What is the current level of Russia's relations with the EU? The EU has been extending its financial sanctions on Russia. Given this context, do you believe that EU – Russian relations can be improved and how?
One could hardly qualify Russia – EU relations today as normal, and the most unnatural factor poisoning them is of course those notorious sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia. We have also to state with regret that the impressive architecture of various dialogue formats that was built through strenuous joint effort of the two sides suffers damage on Brussels’s initiative. The EU has chosen to link the normalisation of our relationship with the implementation of the Minsk agreements, which are being flouted, as everyone knows by now, by the Ukrainian authorities.
Nevertheless, it seems that the most far-sighted EU member countries – including Greece – are gradually rediscovering the value of pragmatic cooperation with our country. Some previously suspended strands of political dialogue are coming back to life. And this is only natural. As close neighbours our countries do not only enjoy the benefits of economic interdependence but also face common or similar challenges, including international terrorism, organised crime and proliferation risks.
Assessing the state of the Russia – EU relations, we shouldn’t forget that the European Union remains the leading trade partner of the Russian Federation. The EU Member States currently account for 42.7% of the total Russian turnover. Russia, in turn, ranks fourth among the top trading partners of the EU (after the USA, China and Switzerland), takes the lead in the list of its natural gas suppliers and is a major exporter of crude oil, refined oil products and coal to the EU.
The decrease in bilateral trade observed in 2013–2016 has come to an end, and from 2017 on the Russia – EU turnover started to recover rapidly. According to Russian customs statistics, in 2018 it was about 259 billion Euros which is nearly 20% more than in 2017. That means that the positive trend of 2017 was consolidated in 2018.
Russian trade with Greece also increased in 2018 by 19% and reached 3.78 billion Euros, which is in my view not too much. Our export augmented by 19.1% and Greek export to Russia, according to our recent customs statistical data, was up by 15.3%. Our analysts indicate huge potential for further increase of supplies both on Russian and Greek markets in the next few years.
Thus, we can hope that mutual commercial interests will stimulate ease of political tensions.
How do you see developments in the wider Balkan region and the role of Russia?
The Balkan region traditionally remains an important area of Russian foreign policy. This is determined by our common history, strong bonds of friendship with peoples of this part of Europe, common Slavic roots and cultural and religious affinity with some of them, as well as by our long standing involvement in the regional processes.
Notwithstanding this fact, Russia – contrary to certain Western powers and alliances – does not aspire to any exclusive rights there, does not dictate any development vector to Balkan countries, does not impose friends or enemies on them. Our unconditional priorities are respect for territorial integrity, stronger security and stability in the region, as well as prevention of ethnic and religious strife. I am convinced that this policy meets the core interests of all peoples of the region.
Of course we are closely following the developments in the Balkans. Today the overall process of post-conflict normalisation in the former Yugoslavia is advancing. However, current situation in this part of Europe still cannot be regarded as entirely stable and predictable.
We believe that one of the sources of tensions in the Balkans is the increased activity of NATO, which is obsessed with the idea of bringing the whole region into its fold without considering the opinion of its peoples. In this way it is in fact consolidating dividing lines in Europe and loosening architecture of European security. Such actions are hardly in the interests of European nations.
On the contrary – aspirations of Balkan countries to join the EU have never been an issue for us. We proceed from the fact that the Balkans should not be an area of confrontation, but a platform for establishing mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the Russia – EU format.
Will Russia recognise the Republic of North Macedonia under its new constitutional name? Do you believe the Prespa Agreement affects relations between Greece and Russia?
The principal question is whether the name “Northern Macedonia” has full support in Macedonia itself – or Greece, for that matter. After all, take a look – almost two thirds of the population of that country boycotted the referendum on the Prespa Agreement on 30 September 2018, by voting, so to say, “with their feet” against an agreement imposed from outside.
Of course, there is no question whether a decades’ old bilateral dispute should have been resolved. Many years ago, I would add. The problem is how it was resolved – if indeed the Prespa agreement is the final solution.
One should bear in mind that the agreement was concluded with serious violation of the norms of domestic and international law. So it can hardly be a proper tool for achieving a fair, sustainable and long-term solution to the problem of the state name of Macedonia. Regrettably, instead of solving one old problem, the Prespa Agreement may create many new ones.
The matter is that by promoting the Prespa Agreement our Western colleagues were not guided by a wish to help resolve the neglected regional problem. They pursued an entirely different goal, that is to incorporate another Balkan country into NATO as quickly as possible and at any price, including through blackmail and bribery.
As for our relations with Greece, we consider it to be our special partner with whom we are united by age-old bonds of friendship, common chapters of history and spiritual affinity. Last year we celebrated 190th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Greece and 25th anniversary of the Friendship and Cooperation Agreement. Still, 2018 was not easy for Russian – Greek relations. But we are confident that there are no real insurmountable obstacles that would impede progress in our relations. We have always strived to build a dialogue of partnership based on principles of good neighbourliness, respect and mutual consideration of interests. Today we are ready to work in all areas, including energy. We consider Greece to be an important partner in maintaining peace and stability in Europe, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
How significant do you think is Greece in terms of Russia's energy projects? Do you think that it is possible for the Turkish Stream pipeline to go through Greece?
First of all, I would like to underline that Greece has always been an important partner of Russia in the energy sphere. The USSR and then Russia were for decades among the largest exporters of oil to Greece. And oil exports from Russia have always been characterised by stability and predictability.
Our cooperation in the gas sector stretches for more than 30 years and is based on the bilateral intergovernmental agreement that was signed in 1987. In recent years annual supplies of natural gas from Russia to Greece have been steadily rising. In 2017 the volume reached 2.93 billion cubic metres, an increase of 9% to the previous year. In 2018 it further increased by more than 13%.
After talks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in December 2018, President Vladimir Putin said that the Russian side is ready to go forward with major energy infrastructure projects with Greece, which also applies to the possibility of connecting Southern Europe through Greece to Turkish Stream.
But I would like to underline that much will depend on the willingness of our European partners to participate in Turkish Stream since the previous South Stream project was cancelled several years ago following pressure from the EU. The Russian side believes that such a project is quite possible and realistic, but we need solid legal guarantees from Brussels. Naturally, economic players must be convinced that such a supply route is feasible.
Does Russia see NATO as a threat? How does Russia evaluate the emerging global security system?
Answering your question I believe I can agree with an assessment one impressive leader made quite recently, saying that NATO is an obsolete organisation. Indeed, nowadays this rudiment of the Cold War is desperately looking for justifications for its own existence and huge military budget that it strives to preserve and even increase. It is obvious that in absence of an “enemy” these objectives cannot be fulfilled. Hence, all this “creative mythology” about Russia, its “threats and challenges” to NATO allies.
In reality it was NATO actions during two last decades that significantly poisoned the atmosphere in the sphere of security on the European continent and beyond. Besides illegal bombing raids against a sovereign state – Yugoslavia, examples of the Alliance's destructive activities are numerous and well-known. Nowadays NATO continues pursuing a course of building up its military activities and deploying its infrastructure near Russian borders, tries to drag new members into its fold. Clearly, this does not look like a peaceful and friendly policy in relation to our country.
Recent example of NATO's negative impact on security in Europe was manifested in “consolidated position” adopted by its European members in support of the US baseless accusations against Russia of non-compliance with the INF Treaty. At the same time Russian concerns about the US non-compliance were completely ignored. Instead of taking an approach of “honest broker”, the allies, in fact, gave “green light” to Washington to withdraw from the Treaty, preservation of which corresponds to their vital security interests.
Do you think the US withdrawal from the INF nuclear treaty is final or there is room for negotiation until June? How will Russia react to the withdrawal?
We have repeatedly suggested to hold a constructive and professional dialogue with the US aimed at finding answers to our mutual concerns. We are still open to it. Moreover, as a trust-building measure Russia took an unprecedented step by arranging a demonstration of the missile the Americans claim to be in violation of the INF Treaty, a gesture that goes far beyond our obligations under it. By the way, Greek diplomats together with their Bulgarian colleagues were among those from NATO states who attended that event. The Americans and others simply refused to come.
Unfortunately it is not surprising at all, taking into account statements made by US officials last October. We were informed then that the American President's decision was final and not envisaging any dialogue. All consequent actions by the US and orchestrated “support” of their allies in NATO have proven absence of any interest in Washington to preserve the Treaty. Well, that is their choice. For its part, Russia has done everything possible and even more to prevent aggravating the situation. And, as President Putin recently said, we will have to react in a way that reflects the new threats to the country’s security.
What do you think about the idea of establishing a European military force?
If you are speaking about a European army, then that idea is not really new. It is almost 70 years old and regularly reappears in discourse at the EU and among leaders of its member states, often in pre-election context. Recently, as you know, it was invoked again by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. So far the concept itself remains quite nebulous, so any comments in this regard would be a bit premature. Well, generally speaking, the creation of this sort of military potential can be perceived as a factor strengthening the multipolar world order. But at the same time, of course, it should be clear to everyone: such initiatives should not lead to new dividing lines or increase of tension in our common space of European security architecture.
Is Russia's policy towards Cyprus issue unwavering?
We remain committed to a comprehensive, fair, solid and viable settlement of the Cyprus problem. We strongly believe that the two Cypriot communities must have a final say on the various aspects of the settlement resulting from the talks held within the framework of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We believe any attempts to impose ready-made recipes and artificial deadlines are unacceptable.
The UN must be at the heart of international efforts on achieving the settlement. The five Permanent Members of the Security Council, bearing special responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, must play an active role in search for a settlement and be able to guarantee the outcome. We also support the continued presence of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) which is charged with important stabilising functions on the island.
I have no doubt that we can strengthen security and stability across the Mediterranean and ensure peace and prosperity for its people only on the basic international law, as well as the values of mutually respectful dialogue and diplomacy.