Transcript of Remarks and Response to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov at Joint Press Conference After Meeting with Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland Alexander Stubb, Moscow, August 12, 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have held a meeting with my honorable colleague, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland Alexander Stubb. And, of course, in the center of our discussions was the situation in the Georgian-Ossetian zone of conflict. We once again explained our position. We stressed that the criminal decision of Mikhail Saakashvili to launch military aggression against South Ossetia has led to the most tragic consequences, and that responsibility for these consequences lies wholly and entirely on the Tbilisi authorities.
You know that as a result of the combat actions unleashed more than two thousand people have died, mostly Ossetians, a majority of them citizens of the Russian Federation. Russian peacekeepers have been killed, Tskhinvali has practically been completely destroyed, and many other South Ossetian settlements have actually been wiped off the face of the earth. As a matter of fact, it will be no exaggeration to say that the talk is about ethnic cleansings, genocide and war crimes. There were facts of fire being specifically opened upon humanitarian convoys, convoys that were transporting the wounded and refugees. The positions and headquarters of the peacekeepers came under attacks. There was also the bombardment of the OSCE Office in Tskhinval. As a result we lost 15 peacekeepers, and 70 of them are wounded.
A real humanitarian catastrophe has broken out in the region: tens of thousands of peaceful inhabitants are deprived of shelter, water, food and the most elementary services. In just two days alone, 34 thousand refugees crossed the Russian border towards North Ossetia. The measures which the Russian side is taking by efforts of our peacekeepers and the additional units sent there to assist them are aimed, first and foremost, at protecting and ensuring the rights of our citizens and at fulfilling our peacekeeping obligations. Our actions also completely fall within the purview of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which states a right to individual or collective self-defense. Our peacekeeping force personnel were attacked.
We pursue no aims other than restoring peace and providing conditions for a calm, normal life of the South Ossetian people. The only possible exit from the current situation is ensuring a state of affairs that Georgian troops go away, that there are none of them in South Ossetia and that Georgian troops are not in the positions from which they can continue firing on and attacking South Ossetia. And a second essential condition is signing a legally binding agreement on the nonuse of force.
We today discussed these matters with Alexander Stubb. He also has his own ideas. We exchanged views on how to move the entire process towards excluding any possibilities of a repetition of what was perpetrated by the Georgian leadership. And subsequent steps to de-escalate tension and restore peaceful life will have to be determined at the next stage. I will not try to conceal, however, that Russia’s approaches toward the negotiation process will undergo substantial change, because we have no trust in the present Georgian leadership anymore.
I also want that today our partners, especially western partners, would ponder how they will further build their policy. What happened in South Ossetia lies, to a significant extent, on their conscience as well. We had for years been warning of the dangers inherent in the armament of the Georgian leadership. We had been drawing the attention of our American partners in particular that the program they had begun of arming and training the Georgian army could lead to the creation of a situation where the Georgian leadership would decide to use the resources thus acquired to try to solve the conflicts by force. Our US partners gave assurances to us that they would not allow the Georgian army trained by them to be used to solve problems in the conflict zones. Obviously they failed to keep Mikhail Saakashvili from the temptation to solve all his problems by way of war.
In just the same way we had for months, if not years, been persistently trying to get documents signed on the nonuse of force between Tbilisi and Tskhinval and between Tbilisi and Sukhum. Tbilisi had consistently been avoiding this, although, at one stage, it gave assurances it would agree to sign such a document, but our western partners did nothing to force Tbilisi, they did nothing to use their influence on Tbilisi to sign such a legally binding document. Now, I am convinced, it will simply be impossible to make do without this.
In conclusion, I want to say that the international community should, of course, evaluate and look at the situation with new eyes. The facts that have been provided to us all by the reckless action of Mikhail Saakashvili against the people of South Ossetia compels one to show maximum responsibility. Russia will fully carry out its obligations for completing the peacekeeping operation and creating conditions which would exclude the possibility of a similar scenario. Hopefully our international partners will act likewise. At least, from Alexander Stubb I have today heard his interest, as the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, in making his contribution to providing just this kind of conditions following completion of the military operation to restore peace.
Such are the results of our talks today. As you know, today, right after two hours, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is also the President of the European Union, is arriving in Moscow. The aim of his visit and talks with President Dmitry Medvedev is discussing the situation in South Ossetia, and ways to overcome the present crisis and create conditions for the prevention of any such relapses in the future. We expect that in the wake of this diplomatic activity of our OSCE and EU colleagues we will now be able to move forward in getting a better understanding by the international community of the steps to be taken to ensure that peace is firmly established on South Ossetian soil and that no one ever tries to solve any conflict on the territory of Georgia in such a way.
Question: A question for Mr. Stubb. Please say how do you assess the fact that after conclusion of a ceasefire agreement in Tbilisi fire was again resumed in South Ossetia and can there be any trust in the Georgian leadership after this? And a second question for both ministers. Is there now in the talks between Russia, the EU and OSCE any understanding of the need for the Georgian side to formally confirm its pledge not to use force? Is there any progress towards this end?
(after Stubb’s reply)
Foreign Minister Lavrov: I can only confirm that we share a common understanding of this. I am convinced that this must be a legally binding agreement on the nonuse of force between Georgia and South Ossetia. This is an absolutely inalienable condition for ending the present stage of conflict.
Question: What is the attitude of Russia to the ideas that the OSCE and EU representatives discussed in Tbilisi with the Georgian authorities?
(after Stubb’s reply)
Foreign Minister Lavrov: Since I am here, I would also like to answer the question concerning what Russia thinks of the ideas that were discussed in Tbilisi by our OSCE and EU colleagues with the Georgian authorities.
We, of course, support the OSCE-EU belief, which I have already mentioned, that concluding an agreement on the nonuse of force is an absolutely necessity. But we have questions about a number of other formulations, a ceasefire in particular. A ceasefire as a term presupposes that there are two partners who are ready to move to mutually respectful relations. I think that this is hardly possible to do with the present Georgian leadership.
Therefore we are talking about the need for the aggressor to completely withdraw from the territory which he attempted and failed to seize. In the proposals, which Stubb has referred to, there is an item presupposing that the entire personnel that were not in the zone of conflict before August 7 must be withdrawn from there. Well, indirectly this means that only the personnel should remain there that were in the conflict zone before the start of aggressive Georgian actions. We can hardly agree to this, since it would presuppose that those Georgian, if one may say so, peacekeepers must also be present in South Ossetia. They can no longer be there; for they disgraced the title of peacekeepers, they committed a crime by opening fire on their fellow soldiers with whom they had been serving in one peacekeeping contingent. How can it even be discussed with someone and how can it even be assumed that Georgian military in any capacity may again be present in South Ossetia. But the Russian peacekeepers will, of course, stay there. We will completely fulfill our duty in protecting the South Ossetian population, who more than once came under attacks by Tbilisi both at the beginning of the 90s and, by the way, three years ago in summer 2005, when Mr. Saakashvili also tried to make war and to seize South Ossetia by force. Our peacekeepers will not allow a repetition in South Ossetia of what happened in Srebrenica, when the peacekeepers from the Netherlands failed to prevent genocide, and to this day we know how badly the Dutch leadership is upset over this. We will not find ourselves in such a position, and our peacekeepers will never be in such a situation.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, the day before, the resolution on South Ossetia, as proposed by France, failed to pass the UN Security Council. Is Russia going to propose its own resolution version?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: Our resolution version is very simple – to do so that there are no Georgian troops in South Ossetia and in the areas of Georgia from where Georgian troops were firing at South Ossetia; and secondly – an immediate signing of a document on the nonuse of force. And of course, if we are talking about a resolution of the UN Security Council, which is the main body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, then that resolution must contain an utterly clear designation of what happened.
Question: A question for Mr. Lavrov. You said that Georgian troops must withdraw from South Ossetia. You also said that they must withdraw from the areas of Georgia from where they can fire at South Ossetia. How many kilometers from South Ossetia did you mean they must withdraw?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: They must leave, or have to be made to leave from every place from where they were already firing at South Ossetia. They used military facilities near the town of Gori, as well as a number of other points on the territory of Georgia, from where the military operation against South Ossetia was being carried out and supported. It will now be up to the military to determine just which areas of Georgia must be demilitarized and placed under control.
Question: Do you think that Gori must also be demilitarized?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: I do not think that the town of Gori is a military facility, but there are military facilities near the town of Gori that the Georgians actively used for the attack on South Ossetia.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, in the present situation, unfortunately, it has turned out that the positions of many western partners have not justified the hopes of Russia, including the position of the United States, which has started trying to prove to the world that it was Russia that attacked Georgia. How will Russia be rebuilding its relations with these partners, including the US now? And a second question. Yesterday Russia declared that it will seek to ensure that Georgian leaders are brought before international justice – in what manner?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: As to our further relations on this issue, and then also in fact on all other issues with our EU and US partners, we will so build these relations as we have been endeavoring to do over the last two or three years; namely – not to conceal our assessments of what is happening and to raise any and all questions with utmost frankness, in hopes of inducing in this way our partners to honestly discuss problems, without trying to gloss them over, without trying to substitute white for black and turn everything upside down, and presuming that only as a result of such honest discussions can an option be found around which we can unite our efforts.
As to the concrete experience of cooperation on South Ossetia, we are, of course, strongly disappointed. I can’t say that we didn’t have any confidential contacts – we had them with both the EU and especially the US. This dialogue with the US lasted right up to the last day before Georgia’s aggressive actions against South Ossetia and we were being constantly reassured that the US was sending all the necessary signals to the Georgian leadership, cautioning them against a gamble of war. We know that this is really so. Over the last couple of years we felt the impact of such signals on Mr. Saakashvili, when we had precise information about his intentions and then these intentions were not realized. We were expressing our gratitude to the American colleagues for keeping the Georgian leader from reckless and perilous actions, perilous, above all, for Georgia itself. But, as the latest events have shown, the US had apparently failed to fulfill the function of restraining this regime and the regime, I would say, got out of control.
I had several conversations with Condoleezza Rice during the last few days. We probably spoke five times after the start of the aggressive actions of Georgia in South Ossetia. You have probably heard that she had deemed it possible to make public certain things that we discussed. Therefore I will also say a few words about what was being discussed between us, although I did not intend to do so. Dr. Rice kept pressing me that in our public commentaries on what Mikhail Saakashvili is doing in South Ossetia Russia should avoid expressions like genocide, ethnic cleansings and war crimes. To my question why we did not have a right to make that designation, moreover an obvious designation supported also by testimonies of eyewitnesses and journalists covering the situation, who worked there putting their lives at risk, and many of them were wounded or even killed, there was no answer. However the United States would like to deny us the right to give such definitions.
A couple of days after Rice had urgently asked me not to use such expressions, Mr. Saakashvili against the backdrop of, as you have correctly said, the flag of either the EU or Council of Europe, claimed hysterically that the Russian side wanted to annex the whole of Georgia and, in general, he did not feel shy of using the term ethnic cleansings, although, true, it was Russia that he accused of carrying out those ethnic cleansings. I assume that Rice, having spoken to me, didn’t have time to address the same request to Mr. Saakashvili.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, in you remarks you said that substantial changes are being planned in approaches to talks with the Georgian side. Is this to be so understood that under no circumstances will you have any negotiations with Saakashvili? And a second question. In a framework towards pace, is any further advance of Russian forces into Georgian territory right up to Tbilisi possible? And a question for Alexander Stubb: What will your reaction be if Russia unilaterally recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: Regarding the first question – I do not think that Russia will have the mindset not only to negotiate, but even to speak with Mr. Saakashvili. He has committed a crime against our citizens and does not even think of repenting. On the contrary, he keeps saying over and over again that he is right, and that he, killing our citizens and peaceful inhabitants, giving the order to crush women and children by tanks, and burning in a barn the girls driven in there – that he not only does all of this against the background of European flags, but also declares that he is upholding American values. Strictly speaking, that’s why I told Dr. Rice that we are not making this a condition for ending this stage of the military operation, but at the same time for the personal information of the American leadership I stressed we presume that Mr. Saakashvili can no longer be our partner and it would be best if he left.
Dr. Rice, however, deemed it possible to at once phone her European colleagues, alleging that I had told her we had decided to overthrow Saakashvili and that only after this would we cease the military operation. Somebody even inserted this rubbish into the speech for President George Bush to make. This is an irresponsible line when the leadership of a great, serious country is informed about the position of Russia’s leadership in this way. We have no plans to overthrow anyone. It is not a part of our political culture and not in the tool-box of our foreign policy to engage in the dethroning-enthroning exercise. That’s what others do, whom we know.
As to Georgia, we have always treated and continue to treat the Georgian people with deep respect. We continue to want to live with them in friendship and harmony and are convinced that the Georgian people will yet display their wisdom.
Regarding further advance of Russian troops into Georgia: we have no plans other than the aims I have mentioned – to do so that there will be no Georgian troops either in South Ossetia or in the areas of Georgia that were used for attacks on South Ossetia.
I beg you pardon, it seems that I was also asked about an International Tribunal and I forgot to answer. We believe that the crimes perpetrated by the Tbilisi regime in South Ossetia deserve being investigated by an International Tribunal. There are several possibilities in this regard. You know that Russian Federation ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has come up with the idea that we would initiate the creation of a special international tribunal. There is also the International Criminal Court, as well as the European Court of Human Rights. According to the information I have, citizens of the Russian Federation who have suffered because of the Georgian aggression are planning to file their complaints with one of the European organizations. In connection with the question of war crimes it is important to determine and establish who specifically in Georgia was giving the criminal orders. This is a very important matter which has to be investigated.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, you said Georgian troops must leave South Ossetia and they must leave the areas of Georgia from where they can fire at South Ossetia. By the same token you cast doubt on the territorial integrity of Georgia and does this mean that Russia does not consider South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Georgian territory?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: As to the question addressed to me, there are quite a few states in the world on whose territory there are conflicts and when the conflicts are recognized as such by the world community, then substantial restrictions are imposed on the rights of the relevant state. Take Cyprus. Who questions the territorial integrity of that country de jure? – Well, no one. But what is actually happening with it, you know all too well. We see no particular initiatives from the EU, or anybody else, to solve this problem as soon as possible. We support the UN-led process on Cyprus settlement.
So the question of what will be with the territorial integrity of Georgia is, first of all, in the hands of the Georgian leadership itself. And we, particularly at the level of the top Russian leadership, told Mikhail Nikolayevich Saakashvili so more than once. Then it still seemed to us that he saw what the talk was about. Everything indicates that he never did. But the fact that by his barbarous action in South Ossetia he has undermined the reliability of the Georgian state has once again proved to the Ossetian and the Abkhaz people as well, that they will not be secure together with Georgia. This is an absolute fact. And the wounds he has inflicted on the Ossetians, and they have just healed the wounds of the previous attempt to seize them by force – those wounds will take very, very long healing. In any conflict it is necessary to be guided by some common elementary principles. And one of them is the key principle – respect the people who live on this or that territory and restore trust, and we have no trust in Mikhail Nikolayevich Saakashvili, we feel no trust in him and I don’t think any Ossetian does.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, the day before, in a CNN interview, Russia’s Vice Premier Sergey Ivanov said the talk in the future must be about a trilateral treaty on the nonuse of force; that is, between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. I want to stress that we saw the English translation; that is, the CNN translation. What is the Foreign Ministry’s stand on the trilateral agreement in which Abkhazia will take part?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: We have always been speaking about the necessity to conclude an agreement on the nonuse of force both in regard to South Ossetia and with respect to Abkhazia. I also said this today. This position on our part remains valid. What legal shape to give to it is a matter of diplomatic technique, but that receiving from the Tbilisi regime guarantees of nonuse of force against South Ossetia is an absolutely urgent matter at this stage is likewise beyond doubt for us.
Question: The first question: What would Russia like to hear from its European partners now in this situation for the earliest cessation of fire? And my second question is, you today spoke much about the US role in the region, so what would you like to hear from the United States?
Foreign Minister Lavrov: Our overarching preoccupation all these last days was putting an end to aggression and saving lives. The job still ahead will take long; I mean humanitarian aid to South Ossetia, humanitarian aid to residents in South Ossetia, and rebuilding homes. Now Stubb said that in the town of Gori he had seen two or three damaged houses. In Tskhinval there is not a single house intact. And it will take a huge effort to reconstruct this town so residents can return there and calmly live and work. As you know, the Russian government has already allocated 500 million rubles for these purposes as an immediate measure. As a next step, there will be allocated 10 billion rubles and, of course, additional funds will be needed as well. We will welcome in this reconstruction work all those sincerely wishing to help people who have found themselves in trouble because of the Georgian leader’s reckless actions.
As to what our partners could do at this stage, I have already said that we appreciate the keen interest, the nonindifference that the French leaders have shown and Alexander Stubb as the OSCE Chairman-in-Office. And I am convinced that work will be found for the OSCE, which had its mission in Tskhinvali. The chief thing now is that all those having at least some influence on Tbilisi should, in our conviction, send the strongest signal about the need for Georgian troops to urgently pull out from wherever they might pose a threat for South Ossetia. This is the primary task. Then – the signing of a document on the nonuse of force. I have already expressed my gratitude to Alexander Stubb for this particular aspect – a pledge not to use force – having been most actively dealt with during the trip of Stubb and Kouchner to Tbilisi. And the promise of Tbilisi was received that they are ready for this. We’ll see how things proceed further.