascus and some Western capitals. He chaired an Israeli government meeting in the occupied Golan Heights, which belong to Syria, during which he stated that this territory will forever remain under Israel’s control, which is a violation of international law and Syria’s territorial integrity. What is Moscow’s position on the prospect for this kind of annexation of sovereign state territory? According to the Prime Minister’s office, this issue will also be addressed in the course of today’s talks.

Maria Zakharova: Top-level talks are traditionally commented on by the relevant press services. Without going into a sphere that is outside our purview, I’d like to respond to the part of your question related to the Russian assessment of and position on the Israeli Cabinet of Ministers’ “out of town” meeting in the occupied Golan Heights.

As you know, Russia’s position on the status of the Golan Heights is well-known and has not changed recently, as it is based on relevant UN Security Council Resolution No. 242. Its preamble, in particular, emphasises “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

In response to your question, I’d also like to point out that Russia's evaluation of the event you mentioned, which took place in the Golan Heights, is similar to that of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. We regard the Golan Heights as territory that was occupied as a result of the 1967 war and that is subject to be returned though negotiations.

Question: Today, Sergey Lavrov is going to Armenia, where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will be an issue on the agenda. Ahead of his visit, media reports said the Foreign Minister is going to Armenia with a specific plan that he will present there. The plan purportedly urges Armenia to free five areas around Nagorno-Karabakh and provides for the introduction of peacekeepers. How reliable is the report that Mr Lavrov is going with this kind of plan?

Maria Zakharova: Mr Lavrov never goes anywhere empty-handed. It is wrong to talk about a plan or programme or draft or document. This has to do with certain ideas to be discussed as part of a peace settlement. This is precisely our mediating role: to talk to the concerned parties, discuss various options, listen to their concerns and propose possible solutions.

Question: Saudi Arabia has repeatedly hindered the resolution of key international issues. I could mention oil negotiations in Qatar and talks in Syria, where the Syrian opposition flank, supported by Riyadh, as Mr Lavrov said earlier, is disrupting the negotiating process. Can this kind of policy be called constructive? How should the international community respond to this kind of approach? Do you expect their positions to change?

Maria Zakharova: We do not expect any changes but we are working to ensure that this kind of policy or approach does not prevail. We act on the premise that every country has its own interests – fundamental, immediate, political, vital and historical interests – and that all countries have different interests. Many view the situation from their own angle. It is useless waiting for the position to change itself. It is essential to look for compromise options, which is precisely what we are doing. This kind of policy, which is known as diplomacy and which may seem perfunctory, laid-back and slow-moving to some, makes it possible to find a solution that will suit the majority, if not everyone, on most points, if not all. In particular, at a certain stage on the Syrian track, our approach was justified in the sense that despite their approaches, which are conflicting, but not divisive, the parties sat down at the negotiating table, sidelined what only yesterday seemed non-negotiable and got down to business.

Saudi Arabia, which you have mentioned objectively, took what can be described as a radical stance on certain issues, and it is sticking to this position. We continue working with that country, maintaining bilateral and multilateral contacts. We are working not only directly with Saudi Arabia but also with our partners, whose opinion Saudi Arabia listens to. We will pursue this approach in the future. We will not sit on the fence but will work with them.

Regarding our expectations, of course, as we say, water never flows under settled stones.

Question: Earlier in the week, a Japanese news agency reported that a high-ranking North Korean official visited Moscow and announced North Korea’s plans to conduct nuclear tests in early May. Could you comment on this report?

Maria Zakharova: I don’t know what North Korean representative this refers to, but I can check. If you know his name or the agency he represented please tell me. I have no such information. If you are more specific I’ll be able to answer your question. In any event, I will make inquiries.

Regarding the nuclear tests that North Korea is conducting on the Korean Peninsula, our position on the issue is clear-cut, without any double standards or changing approaches. We believe that all of this should proceed within the bounds of the relevant provisions of UN Security Council resolutions, both present and future. In addition to compliance with international law, it is important to understand that there is such a notion as “atmosphere,” which is crucial for normalising the situation on the Korean Peninsula. It is essential to consider all possible options to promote this kind of atmosphere, which at present is far from trusting, but should evolve in this direction. This applies both to North Korea and to actions by other players in the region. It is very important to promote an appropriate atmosphere to jumpstart the negotiating process.

Question: On May 7, the Workers’ Party will hold its seventh congress in North Korea. Will Russia send an official delegation to this major event, which will be taking place after a 36-year hiatus?

Maria Zakharova: I have no information on this subject. I will make inquiries.

Question: Recently, contacts between Russian and Iranian leaders have intensified. What is this related to, in your opinion? How different are the Russian and Iranian positions on Syria?

Maria Zakharova: I cannot agree that contacts between Russia and Iran have intensified. I believe they have always been active, and they still are.

It is another matter that Iran has intensified contacts with its Western colleagues. All of this is logical. At last, the issue related to Iran’s nuclear programme was resolved and sanctions were lifted, to mutual satisfaction. This made it possible for Iran to develop economic, financial and other relations with many states, which until recently was impossible due to UN Security Council sanctions or unilateral sanctions, as a result of which countries refused to collaborate with Iran in a number of areas. 

I will not agree with you in that we have intensified or expanded our contacts. If you follow the Foreign Ministry’s website you will see that our relations have always developed evenly. True, we received our share of criticism for this, when we were told that we supported “the axis of evil” or that we were “on the wrong side of history,” and when we were told to think twice about who we maintained relations with. Today, all those who only a year ago criticised us have established relations with Iran. Judge for yourself.

Regarding the question about our differences with Iran on approaches towards Syria, it should be put to experts and analysts. Our approaches are similar in the following respects: peaceful resolution of issues, getting all players on board and involving them in the international process, the fight against terrorism, the unacceptability of influencing the situation, regime change or modeling the situation in Syria from the outside and an uncompromising fight against terrorists. These are fundamental principles on which our positions are similar to those of Iran, China and many other countries. To be sure, there are nuances, but this is a question, rather, for regional experts.

Question: Do you deny the report that Iranian General Qasem Soleimani visited Moscow last week?

Maria Zakharova: I have no such information.

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