Our meetings in Germany are almost over. We spent a day and a half in Bonn and two days in Munich, at a meeting of the G20 foreign ministers in Bonn and the annual international security conference in Munich, which is nearing completion. You attended my speech there, and today I am ready to answer your questions if you have any.
In addition to multilateral meetings in the framework of the G20 and the Munich Security Conference, I have had about 25 bilateral meetings and also attended a Normandy format meeting of foreign ministers. I can tell you that the Normandy format meeting focused on the implementation of the agreements the presidents of Russia, France and Ukraine and the federal chancellor of Germany reached in Bonn last October. These agreements included provisions on security zones and their gradual and consistent expansion along the contact line, the unconditional withdrawal of heavy weapons, which should have been accomplished long ago, and the establishment of round-the-clock OSCE monitoring along the contact line in the security zones and heavy weapons holding areas. They also urged the fulfilment of all humanitarian provisions as soon as possible (primarily exchange hostages and detainees based on the “all for all” principle) and the drafting of a roadmap that would set out clearly the steps towards the implementation of the political provisions of the Minsk Agreements.
We noted today that progress in implementing the Berlin agreements has been inadequate, unfortunately. As everyone agreed, the only positive element is that the Contact Group has again agreed to launch a ceasefire and heavy weapons withdrawal to the holding areas on February 20. We supported this decision actively, but we also expressed the opinion that it must be implemented without fail this time. We’ll see how the parties to the conflict react to this.
We also expressed our appreciation for the minor progress reached at the Contact Group’s humanitarian subgroup regarding the coordination of the lists of prisoners and detained persons for their subsequent exchange based on the “all for all” principle. As I said, this work is underway. We hope that those who are doing in on the ground – Ukrainian representatives and delegates from Donetsk and Lugansk – will eventually reach an agreement.
We also noted the special importance of the roadmap that should set out the sequence of steps to strengthen security and simultaneously to promote political reform, including a law on the special status for Donbass, which should be formalised in a new constitution, an amnesty for all those who participated in the hostilities in Donbass, just as it has been done with regard to participants in the Maidan protests against the previous government, as well as local elections based on the special status law and the law on elections, which should be coordinated, just as everything else, between Kiev and Donbass.
An additional statement by the German and French ministers was made at our initiative. We wanted to draw attention to the unacceptable blockade of Donbass by radical Ukrainian groups. I am referring to the blockade of railway and road transit and threats to cut off all communication with this part of Ukraine. We proposed condemning this approach and demanding the immediate lifting of the blockade. Our Normandy format partners supported this proposal and a statement to this effect has been added to the comment issued by the German and French ministers following our meeting.
Question: What signals did you get from US Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke here? Did you meet?
Sergey Lavrov: We exchanged greetings before the meeting. We have not met personally. As you know, I had a long meeting with the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in Bonn. I believe signals will be analysed by politicians. What I heard is that the United States wants to cooperate with its partners in tackling international issues of concern to Washington. As I have said, we are waiting for the new US foreign policy team to be finalised. After that we will be able to see, while acting in the framework of professional contacts, the final shape of the initiatives and views expressed by US President Donald Trump and also by Vice President Pence today.
Question: Did you and Rex Tillerson talk about Iran? Have you coordinated the date for a meeting between the Russian and US presidents?
Sergey Lavrov: We have said everything we could about the potential meeting between the Russian and US presidents. I have nothing more to add now. We have an agreement on such a meeting, which needs time to be prepared. Besides, it should be held at a time and place that will be convenient for both presidents.
Regarding Iran, we talked about it on a par with all the other key issues on the international agenda. We believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear programme remains in force. Our American partners take part in monitoring the implementation of this plan jointly with the other parties to this agreement, including at the IAEA. Today I have met with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. He has reaffirmed that monitoring efforts show that Iran is honouring its commitments. We hope that it will continue in this vein. All the other parties to this agreement must also fulfil their obligations. I am referring to the lifting of bans on economic cooperation and other ties with Iran that were imposed by the UN Security Council and also unilateral restrictions imposed by some members of the talks.
Question: Today President of Russia Vladimir Putin signed an executive order recognising documents issued in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Did you discuss this with your colleagues at the Normandy format meeting? How did they react to this decision? Does it mean that Russia has changed its attitude to the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics?
Sergey Lavrov: No, we did not discuss this issue. I do not think that anyone views this as a change in our position. I believe that this executive order is quite explicit. It says clearly that we are being guided exclusively by the international humanitarian law, because people in these Donbass regions have suffered from various blockades and restrictions. They cannot receive their pensions and social payments and do not have adequate access to healthcare services, considering that many medical facilities in Donbass have been destroyed or severely damaged. They cannot travel for personal reasons, while there are many families, relatives and friends living on both sides of the border in Ukraine’s Donbass and in the Russian Federation. The presidential executive order says that the identification documents of persons permanently residing in Donbass (the Donetsk and Lugansk areas) will be recognised in the Russian Federation as valid for purely humanitarian reasons so that these people are able to legitimately enter Russia and use railway and aviation transport during the settlement period of the crisis in Ukraine in keeping with the Minsk Agreements.
Question: What is your opinion of Russian-Georgian relations? Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin has recently issued a statement on visas. Why do you connect this issue with diplomatic relations? International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who is attending this event, has said that Russia is not yet cooperating with the investigation. Have you met with her here?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I have not. I cannot comment on this issue. We have taken a stand regarding the formulation of this particular issue by the ICC Prosecutor. She completely disregarded the extensive materials provided by South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Russian Federation, which show convincingly that the conflict was initiated by Mikheil Saakashvili. The bias of the Prosecutor’s position became obvious when the individual complaints filed by those who have suffered from this conflict in South Ossetia were set aside. We said long ago that cooperation is impossible for us in this situation.
As for the overall state of relations between Russia and Georgia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and the Georgian Prime Minister’s special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, recently held a regular meeting and issued a detailed comment. We are glad that our bilateral relations seem to be improving. Our trade is growing. I believe, though I am not sure, that Russia is the third largest buyer of Georgian exports. We are improving and expanding the area of air communication. We have greatly liberalised our visa policies. Georgians can now visit Russia at every reasonable opportunity.
As for visa free travel, I want to stress that it is a serious issue. It is complicated by more than just the absence of diplomatic relations, although it would be a little strange to cancel visas in this situation. The issue also concerns the need to ensure national security at a time when not just Central Asia but also the South Caucasus has become open routes for militants, extremists, terrorists and drug traffickers. When we develop comprehensive cooperation between the Russian and Georgian law enforcement agencies, and when we cut these risks to a minimum on both sides, then we will be able to discuss further visa facilitation. But cooperation between law enforcement agencies is difficult to develop in the absence of diplomatic relations.