Moscow-Washington reset has worked – Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on an official visit to the US, where he will meet with President Barack Obama and the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The agenda for the visit, which is scheduled from July 11 to July 13, is quite packed and is to include such serious topics as European missile defense and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

On Monday, Lavrov took part in a ministerial meeting of the Middle East Quartet in Washington. However, the talks – which comprised negotiators from Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States – ended without any progress being made on resuming the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Following the meeting that lasted for over two hours, the participants did not issue a joint statement.

Prior to his trip, Russia’s senior diplomat spoke about Moscow-Washington ties as well as many other issues with the Vesti-24 TV channel. Under the Obama Administration, relations between Russia and the US have improved, “the reset has worked” and Russia has got a more reliable partner, the Foreign Minister said.

Below is the full transcript of the interview.

Q: Mr. Lavrov, let’s start with the question that concerns all those who travel to Europe and the US, either on business or for personal reasons. The subject is widely discussed. Steps are being taken toward visa-free travel between Europe and Russia and a facilitated, or even visa-free, regime between Russia and the US. At what stage is the process now? What are the problems it encounters?

SL: If we compare our contacts on the subject with the EU to those with the US, we’ll have to admit we have achieved more progress with Europe. Russia and the EU have a visa-facilitation agreement. We are now negotiating a further expansion of this agreement, to include a few more categories of people in the list of those who are entitled to a facilitated procedure. I think we will finish this work by the end of the year.

In parallel, we are in talks with the EU over visa-free travel, and we are making progress there, too. A few days ago, we had another round of talks which brought the sides closer to agreeing on a "joint list of steps," an innovative document that contains a list of specific steps both Russia and the EU should take. Once they are taken – and I emphasize, these are concrete, feasible and by no means abstract things – we will immediately sign an agreement on visa-free travel. The negotiations proceed at a good pace.

As for the US, you may remember the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden this spring, when the Russian leadership suggested setting a new, ambitious goal for Russian-US relations that would benefit the people in both countries – namely, visa-free travel. The US did not reject the idea altogether, but as a first step, they suggest signing a visa-facilitation agreement, and we agree, of course.

President Medvedev and President Obama endorsed the idea at the Deauville summit in late May. The agreement will soon be ready. It will provide for long-term multi-entry visas for tourists and businessmen, and one-year multi-entry visas for those visiting the US or Russia on official business. At the moment, we are working on provisions related to maximum visa wait times. There should be a deadline, otherwise the process may take forever. We are also revising the list of documents required from applicants. We want this list to be specific, clear and as short as possible.

Q: In connection with this, I'd like to ask about the latest developments in the situation between Russia and the UK. I refer to the fact that processing times of both tourist and business visa applications from Russian citizens are getting overextended due to the position the UK has taken up. This position has already been announced by British officials and is as follows: That the UK considers the possibility of continuing negotiations on establishing a visa-free regime between Russia and the UK strictly conditional on Russia's admitting that Andrey Lugovoy is actually guilty of murdering Aleksander Litvinenko. To what extent can such statements be deemed justified?

SL: I believe they have a political agenda behind them. We have run repeated checks on the accuracy of media reports about these statements by British officials, and we in fact are being assured that their remarks were misinterpreted and that the UK does not consider Mr. Lugovoy's case a condition for easing the visa regime, although the British side, as before, sticks to its claim for the extradition of Mr. Lugovoy.

The statement you just quoted does invite questions. If somebody makes it their condition that we should pronounce Mr. Lugovoy guilty, it appears at least inappropriate to make such a demand before the court has completed its investigation and given its verdict.

As for visas, we continue our negotiations with Britain, and what we're discussing is actually not a visa-free regime, but an agreement similar to the one we have with the European Union. Our visa-facilitation agreement with the EU applies to the Schengen Area only, and thus does not include the UK. I believe this approach would make perfect sense.

However, our partners are not ready to go on with it at the current stage; instead, they are suggesting to improve the efficiency under the existing set of rules. But the thing is, as you quite correctly pointed out, the existing rules generate a huge number of problems. One thing is that time limits get exceeded despite the fact that people apply well in advance; on top of that, we are now receiving reports that London is encouraging Russian applicants to submit their applications even earlier, up to three months in advance, and this does appear to impair considerably the freedom of travel, as it is hard to plan one's activities as early as three months ahead.

I personally looked into a few cases of our citizens, and it did occur that applicants who had fully paid their tuition fees in order to study in Britain did not get their visas issued in time for them to arrive at their destinations by the beginning of the school term. That's completely unacceptable, and our partners agree that this is not the right approach, but regrettably, such cases keep recurring.

Q: The next topic that many people are concerned about as well lies in the area of relations between Russia and Europe, and Russia and the US. I'm referring to the missile defense issue. Sochi recently hosted a session of the Russia-NATO Council, and it's been announced that the negotiations will continue next year. What issues will be on the next session's agenda, and what kind of insurmountable challenges that many politicians are talking about now are out there?

SL:The agenda of the Russia-NATO Council ambassadorial meeting in Sochi was never meant to make any momentous decisions on missile defense. It was a regular session of the Council. The only thing special about it was that it was out of office. We have had out-of-office sessions in Russia before. There was one in 2003, for instance. Our goal was to review, among other things, issues related to security at the upcoming Sochi Olympics, primarily transportation security. We looked at presentations on those issues and many of those presentations concerned joint projects currently being carried out by Russia and NATO. For obvious reasons, the missile defense issue can hardly be resolved by ambassadors. It is an issue to be discussed in top-level negotiations.

We have negotiation mechanisms set up between Russia and the US. We have Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian president’s special envoy for missile defense talks, working with NATO on the issue. The idea to set up a missile defense system in Europe initially came from Washington. NATO is now joining this project, but we have to keep in mind that the project came from the US. It was designed by the US. Europe can only make an insignificant contribution, playing a supplementary role. The design and content of the project come from the US. Therefore, Washington is our main negotiating partner on this issue.

We have a working group within the presidential commission. The group meets on a regular basis. In the run-up to the Deauville summit, we discussed a US proposal to issue a statement that would contain instructions to resolve a number of important issues that we need to settle before we begin practical cooperation. However, the US called off its own initiative later. These things happen. We will continue the talks with a focus on the political framework that, once set, will allow us to go on to review the specific military, technical and other sides of the project.

Several things have to be established within this political framework. First, the project has to be equitable, it has to be cooperative, and it must not be based on unchallenged unilateral analysis of the situation conducted by the US, but rather on joint analysis. We need it to be based on a cooperative intellectual military analysis, if you will. So far, we have not managed to achieve that. The US tells us that the proposed defense system design has been approved, that it is perfectly fitted for the system’s purpose, and that it does not in any way infringe upon Russia’s security interests. We are telling them that their unwillingness to change the design greatly reduces the chances of our cooperation, since our analysis of missile proliferation threats is somewhat different from yours. We have different information about where the threats may come from, how dangerous they will be, and how many years it would take for them to become real threats to Europe and Russia, let alone the US. Therefore, we are saying that our intelligence differs from that of the US. We see that the US design, especially Phase 3 and Phase 4 of the so-called “phased adaptive approach,” allow for the creation of military infrastructure in Europe near Russia’s borders. This infrastructure would cause problems for our strategic potential. This is why we are asking for guarantees that the system would not be used against Russia – or, for that matter, any other country participating in the project.

We’d like to work out some criteria that would allow us to make sure that the declared purpose of this project – namely, to counter missile threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic region – will be observed in practice. The US is not yet ready to do that. They assure us they have no plans to use the system against Russia. They are saying the US Senate has prohibited the US administration from restricting the development of their missile defense system in any way. This means there may be Phase 5, Phase 6 and so on, which of course does not make the situation more predictable. Our own stance is simple: If you say the system will not be used against us, why don’t you put it on paper? We haven’t heard from them yet, but I hope to hear what our partners in the US think of it at our meeting in Washington on July 11-13. We do not want the project to become confrontational. On the contrary, we believe the suggestions Russia has made on the issue deserve attention. I think we need to start looking for compromises, for solutions that would not harm the interests of the US, of Europe or of the Russian Federation. If we manage to do that, that would be a breakthrough. It would take the shade of confrontation that has remained there since the Cold War out of our discussions on strategic stability. Our relations would then approach a status that would be close to an alliance. But, I repeat, the issue has not been resolved yet. We would like to resolve it positively. We want it to strengthen strategic stability rather than undermine it.

Q: NATO is a military alliance, and naturally Russia should take its defensive objectives seriously. Russia has suggested a solution that Russia thinks would be acceptable to both sides. I mean data exchange on various threats that wouldn’t put either of the two sides at a disadvantage. You’ve said that the US has its own development strategy that it’s unwilling to change. How serious are they about? Is it possible that they may reconsider, say, in a year, in May, at the talks?

SL: When you say “in May,” do you mean the NATO summit?

Q: Yes.

SL: We can’t influence what goes on within NATO, although we always tell them that since the presidents of all the Russia-NATO Council member-states agreed in Lisbon to work together on a joint missile defense project, discussions within NATO should at least not get ahead of discussion in the Russia-NATO Council. So far it has been vice versa. In fact, despite all the promises that NATO would be totally transparent, they don’t even keep us abreast of those discussions. In fact, we mentioned this issue during our meeting in Sochi, and they assured us that they had no intention of hiding anything from us. However, we don’t get briefed regularly, and, most importantly, the briefings that we do get are not up to date. They lag behind the events they cover.

You’re right, the Americans can’t change their system – at least, that’s what they say. What they suggest is that, as a first step, we should hook up our data systems to the Washington-approved design. As I’ve already told you, I don’t think this approach can produce a joint system that would combine our intellectual, military, technological and data resources, which is what we would like to see.

Q: Mr. Lavrov, how much does the current situation with resetting relations between Russia and the US correspond to the meaning this word had when it was first used? Do you think this process will continue under a new US administration? Or this would change the situation?

SL: I’ve answered this question before. “Resetting” is not our term; it’s a term introduced by the Democratic administration that came to power after a long period of Republican rule. This term reflects a realization that the Democrats had when they came to the White House. They realized that they needed to abandon certain practices that existed under the Bush administration. I’m referring to a situation where the leaders of our countries had a very warm and even close relationship and reached certain understandings that were, generally, based on equal partnership, but this warm relationship and those understandings didn’t lead to any practical steps at lower levels of bureaucracy. We repeatedly raised this issue with President Bush, Secretary Rice and other administration members. We urged them to follow up on the general understandings achieved at the top level. But this didn’t happen. In fact, certain actions taken at lower levels were in stark contrast with the assurances we received at the top level.

That’s why when President Obama announced the resetting of relations, we understood that he wanted to change the approach used by the previous US administration. We saw that he wanted to build the relationship with Russia in a fair and systemic way, and that he wanted all signals from the top to reach those who implement them. I can say that in most cases we see this working. This doesn’t mean that we’re able to resolve all of our differences, but at least we feel that our counterparts at different talks and at different levels are, more often than not, interested in reaching an agreement.

There are, of course, some exceptions. I’ve mentioned the issue of missile defense. In fact, talks on missile defense are still underway. But this is a difficult issue indeed.

So the resetting worked. We now have a more reliable, more predictable and more consistent partner. Of course, we appreciate that. Naturally, the fact that President Medvedev and President Obama have a very warm and close relationship helps on all other levels. To repeat, in contrast with the previous administration, we don’t see the impetus coming from the president being stalled so much in the lower tiers of bureaucracy.

Q: Another important issue to be discussed in Washington is the agreement on adoption between Russia and the US. The problem is long overdue – there have been many tragic adoption-related stories in the press. How close are we to an agreement, and what problems could it help resolve?

SL: You are right, the problem has been unresolved for too long. We have long been advising the US to devise a legislative framework for our future cooperation on adoption. They had said it was impossible, as doing it would contradict US laws. We were forced to stress the issue, especially after incidents like that of Artyom Savelyev, who was sent to Moscow on a plane like a parcel – you will excuse me putting it this way – by his foster mother. There have been other incidents of this sort. We stressed the issue, saying that we will either ban adoption by US families completely or sign a legally binding agreement. They understood our signal and the work began. The closing session of the negotiating group took place only a couple of weeks ago. The group is comprised of officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Science and Education Ministry and other agencies. Russia’s children’s rights envoy, Pavel Astakhov, has been taking part in the group’s work. The agreement is ready and is now going through internal government procedures. I hope we will sign it in the near future. It is equitable. It is truly a bilateral agreement. By the way, the agreement states that Russian citizens also have the right for adoption.

It also stipulates some very important points. First, Americans who want to adopt children in Russia will be obliged to go through psychological tests. This is very important, taking into account the several incidents when Russian children were beaten or raped. US authorities will be responsible for the testing. Second, so-called independent adoption is banned. Adoption will only be conducted via licensed agencies. The US side is responsible for that as well. Third, the agreement states that all foster children from Russia will retain their Russian citizenship until they reach legal adulthood.This is important, as the agreement states that applicable laws from both countries will be used at adoption-related trials. This is important because up until now, the Americans did not want to hear about taking our laws into account. There are a number of other important points that, I believe, will guarantee our children will live in good conditions and that we will have access to them to monitor the way they are treated.

Q: The situation in Libya. Russia has said on several occasions that the war has to be stopped and that all sides involved in the conflict have to observe UN Security Council Resolution 1973. However, Dmitry Rogozin recently said on air that the resolution is not being observed. Is there a plan to settle the conflict that both sides of it will accept?

SL: The fact that this resolution is being flagrantly violated has been mentioned by the Russian president and prime minister. The Foreign Ministry has noted that on several occasions as well. Our partners deny everything, citing the lamentable paragraph of the resolution that says anyone can do anything. They wrote that paragraph in for themselves – I mean the co-authors from NATO states. We demanded the paragraph be changed, and that they specify how the no-fly zone would be implemented. We also demanded the restrictions on the use of force be clearly specified. See, a no-fly zone means two things. First, Gaddafi’s air force cannot take off from the ground or it becomes a legitimate target. Second, Libya’s air defense systems cannot target NATO aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone, or they would become legitimate targets themselves. That is all a no-fly zone means. At least this clear legal definition was in place when a no-fly zone was imposed by the UN Security Council in Iraq. Exceeding this framework was considered a flagrant violation of the UN Security Council’s mandate.

You know what kind of military support the rebels in Libya are receiving. There is no need to enumerate all of its means and methods, but most of them are beyond the scope of activities agreed upon to secure a no-fly zone. As for what should be done further on, I think that NATO, which has undertaken to enforce the UN resolution, is faced with a rather difficult situation. They have already spent more time bombing Libya than they did with Yugoslavia: Air strikes against Yugoslavia took 78 days, while this campaign has already exceeded three months. And there seems to be no outcome. Politics is certainly a very cynical business, so when we hear Western policymakers demanding that the air campaign should continue until there is a decisive victory, until Gaddafi ceases to pose a threat to civilians and finally orders his troops back into barracks – the cost of these politicized statements is very high in terms of human casualties. According to military experts, there can be no quick military solution here. As a result, people die on both sides, including the innocent civilians this resolution is supposed to protect.

I believe it was largely due to this fact and the protracted nature of this campaign that our Western partners, including President Sarkozy, turned to Dmitry Medvedev at the Deauville summit, asking Russia to assist as a mediator. As you know, assistance has been rendered. We are not assuming a central role. President Medvedev’s special representative for Africa, Mikhail Margelov, is keeping in touch with all of the parties, but he only does it in support of the peacemaking effort undertaken by the African Union. The African Union has a roadmap that they are currently finalizing, and there was an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea a few days ago. President Zuma subsequently came to Sochi to inform President Medvedev about the decisions taken at that meeting. The summit was attended by representatives of both the Libyan government and the Benghazi rebels. According to President Zuma, both of them were positive about the option suggested by the union, and undertook to have it endorsed by their superiors in Tripoli and Benghazi, respectively. We acknowledged the African Union summit as a positive development, a step in the right direction. And we will work for an accord to be reached based on this effort.

Q: As for Syria and Yemen, the situation there keeps unfolding, and it is so far unclear what it will eventually come down to. As far as Russia’s position is concerned, are we preparing any initiatives in advance?

SL: There are specific features in each case, as these are two different countries with regard to what they are and the implications for the entire region, although the developments in each of these countries will have a very serious impact for the region. Yemen used to be indispensable in combating terrorist organizations in the region until recently, and if its current crisis eventually results in undermining this country’s capacity as a stronghold in fighting terrorism, it will be most regrettable. Syria generally plays a very significant role in Middle Eastern affairs, including the complex situation in Lebanon, the importance of the Syria-Israeli track for the Arab-Israeli settlement process, the Kurd issue, and Arab sectarian relations, with Shiite and Sunni communities each having their numerous and diverse groups and offshoots.

In each of these cases, any action that would lead to civilian casualties is unacceptable. We have been and remain outspoken on this. However, it is also unacceptable that the opposition should resort to violence, agitating peaceful protesters into engaging in armed clashes, and effectively turning them into targets for the police and security forces. So when we see that the attitude of our Western partners is exclusively about exerting pressure on one of the parties, namely the Syrian government and President Assad, we think this is wrong. It sends the wrong message to the Syrian opposition, belligerent as it is, prompting them to believe that if they remain insistent and the situation keeps getting critical, then the West will come to help them the way it is happening in Libya. All it does is fuel radical sentiment and enable all sorts of extremist groups to instigate violence. And we think this is a totally erroneous approach.

We would like to see the same approach employed with regard to Syria as is currently the case with Yemen. When it comes to Yemen, nobody is trying to take sides, escalate the situation and take the case to the UN Security Council, despite the fact that there have been severe armed clashes in this country. It would suffice to mention the shelling of the presidential compound which left the president critically wounded and the prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and chairmen of both houses of Parliament injured. Yet the US, the European Union, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, the United Nations and Russia all share the same attitude, which is to urge both the Yemeni government and the opposition to sit down and negotiate, without attributing blame to either party. This is the same approach that we will profess for Syria, and we believe our international partners should do the same.

Q: My final question, Mr. Lavrov, is related to the economic situation in Europe and how much it affects our country. There are a lot of variables in this equation, including the newly appointed managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, as well as the situation in Greece and a number of other European countries which seem to be heading in a similar direction, where it will probably be up to the European Union to resolve their problems, most likely through financial means. The question is, how far can it affect Russia the way it is already affecting all of Europe?

SL: As you probably realize, this is not an issue where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be primarily in charge. There is a very strong economic team in our government, and my fellow ministers deal with this issue and report regularly to the prime minister and the president of Russia. Of course, we cannot but feel concerned by what is going on around us, especially in the euro area. We hear these panic-ridden predictions that Greece is inevitably heading for default, and that the euro area will be dramatically weakened. There have been pleas in some European countries for withdrawing from the euro area and returning to their national currencies. You know, I definitely would not like to see market actors take their decisions while being influenced by this panic, which is largely being stirred up deliberately. We are convinced that the European Union has the political will to limit the impact of this situation and prevent it from escalating into something more destructive. We are convinced that the people in the European Union realize the significance of this issue, not only for EU member states themselves, but also for the entire global economy and global finance, considering the role that the euro has assumed as an international reserve currency. And I am confident that the International Monetary Fund also realizes how important it is to act prudently in order to stabilize the situation, without being driven by emotion or affected by frantic shrieks of panic. We will actively contribute to relieving the situation through our active participation in the upcoming G20 summit. The preparations for this meeting are already underway. Policy-wise, this crisis and its ramifications lead us to a very important conclusion: It is more urgent than ever that we carry out and finalize a reform of the global financial and monetary system, the task that we have been advocating together with our fellow BRICS member states. The system must rely on a larger number of economic powerhouses, which will make it more stable and resistant.

Q: I guess we should wish for our financial regulators to be as elaborate as diplomats in their negotiations. Thank you very much for answering our questions.