Question: In 2017 we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Central Asian countries. What are the main landmarks of this period?
Sergey Lavrov: The Central Asian countries have become full-fledged participants in international life during this quarter of a century. Russia has established relations of alliance and strategic partnership with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Today we have an extensive legal infrastructure that includes more than 900 bilateral treaties and intergovernmental agreements. It is hard to overestimate the role of a regular, trust-based dialogue at the top level in the common efforts.
We can state with satisfaction that our countries’ approaches to the main regional and global problems coincide or are very close. For example, the Russia-Kazakhstan Agreement on Good-Neighbourliness and Alliance in the 21st Century of November 11, 2013, directs us to conduct a coordinated foreign policy. We attach particular importance to cooperation in strengthening security and combat capability of the Central Asian countries, including by training personnel for their security agencies.
Russia and the Central Asian states have established deeply structuralised trade and economic ties. In 2016, they amounted to more than $18.5 billion. This is lower than the past indices because of exchange-rate fluctuations but generally stable dynamics is preserved in physical terms. Over 7,500 Russian businesses and joint ventures operate successfully in the region. We positively assess the existing level of inter-regional cooperation.
Humanitarian exchanges have progressed. There are over 150,000 citizens of Central Asian countries enrolled in Russian universities, with the tuition of 46,000 of them reimbursed from the federal budget.
We look with optimism to the future of our relations. We hope that they will be further promoted by President Vladimir Putin’s visits to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in late February of this year, dedicated to the celebration of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
Question: The West continues to assert that Russia is persevering in its attempts to “subdue” the former Soviet republics, including the Central Asian countries, if not to restore the USSR. Could you comment on these assertions from the point of view of Russia’s real role in promoting the Central Asian countries’ independence?
Sergey Lavrov: Allegations about some “neo-imperial” ambitions or even plans to restore the USSR belong to the genre of science fiction and do not merit a serious discussion. Russia has always treated with respect the former Soviet republics’ choice in favour of independence and independent development. We are cooperating in various formats and this cooperation is based strictly on the principles of equality and regard for each other’s interests.
This concerns in full measure the Central Asian states. We are cooperating productively both bilaterally and at integration organisations, including the CIS, the CSTO, the EAEU and the SCO.
Question: Some publications have reported on Russia’s very substantial aid to the Central Asian countries. What is Russia’s contribution to this region’s development, including through the UN?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s aid to the Central Asian countries comes to $6.7 billion over the past decade. Financial aid that does not have to be reimbursed, provided on a bilateral basis, comes to more than $4 billion. Aid provided through the UN comes to more than $570 million, aid through the World Bank and other organisations exceeds $1.3 billion, and aid through the Eurasian Economic Union (funded by Russia’s contribution to the Eurasian Stabilisation and Development Fund) comes to more than $592.3 million.
Russia had around 3.8 million people from Central Asian countries on its soil at the end of last year, most of them here for work. They not only support their families and send substantial funds back home, but make a contribution to the Russian economy too.
Russia’s contribution to UN-led international development efforts in the CIS region, especially in Central Asia, has increased considerably over the last two years. Decisions have been approved on financing more than a dozen big projects. The focus of our attention is primarily on poverty reduction, healthcare (bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates and fighting disease), education, the environment and food security (the Food for Labour programme and organisation of school meals for 484,000 schoolchildren in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). We place great importance too on modernising and creating infrastructure, strengthening national capacity to fight terrorism and organised crime, and improving the system of public administration.
Russia continues to play a big part in international efforts to provide humanitarian aid to countries that need it in Central Asia. Our country contributed $65 million to the UN World Food Programme for the needs of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2013-2016.
Question: What role do the Central Asian countries play in developing and strengthening inter-state cooperation within the CIS today?
Sergey Lavrov: We value the Central Asian countries’ contribution to making the CIS more effective in its work. Central Asian countries have held the CIS presidency with success (Tajikistan in 2011, Turkmenistan in 2012, Kazakhstan in 2015, and Kyrgyzstan in 2016), contributing to developing cooperation within the organisation.
We are pleased to see that the Central Asian countries all agree on the need to preserve the CIS as an influential international organisation. Kazakhstan, for example, often initiates joint projects and works actively to implement them. During Kyrgyzstan’s presidency in 2016, a number of important decisions were taken to improve the CIS’s work. Tajikistan plays an active part in carrying out initiatives to maintain stability and combat the terrorist threat in the region. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also show interest in gradually developing inter-state cooperation in this format.
Russia holds the CIS presidency this year. We count on the support of the co-presiding countries – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – including in implementing projects that will make the organisation’s work more effective and bolster its influence in international affairs.
Question: What is the EAEU’s importance for the Central Asian region?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me remind you that the idea of Eurasian integration was first suggested way back in 1994 by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are full-fledged members of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Then advantages of joining the EAEU with its 182 million consumers and a common GDP exceeding $2.2 trillion are obvious. Already today the Union largely follows common rules and standards. Common markets of goods, services, capital and workforce have been created. The EAEU is making an important contribution to regional stability and emerging as an economic attraction centre.
We view the Union as a key element of efforts to implement President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to form a multi-level integration model in Eurasia with the aim of ensuring stable development of the entire continent, including, of course, Central Asia. Considerable success has been achieved in this area lately. The Agreement on Free Trade between the EAEU and Vietnam has come into force. Talks on a trade and economic cooperation agreement between the EAEU and the PRC are in high gear. Steps are being taken to align the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt. The ASEAN members are actively supporting the Russian President’s idea.
Question: The growth of terrorist activity in the Middle East and Afghanistan influences the situation in Central Asia by aggravating the security risks. What is the level of our security cooperation with the countries in the region? What opportunities are there for increasing the effectiveness of this cooperation?
Sergey Lavrov: The main security threat in Central Asia comes from Afghanistan. ISIS’ attempts to gain a foothold in northern Afghanistan and boost their strength by recruiting militants from other terrorist groups are particularly worrisome. Last August, an ISIS-related suicide bomber attacked the PRC diplomatic mission in Bishkek.
The sufficiently high level of trans-border movement by foreign terrorists seeking to return to their countries after they took part in hostilities in the Middle East and northern Africa is very dangerous as well. The number of CIS citizens involved with the jihadists has reached several thousand. We are worried by terrorism’s collusion with organised crime and drug trafficking, a fact confirmed not only by Russian and CIS security services but also by respected international organisations. The Russian and Central Asian security services are cooperating closely on these problems.
We are particularly keen to strengthen cooperation within the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which includes practically all of the region’s countries, including Afghanistan, as members, observers or dialogue partners. Our initiative to reform RATS, investing it, at the first stage, with powers to issue recommendations on how to effectively counteract the funding of terrorism with drug money is aimed at addressing this task.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Russian military presence in Central Asia and the CSTO shield for cutting short security threats and maintaining stability in the region. Transforming the CSTO into a universal organisation with a mandate to counter terrorism, illegal drug trafficking and cyberthreats is designed to boost its potential. Some important steps were taken in this area last year. In September, the CSTO Collective Security Strategy until 2025 was adopted. In the counterterrorism area, additional measures in the fight against terrorism were approved and an agreement was reached on compiling a Unified List of Terrorist Organisations. The Crisis Response Centre became operative and a Russian initiative to establish an anti-drug centre is being studied.
Question: In the Soviet Union, we were one nation. What is the current state of affairs with our compatriots in the Central Asian countries?
Sergey Lavrov: Interacting with our compatriots in Central Asia ranks high on our list of priorities. Their situation is good overall. However, some of them face difficulties with having their children study in their native language, and obtaining access to education, healthcare and social security. The Foreign Ministry, our embassies and consulates general resolve issues promptly both on a bilateral basis and with the use of the CIS multilateral mechanisms. The Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad consistently coordinates and monitors the implementation of all federal and regional programmes involving Russian expat communities in Central Asia.
We note with satisfaction that our compatriots are making an invaluable contribution to preserving the memory of the common pages of our history, such as the Immortal Regiment March during the celebration of Victory in 1941–1945 Great Patriotic War.
We are confident that our compatriots residing in that region will continue to expand multifaceted cooperation between Russia and the Central Asian states.
Question: How is the Russian language doing in Central Asia? What do we do to maintain interest in it in that region?
Sergey Lavrov: The Russian language retains its position as the common means of interethnic communication within the Central Asian region. The annual monitoring studies in Central Asia show high levels of interest in it, which is confirmed by the number of applications filed by foreign nationals through the Russia.Study system who wish to study in Russia.
There are more than 3,700 schools in Central Asia with teaching provided in Russian. The opening of the Chekhov School established by the Russian Peace Foundation (Russia) and the Russian Heritage Foundation (Kyrgyzstan) in Bishkek on September 1, 2016 is the most recent example of our joint efforts in this area.
We focus particularly on training Russian language teachers who are foreign nationals. In 2016, the total number of teachers from the CIS countries who took advanced training courses amounted to 4,615, of whom 2,338 are teachers of the Russian language. The Russian language courses at the Russian centres of science and culture in the Central Asian countries have become part of their routine operation.
As a state customer of the Russian Language federal targeted programme, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Cultural Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) made over 7,600 Russian language-related textbooks, study aids, books and magazines available to educational institutions in Central Asian countries.
The Russian language is promoted by Russian higher education institutions in Central Asia, which make active efforts to hold educational exhibitions and fairs. In April 2016, such events were held with great success in all the countries of that region.
Question: How would you describe the current state of cultural exchanges and the way the cultures of Russia and Central Asian countries continue to enrich each other?
Sergey Lavrov: We welcome the interest of our Central Asian partners in promoting cultural and humanitarian exchanges and people-to-people contacts. The key role in this is played by Russian Centres for Science and Culture (RCSC), which are successfully operating in Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent. In December 2016, we opened an RCSC branch in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. We are coordinating a Russia-Turkmenistan intergovernmental agreement on the establishment and terms of operation of information and culture centres.
The RCSCs take part in the organisation of concerts, artistic events and exhibitions held with support from the Culture Ministry on the occasion of Russian national holidays and memorable dates in Russian or common history.
We are doing our best for the public in Central Asia to see the Russian culture centres as platforms where people will come to learn more about contemporary Russia, its culture and language, to inquire about studying in Russia and to propose joint humanitarian initiatives.
We are implementing the New Generation programme of short-term study trips to Russia by young political, social, research and business professionals. In 2016, it involved 20 young people from Central Asia. Last year we also held events to mark the 25th anniversary of the CIS, Victory Day and 75 years since the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.
Question: The West, in particular the European Union, has shown increased interest in Central Asia. What does Russia think about this?
Sergey Lavrov: We welcome such interest, provided the EU implements projects that can help Central Asian nations achieve their socioeconomic goals.
On the other hand, we remember the regrettable experience of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative in post-Soviet countries. It has shown that Brussel’s policy towards post-Soviet countries is often based on the zero-sum game. It does not take into account the diversified centuries-old ties between our nations; worse still, it often aims to destroy them.
As for the Central Asian nations, we sometimes see that European investments there are politically motivated and that the main goal of the Western financial assistance is to open the region’s markets to EU goods.
We believe that it would be much better for sustainable development in Eurasia if we could launch practical work to create a common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok based on indivisible security and broad cooperation. Of great importance in this respect is the “integration of integrations” initiative, which is aimed at developing practical interaction between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.