Foreign Minister’s visit to Azerbaijan
Foreign Minister Lavrov to take part in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Caspian states in Kazakhstan
The situation in Syria
The Chilcot Inquiry
US involvement in anti-government rallies in Belgrade
The report by the Defence Committee of the British House of Commons
Statement by Supreme Commander of Sweden’s Armed Forces Gen. Micael Byden
Investigation into the murder of a Russian couple on Fiji
Answers to media questions
Work in Artek
Developments on Iran-Iraq border
NATO activities in the Black Sea
NATO summit in Warsaw
Russia’s views on the rock festival in Berlin’s Treptower Park
Russia’s views on conflicts in the Caucasus
The impact of Russian-Turkish relations on regional ties in Crimea
Invitation of National Front leader Marine Le Pen to Black Sea Fleet Day celebrations
Extradition of wanted persons
Visa facilitation in Crimea
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Azerbaijan
Denial of visas to Crimeans with Russian travel passports
Developments in eastern Ukraine
Please note that our briefing today is unusual, because it is held in the Republic of Crimea of the Russian Federation. We are here at the invitation of Artek International Children's Centre. Today’s briefing is unusual also because it’s attended by boys and girls from 11th Media Unit, Khrustalny Camp. Yesterday, I spent the day being a counsellor of this unit, and invited the boys and girls interested in reporting, media and public relations to attend the briefing and see how a real media event works.
Foreign Minister’s visit to Azerbaijan
On July 11-12, Foreign Minister Lavrov will be in the Republic of Azerbaijan on a working visit.
In Baku, the parties will discuss current bilateral issues and exchange views on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.
Foreign Minister Lavrov to take part in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Caspian states in Kazakhstan
On July 12-13, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Kazakhstan to participate in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Caspian states.
This will be the 6th meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Such meetings have become an effective platform for political cooperation between the Caspian states.
The agenda of the meeting includes the legal status of the Caspian Sea, cooperation among the five Caspian Sea nations across different spheres, including economy, transport, security, environment, as well as important regional and international issues. The participants will assess intermediate results of implementing the decisions adopted by the presidents of the coastal states in Astrakhan, Russia, in September 2014, and outline a plan for completing this work before the upcoming 5th Caspian summit in Kazakhstan.
Russia values highly the traditionally friendly and trust-based dialogue within the Caspian Five, and considers it a priority to reach agreement as soon as possible on the wording of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea and to further expand mutually beneficial contacts between neighbouring Caspian Sea countries.
Should the minister’s schedule change in any way, we will promptly inform you.
The situation in Syria
Regrettably, the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan and the start of the fast-breaking festival Eid al-Fitr (Kurban Bayram) have not lessened the violence in Syria.
Clashes continue southwest of Aleppo. Unlawful armed groups have stepped up their activity to the north of Aleppo around Handarat, Kafr-Hamrah and Leramon. Armed groups continue their attempted offensives in the province of Latakia, in the vicinity of Palmyra, which was liberated from ISIS terrorists, and their provocations in Darayya, near Damascus.
It will be possible to fully eliminate this dangerous hotbed of international terrorism in Syria only if we ensure geographical separation between the opposition forces that are ready to respect the ceasefire regime and the terrorist groups part of Jabhat al-Nusra, and if we cut off the channels supplying arms and financing to the terrorist groups. The UN Security Council has fixed precisely these terms in its resolutions.
Work to maintain and strengthen the ceasefire regime continues, including through regular Russian-American contacts via military channels. Furthermore, Russian military personnel are making systematic efforts to get unlawful armed groups’ individual detachments to respect a local ceasefire and bring more towns into the ceasefire regime. 173 towns are observing the ceasefire now.
We have taken note of the report by the human rights organisation Amnesty International, which sets out evidence of torture and mass executions committed by armed opposition fighters, including groups that received support and aid from the USA, in northern Syria.
We cannot ignore these shocking new reports, facts and evidence. Sadly, tragic reports of the same kind are coming now from the districts of Al-Bab and Al-Asliya, where ISIS fighters have captured 900 civilians, mostly Kurds, and are using them as a human shield and putting them to work building fortifications and so on.
A new government headed by Prime Minister Imad Khamis has been formed in Damascus. A large number of government ministers have kept their posts. Among the new government’s main tasks is to address the serious socioeconomic problems affecting Syria as it continues the difficult mission of resolutely fighting terrorism.
The Chilcot Inquiry
We have noted the Chilcot Commission’s report on the circumstances surrounding the UK’s participation in the 2003-2009 Iraq military campaign, published on July 6.
Of course, this is a voluminous report, the result of nearly 7 years’ work. We will need a lot more time to do a thorough review, read it carefully and examine its conclusions in detail. Only then will we be able to give a fuller evaluation. But a first glance at the report’s key conclusions is sufficient to confirm what the Russian Federation has been saying for many years now. We said right from the start of the Iraq campaign, and with facts in hand, that the invasion of Iraq was unlawful, unnecessary, and the supposed need for military intervention was based on forged evidence. This invasion of a sovereign state’s territory was not justified by any actual facts or real information.
The biggest question remains open: Who will bear responsibility for the deaths, as the report states, of at least 150,000 Iraqi citizens, not to mention the millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands of wounded, and the numerous excesses committed by British military personnel against the local people, and what penalties will they face?
US involvement in anti-government rallies in Belgrade
We took note of reports in Serbian media about the participation of US diplomatic officers in rallies in Belgrade. The rallies were directed against the government, mind you, of a sovereign state. Importantly, different kinds of NGOs funded from abroad often act as direct organisers of such activities. Apparently, for some reason, their foreign sponsors do not really put much faith in Serbian “civil activists,” since US diplomats have to personally participate in the pickets and control the spending of allocated funds. This, of course, represents an entirely new step in ways to support civil society, but there’s not much else that can be done. The Serbian citizens showed the real value of the “civil society” protests financed from abroad during the April 24 elections. As it turned out, the coalition led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won an absolute majority of seats in the parliament.
In general, we can state that the practice of unabashed interference in internal affairs has taken deep roots in the Balkans. Using the same tried and tested schemes with the involvement of an “aggressive minority” that has been paid from the outside, the ground is being prepared for provoking another colour revolution, this time in Macedonia.
Speaking about civil society and what the citizens really think, the opinion of the majority is being ignored. For example, it has been repeatedly stated that Montenegro's accession to NATO is going at full speed, while no one asked the Montenegrins themselves about their thoughts on this account. Meanwhile, the Montenegrins continue to insist on a referendum or any other form of plebiscite that would be really meaningful, before that country takes an important and serious step, which will have consequences in the international arena. All this only adds to the already deep split in society. Unfortunately, Podgorica, with the strong support of the leading countries of the alliance, still refuses to hold a referendum on this extremely important issue affecting everyone in that country.
The report by the Defence Committee of the British House of Commons
We took note of a lengthy report by the Defence Committee of the House of Commons released on July 5 and titled “Russia: Implications for UK defence and security.” I have already posted a brief evaluation of a number of its provisions on my Facebook page. Now, I would like to spend a few more moments discussing it.
Given the logic used by the authors of this document, it causes fairly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the authors are caught up in stereotypes they have fallen for, and included several tired theses about Russian aggression in Ukraine, threatening behaviour toward NATO members, propaganda and misinformation, etc. On the other hand, they state the unprecedentedly poor state of Russian-British relations (which is true, and we officially state that), and call upon the UK government to resume a dialogue with Moscow as soon as possible in order not to risk the occasional appearance of conflicts which can be avoided by improving information exchange. I can’t help but say that this is a sensible and timely idea.
However, the authors call for not only keeping the existing EU sanctions intact, but even expanding them. Notably, they made a shamefaced disclaimer that due to the Brexit vote, the UK’s ability to push through this decision will be put to the test.
The lack of understanding or the distortion by the authors of the causal links when trying to understand the ongoing events, including in the context of Russia’s foreign policy, causes our deepest regret. Russia is portrayed as the primary source of all the problems that NATO, including the United Kingdom, are forced to deal with. In fact, what they are seeing is the reflection in the mirror. If this report reflects anything, it’s the chaos and the confusion of British analytical thinking of late.
Of course, we are concerned about the level of competence of the British analysts as they try to understand the processes taking place in the world and Russia. Several pages of that document focus on insufficient staffing of the units that are in charge of the post-Soviet space, poor knowledge of the Russian language by the staff and the inferior quality of their analysis. I find it hard to disagree. I would like to note once again that, in our view, an important point of this report is that resuming relations and especially the exchange of information across various departments – diplomatic, military, and specialised agencies – is now more relevant than ever.
Statement by Supreme Commander of Sweden’s Armed Forces Gen. Micael Byden
We were perplexed by the statement made by Supreme Commander of Sweden’s Armed Forces Gen. Micael Byden about Russia being the biggest military threat to Sweden at the annual Almedalen political week on Sweden’s Gotland Island.
One gets the impression that many Western countries are part of a well-orchestrated effort to almost daily accuse Russia of posing a threat to someone.
I’ve just quoted British analysts saying that Russia is a threat to Britain. Now Sweden has followed suit, as if by command, saying that Russia is a threat to Sweden as well, and even poses the largest threat to it. This is yet another example of a planned information campaign.
As for Sweden, we hear such statements regularly and in different contexts. It is enough to recall the Russian submarine “hunting” in the Swedish press. Ultimately, all the stories about Russian subs proved to be simply the inventions of Swedish military officers, like the universally known tale about the Loch Ness Monster but in Sweden this time. Not a single story was confirmed. Needless to say, it is deplorable that Russophobic statements coming out of the Swedish military – all haunted by a phantom Russian threat – are becoming routine.
We’ve said more than once that the Russian Army’s rearmament mentioned by Byden has nothing to do with any aggressive intentions. It is nothing more than our proportionate response to the huge increase in the military activities of NATO, which is stubbornly moving its infrastructure closer to Russian borders.
I’d like to draw your attention to the unprecedented openness of our Defence Ministry and our military, which conduct briefings and publish articles and are open to contacts with Western journalists. But all this is secondary. I’ve already mentioned what is of primary importance – normal steady working contacts between the ministries and departments of our countries. If the Supreme Commander of Sweden’s Armed Forces Mr Byden has questions, why does he ask them via the media? Why can’t he pick up the phone and call his colleagues in Russia or send them a message with questions? They will be happy to answer them if what is being done is not enough for Swedish officials.
Let me repeat that if our Swedish partners have concerns over the so-called “Russian threat,” we are always ready to discuss them in a direct dialogue on all issues that arise. Regrettably, the Swedish side is deliberately avoiding a businesslike, substantive discussion, resorting instead to public diplomacy that is not being used for its designated purpose. This is not public diplomacy but using the media for propaganda.
I’d also like to recall that the Defence Ministry conducts regular meetings with the Moscow-accredited representatives of the military attache office. I’d like to address the Swedish Embassy directly: If you have additional questions, send them via the Russian Foreign Ministry or directly to your colleagues from the Defence Ministry. We will tell you about everything, confirm or refute information and establish direct dialogue at long last. Stop using your media to create tensions and scare people with the so-called “Russian threat.”
Investigation into the murder of a Russian couple on Fiji
On June 26, Fiji law-enforcement bodies discovered fragments of human remains on Natadola Beach (Viti Levu Island). One of our compatriots residing on Fiji reported the disappearance of Russian citizens Yury Shipulin and Natalia Gerasimova earlier, on June 17. DNA tests made on July 4 confirmed that the remains belong to the missing Russians.
At present Fiji law enforcement are investigating the murder. The Russian Embassy in Canberra is in constant contact with the Fiji authorities and is rendering any assistance necessary.
Answers to media questions:
Question: We are at the Artek children’s camp and we would like to learn how you spent yesterday. As far as we know, yesterday you were a “star host”. The children you talked to yesterday are here now. We would like to know what topics you discussed and what questions children asked you, on international topics as well.
Maria Zakharova: Yesterday, I was just a “star youth counsellor” so far. A “star host” is something that is still ahead.
In June, several Russian Foreign Ministry experts, including myself, received invitations from the Artek International Children’s Centre to come and meet with children, tell them about diplomats and their work, about our profession, about the key areas of Russia’s foreign policy. We had a very tough schedule in June: there were many international events both in Russia and abroad. So I suggested postponing our meeting to July, when I would have a few days to spare, so as to make my presence here as informative and substantive as possible. It’s not my first time communicating with children at Artek, but before that it was virtual communication: we were communicating with Artek through the Internet – video chats and messaging. We created such a programme and I was attached to, or planted, so to speak, in unit 11.
It all started yesterday morning at an early hour. The children here do get up early, at seven in the morning. At 7 am I was invited to a session of youth counsellors. It surprised me how well-structured everything was and what clear-cut programmes everyone had: each counsellor knows the set of events, their exact timing and the main tasks. After that there were morning exercises for several units, followed by individual exercises and breakfast. We conducted an interactive class in children’s diplomacy. The children asked questions about diplomacy as a profession, about bilateral relations. For some reason everyone was particularly interested in Russian-Chinese relations, which took centre stage, so to speak. I told them about the UN, about its Security Council and General Assembly. I invited them to go into diplomacy. An interesting idea occurred to them: they decided to send an address to the G20 leaders in the run-up to the upcoming G20 summit in China. What struck me most was that the text of this address from first to last word was composed by the children. Frankly speaking, I prepared some recommendations and proposals, but there was no need for them – so precise, so logical and perhaps straightforward in a childlike way were the key points that laid the groundwork for this address. Yesterday evening we polished it to meet standard requirements for such documents. The children are still working on the document, collecting signatures on it. By the end of my stay here or a bit later (that depends on how long it will take), this message will be handed over to me and I will forward it to relevant experts engaged in preparations for the G20 summit. I think that this address will reach the G20 leaders at their forum in China.
After that we went to the beach to have a swim. By the way, honestly speaking, I really wanted to make sure how the water safety was. The measures are unprecedented. Professional rescuers are employed: several people with loudspeakers stand on wave-breakers. They warn children if anything goes the wrong way. Youth counsellors stand along the coast line, keeping an eye on their children. Every unit consists of 20 or more children and is divided into groups. Children enter the sea only by groups. The safety is at the highest level possible. I am saying this as a mother, pondering whether I could let my own child come here, entrust her to Artek. My verdict is: Yes I can.
Then there was dinner. I think that correspondents from Moscow and foreign journalists will see for themselves today how children eat here. I asked the children whether they liked their meals. They said they liked them. Also, they spoke about their favourite dishes. As far as I understood, it’s pudding and chicken. I can’t say anything about the chicken they serve here, haven’t tasted it yet, but I think I will today.
After that, there was quiet time, which is mandatory at Artek. We met again in the afternoon and held a tea ceremony. As I used to live in China, I explained to the children how to brew tea correctly (I am very keen on this subject). We discussed a number of issues, including the letter to the G20 leaders, as well as several media projects that could make our day together memorable. After dinner, we all went to the movie theatre: watched the film “Dangerous Vacations” and talked to its director, Yury Feting. The day ended in the ritual here of wishing each other good night and good next day. That’s how we spent our yesterday.
Question: To our knowledge, several days ago Iran’s artillery shelled Haji Omran and Sidakan – districts in the Iraqi province of Erbil on the border with Iran, injuring several civilians. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was resumed at the same time. The Turkish armed forces shelled the border regions of Iraqi Kurdistan – Erbil and Dohuk. On July 1, Deputy Commander of the Army of the Guardians of the Iranian Revolution Hossein Salami threatened to destroy the north of Iraq – Iraqi Kurdistan. During a Friday prayer he declared that Iran will destroy any forces threatening his country outside its borders. What is Russia’s attitude to such actions by Iran?
Maria Zakharova: We believe that armed actions on the territory of other countries, including those aimed at curbing the terrorist threat, should be taken in strict conformity with the norms of international law and by agreement with the official authorities of the state in which the operation is carried out.
Question: We are now in Crimea. Do you see any threats to Russia on the Black Sea coast? What steps by NATO countries in this region are worrying you the most?
Maria Zakharova: I would encourage you to read the very detailed and thorough interview given by Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to NATO Alexander Grushko to the newspaper Kommersant. He answered a question similar to yours: What response measures could Moscow take considering NATO’s activities on the eastern frontiers and the consolidation of its naval group in the Black Sea region. He replied that we are doing everything to prevent the disruption of the balance of forces in the region. We are watching all NATO’s steps. We’ve said more than once that we are worried by its activities on our frontiers and we don’t understand what they are linked with. The only link is the information campaign on the Russian threat conducted by the NATO members themselves. There is no real threat from Russia to the NATO countries. We have our own domestic tasks and goals that we set. They are linked with upgrading our army and holding drills. But this is all happening on Russian territory. We are not expanding or increasing our contingents abroad or introducing them in other countries. To the contrary, this is being done by the NATO members. They accuse us of having aggressive intentions, but keep forgetting that our actions are limited to our territory whereas they are surrounding us more and more all the time.
I’d like to say that such steps will not remain without a commensurate answer but this is not our choice. We believe that now Europe and other parts of the world are facing urgent and very specific security issues. They are by no means covered by the NATO activities along Russian borders and are linked with completely different factors: international terrorism and the growth of extremism (for instance, in the Middle East and North Africa). We don’t understand how NATO responds to these threats. We offer to work together. We suggested starting these specific albeit long overdue efforts in the autumn of 2015, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin said at the UN General Assembly. We want this struggle, in part, in Syria to be not only specific and meaningful but also legal. It could be possible to draft a relevant strategy in the UN Security Council.
As you know, all this was ignored. A bad situation became worse over time. Now we can see how that the United States is gradually starting to cooperate with Russia militarily. This was our initiative. It is being implemented with many difficulties and substantial resistance. But further developments in the region increasingly show that military cooperation is a must. Washington admits this now, but the resistance of some groups still remains very strong.
We see everything that NATO is doing. We are responding to it, saying that this is not our choice. If there is a feeling that Russia poses some threat, let’s create new formats to discuss this if the existing ones are not enough. Meanwhile, we have the Russia-NATO Council that was blocked altogether for a long time and is just gradually resuming its work. We have a permanent mission at NATO in Brussels and it is also ready to analyse all information jointly, although the headquarters restricted the movements of the mission’s employees and reduced contacts to a minimum.
If this is a global choice in favour of an arms buildup and aggressive rhetoric, we won’t leave it unanswered but this is not our choice. We stand for a completely different approach. I’d like to draw your attention again to the interview given by Mr Grushko to Kommersant, in which he went into this issue in detail.
Question: Tomorrow, the NATO Summit will open in Warsaw. What are Russia's expectations from the summit, given that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has recently said that Russia will remain isolated as long as it continues to undermine peace and order in Europe?
Maria Zakharova: Are there specific examples of how Russia is undermining peace and order in Europe? What lies behind these words? Sweden claims that we are threatening them. The UK says we are a threat. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says we are undermining peace and order. What are the specific examples? Show them to us – and we will work on them.
As to the comments regarding the possibility of another Russia-NATO Council meeting, which is also related to the NATO Warsaw Summit, I would like to say that consultations on the contents and schedule of the meeting continue. We are not ruling out the possibility of convening the meeting soon after the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw. It will focus on the decision of the Warsaw meeting to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, and its consequences for all aspects of European security. Anti-ballistic missile issues will certainly be on the agenda as well, in the context of the ongoing construction of the US-NATO missile defence system in Europe. The plans also include an exchange of views on a number of other pressing issues on the regional and international agenda.
I would like to say once again that the format, which is being resumed with so much difficulty, was frozen by the alliance unilaterally. Yet, they keep on mentioning the Russian threat, and not directly but in the press and media. This leads to the conclusion that they are influencing public opinion to justify NATO’s expansion and a build-up of troop strength in Europe.
Question: Russian officials have claimed that they have information on the Turkish authorities’ cooperation with ISIS. What role does this information play now in Russian-Turkish relations?
Maria Zakharova: We had never said that we didn’t possess this information. Please be very accurate in your wording, your estimates, and in how you handle this information. When we started going public about our concerns regarding the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border and the support for ISIS militants, we always emphasised that we had this information before. Most importantly, we always made this information known to the Turkish side and our colleagues, in particular through the International Syria Support Group. We never said we got this information only after that tragic incident in our bilateral relations [with Turkey]. This information has always been there, and we used it. We just did not disclose it. We tried to convince the international community through existing diplomatic means that these practices towards Syria and terrorists are unacceptable. This information has always been there and we continue to work with it, particularly, in the UN Security Council.
Question: The rock festival in Berlin’s Treptower Park is approaching. Has Russia’s view been taken into consideration? Is there a dialogue on the issue, and what will be done next?
Maria Zakharova: I expected that this question would be asked and so I have found the latest information. We have commented on the issue already, as you know. Our experts are monitoring the developments surrounding the Berlin authorities’ intention to hold a rock festival at the Treptower Park memorial. No official decision has been taken yet, and we expect it in late July or early August.
The Russian position remains unchanged: We insist as before that the venue be transferred from this site of remembrance and mourning, a place dedicated to soldiers fallen in those years [WWII]. We hope our opinion will be heard and not merely taken into consideration, but followed by practical steps. To reiterate: we are keeping abreast of the situation and will inform you as soon as there is any news.
Question: Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said yesterday that the Russian-Turkish rapprochement would help to settle regional conflicts. How, do you think, will it facilitate the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh and Kurdish issues? What are the prospects for simplifying the visa procedure with Georgia?
Maria Zakharova: We have already commented on the simplification of the visa procedure with Georgia. The issue is being discussed. Though [Russian-Georgian] diplomatic relations were broken off at Tbilisi’s initiative, we have always said that it is not merely impossible to sever links between our two nations but that they will never be severed. That was not our choice. Now, a number of practical steps have been made to simplify the visa procedure and the work goes on. It will certainly take longer than a day, a week or even a month. The work is underway and we are in contact with our Georgian colleagues.
We think everything possible must be done to promote humanitarian and civil society contacts. At any rate, we are doing everything that depends on the Foreign Ministry Information and Press Department to enable Georgian journalists to visit Russia: we consider applications and respond to them promptly. I think Georgian journalists will say that’s true.
As for the normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations and its impact on resolving regional issues, this concerns primarily the Middle East and North Africa. It certainly concerns the Syria situation and information exchanges to counter terrorist threats. We will do everything we can to convince Ankara that Turkey’s support for militants in Syria is unacceptable. I reiterate that we will raise the issue in bilateral contacts and at international venues as before. Dialogue is always a step toward addressing regional and other problems.
As for Nagorno-Karabakh, there are relevant formats: the OSCE Minsk Group, direct dialogue with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Russian, Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents’ summits. These mechanisms work and are sufficient. Even so, we can only welcome any constructive initiative by any nation.
Remark: Thank you very much for the opportunity to visit this beautiful land.
Maria Zakharova: Better late than never.
Question: Yesterday President of Russia Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone with his American counterpart Barack Obama. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. They concentrated on the Syrian issue, specifically the resumption of talks and joint struggle against terrorism. What could you say about the current Moscow-Ankara contacts on this issue? Is there any progress towards a potential resumption of the inter-Syrian talks?
Maria Zakharova: We believe the inter-Syrian talks should be stepped up. It is unacceptable to give up because the mission was accomplished or not completely fulfilled. This cannot be left as is. It is necessary to make the effort. You rightly mentioned the regular telephone conversations between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. They are both paying special attention to this issue. I said today what must be done on the ground to disengage the terrorists and the opposition. We are actively dealing with this although we understand that this process is much slower than it should have been. However, we don’t have the feeling that it won’t make headway.
Russia is in contact with Turkey. Mr Lavrov held talks with his Turkish colleague in Sochi, during which they mapped out specific steps towards normalisation.
Yesterday I was asked a very interesting question on the resumption of the flow of tourists to Turkey. I think that truth always comes out of the mouths of – well, I cannot say babes, but teenagers. They asked: How come that just a month ago Russia said it was dangerous to travel to Turkey whereas now the barriers to tourism are being removed. I said – and I consider this very important that political dialogue is indeed coming back to normal – political barriers to contacts, including tourist contacts, are being removed. That said, we are certainly speaking about the persistent threat to tourists that are coming to Turkey not only from Russia but from other countries as well. We haven’t stopped talking about this – either in the past or present – for a single day. I’d like to emphasise that this is the responsibility of our citizens that, despite the political chill, continued flying to Turkey. Every citizen, but especially those travelling with family, should be extra careful about their decisions under these difficult circumstances.
It is necessary to understand one important point. The absence of political contacts and deterioration of relations dealt a direct blow to the contacts between military officers and representatives of relevant services that exchange intelligence information on terrorist threats. If there is no political will, if there is no appropriate political atmosphere, there is no forward movement. We realise that some information on Turkey failed to reach Russia. Now we hope that political normalisation will facilitate other ties. As for the struggle against international terrorism, normalisation of our relations will help counter the terrorist threat. So we believe it is primarily necessary to step up our efforts in this area.
Question: Do you think resumption of Russia-Turkey relations will influence the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol in terms of economy and industry?
Maria Zakharova: When this happened – when the Russian plane was downed and its pilot killed and then another Russian army serviceman lost his life in a rescue operation, when the political divergence began due to these tragic events, I attended many meeting with representatives of different Russian regions. They were worried because they had established contacts with Turkey and investors had come (Crimea and other regions were mentioned), and launched joint construction, opened schools and carried out other projects and then a heavy blow was dealt to all this.
I must say that there are things that cannot be just left behind. When it comes to a deliberate action rather than an accidental offense by mistake, when this action leads to the death of a Russian citizen, everyone should understand that we cannot just leave it behind. The pain of each should become the pain of all. This is an underlying principle of our society and state. It was impossible not to respond to this. That said, Russian leaders said at the top level, including the Foreign Ministry, that we were not rupturing person to person contacts or economic ties although we understand full well that the political chill would directly affect the economy, the investment climate, etc. Now these barriers are being removed because Turkey offered its apologies. We believe this should have been done earlier but let me repeat: better late than never. We accepted these apologies and promptly did our best to restore relations. We believe the investment climate, economic ties and regional contacts will only benefit from this.
Question: Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defence, has sent an invitation to Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front party, to visit Sevastopol during Black Sea Fleet Day celebrations. How would you comment on this? Have our French partners responded in any way?
Maria Zakharova: Yes, I have seen this report. We’ve contacted the Russian Embassy in Paris and learned that the invitation has been submitted to the secretariat of the leader of the National Front political party. It is still too early to talk about the response of Ms Marine Le Pen because the invitation was just sent.
We welcome any contact that can help show the real situation in the Republic of Crimea to the Western public, including the European public. It is extremely important to make sure that people, ordinary Europeans, obtain first-hand information about the developments here, including positive and negative events, difficulties, problems and achievements. We are inviting media outlets, representatives from international organisations and politicians here. Anyone who wants to come can legally enter Crimea and see what is taking place here. We are not hiding the difficulties, and we are not inventing any “Potyomkin villages”; we are ready to show Crimea the way it is. Most importantly, the people of Crimea want to and are ready to do this. Yesterday, I met with the head of the Crimean Journalists’ Union who is here and who said he was very much offended to read what the Western press writes about the republic. People who have been living here for decades, rather than people who have arrived here from Moscow and who head agencies established two years ago, are saying this. Just recently, these people were citizens of another country. They took a well thought-out step, they formalised it under the law, and they are now reading tall tales about their native land. They are ready to show and to speak about everything they have. Come and see for yourselves.
Question: Russian citizens were among the attackers at the Istanbul Airport. Is this true, and has this information been confirmed? Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic, said the other day that terrorists from Russia have been having a good time on the Turkish coast for quite a while, and he also gave their names. Is it possible that these people will be arrested and extradited, now that relations between Russia and Turkey have improved?
Maria Zakharova: Of course, we have read media reports, including Western media reports, that Chechen militant Akhmed Chatayev allegedly masterminded the terrorist attack in Istanbul that claimed 44 lives. I would like to say that Russia issued an international search warrant for him some time ago on charges of facilitating terrorist activity. Despite that, Chatayev obtained refugee status in Austria in 2003. He soon became a leader among the militants, coming from a certain region, in Western Europe. In 2008, he was arrested by Swedish law enforcement agencies. I would like to recount the circumstances of his arrest. He was found sitting inside a car packed with weapons and ammunition. After the arrest, Russia asked Sweden to extradite this terrorist. As you can guess, Russia’s request was turned down, just like many other requests on extraditing suspects linked with terrorist activity in the North Caucasus. In 2009 Chatayev was released in Sweden and deported to Austria.
I would also like to quote the Moscow correspondent of Sweden’s Expressen newspaper. After Chatayev’s release, his terrorist career soared, and he surfaced in Georgia and Ukraine, the newspaper writes. The Swedish correspondent believes this person has been engaged in terrorist activity for a long time, including the spread of Islamist propaganda, and the training of ISIS militants, and directly planning and perpetrating terrorist attacks.
Russia has more than once directed its Western partners’ attention to the spread of jihadism in the Caucasus and the need to coordinate measures to prevent the growth of extremism in this region. We appealed to our Western partners because these terrorists find refuge in the West.
You said, quoting Ramzan Kadyrov, that some terrorists live in Turkey. And how many of them live in Europe? I have told you about the “career” of one of them. He didn’t live in Turkey, but in Austria and Sweden, whose authorities we have officially asked to extradite this criminal. Why haven’t they done it? What did they do with him? Why did they release him, and why didn’t they monitor his movements? Or did they? What is happening to him?
Remember that we have repeatedly asked the UK to extradite those who are connected with international terrorism in the Caucasus or to convey a message to London that the campaigns waged by many Russian or former Russian citizens in the UK in support of terrorists can only promote terrorism. Did London listen to us? No. And all this time Europe has been working to protect these people from the North Caucasus, presenting them as freedom fighters, fighters for the freedom of Chechnya. We remember that the BBC and other television networks never called them terrorists. They called them rebels but not terrorists. Why? Why do they release these people instead of extraditing them? It is yet to be determined precisely how many crimes these people have committed and what criminal network they have created, even though we had the relevant information and have shared it with our Western colleagues.
Take the terrorist attack in Boston. Russian security services provided the names of the terrorists involved to our American colleagues. What reply did we receive? When we provided the names of these people and suggested that our colleagues monitor their activities, they replied that everything was fine, that these are their people. And then “their people” commit barbaric terrorist attacks. Do you know what happened after that? They say that these terrorists are Russian citizens. This is an interesting turn: it is not Russia who refused to extradite or call these people to account, but when they commit a crime it turns out that these are Russians.
Regarding the other persons involved in the Istanbul terrorist attack, we are monitoring the situation. I can ask our law enforcement and security services about the information they have.
I told you a specific story to show you that the people who are persecuted in Russia for terrorism feel at home in Europe.
As I said, the improvement and normalisation of relations with Turkey have not settled all of our problems. When the terrorists who are wanted in Russia find refuge in Turkey or any other country, we will request that they be extradited. I don’t want anyone to think that some problems can be swept under the carpet or that we will turn a blind eye to them. We won’t.
Question: Have you considered simplifying the visa regime for foreigners who want to visit Crimea, especially under cultural exchange programmes?
Maria Zakharova: We have the same visa regime throughout the country, including for those who want to visit Crimea. For special purpose groups, for example groups of journalists or representatives of international organisations, we do our best to provide the necessary information to them and to expedite visas and other papers without violating Russian law.
If you want to invite someone on behalf of Moskovsky Komsomolets, you should send a corresponding invitation. If you invite journalists, you can notify us of this and we will help expedite the issuance of visas for the journalists who want to visit Crimea. We have always tried to create conditions in which our consular departments can do their job quickly and to quality standards. In fact, we are not set up to issue certain groups of visas quickly and with good quality [which should be the standard], but to respond to problems in this area. When visas are generally issued quickly and to quality standards, we focus on problems with the issuance of visas. Few people have visa complaints. We issue them quickly. As I said, if you want to invite delegations on behalf of your newspaper, you can ask for our assistance and we will do our best to help.
Question: It was reported yesterday that President Putin will go to Azerbaijan for a trilateral meeting with the leaders of Iran and Azerbaijan. Do you know anything more about this?
Maria Zakharova: Per tradition, comments on the president’s schedule are provided by the Presidential Executive Office.
Question: The sanctions have directly affected people in Crimea: they are denied visas as they present their Russian passports. Is the Foreign Ministry working to break through the Crimean blockade and enable locals to obtain European visas freely and with less effort?
Maria Zakharova: Of course; this is basically discrimination. And this is the very human rights violation that we have always been criticised for. As things stand now, the rights of these citizens are being directly violated. Failure to issue a visa based on a territory of residence, or because certain citizens voted the way they did, or because they have the political views they have is a direct violation of every international obligation the countries so acting have assumed. This is simply a direct breach of all that the OSCE and EU member-countries have accumulated for decades in their positive human rights experience. We raise this issue during bilateral contacts and at international organisations and we remonstrate with their heads about the unacceptability of this discrimination. Regrettably, Europe, the cradle of human rights and the world’s human rights documents, is now spearheading this sanctions policy that is directed at specific citizens. They are punishing specific people who expressed their will by voting in a referendum rather than the heads of state who engaged in the decision-making. This is simply unacceptable! We’ve been working on this. To reiterate: we are raising this issue at international organisations in the course of direct talks. We’d like visiting foreign correspondents to reflect this in their stories. You can’t be on the lookout for Russia-committed human rights violations in Crimea, to mention this area as an example, and yet turn a blind eye to the human rights violations perpetrated by Western countries with regard to the people of Crimea. After all, this is a direct violation of the right to freedom of movement.
Question: OSCE monitors are reporting a buildup of armed forces and equipment on the line of contact between Ukraine and the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. What steps has the Russian Foreign Ministry been taking to reduce tensions in the region?
Maria Zakharova: First of all, we are working with the OSCE. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the OSCE in Vienna Alexander Lukashevich regularly – practically every day – conveys the Russian assessment of the situation to the OSCE, drawing its attention to specific facts. We are working within the trilateral Contact Group that is based there and includes Russian representatives. We hold talks with our foreign colleagues. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintains telephone contact with his US counterpart John Kerry. Recently, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went to Paris and held talks with the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. There is an ongoing exchange of views with many of our colleagues. A number of measures have been taken as well. We maintain a dialogue with our US colleagues on many levels in addition to the foreign ministers. Vladislav Surkov and Victoria Nuland are also in contact with each other. We ’are doing our best to prevent a disengagement breakoff.
You are absolutely right that the OSCE has been recording not only the de-escalation but also the fact that Ukraine is responsible for the overwhelming majority of [ceasefire] violations (about 70 per cent). These are OSCE data. The disappearance of Ukraine’s heavy weapons from the storage facilities, where they should be kept in accordance with the relevant decisions, has also been recorded in Kiev-controlled areas. We are doing all we can to prevent this from spreading further. This is necessary not so much in order to freeze this situation as to use this opportunity for achieving political progress. I am referring to constitutional reform and the need to draft and approve a law on the special status [of Donbass] and to start a direct dialogue.