SPIEGEL Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "Everyone Ought to Stop Demonizing Russia"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, 56, discusses threats to security in Europe, the dispute over Russian natural gas and oil and America's unilateral approach in the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, President Vladimir Putin will travel to Germany this week for the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. It will be the first time a Russian head of state attends this event. What message will he bring to the conference?

Lavrov: Our greatest concern is European security. We want to see the entities engaged on the continent -- the European Union, NATO, the European Council, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, but also the United States and Canada -- cooperate more effectively in the future instead of seeing themselves as competitors.

SPIEGEL: What are you concerned about specifically?

Lavrov: There are some disconcerting developments. The balance between East and West, in terms of conventional weapons, has shifted considerably. The modified Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe is still not in effect because the NATO countries refuse to ratify it. The original treaty applied to NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but by now almost all former Warsaw Pact members have joined NATO, bringing along their military forces and weapons. Finally, the US military presence in Europe will become a strategic factor.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to Washington's plans to set up a missile defense system in Eastern Europe?

Lavrov: The Americans are negotiating the deal, and perhaps they have already secured a treaty. The system involves, among other things, a radar system in the Czech Republic and a military base in Poland. The silos for interceptor missiles that will apparently be installed there are completely comparable to those used for ballistic missiles, which can also be used offensively. New facts are being established here. We want to be told, clearly and unmistakably, why this is happening. We see no objective reason for this step.

SPIEGEL: What will you do if the Americans don't cooperate?

Lavrov: President Putin has said that we will not plunge into a new arms race, and that we don't want to pointlessly invest money in weapons again. We are looking for an intelligent answer.

SPIEGEL: We are under the impression that, beyond this military buildup issue, tensions have been growing in the relationship between Russia and the West. What is the deeper reason for this?

Lavrov: We must finally put an end to the Cold War mentality. Perhaps it was easier for us, as Russians, to overcome the stereotypes of the past than for some partners in the West, who are still obsessed by the idea that they won the Cold War. This victor mentality leads them to believe that they can now dictate the rules of engagement to us. It would be better to think about how each of us can win. Russia would be happy to take the first step. For example, we know exactly what the West's interests are vis-à-vis Russia or the former Soviet republics.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the sensitive issue of energy. The Europeans are now relying increasingly on the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Lavrov: We should be playing with an open hand here and not resorting to illegal methods.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by illegal methods?

Lavrov: I think you know exactly what I mean.

SPIEGEL: We assume that you are alluding to the political upheavals in several former Soviet republics that have been promoted by the West.

Lavrov: We fully understand the West's need for energy security. We were able to agree to principles of cooperation during last year's tough negotiations. Now we need concrete implementation. If we build the northern European gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea  and -- as I hope -- the pipeline from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to Alexandroupolis in Greece, we will have different transport routes ...

SPIEGEL: ... and it would no longer be as easy to blackmail the West. Can you understand the Europeans' fears of the possibility of being cut off from Russian oil or gas for an extended period of time?

Lavrov: Of course. If the gas, heat or electricity is shut off in your apartment -- and in the winter, no less -- you are forced to fight for survival. We are doing a great deal to eliminate such risks.

SPIEGEL: We have been under a different impression in Germany on several occasions.

Lavrov: The problems arose when Russia demanded market prices for oil and gas, first from Ukraine and then from Belarus. Both countries had become accustomed to paying for deliveries at Russian domestic market prices. But in today's world partnership within an alliance no longer means free assistance. The United States even charges its closest ally, Israel, world market prices. The minor shock our decision triggered among our neighbors was the price we had to pay for our demands.

SPIEGEL: Even your former close ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, is now talking about an "arrogant Russian elite" and is warning the West that Russia believes it can "conquer the world" with its energy reserves.

Lavrov: The fact that Lukashenko says this doesn't make it any truer. It was the transit countries and not Russia that violated existing agreements. Russia will never violate a signed contract. The customers in the West should talk to those who illegally tapped into the pipelines.

SPIEGEL: But there appear to be some serious communication problems between Moscow and the West.

Lavrov: Unfortunately Russia is apparently not as skillful as the West when it comes to matters of communication.

SPIEGEL: What prevents someone in Moscow from reaching for the telephone and notifying Western partners before someone else flicks a switch and interrupts the flow of oil toward Belarus?

Lavrov: On New Year's Eve we were under the impression that the gas negotiations with Minsk had been concluded successfully, and we were all relieved. But then Belarus suddenly announced this absurd customs duty for oil transit -- and removed oil from the pipeline illegally. No one is protected against such surprises. Unfortunately the Western media, including the German media, were prejudiced in their reporting. Everyone ought to stop demonizing Russia.

SPIEGEL: Russia and the EU have also had their differences on other issues. These days no one mentions yesterday's grand ideas, such as the elimination of visa requirements or the European-Russian free trade zone.

Lavrov: I see this differently. Our agreement to begin this year with the easing of visa requirements and the return of migrants who have entered Western Europe illegally is in effect. The negotiations over eliminating visa requirements altogether should continue. We are willing to do so, but the Europeans, so far, are not. The former president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, believed that it would be possible to eliminate visa requirements by as early as 2007 or 2008, but the current Commission has other ideas. The fears that Russian citizens could emigrate en masse to one of the EU countries are artificial and exaggerated. We are also open to a free trade zone. And we have already established our guidelines and appointed our delegation for the pending negotiations over a new partnership agreement with the EU. The ball is now in Brussels' court.

SPIEGEL: In Davos German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently showed a preference for Washington. She now plans to develop "structures resembling a domestic market" with the United States. By contrast, there was talk of an EU-Russia free trade zone in the past.

Lavrov: Those are two different projects, and there is nothing to prevent them from being implemented in parallel. The opinion seems to have taken hold in Europe that Russia is constantly forced to beg the EU for one thing or another. This is the wrong approach. It's like playing a match with only one goal. Both sides must derive a benefit.

SPIEGEL: Now you sound rather bitter.

Lavrov: Even if we do reach an agreement over free trade with the EU and have joined the World Trade Organization, how will we benefit? The EU is already buying what it needs from us: oil, gas, perhaps metals, and we hope to see the restrictions on nuclear trade lifted. In contrast, you are still not buying agricultural products from us. A Russian businessman recently tried to sell high-quality bread to Finland but was unsuccessful. We want competition in all areas. Instead we are constantly confronting biases. We make concessions and receive hardly anything in return. In keeping with WTO requirements, we only subsidize our agricultural sector to a limited extent, while huge sums are being pumped into this sector in the EU. Nevertheless, we are even forced to buy this highly subsidized meat from the EU, even though we are now in a position once again to export grain and meat. We should be talking openly about this.

SPIEGEL: There are other contentious issues. UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari's proposals on the future of Kosovo have been on the table since last weekend . President Putin has warned that this issue could trigger a serious crisis in relations between Russia and the EU. Do you truly intend to use your veto in the UN Security Council if Kosovo becomes de facto independent?

Lavrov: Putin never said that. Russia adheres strictly to all agreements on the matter of Kosovo -- UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the subsequent documents drafted by the contact group. Much of that was never even implemented, such as the plan to bring back some of the Serb border troops.

SPIEGEL: That was never realistic.

Lavrov: The plan to return Serb refugees and other displaced Serbs was also never implemented. This is a disgrace for Europe. The Serbs are now the largest group of refugees on the continent. Our Western partners consistently argued that certain standards would have to be put in place before clarifying the status issue. Now we are told that the Albanian leadership in Kosovo can do nothing before it is assured that Kosovo will gain independence. At the last meeting of the contact group it was said that Ahtisaari's proposals should not be construed as an ultimatum, but as an offer to both sides to continue talks. Attempts to present these proposals to the Security Council right away are pointless and counterproductive. I cannot imagine how it can adopt a resolution that would not be acceptable to the Serbs.

SPIEGEL: Moscow has repeatedly made it clear, using a threatening tone, that Kosovo would set a precedent.

Lavrov: The Kosovo decision will certainly be a precedent. It would be the first time in the region's postwar history that independence would not be granted with the approval of both sides.

SPIEGEL: We don't believe that the positions of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs could be reconciled once again.

Lavrov: They should have thought about that before -- such as when they bombed Serbia without a mandate from the Security Council and attacked more than military targets.

SPIEGEL: It was Russia that stood in the way of a UN resolution at the time.

Lavrov: Nevertheless, what the West liked about Resolution 1244 was implemented, while the rest was not. They should have thought earlier about how to bring about reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians.

Syria and Iran should be convinced to engage in dialogue

SPIEGEL: America is embarking on a tougher course against Iran. How would Russia react if the United States were to attack Tehran militarily?

Lavrov: Violence leads to dead ends. Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia are examples of how this can happen. In the end, the problems only get worse. In the case of Iran, we have a clear decision on sanctions that was made by the Group of Six and ratified by the Security Council. This corresponds to Article 41 of the UN Charter, which states that sanctions are possible but clearly rules out violence.

SPIEGEL: Your reference to the crisis regions of Iran, Iraq and Somalia sounds as if you wanted to say: The world would be in better shape now if it had listened to Russia.

Lavrov: We do want people to listen to us. The crises in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine all point to the same thing: All influential players must be included. If someone has questions for Iran, Syria or Belarus, sanctions shouldn't be imposed on these countries. Instead, they should be convinced to engage in a dialogue. Palestine now faces the prospect of civil war. We and the EU support the attempts by Hamas and Fatah to form a government of national unity. But others believe that they must support one of the conflicting parties and isolate the other. The outcome of this cannot be good. The same applies to Iraq. It will be impossible to achieve anything without including Syria and Iran.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe the President Bush can even achieve a stabilization of Iraq anymore?

Lavrov: The situation there is truly difficult. But we are not interested in assigning blame over who was right four years ago and who was wrong. We will all suffer if we cannot achieve stability in Iraq. For this reason, and to prevent a civil world and partition of the country, we have been proposing, for the last three years, an Iraq conference that would involve the so-called patriotic opposition and all neighboring countries. The consequences would in fact be catastrophic if the multinational forces were withdrawn overnight. But the Iraqis must also be clearly informed about the stages in which foreign troops will be withdrawn.

SPIEGEL: The conflict is already spreading. A front of Sunni Arab countries has already formed against Shiite Iran.

Lavrov: The attempt to mobilize other Islamic movements against Iran is a dangerous provocation. Iran is an old country ...

SPIEGEL: ... that is in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Lavrov: So far there is no unequivocal proof that a military nuclear program exists in Iran. The UN Security Council has its position, and the Vienna-based atomic energy agency (IAEA) has five or six questions to which the Iranians must respond. The IAEA's final assessment of the situation depends on this response, and we also insist on it.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Merkel has taken a significantly more critical stance toward Russia than her predecessor (Gerhard) Schröder. What are you doing to set aside Merkel's concerns?

Lavrov: We don't see it that way. We do not believe that Germany is stepping back from its partnership with Russia. Just as I was in contact with (former Foreign) Minister (Joschka) Fisher in the past, I am now in touch with my counterpart, (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier. Perhaps Fischer was more of a philosopher, and Steinmeier more of a pragmatist. But this doesn't mean that Germany's policies toward Russia have to change.

SPIEGEL: Does it trouble you that Steinmeier only recently distanced himself from Schröder's statement that Putin is a "flawless democrat?"

Lavrov: People are different. One shouldn't use statements of one kind or another to provoke a dispute between politicians. We are completely straightforward in our dealings with our German friends.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, we thank you for this interview.

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