Russia, Moscow, 27 August / corr. Trend V.Sharifov /
Trend interviews Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the run-up to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Azerbaijan this autumn.
Trend: What are the main issues that will be discussed during Medvedev's visit to Azerbaijan? What are the priorities of Azerbaijan-Russia cooperation?
Lavrov: We consider Azerbaijan to be one of our important strategic partners in the South Caucasus and the Caspian region. Our relations are multifaceted and on the rise.
Our two leaders traditionally discuss the full range of relations during their meetings. I am sure that this is how things will go this time around as well. Moreover, the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents share very warm personal relations. This is also an important factor in advancing our partnership.
The upcoming visit will mainly focus on signing an agreement on the state border and a treaty on the rational use of the water resources of the Samur River, which is included in the agreement.
Work on these important documents was carried out in recent years. I think that I will not be revealing any great secret if I say that Aliyev and Medvedev both made special personal contribution to the agreement. They seriously revised the principles of the document, which allowed an agreement to be reached during their meeting in Baku in 2009. A principle agreement was then created, which ultimately resulted in the development of a legally binding document.
Of course, as the foundation of our partnership, economic cooperation holds a very important place in any summit or negotiation despite the crisis, which, of course, affected our trade and economic ties. Today, the situation has improved substantially and turnover began to recover. There are also sound investment projects that are successfully implemented in industry, transport and banking. I am sure that the presidents will hold a general principled review of the situation in this area and give a political impetus to those or other areas of interaction in case of necessity.
And, of course, we should mention humanitarian relations. This is an area that is very important for ordinary people - for both Russian and Azerbaijani citizens. This year, we launched a new major project. Baku hosted a forum on humanitarian issues. It was decided to hold this event annually under the patronage of our presidents. A branch of Moscow State University has also operated in Baku since 2009. The Russian Science and Culture Center and the Russian Books House were also opened in the country. All of this, of course, helps to promote cultural and educational ties in the most active way.
Therefore, I consider the prospects for our future interaction to be very positive. Another important factor is that our relations increasingly involve Russia's regions, which are continually strengthening ties with their Azerbaijani partners. Cooperation in all of the areas that I have already mentioned meets the interests of our two peoples, as well as the interests of strengthening stability in the South Caucasus and the Caspian region. I should add that in addition to bilateral relations, our presidents consider regional and international issues, as well as the level of our partnership and cooperation in international organizations in Europe and across the globe - particularly, within the U.N.
Q: During Medvedev's recent state visit to Armenia, a protocol was signed extending Russia's lease on a military base in Armenia. The president said at a press conference that the protocol aims to maintain peace and security in the South Caucasus. How will this protocol impact the military balance in the region and not violate the fundamental principles of the CFE Treaty? What potential threats does Russia see for Armenia in the region and from whom would Russia be aiming to defend the country?
A: The protocol you mentioned extends the agreement on the presence of Russian military bases in Armenia by 49 years. And nothing more. It does not change either the function of the military base, which Russia has in Armenia, or the number of the servicemen at this base, or the number of arms at the base. So, it is unnecessary to talk about any changes that the protocol can make to the balance of forces in the region or to say that the extension of the current functions and parameters of the current Russian military base by 49 years violates any agreement. The main purpose of Russian military base is to ensure the interests of the Russian Federation. These interests, of course, include maintaining stability in the South Caucasus and the Caspian region. This goal was set before the Russian military base when the agreement was signed. This goal does not change with the extension of the agreement into the next 49 years.
Q: Russia has been a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group for many years, and is working to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unfortunately, there have yet to be any visible results. What further steps could your country take in this regard?
A: Maybe there are no visible results because the work is done in a confidential mode. But as a participant in this work, I can say that there are results which are invisible to the public. Many disputable issues have reduced substantially in number over the years Russia has been involved in the OSCE Minsk Group's activities together with our American and French counterparts and for the years when Russia has also been independently trying to help bring closer positions of the sides in line with the group's position. And the work over the so-called basic principles, which is still underway, yielded some results in terms of finding a formulation that at this stage can afford to fix the parties' consent. That does not mean that all will be resolved upon the completion of work on the basic principles. The parties participate in this work based on the fact that after the basic principles, in any case, it will be necessary to develop a juridical document - a peace agreement. Of course, it would require much greater penetration into the details, but the devil lies in the details. Nevertheless, the basic principles, as a political document, would be of great importance, since they would hint at an objective of reaching an agreement at the political level. Therefore, we are trying to promote it. Upon President Medvedev's initiative, over the past couple of years Russia has been trying to make an additional personal contribution to seeking agreements. And six meetings between the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been held over the past two years, two meetings were held this year - in January in Sochi and June 17 in St. Petersburg. As a result of these meetings we made a proposal and co-chairs supported us: indeed, we could not achieve agreement on every point with regards to the draft basic principles yet, but there is an understanding that we have almost reached a compromise formulation on a significant part of the text. We had a very simple proposal - to fix two or three questions, which are not yet subject to the agreed formulation, for further discussions. To record clearly that there will be no final agreement without these two questions. At this stage, it would allow fixing the progress that has been made over the significant part of the text and at the same time, to show that still some questions are left, there are two to three concrete problems, which require further efforts, and to consolidate what has been achieved so far. The co-chairs have supported us in this regard. We expect that such an approach, which is realistic, based on a pragmatic assessment of the current situation, will ultimately be supported. At least we will continue our work. I would repeat that approving the basic principles with 2-3 uncoordinated milestones would give an important political signal, which is awaited in the international community, in Europe, that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan clearly aim to resolve this conflict and they clearly aim at a peaceful settlement, which was mentioned by the co-chairs many times, stipulated in the so-called Meiendorf declaration signed by the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. I will mention another milestone - a principle milestone. While meeting in Almaty on 17 July within the ministerial meeting of the OSCE, the co-chairs issued a joint statement in which they noted that at this stage, the efforts made by the sides did not allow achieving results, and this is the key to which you asked me. Just the sides must agree. Co-chairs cannot lonely resolve this problem for Armenia and Azerbaijan at the ministerial level or at the presidential level. Therefore, we have always held a position that we are ready to use our capabilities, intellectual abilities to help find an agreement, but the agreement itself can be found only by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Q: At the moment, the Caspian issue remains up in the air. Based on an agreement reached by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Russia has slowed down its activities in the Caspian. Does this mean that Moscow is satisfied with being an active observer?
A: No, it does not. I think that this is an inaccurate interpretation of our position. We have in fact achieved an agreement with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan - our neighbors in the Caspian - on the division of the Caspian seabed. However, the water area and air above this water area still need to be addressed. This should be the subject of a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, which we are working actively on today.
Obviously, we are not stuck in a juridical vacuum. The Soviet-Iranian agreements signed in 1921 and 1940 continue to function due to the absence of an international convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Signing a convention is more topical today because three new states have appeared on the Caspian Sea over the past 20 years. Today, there are five and not two littoral countries. Indeed, it is necessary to seek agreements that will fully take into account the interests of the Caspian littoral countries. The convention should do the trick. The basic issue for us - all the peculiarities aside - is that it is important to agree upon issues concerning the use of the Caspian Sea and the protection of its resources, the regulation of shipping and fishery, and the development of mineral resources, as well as environmental protection.
The problem is not who is less or more active. The issue is that some of our neighbors in the Caspian want to apply national jurisdiction along the coastal zone, which will hardly leave any vacant sea. The Caspian is not an open sea. This might be a bit excessive, because even if to view the World Ocean, the U.N. Convention on sea rights envisages territorial water with maximum 12-mile in length. It is a closed water reservoir and it should have a special agreement that takes this into account. First of all, it should examine the rational, careful use of this reservoir. We are ready for compromises. We are ready to acknowledge the necessity of having a national territorial zone, but under the condition that the freedom of shipment should not be subject to doubt, as it is determined by international law. Taking this into consideration, fishing in the Caspian should be done so that fish remain there and do not vanish. These are difficult questions. Of course, patience is required to regulate them.
In terms of activity and passivity, I can say that Russian initiatives have led to the successful launch of processes to design the agreements on Caspian security that are progressing under the chairmanship of Azerbaijan.
I believe we will be able to conclude this work in the nearest future and the agreement can be signed in the next Caspian summit, which is to be held in Baku in accordance with regulation.
Russia's second initiative is establishing the Organization of Caspian Economic Cooperation.
A few years ago, Astrakhan hosted the first conference on economic interaction among Caspian littoral countries. We think that there are grounds to view issues of mutual importance such as trade and transit cooperation within organizations which will not be onerous, but flexible enough to enable negotiating in pentalateral format over the projects requiring such multilateral cooperation.
Thus, I hope for progress with Caspian issues. This is a very important matter, especially if you consider that many non-Caspian countries would not mind benefiting from that fact that a whole range of juridical issues remain unresolved in an effort to promote their own interests, which do not always coincide with the interests of the Caspian littoral countries.