Interview by Minister of Foreign Affaires of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov to BBC, Moscow, August 9, 2008
Question: What is Russia’s aim in South Ossetia?
S.Lavrov: Russia’s aim is to keep peace. This is not just Russia’s aim, this is Russia’s obligation. Russian peacekeepers have been brought there under the agreement between the parties after the war which started in the early nineties. The late President Gamsakhurdia who was the leader of Georgia at that time declared his policy “Georgia for Georgians”. He cancelled autonomies of Southern Ossetia, Adjaria and of Abkhazia. He brought his troops into these areas and then the resistance took place. And Georgian army was wiped out of those regions. It was then that after quite nervous and intense negotiations a peacekeeping mechanism was established comprising Georgians, Ossetians and Russians. The peacekeeping force was established and this peacekeeping force has a mandate. The mandate is to make sure that there is no violation of quiet in the zone of conflict and the peacekeepers are required by this document to prevent any violations and to put out any violations. Since Georgian forces for the second time are engaged in aggressive actions in full violation of the obligations under those international agreements and international humanitarian law by attacking civilians, residential quarters, humanitarian convoys, attacking the convoys trying to remove the wounded from the area of the fighting and even, by some reports, finishing off the wounded. So this is absolutely unacceptable and the responsibility of Russia as a peacekeeper could be only sustained by responding to this aggression.
Question: Does not Georgia then have the right to control its entire territory?
S.Lavrov: Absolutely. Absolutely, but Georgia after it attacked, as I said, its own regions in the early nineties, accepted that there would be international mechanisms to keep peace in Ossetia and in Abkhazia but not to perpetuate the situation. In both cases international negotiating mechanism has been established with the participation of Georgia, which unfortunately for the last couple of years the Georgian government has been consistently ignoring and asking for something else. You know that people say now “Let’s announce immediate ceasefire”. But ceasefire was announced two days ago only to be violated by the Georgian forces. The ceasefire is something, which you use when the war has started already. But for the last few months Russia alone has been trying to persuade the Georgian government to deliver on this commitment and to sign a legally binding document not to use force in the Southern Ossetian conflict. This was an arrangement tempted to be agreed a year and a half ago within the Joint Control Commission between the Georgians and the Southern Ossetians. And then the Georgians violated this commitment and refused to sign such a document. Mr. Saakashvili recently said: “It is ridiculous to ask us to do this because Georgia will never use force against its own people. As simple as that.” And unfortunately our western friends who one way or another participate in the efforts to settle this conflict were also reluctant to pressure Tbilisi in order to have this legally binding document happen.
Question: Mr.Saakashvili’s Administration is very close to the United States. Do you think their closeness in some way took blame for this flare up in the conflict? Do you think the US could have done more to prevent this happening?
S.Lavrov: You know, I talked yesterday to Secretary Rice and we discussed what we could do, especially since during the last few months’ short of blank pressure on Tbilisi to sign this document, I believe the Americans were trying quite hard to prevent lodge. And from indirect information we are getting from Washington we understand that people involved in this issue have been really shocked by what Mr.Saakashvili has started. So we encourage the United States, we encourage the EU members – we talked yesterday to quite a number of colleagues from France, Germany, Mr.Javier Solana, our Finnish friend, who is the head of the OSCE now, and we explained our position. We can not allow peace agreements just to be violated this way. And whatever it takes to bring the situation to status quo ante would be done. You know that peacekeepers are being killed including by Georgian peacekeepers, who used to serve together with them in one contingent and who were supposed to be united by the common goal agreed on paper officially by both sides.
Question: How far is Russia prepared to go in this quest to restore the status quo?
S.Lavrov: Mr.Saakashvili keeps saying that we want to chop off part of Georgian territory. He is also saying this is not about Georgia, this is about the future of Europe. He says that Russia is also making territorial claims to other countries, including the Baltic states. This is rubbish because it is exactly the other way around as far as the Baltic States are concerned. Some of them have territorial claims to Russia, at least some politicians of those countries. But Russia wants to sign the border treaty with Estonia which is the last remaining Baltic State, with which we do not have such a border treaty. It is exactly because of Estonian politicians’ territorial claims to Russia that we can not do this. But our goal is very simple. We want to act strictly within the mandate given to the Russian peacekeepers and this mandate provides for the zone of conflict to be freed from any illegal armed groups except for peacekeepers themselves and the zone of conflict must keep the regime of protecting civilians. When civilians at this zone, when the peacekeepers’ forces in the zone of conflict are attacked from outside of course those sides from which the attacks are launched, we should not feel safe, that is for sure.
Question: So you would pick up targets in Georgia if you feel that is within Russia’s interests?
S.Lavrov: No, no. I was very clear when I said so. Do not interpret in that way.
Question: I am just trying to understand.
S.Lavrov: When the peacekeepers are inside the zone of conflict, the civilians whom the peacekeepers must protect are in the zone of conflict when the civilians’ side is bombed, is shelled from outside the source of this attack must be targeted, so that this massacre is not repeated. About 15 hundred civilians have been killed by some count which is being verified now. At least 15 Russian peacekeepers are dead. Some 50 are wounded. There are reports, as I said, that the wounded peacekeepers are finished off by the Georgians, which is a gross violation of all Geneva conventions and the international humanitarian law. And I would just say that people in Europe, people in the West should not perceive it differently. We had been for last months if not years not only preaching for the signature of this non-use of force document. We have also been drawing the attention of our colleagues to the facts of Georgia buying offensive arms in contradiction to OSCE recommendations, in contradiction to the EU recommendations which provide for at least caution in selling arms to the areas of conflict. Offensive arms have been brought to Georgia in very big numbers. Some countries to whom we talked realized the negative potential effect of this action and they stopped it. Some others do not. I do not want to go up to the details, but some countries did so, but some others did not. And as a result of this we have Georgian military budget having increased I think 30 times over the last three years, which is being an all-time record. When Mr.Saakashvili says that Georgia by international standards is a number one democracy in the world, I believe that this is still to be checked. But Georgia is for sure number one arms importer of the world. And now we see these arms being put in action to the detriment of all the civilians, many of whom are Russian citizens. And we frankly speaking can not avoid noticing that those who ignored our warnings and who were selling offensive arms to Georgia, those who ignored all warnings and did not impress the need to sign this non-use of force agreement on the Georgian government, I think they should be at least part of the responsibility for what is going on. Especially as Mr.Saakashvili is talking on TV every now and then at the background not only of the Georgian flag, but also of the EU flag. I asked yesterday the representative of the EU presidency, whether this was the practice for the EU flag to be used by whoever basically wants to use it and the answer was “no”. I was told that they would look into the legal aspects of the problem.
My President yesterday was very clear. He said that under the Constitution he is obliged to protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens, especially when they find themselves in the armed conflict. And today he reiterated that the peace enforcement operation enforcing peace on one of the parties which violated its own obligations would continue until we achieve the results. According to our Constitution there is also responsibility to protect – the term which is very widely used in the UN when people see some trouble in Africa or in any remote part of other regions. But this is not Africa to us, this is next door. This is the area, where Russian citizens live. So the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the laws of the Russian Federation make it absolutely unavoidable to us to exercise responsibility to protect.
Question: You offered passports to the citizens of another countries not just part of a campaign of antagonism you have had to Georgia over last year?
S.Lavrov: No, no. I believe, they understand the reason for this. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia found itself in a very awkward position. Some 25 million people who used to be the citizens of the Soviet Union, overnight found that they are living in a foreign country. And Parliament of the Russian Federation in 1991 adopted the law saying that whoever was a holder of a Soviet passport has the right to become a Russian citizen. And since about the same time the then Georgian President Mr. Gamsarhurdia started this “Georgia for Georgians” campaign and antagonized Ossetians, Adjarians, Abkhazians, they ran to Russia for passports, for citizenship. That is how it started. And when this conflict was brought from the hot phase into the frozen phase, these people were still deprived of elementary social services and as Russian citizens they had the right to be provided with pensions, salaries and elementary things. So I believe this is not something, which is not understood. And when people try to blow this particular aspect of the situation – the Russian passports in Ossetia and Abkhazia – out of proportion, I always remind them about a situation in a different country, in Moldova, where huge proportion of the population is getting Romanian citizenship and the EU is quiet.
Question: You mentioned there was a sense of shock in Washington on the way that things have developed. Given of this situation is so unpredictable aren’t you concerned you are involved in a major conflict with a country which is a would be NATO-member and a very close-eye of you former cold-war foe, Washington.
S.Lavrov: If NATO is ready to welcome such a regime in its ranks, it would be interesting to see how this is done. I do not think we are on a brink of a war. We are limited in all our actions to do things. Responsibility to protect our citizens under the Russian constitution and the responsibilities of the peacekeepers to keep this particular case when peace was raped to restore peace. Peace is required and that is what we are going to achieve but we would not go beyond this.
Question: It is not a secret there has been great antagonism between particularly this country Administration in Tbilisi and Moscow for the last few years. Isn’t it the truth, but you just do not like this regime, you do not like them to join NATO and in this conflict you want to teach them a lesson?
S.Lavrov: In 2006 what happened was that four Russian officers who came to Georgia to oversee the withdrawal of the Russian military bases, which Georgia wanted so much, were without any reason grossly attacked and humiliated. So if you want us to like people who did it, I do not think we will. If you want us to like people who started this aggression in Southern Ossetia killing Russian peacekeepers, I do not think we would be positively considering the offer. Actually speaking of the current government in Georgia I mentioned the withdrawal of the Russian military bases. I negotiated this issue personally in 2005 with President Saakashvili and at that particular format Russia was saying that we need many years to withdraw. And a lot of money to pay for this withdrawal. And Mr.Saakashvili said to me when I visited Tbilisi in 2005 that he wanted this bases out before his next elections, so that he could present to his electorate the results of the efficiency of his policy. I reported to then President Putin, this was discussed in the Russian Security Council and not an easy decision, from the point of view of domestic audience, was taken to withdraw in 2,5 years. Just as Mr.Saakashvili wanted, six months before his elections. And we delivered even in advance, before the deadline the Russian bases were out. In spite of that fact those who were engaged in the withdrawal procedures were grossly attacked and humiliated, as I said, in 2006. An interesting thing is that part of that arrangement which I negotiated was to be delivered by our Georgian colleagues. And the package contained three elements: one – Russia withdraws totally from Georgia, number two – Georgia adopts a constitutional law prohibiting, proscribing the presence of any foreign basis on Georgian soil forever, number three – Russia and Georgia together establish a joint counter-terrorist center, because the issue of Georgian territory being used by people from Northern Caucasus to come and then to go back to Russia - this issue was quite topical. So we withdraw our bases, they undertake not to have any foreign bases and we jointly create counter- terrorist center. These were the three elements of the package. We delivered and they just forgot about their obligations. So we have experience of dealing with this government and I believe we have an objective picture of it.
Question: Now could this conflict end without further bloodshed? There are reports that more troops are sent in.
S.Lavrov: They have a mandate to liberate the zone of conflict from violators. Whatever it takes we would do. To stop this is for the Commander-in-chief of the Georgian army, to give orders to his troops to withdraw from the area they illegally occupied. Then of course it would be not necessary to use peace enforcement to achieve this goal. And then I would come again to the thing which I mentioned in the beginning that a non-use of force legally binding document with international guarantees would be signed which I would strongly recommend.
Question: Am I right in understanding you that Georgian army was shooting Russian wounded dead?
S.Lavrov: Yes. That’s the reports we are getting and we are verifying them.
Question: So that if this is the case and that is clearly a war crime.
S.Lavrov: Yes. And the President of the Russian Federation said that those who are responsible for it should be brought to justice and we would be considering using the international law proceedings.
August 9, 2008