Question: It is four years since your previous visit, what is the significance of your trip to Athens this time? Do you think that the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence celebrations is a reason for deepening Russian-Greek relations, and if so, in which spheres?
Sergey Lavrov: I am delighted to have this opportunity to return to Greece again. My previous working visit to Athens in 2016 took place during the implementation of an unprecedented joint project, a cross-cultural year between Russia and Greece, the main event of which was a visit by President of Russia Vladimir Putin.
Since then, themed cross-years have become a good tradition. We held a Bilateral Year of Tourism in 2017 ̶ 2018 and a Year of Language and Literature in 2019 ̶ 2020. It is symbolic that a Russia-Greece Year of History planned for 2021 will coincide with the celebrations dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence.
The upcoming events will be fresh proof of the historical connection between the Russian and Greek people. It is gratifying that your people remember Russia’s role in the Greek struggle for independence and its development as a sovereign state, and that they honour the memory of the first head of state of independent Greece, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire Ioannis Kapodistrias. At the same time, the self-sacrificing struggle of the freedom-loving Greek people was praised by our outstanding poets Alexander Pushkin, Wilhelm Kyukhelbeker, Kondraty Ryleyev, Vasily Kapnist and Fyodor Glinka, to name just a few.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has become a huge challenge to our economies and bilateral trade and economic cooperation. From January to July 2020, our trade dwindled by 16.1 percent compared to the same period last year. We will have to work hard together to at least restore it to its pre-crisis level. I hope to discuss this subject during my talks with our Greek colleagues.
The people of our countries have helped each other many times, including this time again. We are grateful to our Greek friends for their help with dealing with the logistics so that Russian citizens could return back home. It was exemplary cooperation, not to mention the fact that the first repatriation flight from Greece was free for Russian citizens, for which we are especially grateful to you. Since March, over 700 Russian citizens have returned back to Russia by means of seven repatriation charter flights.
Question: What is Russia’s position, given that it has declared in favour of the islands possessing an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf, on Turkey’s provocative steps and violations in the southeastern Mediterranean over the last year, from the signing of the Turkish-Libyan memorandum to the sending of Turkish research vessels and warships to an area within the Greek continental shelf? These actions have been denounced by the EU and the entire international community.
Sergey Lavrov: Russia has signed the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its position is based on the international legal norms contained in this document. Specifically, its Article 3 says that every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. But in a number of cases, countries, for some reason or another, establish a narrower territorial sea. In circumstances, where it is necessary to delimit the territorial sea between neighbouring states, the problem should be solved based on international law.
Russia is in favour of dealing with any disputes exclusively via political dialogue, including by devising confidence-building measures and looking for mutually acceptable solutions based on international legal norms.
Question: What was the Russian public response to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul being transformed into a mosque? Is this an insult to the Christian and particularly Orthodox Christian world?
Sergey Lavrov: The Church of Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage site and common heritage of mankind. It is of exceptional cultural, historical and sacral importance for the Orthodox believers in this country and all over the world. It is no secret that the Russians, who visit Turkey every year, regard the Hagia Sophia as particularly important from a spiritual point of view. Many visit Istanbul only in order to relish the skill of masters and architects, and the beauty of the extant interior, mosaics and frescos.
We regularly communicate our position on this matter to our Turkish partners, including at the top and high levels. The Russian Orthodox Church has also made a number of statements regarding the status of this shrine.
We proceed from the assumption that Turkey, as we have been repeatedly assured, will be guided by the principles of mutual respect, will treat the Orthodox believers’ feelings with due attention, will live up to the commitments it has assumed in respect of observing all rules and conditions related to the facility’s status, and will ensure its complete safety and accessibility for tourists and pilgrims.
We deem the activities by the expert monitoring mission of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the International Council on Monuments and Sites of importance for assessing the state of this building. We hope that the mission will promptly submit its conclusions following an inspection that was held on from October 5 to 9, including expert findings on the quality of the Turkish restoration work, as well as comments on how unhindered access to the Hagia Sophia for members of all faiths is organised.
Question: What is your assessment of Turkey’s involvement in the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia and Turkey are working to settle the conflicts in the hotbeds of tension you have mentioned. There is no hiding the fact that we can seriously diverge in our approaches to a number of contentious regional matters.
It is obvious that business-like, meaningful interaction between Russian and Turkish diplomats, military and special services taking into consideration each other’s interests helped normalise the situation in Syria. It is thanks to the agreements we reached in bilateral, as well as trilateral (with Iran) settings, that we have been able to create the Astana mechanism, which is the most effective settlement framework we currently have. The proactive interactions between our two countries brought about the cessation of hostilities in the Syrian Arab Republic, the creation of de-escalation zones, as well as the establishment of a Constitutional Committee. Joint Russian-Turkish patrols operate in Syria’s problem-plagued regions like Idlib or to the east of the Euphrates, making a meaningful contribution to ensuring order and security. By working together to neutralise terrorist groups we can lay the groundwork for carrying the political process forward and enabling Syrian refugees to return home.
As we speak, Russian and Turkish experts are contributing to efforts to reconcile the conflicting parties in Libya. By combining our efforts we have been able to introduce a ceasefire, as well as to restart oil production, which is a key industry for the country’s economy. We continue working on bridging the gap in the negotiating positions of the warring parties with a view to launching political reform based on UN Security Council resolutions and the outcomes of the Berlin conference.
As for Nagorno-Karabakh, there are certain nuances regarding Russia’s and Turkey’s involvement. We have been vocal in our opposition to the idea that a military solution could provide a possible and acceptable option. There is no way we can subscribe to these aspirations, since we view both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis as friendly and brotherly peoples. The presidents of Russia, the United States and France, as the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, made it abundantly clear in their statement that they would support only a political settlement. It is this troika of the co-chairs that is the universally recognised mediator facilitating efforts to settle this long-standing conflict.
On October 10, 2020, the foreign ministers of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, with the participation of US and French representatives, held consultations for 11 hours and agreed on a Joint Statement that provided for a ceasefire and resuming meaningful talks. We are trying to persuade our Turkish partners that it would be advisable for them to use their influence to support progress along these lines. I have discussed the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a series of telephone conversations.
We call on all the external actors to do everything to prevent further military escalation, calm down and step up efforts to reset the peace process.
Question: What does Turkey’s decision to reopen the Varosha seafront mean? Will this complicate the resolution of the Cyprus problem?
Sergey Lavrov: The ones who took the decision to open the Varosha seafront should be the ones to comment on the purpose of this decision.
Of course, this step is a matter of serious concern for Russia. First of all, it runs counter to a number of UN Security Council resolutions: 414 (1977), 482 (1980), 550 (1984), 789 (1992) and 2483 (2019). Second, any unilateral actions undermine a constructive atmosphere and create additional challenges for resuming the negotiating process on the final settlement to this long-standing issue.
As you know, the UN Security Council held a special meeting on October 9 as part of Russia’s Presidency. Being a permanent member of this body, the Russian Federation reaffirms its commitment to the settlement parameters approved by the UN and is ready to facilitate their implementation. We hope that the parties return to the negotiating table to find mutually acceptable solutions once the electoral procedures in Northern Cyprus are completed and the sanitary and epidemiological situation on the island gets back to normal. We believe that this will help stabilise the situation, and promote peace and security in the region.