Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CMCE) Chairman, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign and European Affairs Minister Didier Reynders
Ladies and gentlemen,
My Belgian colleague and I have held very useful and constructive talks. Mr Reynders is visiting this country both in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Belgium.
We have focused on issues related to the Council of Europe, on our interaction, and Russia’s participation in various activities of that pan-European organisation.
We have reaffirmed our shared view on the need for the Council of Europe to contribute to overcoming the deficit of trust that has formed on the European continent, erasing the old divides, and preventing the emergence of new divisions on our continent. We support its efforts in such areas as protecting human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities, and countering extremism, aggressive nationalism, and racial and religious intolerance. It is in our interest to make sure that the Council of Europe does not apply double standards in its work. Russia will contribute to all efforts towards this goal, and that includes ending the artificially created crisis in the PACE.
Mr Reynders has updated us on the Belgian chairmanship’s plans to hold the next Ministerial Session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Brussels on May 19. We support these plans and the proposed agenda. We hope that we will be able to prepare a substantial final document.
We have discussed the situation in Ukraine in detail. We proceed from the assumption that there is no alternative to the implementation of all provisions, without exception, of the Package of Measures approved in Minsk on February 12, including those on dealing with the acute humanitarian problems, discontinuing the economic blockade, holding municipal elections, and reforming the constitution in keeping with the recommendations addressed to Ukraine by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. The Commission’s recent report has expressed concern about delays in carrying out constitutional reforms in Ukraine, reforms that it has clearly affirmed. This was agreed in Minsk, where the constitutional reforms, including primarily the process of decentralisation, were mapped out in sufficient detail in concrete areas to be discussed at talks between Kiev and Ukraine’s regions, including Lugansk and Donetsk.
We believe that the Council of Europe should more actively facilitate a transparent and unbiased investigation of the numerous human rights violations in Ukraine. Through its recently created International Consultative Group, the CE is involved in investigating the events that happened on Maidan Square from November 2013 to February 21, 2014.The Group has released its interim conclusions concerning the investigation. We believe that they must be considered in all seriousness. We hope that the International Consultative Group will display a similar approach toward the investigation of the May 2, 2014 tragedy in Odessa. There is an understanding that the CE experts will join the process.
We have reviewed the state of relations between Russia and the European Union. Both sides are interested in resolving the problems that emerged in the path of their development. It’s clear that this can only be done on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and consideration for each other’s interests. We are prepared to develop Russian-Belgian relations in this vein. We have made significant progress together in recent years. We value our cooperation with Belgium, which, regrettably, is being held up and even “rolled back” by problems that emerged between Russia and the West against the background of the Ukraine crisis.
The Russian business community and their partners in Belgium are very interested in bilateral economic cooperation. But our trade relations are suffering. The volume of trade has been shrinking for a second year in a row now, with Russian imports from Belgium accounting for most of the decline. Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg have formed an Intergovernmental Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation. We are in favour of looking for solutions to existing problems within this mechanism. We hope that the Belgian Government and business community will take an active part in the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June of this year. Despite the decline, we have outlined a number of concrete projects which Russian and Belgian businesses are coordinating with an eye to their joint implementation.
On the international agenda, Russia and Belgium are concerned about the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, including in the context of efforts to oppose the threat posed by the terrorist groups operating in the region.
We have an identical view on the results of the Lausanne meeting on the Iranian nuclear programme. We hope that the political understanding reached in Lausanne will be translated into the language of practical legal documents within the established timeframe, before the end of June of this year.
We are also interested in promoting positive developments in the Balkans, an area which Mr Reynders has just visited, as he informed us.
I thank Mr Reynders for a very useful meeting.
Question: Reports continue to come in about the violence in the southeast of Ukraine. What else can Russia do to ensure the implementation of the Minsk Agreements? How will Russia’s relations with Europe develop in light of the Russian and EU sanctions policies?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia did not adopt a sanctions policy. It was a choice made by the European Union. Russia was forced to take response measures to protect its agricultural producers from unfair competition. The EU sanctions penalised Russian banks, including those that have been funding Russian agribusiness. Russian farmers were placed in a losing position. This was the reason for our response to the unilateral and illegitimate sanctions imposed by the EU.
As for the Minsk Agreements, it is widely acknowledged, including in European capitals, where these admissions have been made publicly, even if unwillingly, that the Kiev government’s actions are the main obstacle to the fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements. For example, the obligation to enact a law on southeastern regions’ special status has been turned upside down and augmented with a number of unacceptable demands that contradict the Minsk Agreements. Also, Kiev officials are dragging their feet on a number of issues, such as lifting the economic embargo and resuming social benefit payments and banking services in southeastern Ukraine, amnestying all participants in the events there, planning local elections and launching a constitutional reform and decentralisation by agreement with the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives. It was agreed in Minsk to establish working subgroups within the Contact Group to handle each of the tasks. Donetsk, Lugansk, Russia and OSCE have already submitted the names of their candidates to these subgroups. Kiev has not.
As for what Russia can do to ensure the implementation of these agreements, the answer is simple. We have been urging – and will continue to do this even more insistently – the Kiev authorities, as well as France and Germany as the guarantors of the Minsk Agreements, to put pressure on the Ukrainian government and make sure it fulfils the terms signed by its president.
A Normandy format ministerial meeting will take place on Monday, April 13 in Berlin. In messages to my counterparts in Germany, France and Ukraine sent ahead of this meeting, I stressed that it is essential to stop undermining efforts to fulfil the Minsk Agreements.
In light of Russia-EU relations, the EU’s recent decision to continue with the sanctions until Russia honours the Minsk Agreements seems quite inventive. The EU’s responsible members realise the absurdity of demanding Russia’s compliance with the Minsk Agreements as a condition. I hope the real reasons for the non-fulfilment of Minsk 2.0 will be not only discussed in private but will translate into practical political language between Europe and Kiev.
As for your question about the future of Russian-EU relations in light of the sanctions policy, I can tell you that even after the EU imposed sanctions, Russia did not suspend relations with Brussels. EU leaders have severed all contacts, which took years to develop and helped to maintain a regular and trust-based dialogue, to formulate questions before it became too late and to resolve them. Brussels also refused to hold summits. Brussels suspended meetings of the Russia-EU Permanent Partnership Council, which was created to review the entire range of Russia-EU relations, many years ago, long before the events in Ukraine. It also suspended all industry-specific dialogues. On the other hand, Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Energy Union, visited Russia in January this year and mentioned the possibility of resuming our energy dialogue, at the least. We expressed support for that idea, but the matter did not get any further. We are still waiting for action.
It is not up to us to normalise and revive relations between Moscow and Brussels, which have been pushed into an impasse by the unilateral sanctions policy. We know that the majority of EU countries are not happy with the current situation. Unfortunately, there is an aggressive minority that is trying to take advantage of the so-called solidarity principle based on anti-Russian sentiment. In January this year, EU foreign ministers attempted to formulate a compromise platform that would enable the EU to start developing dialogue with Russia. They did not succeed.
Again, Russia did not initiate the freezing of contacts. We are willing to resume them as soon as our European partners are ready.
Question (addressed to Didier Reynders): Did you sense a willingness on the Russian side to move forward on issues involving Ukraine, as well as on the Council of Europe as it relates to the situation surrounding the activities of non-governmental organisations in Russia?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Didier Reynders): Russia is actively involved in the Council of Europe’s work. We regard this organisation as a unique forum that provides, or at least is designed to provide, a common legal space on the entire continent. Russia is actively working to assist the Council of Europe in this mission.
Today, we discussed the difficulties that have emerged along the way, such as the European Union’s attempts to dial things back in a number of critical areas and to put EU law above the law of the Council of Europe and the universal European conventions which form the basis of the common legal space. This showed itself in the European Union's decision to freeze accession to the European Convention on Human Rights based on the processes that took place in the EU Court in Luxembourg, and to postpone indefinitely accession to the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, as they plan first to address these issues inside the European Union, and then let us – the “second class” members of the Council of Europe – in on their final decisions. It is a major turnaround by Brussels from previous agreements – that the Council of Europe and its law must come first. The talks on accepting the “Council of Europe comes first” principle were fairly lengthy, but it was eventually accepted.
Our EU partners have moved away from this agreement. I’m aware that not all EU members are satisfied with this. I discussed this issue with Mr Reynders today, and he shares our concerns. Perhaps, we should do something to resolve this systemic problem of who takes decisions in the EU and how, so that European interests and projects are not affected.
Regarding our role in the practical work of the Council of Europe, we will be approving 25 sectoral programmes of cooperation between Russia and the Council of Europe in the coming weeks. We are at the final stage of ratifying an important Council of Europe Convention on the counterfeiting of medical products and similar crimes involving threats to public health (Medicrime). We have made a substantial contribution to drafting an additional protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which will focus on efforts against foreign terrorist fighters. We hope that the document will be ready for signing during the ministerial meeting in Brussels on May 19. Russia is a full-fledged participant of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, where it was recently elected to leadership positions, as well as the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations and all of Council of Europe’s convention bodies.
I reiterate that it is in our interests to have this forum act in the interests of all countries, without exception, based on its founding principles, first and foremost the equality of all member states.
We have also covered issues such as human rights and non-governmental organisations, which we discuss openly, and we are prepared to respond to all concerns. We hope that the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks will focus more on long-standing human rights issues in Europe, in particular, stateless residents of Latvia and Estonia. Hundreds of thousands of EU residents have no right to vote, to hold office, or other rights that are intrinsic to any normal country and its citizens. Russia is concerned that the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights gives hardly any attention to the catastrophic humanitarian situation in southeastern Ukraine. We hope that this slant will be fixed. It is also important to focus on human rights throughout Ukraine regarding media access.
We maintain an uninterrupted dialogue with the Council of Europe Secretariat and institutions. We believe such a dialogue is useful for all its participants and encourages them to take additional steps for the common good.
Question (addressed to both ministers): What’s your take on the efforts of the European Community to resolve the Ukraine conflict? What do you expect from the Normandy format meeting in Berlin?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Didier Reynders): I already touched on this issue when I answered one of the previous questions. Again, briefly, the key challenge facing all of us, including the EU and all the European institutions, is to achieve full and comprehensive implementation of the Minsk Agreements of February 12 in strict compliance with the sequence of steps it provides, and without trying to distract anyone with any new initiatives. I've already heard about some ideas to “deepen” the Minsk agreements. We will never be able to complete the process of deepening and expanding, if we keep acting like that. The document spells out everything clearly. Most importantly, we must make sure that all sides strictly comply with the agreements. Donetsk and Lugansk are willing to do so. In particular, they have shown their good will after the Ukrainian leadership violated its commitments and passed a law on the special status of these territories, which put forward a number of unacceptable preconditions that no one agreed to. The agreement was quite the opposite and concerned the unconditional enactment of the law on special status.
Frankly, using our relationship with the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, we had to put a lot of effort into convincing them not to walk away from the negotiating table in response to gross violations of the Minsk agreements by Kiev. We managed to achieve this. Now, they have nominated their representatives to working subgroups formed within the Contact Group. The representatives of the OSCE and Russia did the same thing. Kiev has not yet done so, and is using every pretext to slow down the creation of critical mechanisms that will help us to maintain a sustained dialogue involving all interested parties.
The European Community and the EU can be instrumental in resolving the Ukraine conflict if they talk to Kiev – with which they have a close relationship, and which, as far as I’m aware, listens to what Brussels has to say – and urge it to stop sabotaging the implementation of this vital document. We will focus on this issue in Berlin on Monday.