Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu, Moscow, August 24, 2018 (source):
We had useful and substantive talks which were a continuation of our recent meetings when, on August 14, I was invited to a meeting of Turkey’s ambassadors and permanent representatives, and on August 2 in Singapore we talked on the sidelines of ASEAN ministerial meetings. Such regular contacts allow us to not only compare notes across the entire range of issues of bilateral and global agenda, but also to deal promptly with any issues that arise.
We noted today our mutual interest in further improving bilateral relations. Extensive and trust-based dialogue between President Putin and President Erdogan give a constant impetus to our work. In 2017-2018 alone, they held nine full-scale meetings. Our respective defence ministries maintain close contacts as we can see from today’s visit to Moscow by the Minister of National Defence of the Turkish Republic, which is taking place in parallel with our talks.
We rate highly the interactions between our parliaments and sociopolitical organisations. Last week, Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin visited Turkey. He took part in the 6th congress of the Justice and Development Party at the invitation of President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara is one of our key trade and economic partners. We observe steady growth in trade, which increased by 40.5 per cent last year exceeding $22 billion.
We share a positive assessment of implementation of joint initiatives, primarily in the energy sector. I’m talking about the Turkish Stream project which is of strategic importance both for our countries and the energy security in Europe in general, as well as the start of the construction of the first reactor unit of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant which is being built in Turkey by Russian specialists.
We note the demand for building up practical cooperation in other areas, including metallurgy, the automotive industry, agriculture, banking and defence industry cooperation. We agreed to work vigorously to remove the remaining barriers in bilateral trade.
We reviewed the issues related to preparing for and holding in 2019 the Cross Year of Culture and Tourism of Russia and Turkey. It will make a significant contribution to strengthening our cultural cooperation.
The flow of Russian tourists is on the rise. Last year, 4.7 million Russians visited Turkey, which exceeded the record figures for 2014. This year, this figure is projected to exceed 5 million people.
For our part, we confirmed that Russia is open to talks on simplifying travel regulations for certain categories of Turkish citizens on a reciprocal basis. We will deal with this in the near future. We agreed to build a mechanism for consultations to develop agreements on this matter.
We discussed international matters and focused on the situation in Syria. We reviewed the progress of the agreements reached as part of the Astana format at the high and highest levels and at the level of experts. We reviewed progress in implementing the decisions adopted by the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi with regard to forming the Constitutional Committee as soon as possible. This work is underway. Today we discussed ways to achieve its speedy completion. Of course, Russia and Turkey are interested in cooperation in order to create proper conditions for the safe and dignified return of Syrian citizens back to their homes. We will work together to ensure that these processes help stabilise the situation and resolve the issues that are necessary to start the political process. Our common plans include joint efforts to finally eradicate terrorists in Syria and establish lasting peace and stability in that country.
We will continue our talks at a working breakfast tomorrow. We will discuss other international matters, on which we also cooperate very closely with Turkey, such as South Caucasus, Central Asia, the Black Sea region, Ukraine, as well as the Western Balkans, where Russia and Turkey can have a positive stabilising effect on the situation.
I am grateful for the cooperation of my colleague, Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Question: When will we see concrete agreements on simplifying visa regulations for Turkish citizens entering Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: We are working on it, but many of our experts are on vacation right now. We agreed that as soon as they are back, we will instruct them to get together and review the next steps which lend themselves to easy solutions. For example, international truck drivers are put out by the current state of affairs. Back in 2017, we proposed to drop visa requirements for this category of our citizens on a reciprocal basis. We can do this very quickly.
There’s another category that is of interest for our Turkish friends, which is special passports. Along with service passports available in Russia and Turkey, special passports are a particular category available only in the Turkish state system. Last month, we notified our colleagues that we are ready to consider the possibility of dropping visa requirements for service passport holders and the specific Turkish category of special passport holders. I hope you will hear news about this soon.
Question: What do you think about the situation in Idlib? What kind of decision will be made there?
Sergey Lavrov: I can only reiterate what my friend Mevlut Cavusoglu and I have already said. We are looking into this situation. Of course, it has many angles. There are many civilians there and there’s an armed opposition, which is interested in participating in the settlement processes. There are several tens of thousands of militants from the so-called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra group, who are trying to control this entire territory and hamper the efforts, in particular, undertaken by Turkey to separate healthy opposition from terrorist groups. These matters are being discussed by our foreign ministries. Today we spent a lot of time discussing them. They are also discussed by our respective military (Minister of National Defence of Turkey, Hulusi Akar, is now in Moscow), as well as our special services. We are not done yet. We will have additional meetings with the participation of all our colleagues, so we will be able to provide more information a little later.
Question: How accurate is the information about disagreements between Ankara and Moscow regarding the lists of opposition in the Constitutional Commission?
Sergey Lavrov: With regard to rumours about differences between Moscow and Ankara over the lists of opposition which arose during formation of the Constitutional Commission which is an area handled by UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, this is not true by definition, because Russia did not participate in forming the lists of opposition groups. This work was coordinated by Turkey. We had no questions about the list presented by the opposition to Staffan de Mistura.
Question: Is there a specific date for the forthcoming Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran? Are there plans to expand the Astana format given that the issue is not only about de-escalation, but also rebuilding Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: The date of the meeting of the leaders is known. It will be announced soon. This is the area handled by the protocol service and press service of both presidents.
With regard to the agenda, which will be reviewed during the next summit of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran, it will, for sure, include the full range of issues. De-escalation is being discussed, and we commented on the situation in Idlib. It is indeed multilayered and fairly complex. But when the de-escalation zone was created in Idlib, no one suggested to use it to ensure that terrorists, primarily from Jabhat al-Nusra, could use civilians as a human shield. Moreover, they are not just sitting there. They use it to carry out raids and shell the positions of the Syrian army. Several dozen drones (about 50) that were launched from this area to attack the Russian airbase in Khmeimim have been shot down. Today, we spoke about this in great detail. We need to do our best to ensure that this disengagement effectively takes place, and to minimise risks for the civilians. I am confident that the presidents will discuss this matter in detail.
With regard to expanding the Astana format, I don’t think it’s a top priority now. There are many opportunities to cooperate without any formal changes in the flexible Astana or Sochi process. For example, there is a “small group” on Syria, which includes three Western and four Arab countries of the Middle Eastern region. President Macron of France has repeatedly proposed establishing contacts between the Astana process and this group. We are willing to do so. Of course, we need to understand what goals we are after. If such contacts are based on the principles approved by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 2254, I think it will be a very useful process. Let’s not forget that there’s also an international support group for Syria, in which about 30 countries participate (almost everyone who can make a difference in one way or another or participate in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure, social sphere and economy). So, there’s no shortage of formats. Most importantly, we should be guided by agreed principles for the Syrian settlement, which are spelled out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The three guarantor countries act precisely in this way. I think we have a good record of achieving results. I’m confident that this will continue to be the case in the future.