In this exclusive interview with Rudaw, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Russia and the Kurds of Iraq have strong historical ties that go back decades and that Moscow makes sure its ties with Iraqi Kurdistan do not have a negative impact on anyone else, particularly the Iraqi central government. Mr. Lavrov says that two major Russian firms, Gazprom and Rosneft, currently operate in the Kurdistan Region and they are the basis for strong economic and trade relations with Erbil, improved upon during the visit of KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Saint Petersburg in May.
The Russian Foreign Minister says that Kurds—like all other peoples in the world—have the right to express their aspirations and that the referendum they have decided to hold in September is the means to do so. Meanwhile, he suggests, that that process and its outcome must be implemented peacefully, adding that Moscow is willing to help both Baghdad and Erbil in a way that would respect both sides.
On the issue of Syria Mr. Lavrov says that the Astana talks that led to the creation of the first safe zone in southern Syria proved that cooperation between countries such as Turkey, Iran, Russia, US and Jordan could lead to actual peace in parts of the country which could be expanded to all other regions in Syria. He maintains that Russia believes that the best solution lies with the Syrian people themselves, especially between the government and opposition groups that are not listed as terrorist organizations.
The draft constitution for Syria proposed by Russia, he argues, guarantees all political, ethnic and religious groups, including the Kurds, their rights in the new Syria and it could be a basis for ending the war in Syria and creating a secular democratic country as stipulated by the UN Security Council.
Mr. Lavrov says that Russia and the United States must work together to solve the Syrian crisis and find a way to solve other conflicts around the world. For that, he says, the Americans must end their suspicions and phobia of Russia and instead engage in direct talks as proposed by President Donald Trump during his election campaign.
We support our relations with all the political movements of Iraqi Kurdistan and we do that in a way that will not negatively impact our relations with the Iraqi government. And we also promote human and educational ties.
Rudaw: Mr. Sergey Lavrov, I’d like to start this interview with a question about the visit of the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani to Saint Petersburg. In light of his meeting with you and with Mr. Vladimir Putin, how would you define the relations between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan at this time?
Sergey Lavrov: We have with Kurds, with Kurds and Arabs, a historical and good relationship. That relationship has a long history. Just as how in the 40s and 50s of the last century the great son of the Kurds Mustafa Barzani was in our country, today too we have good relations with the Kurds of Iraq. We have had a consulate in Erbil since 2007 and in Moscow there is the representation of the autonomous Kurdish region. We support our relations with all the political movements of Iraqi Kurdistan and we do that in a way that will not negatively impact our relations with the Iraqi government. And we also promote human and educational ties. Annually we give education scholarships to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan has its own share in those scholarships. And for three and a half years our media groups, RT, is working in Erbil to convey information from there to our people and the people of other countries. In general, our relations are good and beneficial to both sides.
Rudaw: So we can say that the visit of Mr. Nechirvan Barzani was a step for a new relationship on a new level between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sergey Lavrov: You know, I shouldn’t say our relations are new and on a new level. I repeat that our relations are historic and we have been expanding them for years, especially with the head of the government and other officials of the autonomous Kurdish region. That is the continuation of the relationship, which as I said, is in the best interest of the Russian Federation and Iraqi Kurdistan. In that regard the role of the Kurds of the Soviet must also be taken into account who played an important role in building the good relations that we have with the Kurds within the frame of our relations with Iraq.
Rudaw: I have heard Mr. Putin mention the Kurds positively in several of his speeches. To what degree is Russia ready to help the Kurds solve their cause in the Middle East and help them achieve their rights?
Sergey Lavrov: We undoubtedly have very good relations with the Kurds and I stress that this is historical and we know each other well. It is important for us that the Kurds like all other people of the world achieve their ambitions and legal rights and political goals. If we look at the history of Iraq, especially when in 2003 an illegal war started, when under American leadership foreign forces destroyed that country, what is there now and what is happening will not be easily mended. That certainly did have an impact on Erbil-Baghdad relations. We know that there are efforts now to solve many constitutional issues, especially those about land, budget distribution, resources and oil revenues. Erbil and Baghdad have always tried in various stages to solve those and other questions. They have held talks and reached agreements within political negotiations. I will say it again that the desires and legal goals of the Kurds must be fulfilled like that of all other peoples, and according to the right that they have within the international law and that is tied to the decision which we understand has been made in Erbil to hold a referendum.
Our relations are historic and we have been expanding them for years, especially with the head of the government and other officials of the autonomous Kurdish region.
Rudaw: What is Russia’s view on Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum for independence?
Sergey Lavrov: As I said earlier, we see the referendum as the expression of the ambitions of the Kurdish people and as far as I know the majority of the population of the Kurdish autonomous region support this referendum. We see that after the final decision on that issue everything else will be considered in terms of the consequences of that move such as political, geopolitics, demography and the economy. Given the fact that the Kurdish question has gotten out of the boundaries of the new Iraq it will have an impact on its neighboring countries. We hope that the Kurdish people express their aspirations through a peaceful mechanism and the implementation of the goals of the referendum is also done peacefully in order to take into account those factors in the region. I’ve mentioned it earlier and it is taking into account the view of Iraq’s neighbors.
As far as I am aware the presidency of the autonomous Kurdish region is in contact with the neighboring countries of Iraq in their own capitals. We are ready to help Baghdad and Erbil in a process that would respect both sides. As history has shown about the results of a vote, it never means all the problems and questions would be solved overnight. Once again I would say that that is a very important process and must be taken seriously and slowly within the scope that the Kurdish question is important for the whole region.
Rudaw: If after the referendum Iraqi Kurdistan decided to become independent like South Ossetia and Abkhazia and other regions, will Russia still be willing to continue its relations with Iraqi Kurdistan?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, I think it is better if we did not comment on hypothetical issues. As I said, we look at the situation inside Iraq and in particular the autonomous Kurdish region. We don’t want to speculate and rather see what happens in practice. You know that in South Ossetia the problem was different. The regime of Saakashvili had completely invaded South Ossetia and there was reliable information that after Ossetia they would attack Abkhazia. So, here the question was about protecting people’s lives and we had no other option.
Rudaw: How would you asses economic ties between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan especially now that the number and type of deals and contracts between Russian companies and Iraqi Kurdistan have increased?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I’ll remind you that we have mutual interests and we want economic, trade and investment ties between us to grow. We encourage that field, and by that I mean trade and investment with us will not have negative impact on any other party and will not harm our relations with the central government in Baghdad. One of our giant firms has been working for a long time in the economic sphere of Iraqi Kurdistan and that is Gazprom. I believe it is working in two oil fields with its partners. And in February another one of our giant companies, Rosneft signed a contract with its partners in Erbil and at the World Economic Forum in Saint Petersburg several documents were signed as completion of that agreement. In my opinion we are now in a mutual relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan which I believe to have beneficial results for all partners.
We see the referendum as the expression of the ambitions of the Kurdish people and as far as I know the majority of the population of the Kurdish autonomous region support this referendum.
Rudaw: Let’s now move to the question of Syria. The continuation of the crisis in Syria prolongs crisis in the Middle East. Russia has a vital role in the process to find a solution for Syria. In your view, what development is expected to happen with regards to Syria in a near future? What can Russia do to end the crisis in Syria and combat terrorism in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: First and foremost we should be talking about the fact that Syrian parties must and can decide for themselves because the solution of that crisis is in their hands and counts on them. It has been discussed and signed on at the Security Council that only the people of Syria themselves can decide their own future. The international community, foreign players and neighboring countries must do all they can do eliminate the threat of terrorism and create the best atmosphere in which Syrians themselves can reach an agreement on the negotiating table as to how they want to live. There is something that we cannot escape from and it is that we cannot avoid negotiations. In the documents of the Security Council it says that Syria must be a democratic secular country. That is very important as many of the opposition groups who have built themselves on a democratic basis reject that which is important for reassuring that the future Syrian state is a secular state and a kind of state in which all groups among them Islamic and all political groups are reassured of their rights and have their security guaranteed and that all will be able to participate in state institutions.
That is the general framework on which all have agreed and within that limited framework a solution could be found to the Syrian crisis. We are working with a number of countries so create that environment and that began with fighting ISIS, al-Nusra Front and their likes which are all known as terrorist organizations in the Security Council. And we also work to protect the ceasefire between the Syrian government and some of the opposition groups, those that have no terrorist characteristics. That is important to make sure any group that qualifies for the ceasefire also becomes a participant in the process.
Another one of our works is delivering humanitarian aid to people, people affected by the war and for that we have, with Iran and Turkey, created safe zones in the Astana talks. And in implementing the safe zones we brought the United States and Jordan into the agreement and on July 7, Russia, US and Jordan agreed to create the first safe zone south of the Syrian Arab Republic. In recent days and now the details of that safe zone are being discussed and analyzed, for example the organization that monitors the ceasefire, reassurance about the delivery of aid and about the borders of the safe zone in a way that people can enter and leave the safe zone.
It has been discussed and signed on at the Security Council that only the people of Syria themselves can decide their own future.
That is a window for a solution which we agreed on in Astana, and it is being implemented now. In my opinion, apart from the safe zone of southern Syria, three other safe zones will be created. That window of solution will organize many things such as protecting the lives of people through the end of the armed conflict and delivery of aid to places that are most in need. Many admit that the Astana talks have been great help to the Geneva talks which had stagnated for nine months and were reactivated January this year.
We are ready and we work very actively with Staffan de Mistura and all other participants for a solution. We work with the representatives of the Syrian government and all governments that want to help find a solution. We work with European countries, the United States, all Muslim and regional countries.
Certainly, the best effort is for direct talks between Syrian government representatives and the opposition to take place. I mean those who have taken up arms against each other, opposition groups and the Syrian government, they are the most important players in this process and we agree for representatives of the political opposition parties to join the Geneva talks and among those who have migrated and become displaced can defend their country with arms on the condition that it is all within the boundaries of the Syrian state.
Rudaw: About the constitution project that Russia had proposed for Syria, what is the latest outcome of it?
Sergey Lavrov: The process is just starting, we published it at the time as a sample of the draft constitution, which was our point of view to what we were seeing not as what was being said outside the country or what was being imposed. It meant that if you want, go ahead and we have put together this, and at that time last year few people could talk about the constitution and they each had their own interests in mind if they came to power. Each one of them had their own purpose in finding a solution for the Syrian crisis.
That project is an example of a constitution in which everyone will have a role in society. Why is that important? Because some were saying that they will topple Bashar al-Assad then solve all the problems. Those people were not thinking about the country, and were only thinking about reaching power. Some were saying they were not ready to hold any political negotiations unless there was a ceasefire all across Syria. They said that but they were not correct because it was shown that that was not possible. They could at least have asked for a stop to the war on terror.
For a long time our partners in America could not differentiate terrorists from the good opposition groups.
We could also say that for a long time our partners in America could not differentiate terrorists from the good opposition groups. Now we have been able to do just that in the safe zones and the results could be seen. And those who said that without complete victory over terrorism no solution could be found anywhere in Syria, did not do a good thing and did not help with the Geneva talks.
We fully believe that that constitution project reassures everyone in Syria, the groups that I talked about, all religious, non-religious and political groups will feel reassured in the new law, in the important laws drafted for the Syrian government, and when those groups feel they have guarantees it will be, I believe, easier for them to reach an agreement on power-sharing. It will then be easier to make suggestions for government posts and will be easier to maintain the balance and preventing chaos.
We stand by the outcome of the latest round of Geneva talks and what de Mistura suggested in terms of four directions. First one is how would Syria be able to keep control in the current stage in a way that benefit could also be derived from the opposition. The second is how to prepare the constitution, third is how to lay the ground work for elections and the fourth is to make sure the war against terrorism continues.
I think that development in the Geneva talks is acceptable by all, except the extremist rebel groups. But they could be put outside the political process because they have proven that they are unable to reach agreements.
Rudaw: In this process, how does Russia see the rights and obligations of Syria’s Kurds?
Sergey Lavrov: As part of and like all the other groups I mentioned we see the Syrian Kurds and that they must be part of the agreements and they must believe that their rights are protected within Syria.
For many years we have been working at the UN for all countries to benefit from the cyber world.
Rudaw: There is dryness in communication between Russian and American foreign policies. Is there any hope that Russia and the US could find a way to cooperate on solving their disagreements through which they could also solve conflicts elsewhere in the world?
Sergey Lavrov: We must and it’s important that we and America find a way to cooperate. If we really and seriously want to have a role on the world stage, I mean Russia and the US, to find a way to help each other to find solutions for all the troubles in different parts of the world, for the issue of preventing banned weapons, finding a solution to problems related to our strategies to create stability. We ourselves must have a role in solving the conflicts. What is happening now between us and America is certainly not good. We are left with many issues from the Obama administration. Those decisions that were made then are now before us like a fire. The Obama administration was in a shock on its way out due to the election results. They wanted to use the time they had left in the White House to do bad things and above all their goal was to deteriorate relations between America and Russia.
We understand how difficult it is when someone in Washington wants to think logically to get out of the disease they have contracted from their Russophobia. So many months have passed since the new administration and no one examined this issue, to show at least one proof that Russia had meddled in America’s domestic affairs. Ordinary people is something else, but I never believed that American politicians would get the complex they now have against Russia. When I was working in New York I talked to many of them and I had understood them differently, so what I see now from the Americans is astonishing to me. I believe most of those who act this way towards Russia are acting unnaturally. American politicians themselves know what they do is not good and that somehow they must end this kind of thinking and behavior towards Russia.
Unfortunately they put themselves inside a fort which is difficult to get out of later on. Anyway, I must say that that air comes from some people whom no one can help. They themselves must try to get out of it otherwise they will be exhausted from that ailment. Once again I say it that they have not been able to prove that Russia meddled in American internal affairs and there isn’t a single reason for it. What is there in American newspapers and on TV stations is insulting. It is like our expression, excuse me if it is inappropriate, but we call that “finger sucking”. The plan that President Donald Trump and his colleagues announced before the elections for making cooperation with the Russian Federation and our answer to them was the same way for getting cooperation with America. The first meeting between the presidents of both countries took place at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7 which came after three telephone calls between both presidents and in that meeting there was an agreement on creating safe zones in southern Syria.
We are left with many issues from the Obama administration. Those decisions that were made then are now before us like a fire.
That way we proved concretely that we could work together to find solutions and in a way that would be good for all regions and to solve problems around the world. We also agreed with America on finding a way to solve the crisis of Ukraine as had been previously planned and the plan still has energy left in it and we work with it and we are working on forming a joint group to solve any problem that might come up in the field of cyber security. Some congressmen complained to Trump that such an agreement would be superficial and they said that Trump was sitting with the devil at the same table. I think that is a childish view if they are so hesitant about working with Russia and if they think what they do is illegal. I say that all good people must speak directly with the opposite side on any topic that is in doubt.
For many years we have been working at the UN for all countries to benefit from the cyber world and for that we have prepared many documents on cyber security. But they are suspicious and claim that we do not want to talk openly and directly on that issue. That’s really difficult. But I hope the American society does not tie the hands of the current administration from talking to Russia.
Rudaw: What role is Russia playing in finding a solution for the crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others?
Sergey Lavrov: We have spoken on that issue and we are in contact with all the parties of that crisis. President Putin has spoken by phone with the King of Saudi Arabia and the presidents of Turkey and Egypt and with the Prince of United Arab Emirates and the Emir of Qatar. I have spoken with my counterparts of the Qatar foreign ministry and I have spoken by telephone with my other counterparts of the member states of the Arab-Russia cooperation council. We have spoken on a presidential level and openly. We want that problem solved on the basis of common good and the fact that solving it would be in the interest of all involved in the process. We support the efforts of the Emir of Kuwait. If within that effort or in any way Russia can offer something good we are ready to do so. We see that other countries too have efforts to solve this crisis. Rex Tillerson was in the region and he held a number of important meetings and I understand that France and the United Kingdom have also expressed readiness to help. We will help with anything that would prevent the situation from getting worse so that that important region of the world does not go towards a long-term turmoil.