A regular meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) Council of Foreign Ministers has concluded in Baku. Our Azerbaijani friends’ chairmanship was effective, productive, result-oriented and promoted the organisation’s practical consolidation.
We have discussed the current state of cooperation in the Black Sea Region. There is considerable interest in it. In addition to the 12 BSEC member countries, about two dozen other states and 14 international organisations took part in the meeting as observers and partners. This demonstrates the prospects of cooperation not only for the Black Sea Region, but also in the context of aligning these efforts with other integration processes on the vast Eurasian continent. As you know, President of Russia Vladimir Putin proposed establishing a Greater Eurasian partnership, mentioning the EAEU, the ASEAN and the SCO. I believe that the BSEC should also be included in the list of organisations whose members can join these initiatives of ours.
We have discussed projects that are about to be implemented and are actively supported by Russia. This is, first of all, the project to build a motorway around the Black Sea and the project to harmonise sea routes. All in all, this will make it possible to develop more effectively and freely trade, tourism and human contacts in the region, as well as continue to create conditions for the member countries’ economic growth.
I cannot help mentioning that a large bilateral project is already being implemented in the region: TurkStream whose construction is already in full swing.
Russia is a donor of the BSEC. The project financing mechanism was created at our initiative. We have made a voluntary and non-reciprocal contribution: $1 million. This money has already been used to implement two useful projects, and four more are awaiting approval. We welcome other donors who would like to step in and we are ready to finance projects in the Black Sea Region together with the EU.
Fresh attempts to politicise the discussion were made during the meeting. It does not help the work of the BSEC, which was established only to address trade, economic and social problems and has no mandate for political debates. The rhetoric used by several our neighbours in the Black Sea region draw attention away from the real tasks. We express our gratitude to our Azerbaijani colleagues who did everything to prevent the discussion from turning unproductive or destructive while chairing the BSEC.
On the whole, we are very pleased with the way this work has been done. Now Bulgaria has taken over the chairmanship. Over the next six months we will be helping our Bulgarian colleagues with the initiatives under development.
Question: Maria Butina pled guilty to one of the charges last night. Does the Foreign Ministry think she was pressured into this?
Sergey Lavrov: The essence of making a deal with prosecutors, which is a popular practice primarily in the United States, is to receive a reduced sentence and return home as soon as possible.
Our diplomats met with Maria Butina yesterday. She is still being kept in very unusual detainment conditions, which are usually reserved for dangerous, hardened criminals. We again demanded that she be moved to a general population unit. She has said that she was not pressured and that she entered into the plea agreement on one of the charges voluntarily, the charge of conspiring to influence something.
I can understand her, considering the extremely difficult conditions of her confinement. She has been subjected to what amounts to torture for months now: she could be raised in the dead of night to take a walk and then be thrown back into the Special Housing Unit, and the like. I have grounds to assume that these conditions were designed to break her will and force her to plead guilty to crimes she most likely did not commit. But it’s her life and her decision. We will do our best to ensure respect for the rights of this Russian citizen and to bring her home as soon as possible.
Question: It has been reported unofficially that Maria Butina could be deported. Are you negotiating this?
Sergey Lavrov: As I said, the aim of her deal with prosecutors is to receive a lesser punishment and hope for the court’s generosity.
Question: In your speech, you mentioned the possibility of developing cross-border cooperation within the BSEC. Is this a Russian initiative?
Sergey Lavrov: This idea is on the surface – not that we had to rack our brain to invent it. Trans-border cooperation is a very important and clear element in any economic interaction. The fact that it is carried out through people who live side by side and have much in common geographically and economically (they must have common infrastructure) will make Black Sea economic cooperation stronger, more stable, and more responsive to people’s needs.
Question: There have been several contacts between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia lately. Does Russia see any emerging shifts in the settlement process? What can be expected in this area next year?
Sergey Lavrov: Yesterday, we had a very detailed and protracted talk with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. We felt his sincere willingness to resume negotiations and search for constructive solutions. Russia is a close partner to both Azerbaijan and Armenia and which, along with the Americans and the French, is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. We will do everything possible to create the necessary conditions for reaching compromise solutions.
The meetings between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which, until recently, have taken place in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of Eurasian Economic Union and CIS events, and between the foreign ministers of the two countries in Milan on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council’s meetings, were fairly brief and preceded the December 9 parliamentary election in Armenia. Now that the election is behind us, the government of Armenia is to be formed. After that, the Armenian side will be ready, along with their Azerbaijani colleagues and the co-chairs, to resume the negotiation process. We will not be looking for all-new solutions – the foundations of the settlement are clear – but we need to find tactical and creative ideas that will help forge a consensus.
Sergey Lavrov: In the past few days and weeks, we have been working within the framework of the Astana format with our Turkish and Iranian partners to assist the Syrian opposition and government in the creation of the Constitutional Committee, which needs to be functioning as soon as possible, to write the new fundamental law or to specify the existing one and use it as the basis for preparing general elections in the Syrian Arab Republic. At this point, our special representatives have visited Ankara and Damascus and tomorrow they will head for Tehran. We discussed this matter with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu today. Yesterday, I talked to Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Zarif over the telephone. There is already an understanding between us that the list that is being worked out by the government and the opposition, with the assistance of Russia, Turkey and Iran is, on the whole, complete. We will be ready to present this list on behalf of the Syrian parties to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura early next week. I hope this will make it possible to accomplish a very important stage in the efforts to advance the political process, and then, in the beginning of next year, the Constitutional Committee will be able to convene in Geneva.