Friday, October 14, 2016

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, October 13, 2016

  1. 210 years of the Foreign Ministry’s information support
  2. Death of the King of Thailand
  3. Sergey Lavrov’s participation in a ministerial meeting on Syria
  4. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s forthcoming talks with Foreign Minister of Paraguay Eladio Loizaga
  5. Sergey Lavrov’s forthcoming talks with Foreign Minister of Guatemala Carlos Morales
  6. Alexey Meshkov to join the Fifth Eurasian Forum
  7. Developments in Syria
  8. Humanitarian situation in Afghanistan
  9. South Sudan
  10. New unfriendly steps taken by the US
  11. Accusations against Russia of hacking US websites
  12. Russians denied entry into South Korea
  13. Answers to media questions:
    1. Possible elimination of visas for Turkish business people
    2. Reports on an escalation of tensions between Iraq and Turkey
    3. Talks on the withdrawal of ISIS militants from Mosul
    4. Drafting a resolution on DPRK
    5. Meeting on Russia-Japan strategic cooperation at the level of deputy ministers
    6. The situation in Ukraine
    7. The upcoming meeting in Lausanne
    8. President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Germany
    9. The situation in Syria
    10. The EU’s possible new sanctions against Russia
    11. The situation in Yemen
    12. The situation in Western Aleppo
    13. A possible corridor for ISIS
    14. Tajikistan’s possible enlistment to promote settlement in Syria

210 years of the Foreign Ministry’s information support

I’d like to start with a detour through some of the history of information support for Russian foreign policy.
This history is long. Way back the Ambassadorial Prikaz (Office) began to issue hand-written sheets (the first prototype of a Russian newspaper), using foreign publications as one of the sources. This “newspaper” began to be issued on a regular basis in Moscow in 1621 although its periodical versions appeared as early as in June 1600. It existed until the start of the 18 century.
At the Public Department of the Foreign Office established by Peter the Great, two copies of every major foreign newspaper and magazine of that time were brought in for its heads. Once read they were filed away in the archives.
Systematic information coverage aimed primarily at explaining Russia’s position on various international issues dates back to the times of Alexander I. Soon after its establishment in 1802, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs faced the challenge of countering Napoleonic propaganda in Europe and with this aim in view began to issue its own newspaper in French – Journal du Nord. Later on it was renamed Conservateur Impartial. This experience was considered successful and the ministry began to issue a second newspaper in French – Journal de S.Petersbourg. This was the start of information support for Russia’s foreign policy.
I wanted to mention this because the first issue of this weekly in French, which was primarily directed against Napoleonic propaganda in Europe, appeared on October 1 in the old style and October 13, 1806 in the new style.
Steady as she goes for 210 years!

Tragic news came from Thailand on the death of his Majesty the King. In this context we’d like to express deep condolences to the people of that country. Condolences to Thailand and its people will follow at all levels.

On October 15, a limited attendance ministerial meeting on Syria will take place in Lausanne. It will be attended by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It will be based on the corresponding agreements between Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The heads of foreign policy agencies of the US and a number of influential states in the region also plan to attend. Considering that the agreement was reached with Mr Kerry, the US side is also expected to participate.
The main topic will be the prospect for a Syrian settlement with an emphasis on the need to resume the ceasefire regime based on the agreements reached between Russia and the US on September 9 in Geneva. To this end, it is necessary to ensure the separation of the “moderate” opposition from the militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and other groups affiliated with it, primarily in Aleppo. This is a key point for the normalisation of the situation with humanitarian access to those in need, taking into account the obstacles created by terrorists along aid convoy routes, and for the de-escalation of hostilities in Aleppo and Syria in general. As we stated previously, terrorists there use civilians as a human shield, and regularly and repeatedly stage military provocations.
To ensure the success of the Lausanne meeting, all the key players will need to assume certain obligations and, of course, duly work with the forces on the ground to ensure that all parties unconditionally adhere to the ceasefire terms.
If successful, the meeting will create effective prerequisites for the resumption of the internal political settlement process in Syria. There is a need and a necessity to proceed from this prerequisite. Of course, there is a growing realisation in the world and in the Middle East region of the need for an internal Syrian settlement, as well as its practical organisation along these lines. The effective eradication of the terrorist hotbed in Syria is directly related to the consolidation of the Syrian government’s efforts and the efforts of all of Syria’s constructive internal and external opposition forces advocating a sovereign, independent and reborn Syria. This is the kind of state that will ensure comfortable and safe living for all ethnic and religious groups of the population. This is our starting point. This, as you know, is our principled position.
Russia is open to close and effective cooperation with its international and regional partners in the interest of the speedy restoration of peace in Syria, the eradication of the hotbed of terrorism in that country and the facilitation of an end to the internal crisis based on existing international legal documents and the entire international legal foundation.

On October 18, 2016, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with Foreign Minister of Paraguay Eladio Loizaga during his working visit to Moscow.  This event will continue the course towards developing practical cooperation between Russia and Latin American countries.
Our two countries are actively developing political dialogue. In February of this year Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia made a historic pastoral visit to Asuncion. Last April President of the Senate of Paraguay’s Congress Mario Abdo Benitez visited Russia for the first time in history.
Asuncion is playing a major role in promoting region-to region dialogue, in particular between EAEU and MERCOSUR.
Paraguay is an important trade and economic partner of Russia and one of its biggest meat suppliers. There are prospects of developing cooperation in the scientific-technological and cultural-humanitarian areas.
It is common knowledge that our peoples are united by close historical ties. Immigrants from Russia have made a meaningful contribution to developing science, education and culture and consolidating the defence capability of Paraguay.

On October 21, Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with Foreign Minister of Guatemala Carlos Morales during his working visit to Moscow.
We are linked by long-term friendly relations with Guatemala as well. It was in that country that the IOC chose Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics at its session attended by President Vladimir Putin. This was a very memorable moment that will go down in the history of our bilateral relations and the history of Russia. Let me recall that the capital of that country – Guatemala – and Sochi are now sister cities. This is indeed important and really promotes cultural contacts between our peoples and countries. The Orthodox Monastery of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity, the “Lavra of Mambre,” has become the centre of spiritual and cultural life of Russian compatriots living in Guatemala.  Its Mother Superior Abbess Ines was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship for her selfless service.
The Yury Knorozov Russian-Guatemalan Centre for the Study of Mayan History and Culture has been actively working since its founding in 2012.
Our countries aim to deepen constructive political dialogue at the bilateral and multilateral level, in particular with the Central American Integration System (SICA), and to develop trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, as well as cultural and humanitarian contacts. Mr Lavrov and his Guatemalan counterpart will focus on practical steps in these areas at their forthcoming talks.

On October 20-21, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov will attend the Fifth Eurasian Forum in Verona, Italy.
The forum has been held annually since 2012 by the Italian association Conoscere Eurasia. It has become a respected venue where government representatives, experts and business people from Eurasia share opinions on key issues on the global political and economic agendas. The co-organiser of the upcoming Fifth Eurasian Forum in Verona is the Roscongress Foundation.
The themes to be discussed this year include Geopolitical processes in Greater Eurasia, Economics and finance and the global crisis, The energy market outlook for 2020, New models of economic cooperation in the context of global crisis, Innovation infrastructure in Greater Eurasia, Agriculture and agribusiness: new frontiers, and Interregional cooperation as an engine of development.
The forum will be attended by delegates from Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Great Britain, Italy, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, South Korea and several other countries.

We are watching with concern the military and political developments in Syria. Tensions are especially high in Aleppo. The illegal armed groups that are closely connected to the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists are desperately trying to unblock the extremists who have been surrounded in eastern Aleppo by the Syrian Army, maintain their positions and deliver reinforcements, weapons and munitions from the back areas to the conflict line. The terrorists are shooting at the local neighbourhoods with small arms, home-made and captured multiple launch rocket systems and mortars. Civilians die every day in these indiscriminate attacks.
The Syrian Army is advancing in several directions, liberating eastern Aleppo from the terrorists, one building after another. Humanitarian corridors have been established to help civilians leave the city. Tragically, the terrorists mined the approaches to these corridors. As we said before, they are using civilians as a live shield because everyone, including the terrorists, know that the political and information screen, which their Western sponsors are trying to throw by fuelling hysteria over the developments in eastern Aleppo, meets their [terrorists’] interests not because the situation is clear and close to a settlement, but exactly because it is complicated. Western media and political analysts provide a distorted picture of the situation. This distortion is definitely playing into the terrorists’ hands. In line with this logic, the terrorists are hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians. They want to see people suffer because it provides a backdrop that attracts public attention around the world. Local residents held demonstrations in some districts of Aleppo such as Saliheed, Marjeh, al-Fardos and Bab an-Nayrab to demand that the al-Nusra terrorists who control these districts immediately allow the delivery of food.
The Syrian Government has issued an official statement that the army will guarantee the safe exit from eastern Aleppo for everyone, including fighters who are willing to surrender their weapons and depart to any other region of the country of their choice. We see that Damascus has indicated an openness to any initiative that can ease tensions and normalise the situation in the city.
The Russian military have established stations where hot meals and basic necessities are issued to local residents. Humanitarian aid is distributed in the Aleppo and Deraa provinces, including baked goods, sugar, flour, rice, tea, and canned meat and fish. Unfortunately, CNN has not shown any footage of this.  They do not seem to be interested.
Individual conflicts between terrorists have been reported, marking yet another aspect of the Syrian conflict. The jihadists are fighting over foreign financial assistance, spheres of influence and power. Ahrar ash-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa are fighting each other in the Idlib province, reportedly because Ahrar ash-Sham has accused Jund al-Aqsa of assisting ISIS and even of helping the transit of ISIS terrorists. Jund al-Aqsa has accused its terrorist “brothers” of subversive activities that have allegedly allowed the Syrian Army to regain control over several towns in the north of the Hama province.
On October 10, the terrorist organisations Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar ash-Sham signed an agreement, which concerns the incorporation of Jund al-Aqsa into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It is supposed that all disputes between Ahrar ash-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa should be settled peacefully, within a special dispute settlement commission. This agreement is yet more evidence of close ties between ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar ash-Sham. This document is available on the internet to anyone. It is in Arabic, but some media outlets have translated it.
On the morning of October 8, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter, which was delivering humanitarian aid in the Hama province, was attacked by ISIS from a shoulder-fired rocket system. The helicopter took measures to evade the strike. None of the Russian military on board the helicopter were injured. We have taken note of the statements made by some Syrian opposition members, who demanded that their regional sponsors supply air defence systems to the armed extremist groups. We hope that our regional and other partners will have the good sense to disregard these appeals. Russia will not allow anyone to endanger the lives of its citizens, including military personnel. Any unfriendly actions taken against Russia will not remain unanswered.
At the same time, Russia will continue its consistent and uncompromising struggle against terrorists and all kinds of terrorism. We reaffirm our willingness to engage in a dialogue with our foreign partners, based on equality and mutual respect, to help reach a settlement in Syria.

We are seriously concerned about the serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, another country with complicated issues. On October 11-12, terrorist attacks on Shia mosques in the cities of Kabul and Balkh killed over 30 people and wounded about 100 more. We resolutely condemn these terrorist attacks, and offer condolences to the families and friends of the deceased, and wish a speedy recovery to the wounded.
For two weeks, the Taliban has been carrying out attacks in several provinces, including Kunduz, Baghlan, Faryab and Badhgis in northern Afghanistan, and in the southern provinces of Urozgan, Kandahar and Helmand.
The humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically against the backdrop of more intensive hostilities. Several dozen civilians have been killed during clashes in Kunduz alone, and up to 250 have been wounded. Over 32,000 people have been temporarily displaced. Over 5,000 families have lost their homes as a result of intense fighting near the city of Tarinkot. Over 40 schools have been closed in the province of Ghazni, and about 7,000 children are therefore unable to study.

Let’s turn to the situation around South Sudan. We are concerned with the continuing dire domestic political situation in this country. We are confident that there is no alternative to a political peace settlement there. We are urging belligerents in South Sudan to immediately stop hostilities and to once again honour the provisions of the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan. We are closely following the implementation of the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2304 on deploying the Regional Protection Force as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS),  and creating favourable conditions for the operations of “Blue Helmets.” Official Juba has expressed its willingness to honour the provisions of this resolution. South Sudan and UN representatives are now discussing specific issues in the resolution, including within the framework of a specially established technical working group.
On May 31, 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2290 extending targeted sanctions against South Sudan for another 12 months. Russia has supported this resolution and firmly opposed the inclusion of provisions for essentially predetermining expanded UN Security Council sanctions against the Republic of South Sudan, including the introduction of an arms embargo.  
We have repeatedly voiced apprehensions that excessive pressure, all the more so with sanctions, can make it harder to accomplish these tasks and compel South Sudan warring parties to toughen their positions. Russia resolutely rejects a situation where, instead of engaging in serious political and diplomatic work, someone is trying to arbitrarily apply sanctions, especially in the UN Security Council. Let’s not forget what the Government of South Sudan needs to maintain security, law and order in the country. By the way, the UN Secretary-General has not recently urged the UN Security Council to expand sanctions against South Sudan. Nor have we heard any conclusions from his Secretariat that official Juba hampers the deployment of the Regional Protection Force. It turns out that there is no reason to “punish” South Sudan so far.
This is proved by the September 30 letter from the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN. Unfortunately, this letter was circulated among members of the UN Security Council on October 11 only.
On the whole, we advocate well thought-out political and diplomatic moves in support of the peace process in the Republic of South Sudan. We support the initiative of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa to strengthen security in South Sudan, including the establishment of the Regional Protection Force. We believe that IGAD and the UN Secretariat will continue to work constructively with Juba for the purpose of coordinating acceptable options for the deployment of the Regional Protection Force, with due respect for the sovereignty of South Sudan and while honouring basic UN peacekeeping principles.

I’d like to comment on what is happening in Russian-American relations. It pains me to do so as there is no good news.
We regret to see Washington continue to aggravate Russian-American relations. We hear threats, nearly on a daily basis, to expand the sanctions and also appeals to the international community to follow suit. Washington has made no secret of the fact that the sanctions policy is primarily to undermine the Russian economy. The Pentagon has been building up its military presence along Russian borders. Inside the US, as you know and hear every day, Russophobic propaganda from some of the very top officials is totally off the charts.
It is more undisguised lies than propaganda (propaganda is a very general term). What we hear daily are complete lies, for example, about Russian hackers who nobody has seen but who everybody already knows in absentia. The average person in America is made to believe that Russia is an adversary.
We are now at a point where American representatives in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international financial institutions have been instructed to block funding for any programmes connected with Russia. They have been tacitly doing this for a while, but now they are receiving straightforward instructions. The White House is trying to use any leverage to pressure Russia and is doing it with painful pleasure, not as if it was forced to do so but in a ceremonial way (which is particularly surprising). We have a clear notion that all of these measures are dictated by the American domestic developments ahead of the elections.
We have the increasing feeling that the outgoing US administration has been pursuing a “scorched earth policy” in bilateral relations. This is a dangerous policy that could have detrimental consequences for international stability and is unlikely to bring any positive change. In any case, nobody should be under the illusion that Russia can be pressured – be it the current American leadership or the incoming administration. Hopefully, the new administration will prove to be smarter than its predecessor.

I would like to cite data related to accusations that our country is implicated in hacker attacks on US websites. This is commented by President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. Let me dwell on this issue as well.
On October 7, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security published a joint statement accusing Russia for the nth time of organising hacker attacks on US political institutions and persons.
The US side has failed to provide any facts or arguments to corroborate its allegations. Moreover, the statement says that the US intelligence community is not  – I quote – “now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.”
Not so long ago, a White House spokesperson said that they, in fact, had no proof, but it was not needed at all because Russia would deny it anyway. First you provide proof and then we’ll talk! For this long, you haven’t bothered to make available even a single material. Jumping to conclusion that proof would be refuted or denied is an insane approach.
Against this backdrop, we are perplexed to hear a White House spokesperson say that the administration intends to come up with a proportional response in connection with the hacker attacks on US websites. There is no proof implicating Russia, or Russian officials, or the Russian side in certain hacker attacks, nor is it presented by anyone. But the situation seems to be used as a pretext for Washington’s hacker attacks. I at least don’t see any other reading. What does this response mean? A response of this kind implies hacking – actually, it implies committing a cybercrime.  It should be mentioned that Washington has repeatedly hurled similar unsupported accusations against Russia, but it never provided any facts.
We think that this malpractice is part of the US election campaign, used in the interests of one of the political parties to garner votes. Having had an earful from America on cyber threats and hacker attacks, we would like to ask this. Does the US administration want to follow the path of global cyber conflict to secure the victory of a certain candidate and lobby for one group in the US elections? The threats we hear are about nothing other than a cyber conflict.
Please note that in 2013 Russia and the United States signed an agreement on confidence-building measures in the area of information and communications technologies. If one of the parties suspects the other of launching hacker attacks from its territory, the agreement directs the parties to use the communications channels existing between Russia and the United States, the special hotlines, including at a high political level. This mechanism was developed to obviate any doubt or misunderstanding, and, most importantly, to jointly resolve disputable situations. Let me stress that we have received no inquiries, let alone accusations of having committed hacker attacks on some US websites, via any of the three existing official channels. One of the explanations of this failure is that these inquiries must be thoroughly substantiated, whereas the US has no substantiations – that is, facts – whatsoever.
I would like to remind our US colleagues once again that Russia has, for a year now, repeatedly offered the US administration to hold bilateral interagency consultations on combating illegal actions in the information space. We reaffirm our readiness for this dialogue because we are well aware how sensitive this sphere is. We still hope to receive a comprehensible answer from the US.
It is obvious that the need to develop the rules of responsible behaviour by states in the information space is of particular importance in this context. It is the Russian Federation, jointly with the SCO member states, that advanced the initiative to draft these rules, which would make it incumbent on states to prevent conflicts in the information space, respect state sovereignty of other countries, and pledge not to use information and communications technologies to interfere in internal affairs of others. Disseminated as an official UN document, these rules are open to accession by all states.
The UN Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security has a special role to play in drafting these rules. We hope that this Group, which includes experts from 25 countries, including Russia and the United States, will be able to prepare a UN General Assembly resolution on rules of behaviour for states in the information space, which, as we hope, will be supported by all member states of the United Nations.
Our great hope is that commonsense will prevail in Washington and that the outgoing US administration will not edge towards a global cyber confrontation. There are all necessary mechanisms for addressing any complex disputed issues as they arise. They simply need to be used but they can only be used when you have facts and proofs handy. Otherwise, if your grievances are from the category of inventions, there is nothing to talk about.  

We have addressed the issue of the procedure for the entry of Russian citizens to the Republic of Korea several times, published our recommendations on the ministry’s website and talked about this at briefings. I am talking about the denial of entry into South Korea.
A growing number of Russians have tried to enter South Korea in search of jobs, using the short-term visa-free procedure approved for travel between our countries.
We would like to remind everyone that the Russian-South Korean agreement on mutual visa-free travel, dated November 13, 2013, does not provide for visa-free entry into South Korea for employment purposes. The violation of this provision allows the South Korean immigration service to deny the violators the right to enter the country, to deport them to the country of their departure and to prohibit them from entering South Korea for a long period. The violators shall cover the expenses for the temporary stay in the transit zone and the return tickets. We also remind everyone that those who have been denied entry into South Korea are obliged to return to the point of their departure by the same airline they used to arrive in South Korea.
We again caution people against believing the assurances of unscrupulous employers and agents who promise to guarantee them free passage through immigration in the Republic of Korea. They should remember that they will be held accountable for violating the immigration and other legislation of the destination country.

Question: Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukayev said they have submitted a proposal to the Foreign Ministry to lift visas for Turkish business people. Have you received this proposal? How will you distinguish business people?
Maria Zakharova: I will answer this question after I check the information. I have no information at this point.
As for distinguishing business people, it is a routine procedure at consular departments.
Question: Can you comment on the alleged escalation of tensions between Iraq and Turkey? What is Russia’s position on the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq?
Maria Zakharova: We believe that any escalation can only aggravate the explosive situation in the region. We have the ISSG, bilateral channels, the UN and other possibilities to promote the easing, rather than the escalation of tensions. We must act from this premise.
Question: The US has announced that it will negotiate the exit of ISIS fighters and their families from Mosul, possibly to Syria. Has Russia responded to these talks between Iraqi and US armies and terrorists?
Maria Zakharova: I cannot confirm or refute information about the alleged bilateral contacts on this issue, contacts which do not include Russia.
I can tell you that the initiative was advanced by UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. We consider this initiative to be very timely but believe that its details need more working out. We have attracted the UN Security Council’s attention to this initiative in the multilateral format and also bilaterally, during telephone conversations with our foreign colleagues. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has raised this issue more than once. He said that this initiative, if further elaborated, could help ease humanitarian problems in Aleppo. We are considering this initiative, which needs more working on, very seriously, and we are doing our utmost to ensure its practical discussion as soon as possible.
Question: Create a humanitarian corridor for the terrorists? Simply let them go?
Maria Zakharova: We are talking about a humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. The situation is very complex. I said that it is not Russia but Damascus, the official representatives of the Syrian government, which means the Syrian authorities are willing to look for options, including those that provide for letting the terrorists go in order to improve the situation for common people, for civilians and children. The situation is extremely complicated. The Western media are showing a simplistic picture, according to which bombing raids by the Syrian Army, supported by Russia, are killing women, old people and children.
I hope that everyone here understands that the situation is completely different. There are terrorist organisations and militants, who are described as militants by some and as the moderate opposition by others. Still others believe that they have become affiliated with the terrorists who have seized some areas in Aleppo and are using civilians as live shields. Civilians cannot leave these areas because the humanitarian corridors there have been mined. This is why Damascus, the UN and Russia are looking for a way to unblock the situation. It is an ambivalent scenario that needs to be thoroughly worked out. I can confirm that we are searching for ways to ease the long-time suffering of the people, including in Aleppo.
A solution cannot be found if we take a simplistic view of the problem. We must look at the situation from all angles and consider all factors on the ground.
Question: Is Russia willing to negotiate with all the forces in Aleppo, including the terrorists, or only with the moderate opposition?
Maria Zakharova: I have answered your question openly. I did not try to dodge it. The initiative has been advanced by a UN official who is an expert on the Syrian crisis. We see that Damascus is interested in finding a formula or a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. We believe that these factors should be taken into account in order to find a solution. This is why Russia has made public its views on the UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s initiative as soon as he released it.
Question: Can you comment on the drafting of a resolution on North Korea at the UN Security Council, or more specifically, the issues that are most difficult to coordinate?
Maria Zakharova: I have no information updates on this. I will tell you as soon as I have it. At this point, I cannot say anything more.
Question: What did the deputy foreign ministers of Russia and Japan discuss at today’s meeting on strategic cooperation? Did they discuss any important issues?
Maria Zakharova: A summation of this meeting will be published on the ministry’s website.
Question: Can you comment on the latest developments in Ukraine?
Maria Zakharova: The latest political and socioeconomic developments in Ukraine are commented on routinely. Which aspect are you referring to?
Question: Presidential Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said all four of the negotiating countries should do their homework and that this was what the October 19 summit depended on. What can we expect from the Normandy four meeting?
Maria Zakharova: Comments on the meeting are issued by the presidential press service because it is a summit.     
I can only comment on the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine, which is giving rise to not just big questions but to big concerns. As you may know, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. I will not list the objective indicators. There is one element – a bridge of sorts or a link between the economy and politics – that is directly connected with this. The deterioration of the living standards and the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine is an alarming and at the same time objective trend that undermines the Ukrainian regions’ confidence in the central government. We are witnessing mass demands by regional legislators and members of the public, who want more authority at the local level and duties to be divided clearly between the central authorities and the regions. Their logic is simple and clear: if the central government is unable to cope with problems, then authority should be transferred to the regions. I saw media reports saying that close to 10 regional councils are requesting that the budget, economic and administrative mechanisms be transferred to them so they can address local problems. Quite recently, several major regional councils such as Odessa and Kiev took the same road urging President Poroshenko and the cabinet to sign a division of powers agreement with them. Thus, the regions, in fact, are proposing to go over to contract-based relations with the central government. Regional legislators in Zaporozhye are suggesting special status for their region that would make it possible to address its environmental and economic problems.
We might reach the following conclusion: the Ukrainian regions are displeased with the current government’s performance, and this is understandable. While declaring a course for decentralisation, Kiev is actually sabotaging it. This is an obvious fact. It can only hand down new directives to collect taxes or finance socioeconomic programmes to the local level. All of this explains regional initiatives: legislators have more frequent contact with people and a better understanding of their problems and moods, something that reflects on the political process. In fact, this is a growing general trend in the Ukrainian domestic political process.          
Question: Which countries have been invited to the Saturday meeting in Lausanne? What outcome do you expect? Is a new agreement on a ceasefire in Syria possible?
Maria Zakharova: I spoke in considerable detail about our view on this meeting. I believe it would be premature to speak about a shortlist, but I can tell you at this point that the meeting will be attended by Russia and the United States and, most likely, also Turkey and Saudi Arabia. I think the updated list will be made public later, before the meeting. If you have any additional questions, you should address them to the meeting participants I mentioned. We will issue updates as soon we have the schedule of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s bilateral meetings.
We have been asked many questions about Mr Lavrov’s potential bilateral meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of other countries, for example Turkey. You understand that this is a multilateral format. Therefore, bilateral meetings are not just possible but are an integral part of such multilateral consultations. There will definitely be bilateral contacts, considering that these meetings are not simple protocol events but are planned for meaningful discussions. Decisions will be made based on the discussions.
Question: This will be President Putin’s first visit to Germany for a Normandy format meeting since 2012.
Maria Zakharova: There is an open rule for the assignment of duties. Under the rule, we do not comment on the agenda or the schedule of trips for the President of Russia. This is the responsibility of his press service. We are responsible for the schedule of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and anything related to the Foreign Ministry’s activities. Procedures differ from country to country. This is our procedure.
Question: What signal will President Putin make there?
Maria Zakharova: Do you know what I would speak about if I could express my personal opinions here? There are so many interesting issues and so many interesting events in the world. Unfortunately, I have to stay within established parameters. Therefore, you should address you question to the Presidential Executive Office.
Question: The West has accused Moscow of pursuing malicious goals in Syria. What are Russia’s strategic interests in a Syrian settlement?
Maria Zakharova: To answer your question, I would have to deliver a long lecture on Russia and its role in the Syrian conflict.
What do we want in Syria? Although we have talked about this today, I will answer your question, trying to be as concise as possible.
First, our goals in Syria and our views on the developments related to a settlement in Syria can be found in UN Security Council and ISSG documents, as well as the agreements reached by Moscow and Washington on September 9 this year. If you want to know exactly what Moscow wants from a settlement in Syria, you should read these documents that provide an unambiguous answer.
Speaking globally, we want a settlement. We believe this is possible if the developments are steered along the two tracks that were outlined in early 2016: a political dialogue (even if indirect at first, but with a view to making it direct) between the Syrian Government (Damascus) and a broad opposition group, not just a single group of people who claim to be a broad opposition bloc. We are talking about a comprehensive opposition group, including both internal and external opposition, those who have taken the side of Damascus in this global conflict, and those who demand that Bashar al-Assad step down. The entire range of opposition should come together for talks or dialogue, or however you want to describe it.
A second vital aspect is the fight against terrorists, who continue to receive encouraging signals from some Western and regional countries that their cause is right and they will celebrate victory soon. Unfortunately, this is a road in the opposite direction, away from what we have agreed upon and put on paper. The encouragement of terrorists or moderates ultimately makes them part of terrorist organisations, which is absolutely contrary to Russia’s global approach.
We believe that a Syrian settlement should include the above elements. As we have said more than once, the result we are after is a free, sovereign, democratic, multi-confessional, secular, united and integral state with democratic institutions.

To be continued...

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