SIMON MARKS, Chief Correspondent - Feature Story News: Minister Lavrov thank you very much indeed for talking to us today. Let me start by asking you about the issue that I think is uppermost in the news at the moment, North Korea. Do you have reason to believe the North Koreans when they say they now have an operational nuclear weapon?
SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister: Well with nuances, similar statements have been made by Pyongyang for several times already. There was an instance when translation from Korean into English and other languages was really looked at through a magnifying glass to look at what they said. I don't think we should over dramatize the situation, and I believe this is more or less the reaction from other capitals including the capitals of the other countries who participate in the six country talks.
We are categorically against proliferation of nuclear weapons. I think we shall have perseverance, patience and firmness, and again this is what I feel from talking to all my colleagues who participate together with us in the six party talks and this would be our position and our line.
SIMON MARKS: But on the issue of whether North Korea actually has an operational nuclear weapon, you just don't know?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well it's not an easy question and I don't think anybody has a definite answer to it. I would say we don't have confirmations which would substantiate this claim.
SIMON MARKS: Do you have any thoughts on what prompted the timing of this announcement? There's been speculation in the United States that the North Koreans were hoping to hear a more conciliatory message in the State of the Union Address and the President's Inaugural Address. They didn't hear it and so have decided to adopt a more hawkish line. Do you think that's possible?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well I've been to North Korea last summer and I had a feel of the society and it's a special society and of course they have their legitimate security concerns. They believe they live under permanent threat, and whenever they hear language which reaffirms their suspicions I think they take it seriously. Therefore, like in the case of Iran also, or in any other case, I do believe that we shall follow the line of very tough persuasion, the line of engagement, the line of inclusion rather than the line of threatening countries. Isolation is not the method of solving the problems of nuclear and other WMD proliferation.
SIMON MARKS: The United States has traditionally viewed China as the power with significant leverage over North Korea. Is there a role under these new circumstances that Russia can play in trying to bring them back to the six party talks.
SERGEI LAVROV: Well I believe all participants of the six party talks should use their bilateral channels to send necessary messages to North Koreans. Some of us like China and Russia have more channels if you wish. Japan and South Korea have their own. And the United States could also help by stating their strong commitment to the negotiating process, to the six party talks, and I am glad that that's what we hear from Washington in response to the North Korean announcement.
SIMON MARKS: Let me switch countries and ask you about another nuclear issue that is uppermost in the Bush administration's mind, Iran: can you clarify the circumstances under which Moscow is going to approve the shipment of fuel to Iran for use at the Bushehr plant?
SERGEI LAVROV: Easy. Signature of the protocol which guarantees that the spent fuel would be returned to Russia. The protocol is basically ready it is not signed yet. We hope to finalize this signing procedure soon.
SIMON MARKS: No signature, no fuel?
SERGEI LAVROV: Absolutely.
SIMON MARKS: And once that agreement is signed, do you believe that agreement is going to enough to satisfy the Bush administration's concerns about the decision to ship that fuel.
SERGEI LAVROV: I cannot guarantee what level of concerns could be satisfied, but I know for sure that our American colleagues strongly support our position on the protocol, ensuring that the spent fuel is to be returned to Russia. And my, my opinion, talking to them, is that this is what they believe is necessary to ensure them that the spent fuel will not be diverted.
SIMON MARKS: On the broader issue of Russia's relationship with Iran in this matter, President Bush said in his state of the Union address that in Iran, Russia is dealing with "the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism." Aren't you ultimately on a collision course with Washington over this?
SERGEI LAVROV: I don't think so. We have a dialogue with Washington on these issues and on other allegations of other countries who are suspected being supporters of terrorism. And our position is very simple.
Whenever we get very specific facts, which we can investigate, we are certainly going to be taking these facts very seriously. We have no confirmation that these claims are substantiated by real facts. Suspicions we know about, but to do something about those suspicions, we need facts. And this is our position also regarding some other cases of claims that one or another country is supporting terrorism or is engaged in some other illegal activity including nonproliferation of WMD, we cannot afford the luxury of not taking such threats seriously. But to do something about those threats, to talk to the countries who are suspected, we need facts.
SIMON MARKS: How do you assess then the current state of the European initiative to resolve the standoff over Iran? Dr. Rice has been saying, as you know, in recent days that unless the Iranians come to the table soon and sign an agreement the Bush administration will favor a referral to the Security Council sooner rather than later. Where do you see the timeline here?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well first this European initiative is very much supported by Russia, not only supported we are coordinating our acts with our European colleagues. Before the European troika started dealing with Iran last fall, I visited Tehran, my deputy followed up with his visit, and we have been sending the same message which the Europeans have been sending to the Iranians and we strongly support the agreement that they struck with Tehran authorities.
We have reached consensus in IAEA governing council which commits Iran to moratorium, or no uranium enrichment program, and we have heard some voices from Tehran that they want to modify this agreement. We don't believe that this is going to be accepted. And we strongly insist on this agreement to be fully implemented by all parties which also involves responding to legitimate interests of Iran in developing its peaceful nuclear energy. And again, like in the case of North Korea which you referred to about the threats and patience reaching its limits, I think that engagement and commitment to the common line is the key to finding the answer to Iranian situation so that nobody has any suspicion that they might divert their peaceful nuclear program into some military program, and that they are monitored by IAEA.
An important element of the deal is that IAEA has full access to wherever it needs to be present in Iran, and of course in return Iran has legitimate interests in getting access not only to peaceful nuclear technologies, but to non-nuclear technologies as well, and Iran I think legitimately wants to be recognized as an important participant in the regional developments, be it on the Middle East settlement, be it on Iraq. And I welcome the fact that last November in Sharm El Sheik, when a meeting of G8, China, neighbors of Iraq and the United Nations was held, Iran was present at the table. This was in recognition that Iran can play a very important role in a collective effort to help stabilize Iraq.
Just by the same token, Iran is going to be a very instrumental player if we are serious about doing something on the drug threat emanating from Afghanistan. It's only a common joint effort of Afghanis themselves, the coalition and U.N.-mandated forces which are inside Afghanistan, and all neighbors of Iran through which we can solve the threat of drug proliferation to Central Asia, Russia and Europe from Afghanistan.
SIMON MARKS: Given the divergence of opinion that seems to exist on this between Washington, D.C. and many European capitals, is there a danger whichever side of the fence one is on that the Iranian government has the opportunity to play the Americans and the Europeans off against one another, and thus delay the process of actually coming to the table and reaching an agreement?
SERGEI LAVROV: I don't see this danger at the moment. It might appear, but I would answer your question form the opposite logic. If there is no divergence, there would be no possibility to play.
SIMON MARKS: Let me ask you about another country on which there is some divergence, while we're in the region: Syria. You said within the last few days that Syria has an important role to play in the Middle East peace process.
SERGEI LAVROV: I just stated the fact.
SIMON MARKS: The United States says of course that the Syrians are actually a destabilizing player in the peace process through their support for organizations that would torpedo the peace process. What do you say to American concerns about your relationship with Damascus on that issue?
SERGEI LAVROV: Again, we have been briefing our American colleagues on all developments in the Middle East to which Russia has access one way or the other. And when President of Syria was in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, President Putin discussed with him the role of Syria in the Middle East peace process, and not only the Israeli-Palestinian track, but also the overall situation including the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli tracks. And also relations between Lebanon and Syria, which is the subject of the U.N. Security Council resolution.
And as far as immediate peace process, namely Israeli-Palestinian peace process is concerned, President Assad said that he is interested in encouraging the Palestinian groups located in Damascus to cooperate with Abu Mazen in his efforts to unite all Palestinian organizations in ceasefire initiative and President Assad said that this is his policy, and that he believes that he wants to contribute to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations through doing this. And Abu Mazen when he was in Moscow and during our later contacts with him confirmed that he does feel positive effect of this Syrian effort. And we informed our colleagues in the United States and Europe and the United Nations all the participants in the quartet about these developments, and I think this information was well received.
SIMON MARKS: Let me turn to other matters in the U.S.-Russia relationship. You have already had meetings with Dr. Rice ahead of the summit meeting between the two Presidents that's taking place later this month. The headlines told one side of the story, "Rice lectures--
SERGEI LAVROV: Otherwise newspapers don't sell without such headlines I understand--
SIMON MARKS: -- around the world seemingly! "Rice lectures Russia on Democracy" Der Spiegel. "Rice says Russia must do better" was the headlines on the Reuters agency wire. "Rice Lectures Russia on Freedom" wrote The Australian. Do you feel chided and lectured?
SERGEI LAVROV: No, and I hope she did not feel lectured as well because I did ask some questions. And I think if you take the interview of Dr. Rice in the Russian newspaper today, I think it's Kommersant, I would subscribe to her description of our meeting. We are having a period of relations, she wrote, which is probably the most constructive and most productive in history. And I basically share this assessment.
She stresses our fundamental interests in fighting terror, in fighting WMD proliferation, in fighting all other threats which are common to all of us. And in promoting our economic cooperation, be it energy dialog, cooperation in outer space, those are strategic avenues of future development of the mankind basically. And she, just like I did in Ankara after the meeting, recognized that we do have questions in our relations, but these relations reached the level where two Presidents, two ministers and other members of the two administrations can openly ask these questions and can expect frank, open and sincere answers. And that's precisely what happened and I did not feel like I was in a lecturing hall, either in the audience or on the rostrum.
SIMON MARKS: Let me see if I can get you to share some of those frank answers with us. I mean, you know that she said in Ankara that Russia needs to improve the basics of democracy. And there are many Russia-watchers in the United States who cite recent events here, the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's response to the so-called "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, changes in the media landscape in this country, as evidence they say that democratic reform here is not advancing, and some argue is reversing. How do you respond to those concerns that are not just expressed by administration figures in the States?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well, first of all I think not only Russia, everybody has to improve in democratic principles being developed inside the country. And we discussed very openly with Dr. Rice for instance, how OSCE monitors, when they visited the United States Presidential elections wrote a report which listed quite a lot of deviations from the principles and norms, cases of intimidation, quite a lot of things which are normally present at any election.
Of course all in all the elections were certified as free and fair, no doubt about it. But this is just to illustrate that nobody is perfect, as the line in one of the famous movies goes.
On the specific concerns which Dr. Rice expressed, I gave specific answers.
On Mr. Khodorkovsky, you know sometimes the logic of the media asking this question is twisted. You asked me a question, the concern that Mr. Khodorkovsky was jailed. I understand that in the United States and Europe, jail is what you can get if you can't pay taxes. Somehow asking this question people don't ask the question related to the origin of this situation. When you buy a company at an auction and you are committing yourself to pay some $300 million to the state because it was a privatization deal and you don't pay it, is it OK? Isn't it something that deserves court procedures? That's how the Khodorkovsky case got started. And it's common knowledge for people who follow this case and there was in the New York Times a few months ago a big article describing all the peculiarities of the situation and all the facts and details about it. Somehow it was not noticed.
So I can say that the Yukos matter would be finalized on the basis of the Russian legislation through the legal process, and Dr. Rice recognized that this is what is going to happen.
On the media freedom, I suggested that Dr. Rice should just watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers and listen to Russian radio. Even the state TV channels are not monolithic in their pro-government line, and the views they express are quite pluralistic. As a matter of fact just now I am sending Dr. Rice a compilation of citations from the newspapers, TV channels, radio channels, and some of the programs I am sending her on CD ROM for her to take a taste of what Russian media looks like, and in my view an objective observer would find it as pluralistic as in any country, and they press, the printed press, is certainly more vigilant and more arrogant than in any other G8 member I would say.
So we are prepared to discuss these things, but we need facts. Just as in the case of countries supporting terrorist organizations, being involved in staging banned activities, in case of concerns relating to domestic issues we need facts, and whenever those facts are presented to us and whenever those facts contradict our international obligations including the obligations in the human rights field, or contradict our Constitution and our laws, we would not be passive and we would act on those facts.
SIMON MARKS: But let me see if I can turn the question on its head. If you don't accept that there's been a regression here, what evidence would you suggest indicates that there's actually been a move further down the road toward democratic reform over the course of the past couple of years.
SERGEI LAVROV: Look, I don't have to prove something that I don't believe is necessary to prove. We are a young democracy. We are moving not without mistakes. We are searching for a better solution to the problems which we face now.
One of the problems is the threat to the unity of the Russian Federation, and the discussions about how to ensure this unity better, how to ensure that we have the harmonized system of executive power throughout the huge territory of the Russian Federation which is required by our Constitution, those discussions are going to continue. And the fact that we are trying to adjust our specific elements of the political system within the Constitution to the needs of today is for us a necessary thing to do.
I know that in some countries, and I've mentioned about this in one of the interviews, they believe that whatever was written in the constitution and in the laws two, three, four hundred years ago is sacrosanct, even if this is becoming archaistic. Anachronisms do appear in the legal systems of countries who try to avoid them by modifying the rules so that they answer to the needs of today. And that's all I can say about this. It's not for me to judge, I mean it's not for me to try to persuade you that we are moving in the right direction.
We are searching for the way that will be the Russian way, which will be the European way in the sense that we are part of European civilization. Our constitution is well known, it's not going to be changed, the President confirmed this once again. And if you take another element of criticisms which Dr. Rice also mentioned, that's the new system of how you get governors in the regions selected, elected, appointed - it's neither election or appointment by the way then the Vilnius Commission of the Council of Europe studied the new legislation and they concluded that it is within the Russian Constitution and it is within the principles of federalism. Of course the U.S. is not a member of the Council of Europe, I know this, but this is a very respected body.
SIMON MARKS: Is there any irritation when these issues get raised again and again and again.
SERGEI LAVROV: Irritation, no. Questions. Because this campaign in the media, and I cannot call this any other word but campaign, is circling around basically three things: Yukos, the governors in the regions, mass media. These three things they either happened long ago, or there are answers to these questions.
But still every day you read the editorials, you read analytical articles, maybe they are editorials and analytical articles because there is no news in it. It's an old story, but it's being played again and again, again and again, and I think there must be some stimulation for all this because as far as the actual news is concerned, there is none.
SIMON MARKS: Let me ask you about another issue that is going to get raised, I suspect, in Bratislawa. The issue of the disposition of Russia's nuclear weapons and radiological materials. Your cabinet colleague, minister Ivanov, has said concerns about the security of Russia's nuclear materials and about the possibility of those materials falling into terrorist hands are his words in New York "pure rubbish". The outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, of course, has said that Russia needs to do more to address vulnerabilities that do exist. Who's right?
SERGEI LAVROV: There is nothing in this world which could be not described as requiring more. We have to perfect everything that we do. We discussed this with Dr. Rice, and our experts are discussing the cooperation in radiological safety, emergency response, which does relate to the nuclear safety in general.
The problem is again, if we get facts that indicate we need to do more, we would certainly respond. When we are told that we have general concerns, so why don't you take us here or there to see, well on a reciprocal basis this is possible. And we managed to send our experts sometime ago to the States on the invitation to see a site and eventually they didn't get there. So if those concerns are substantiated, I can assure you we would be the first one to wish to get these things right. And we would use whatever assistance we can use. But just to say we believe something is wrong and why don't you let us go see for ourselves.
SIMON MARKS: There was within the Russian government, it is believed, a sense of concern around the Dubrovka theater siege that the Kurchatov Institute had been perhaps considered as a target by the same group that carried out the Dubrovka theater siege. Is there less concern within the government about the possibilities of an event like that occurring because of the changes that have been made?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well, had we not been concerned at that time that terrorists might target the Kurchatov Institute, we would be irresponsible, right? We have to think of these things. All of these sites are under extra precautionary measures, under extra protection, for obvious reasons I cannot go into the details, and this is the case.
SIMON MARKS: And now, today?
SERGEI LAVROV: Absolutely, absolutely.
SIMON MARKS: I mean less concern, less concern that could happen because of the security improvements that have been made, or is it still a worry within the minds.
SERGEI LAVROV: It's not a matter of being less concerned or more concerned. It's a matter of taking all necessary measures and doing more to make sure that all nuclear, radiological, chemical sites are very well protected.
SIMON MARKS: And finally let me ask you about President Bush's inaugural address, in which he laid out a fairly visionary exposition of the United States moving to confront tyranny wherever it finds tyranny in the world. How did that go down in Moscow?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well it's not the first time that we hear these things from the United States leaders. We are against tyranny. We are all in favor of democracy, human rights, peace, security.
We believe that the best way to promote those common values is through inclusion, through involvement of all countries into democratic organizations, into democratic systems of cooperation And of course this necessarily means that we all have to do this on the basis of what is called dialog of civilizations, mutual respect, respect for various religions, various traditions and cultures.
You cannot export democracy. You have to help countries to grow their own model which would be corresponding to the basic values, for example reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but implemented in the way which makes the country adapting itself to the universal values through its cultural, religious, ethnic traditions. Not just announcing overnight that as of today we are all Europeans, whether we live in Asia, Africa, in the Middle East or in Latin America.
An interesting thing: the latest elections in Saudi Arabia. For the first time in history. I read reports about those elections which are very critical because women are not participating. Interesting question: shall we all condemn the fact that women did not participate, or shall we welcome the fact that for the first time ever an election took place?
SIMON MARKS: President Bush comes to Europe trying, obviously, to overcome some of the animosity that existed in Europe towards the Bush administration during the first term. To what extent do you think that's an achievable goal?
SERGEI LAVROV: Well I think we should all welcome the fact that the United States is sending the signals that it wants to be more multi-lateral in its foreign policy. I believe that would benefit the entire world and the United States. It would make its foreign policy more understood, better understood by others, and more supported by others. There would never be in my view 100 percent agreement on each and every international or regional issue, but such an approach is certainly the one which we welcome and which we try to apply ourselves. And that's the position of the Europeans as well.
Even if we don't agree on each and every detail, at least the general course be it in Iraq, be it in the Middle East, be it anywhere in the world would certainly be better served by such dialog and such willingness to listen to each other and to understand each other.
SIMON MARKS: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, thank you very much for talking to us today.
SERGEI LAVROV: Thank you.