Interview of Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov with New Europe. 20 September 2013

Q: Russia has taken a very active role in resolving the standoff over Syria and convincing Damascus to surrender all chemical weapons. Is Russia making a comeback in the diplomatic stage?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: I agree it’s really a big success for Russian diplomacy. Of course it is for others to judge the extent of that success and its significance. But let me point out a few things. One, we’ve tried and managed not only to convince the Syrian government to join the Convention on Prevention of Chemical Weapons and become a member of the relevant international organisation, but we also managed to convince the United States that should this scheme work there would be no need for any military action, including airstrikes.

Two. It was not actually a comeback. Russia has been active all along. It’s not that Russian diplomacy woke up in the middle of the night and invented all this. But the moment was conducive to this success because this solution is actually is in the interest of everybody.

Three. Of course, it’s just beginning of the road or a certain milestone along the way to resolving the crisis because there are broader issues that need to be addressed like a political settlement of the Syrian crisis. And you will easily understand that had this initiative not taken hold and had those airstrikes that had been announced earlier taken place the possibility of convening the Geneva 2 conference on Syria would have been minimal if any at all. Now the prospects of promoting a political settlement are better and we hope this can be continued.

Four. We also view this solution of specific problem of Syrian chemical weapons as a step towards implementation of a broader initiative of creating in the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. This idea has been afloat for a number of years already and there was a proposal to hold an international conference on the issue as early as last year, but that didn’t materialise. Hopefully the solution of this specific problem will open the way towards promoting a solution of this broader issue.

Q: There were some press reports today [18 September] that Russia was questioning the evidence that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government, citing doubts about proof of culpability and maybe the rebels were behind it. Is this taking the Assad government off the hook? For example if they do not comply and do not surrender their chemical weapons, would that mean that a military strike would be back on the table?

Vladimir Chizhov: As soon as the Geneva agreement of last Saturday [14 September] was announced, immediately comments and questions appeared - what will happen if Assad doesn’t comply? Well, what will happen if the opposition doesn’t comply? What will happen if Assad complies? These are all theoretical questions. I believe that so far there is no evidence to suggest that the Syrian government is not complying. Actually it has already submitted the necessary documents to the Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons in The Hague acceding to the Convention and to the Organisation and practical modalities of inspecting the sites are now being worked out. The Geneva agreement between [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [US Secretary of State John] Kerry openly stipulates that if there is hard evidence proving non-compliance then the UN Security Council will deal with it, and it’s only up to the Security Council to decide on any possible measure. Again, it’s a matter of principle. Any use of force which would circumvent the Security Council would be illegal from the point of view of international law.

Q: But Russia has veto over the Security Council resolutions. Therefore at that point it would be called upon to decide whether there would be military action or not.

Vladimir Chizhov: Well, Russia will certainly view credible evidence if produced with an open mind.

Q: Do you think this diplomatic effort on Syria will improve relations between Russia and the US?

Vladimir Chizhov: Russian-American relations are very complex – multi-faceted and certainly not void of problems. Syria is just one track of very many. We have been co-operating on other international issue like the Middle East peace process, the Iranian nuclear programme, a number of others. This joint initiative is a clear indication that we’re able to work together in the interests of the whole world.

Q: Going over to the issue of energy, there was a discussion on the EU single internal market in Strasbourg last week where Commissioner Guenther Oettinger was very firm that the European Commission is not going to back out from the investigation against Gazprom and it will look very seriously into the findings whether it has violated EU market rules. Given that Russia is a major gas supplier to the EU, is this investigation going to undermine relations between the two sides?

Vladimir Chizhov: Commissioner Oettinger has always been firm in his public statements. But the official position is that neither Oettinger as Commissioner for Energy either DG Energy are in charge of this investigation which is being conducted by DG Competition under the supervision of Vice President of the Commission Joaquín Almunia - so there is a division of labour in the Commission. In any case, I will not comment on the details of that investigation. They are confidential between the Commission and Gazprom. I will only say that Russia is not only a major supplier of energy to the EU. It has been the most reliable supplier for over 40 years and certainly that situation is a major factor in promoting energy security for the European Union. I find it strange sometimes when I hear arguments that are hardly compatible with each other. Some complain that the EU doesn’t yet have a single energy market and should do something to create one. Then they immediately accuse Gazprom of fragmentizing the single energy market. Logically speaking you cannot fragmentize something that is not yet in existence. So I would appeal for all those involved to provide more logic and consistency.

Q: Is Gazprom willing to comply with EU energy rules?

Vladimir Chizhov: You should ask Gazprom. It has complied so far. We’re closely looking, of course, at various options, including whatever flexibility the famous or rather infamous Third Energy Package provides.

Q: President Vladimir Putin issued a decree banning Gazprom from disclosing information to EU regulators...

Vladimir Chizhov: The decree did not refer specifically to Gazprom nor did specifically to the European Union. It was part of certain internal reforms in the Russian Federation where major companies with the state being a major shareholder like Gazprom had public officials sitting on their board of directors as members. Then all those public officials were withdrawn from those boards of directors to prevent conflict of interests. As a result the Government, continuing to be a major shareholder, no longer had any influence on the decisions of the board of directors. So this decree was an effort to rectify the situation, to prevent those partially state-owned companies from making mistakes in their dealings with their partners abroad before consulting the Government.

Q: Is the gas-pricing issue becoming political both from the EU and Russia?

Vladimir Chizhov: From Russia certainly not. But unfortunately, some countries, some people in Europe and elsewhere are trying to politicise this thing. We’ve seen attempts, efforts to promote several projects – some of them never flew - to build infrastructure circumventing Russian territory, thereby promoting alternative sources at the expense of customers. But as far as Russia is concerned, energy has never even in the days of the Cold War, been a political tool.

Q: Is Russia pleased that the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) was chosen instead of Nabucco? Is this good news for South Stream?

Vladimir Chizhov: I didn’t have much confidence in Nabucco from the very beginning, because it was a clear case of an artificial, clearly politicised project which had a lot of political clout behind it but not so much money and practically no gas - and that’s what killed it. Regarding the Trans Adriatic Pipeline –you’d have to ask South Stream people how they view it. My own view is that in the long run the European Union will need more gas and in order to get more gas it will need more pipelines. The issue is to pursue those projects balancing risks and responsibilities between the various players: suppliers, transit countries and consumers. These are major projects, requiring a lot of investment, much of it up-front, that is at the initial stage of implementation of each project, so it’s logical to have everybody involved sharing the risks and responsibilities between them. We hope that South Stream will be a success and we’ll see about the others.

Q: Last week in Strasbourg, the European Parliament passed a resolution warning Russia to respect the right of the EU’s eastern neighbours to choose whether to enter into association agreements with Brussels. How does Moscow view Ukraine’s plans to sign an association agreement with the EU? Is the Eurasian Union going to affect trade with the EU?

Vladimir Chizhov: As far as the European Parliament is concerned, I regard the resolution adopted to be a political tool applying pressure on Ukraine. My country has never pulled Ukraine or any other country of the Eastern Partnership towards its side. It will be up to Ukrainians, Moldovans, Armenians, Georgians and others to make their decisions. Of the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, Armenia has said it is joining the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union, Azerbaijan, from what I know, has displayed no interest in an association agreement with the European Union, Belarus was actually never asked. So that leaves us with three countries: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. I don’t know much about Georgia, we don’t even have diplomatic relations. Ukraine and Moldova will need to take a decision. It may be easy and comfortable to follow two parallel tracks, promoting co-operation with the EU and with the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Space. That’s all very good, but there comes a point where there are legal benchmarks along each track. So the single legal benchmark on the track of Eurasian integration is a country becoming a full member. On the EU track the situation is different. Nobody in the EU has ever promised to any of those countries full membership and, according to my understanding, does not intend to do that in any foreseeable future. In the meantime though, those countries, if they sign an association agreement, they will be obliged to take certain legal commitments, like aligning their national legislation with the acquis communautaire in various fields and that may create problems in their further relations with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union for obvious reasons. I would like to stress there is no ideology in this, there’s hardly any politics. It’s only economics, it is calculation. If they proceed to establish what is described by a beautiful expression “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” (though I have not heard of a shallow and incomprehensive one), then, of course, countries in the Customs Union would have to calculate the risks in their bilateral trade with any of these countries, namely Ukraine or Moldova. It’s pure arithmetic, and what the Russian Government is providing is giving a transparent view on this, showing the opportunities on the one hand, and the risks on the other hand.

Q: But energy can be an instrument of pressure...

Vladimir Chizhov: There are certain tariffs within the Customs Union, naturally. Members of the Customs Union enjoy certain lower tariffs between themselves and, of course, those countries that are not members of the Customs Union have to deal with different tariffs. I wouldn’t regard it as political pressure. It is rather an objective expression of market economy.

Q: In the beginning of summer we spoke about visa issue between Russia and the EU.

Vladimir Chizhov: Little has changed since then, unfortunately.

Q: Do you expect the games in Sochi to help advance visa talks?

Vladimir Chizhov: I certainly hope so. Also, a Government decision is being prepared in Russia. It has been announced already that tourists transiting or visiting Russia for a short period up to 72 hours may enjoy a visa-free entry and the Russian Government will be looking at the list of countries this new procedure will extend to. So that might serve as another incentive for the European Union, I hope. In this case, we can really speak about pressure – pressure from the business communities, pressure from the tourist industry that are making this point quite eloquently that visas are hampering their work and their contribution to people-to-people contacts. Actually, I spoke to a number of colleagues representing EU member states from the southern part of the European Union and they all say that in these times of crisis the tourist industry is a major stabilising factor and they are counting on Russian tourists a lot.

So we really need to pursue this. This is not a one-way street. You cannot say it’s a unilateral concession to Russia because people on the EU side and I mean not only the business community and the tourist industry but also the general public are keenly interested in solving this issue.