British Foreign Secretary William Hague: Relationship with Russia is broad and dialogue is always open
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has given an interview to Interfax‘ journalist Olga Golovanova ahead of the 2+2 meeting slated for March 13 in London, on which he speaks about the agenda of the upcoming 2+2 talks, the whole range of British-Russian relations, including human rights, as well as pressing international issues notably Syria.Question: Mr. Hague, you met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dublin at the end of last year and agreed to assist the progressive development of relations between Russia and Britain. In your view, what could strengthen our relations?
Answer: There have been many positive developments in UK-Russia relations since I became foreign secretary in 2010. The visits to Moscow by the prime minister in 2011, and to London by President Putin last year, demonstrate the strengthening of political contacts at the highest level. It’s only right that two fellow permanent UN Security Council members have a strong dialogue including on how we can collectively tackle difficult international issues, such as the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan. Both countries should also continue to work together on trade between the countries, on science and innovation and on greater collaboration in higher education. I hope that our meeting on March 13 will help continue that progress in the relationship.
Q.: How do you generally evaluate the current state of Russian-British relations? On the one hand, our countries‘ indicators of economic and investment cooperation are heartening, but on the other there is a bit of a chill in political contacts. Do you think that relations with Russia should remain to a large degree pragmatic and focus mainly on the economic sphere, or are you for enhancing cooperation in other areas?
A.: As a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is an important global partner to the UK, and we are, of course, working very closely together in the G8, the G20. We also cooperate in the OSCE. All bilateral relationships face challenges and differences, but our relationship with Russia is broad and dialogue is always open. My fellow foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and I regularly share frank and honest exchanges as we endeavor to work together to find common ground.
We have some key differences, such as concerns over human rights and the rule of law in Russia, and on aspects of international policy towards Syria, but there are many areas where we cooperate well, in addition to our trade and investment relationship. This year will see increasing collaboration through our G8 and Russia’s G20 presidencies, and we continue to share experience fr om London 2012 ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Last year we agreed a framework of regular consultations between our foreign ministries over issues such as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, and there are discussions about military cooperation, including discussion of our respective reform programs. 2014 will be celebrated as the UK-Russia Year of Culture, and I am sure this will increase understanding and appreciation of what both countries have to offer.
Q.: What is the schedule for political contacts between our countries this year? Are high-level meetings planned?
A.: I am looking forward to receiving Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Shoigu in London in March for our inaugural Defense and Foreign Minister talks [the so-called 2+2 talks]. There have already been several high-level meetings in connection with the G8 and G20, and most recently visits to Moscow by the chancellor and the minister for Europe. And we are looking forward to welcoming G8 leaders to Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June. So there will be plenty of opportunities for high-level contacts, in addition to the regular exchanges of ministerial visitors in both directions.
Q.: What expectations do you have of the upcoming meeting between foreign and defense ministers of Britain and Russia in the 2+2 format in London in March? What are the primary issues you would like discussed at it?
A.: The first UK-Russia 2+2 meeting is an important milestone in our relationship and shows the extent of our progress in developing a mature relationship at a senior level. We will hold a joint session for ministers to cover general security policy issues. Minister Lavrov and I will discuss major topical foreign policy issues such as Syria, Iran and the situation in North Africa. The UK is keen to work positively with Russia during its G20 presidency and our G8 presidency, to ensure both are a success. At the heart of our G8 agenda are three issues – advancing trade, ensuring tax compliance and promoting greater transparency.
Q.: Will the history surrounding the death of Alexander Litvinenko remain the main obstacle to the development of Russian-British relations? How is cooperation with Russian law and order agencies in this case viewed in London? Is it possible, particularly, to take the invitation to representatives of the Russian Investigative Committee to take part in the process being prepared in Britain in the Litvinenko case as some kind of positive signal in the direction of investigatory cooperation by the two countries?
A.: The UK government remains committed to seeking justice in the Litvinenko case and we believe that the correct place for the trial of the chief suspects is the UK.
The coroner’s inquest into the death of Litvinenko is an independent judicial process. It is for the coroner to decide which representatives may take part in the process as interested parties, and more broadly how the process will be run. The government is committed to cooperating with the coroner.
Q.: In Russia‘s view the lack of cooperation between the special services of Russia and Britain hampers the battle against the terrorist threat. Are there prospects that such cooperation could resume?
A.: Russia and the UK hold regular discussions at G8 level on issues of international security. When planning for the London Olympics last year, we shared expertise with Russian officials on our approach to the security of large events, and we intend to continue these contacts in the run up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Our countries have a common interest in combating international terrorism.
Q.: Negotiations between Russia and Britain over an agreement on cultural centers has been put on ice, and that was a reason for juridical complications the British Council encountered in Russia. Are you in London prepared to secure such an agreement with Russia?
A.: I would welcome an agreement on cultural centers, but in the meantime the British Council continues to operate an excellent and highly valued program of activities fr om its office in Moscow. The British Council is now working with Russian partners and ministries on a program of special events in Russia to mark the 2014 Russia UK Year of Culture, which will further deepen our cultural ties and boost people-to-people links.
Q.: It has been reported that Britain expects to be receiving up to 370,000 Russian tourists annually by 2020, with the flow of tourists from Russia increased 75% compared with 2011. Does that mean that negotiations over easing the visa regime between Russia and Britain might resume?
A.: There has already been a huge increase in recent years in the numbers of UK visas granted in Russia. Moscow is the busiest hub for our visa operations anywhere in the world. 96% of Russian visa applications are successful. We welcome the growing numbers of Russians travelling to the UK as tourists, for business and as students, which underlines the attractiveness of the UK as a top destination for Russians. We have already held talks about ways of making the application process more efficient, but we have no plans to change the visa regime itself.
Q.: Last year, the British Foreign Ministry imposed a ban on travel to the Kingdom for human rights violators. Does this in practice concern any Russian citizen, particularly those who London thinks were involved in the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky? Does London intend to follow Washington‘s example and adopt its own Magnitsky list?
A.: The Magnitsky case is of utmost concern to the UK government and can be considered one of the highest profile example of failings in Russia’s judicial and prison systems. Mr. Magnitsky died more than three years ago in pre-trial detention, and to date there has been no meaningful progress towards establishing the circumstances surrounding his death. I have urged my Russian counterpart to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice without further delay, and measures are put in place to prevent such cases from happening again.
A duty of confidentiality restricts the UK government from discussing details of individual immigration issues. We consider visa applications as they are made and have a robust policy which allows us to deny entry to those who abuse human rights. Wh ere there is independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses, there is an assumption that the individual will not normally be permitted to enter the UK. This policy applies to any visa applicants globally, not just those from Russia.
Q.: How do you appraise the prospects for trade, economic, and investment cooperation between the two countries, including in light of Russia joining the World Trade Organization?
A.: The UK and Russia are committed to developing our commercial relationship. Russia is now the UK‘s eleventh largest export market with exports to Russia increasing faster than to any other major market. Minister for Trade, Lord Green, led a trade delegation of 26 UK businesses to Russia in November last year with the objective of further developing trade links.
The UK was very supportive of Russia’s accession to the WTO. We hope that this will stimulate increased EU exports to Russia, and according to the World Bank, the Russian economy will benefit from additional growth of up to $177 billion per year in the longer term. We hope that Russia will now work quickly to implement the WTO commitments to which it has signed up.
Q.: What importance does the British government put on the so-called ‘deal of the century‘ - the merger of Rosneft and TNK-BP? Has it reduced British opportunity to influence the situation in the Russian fuel and energy complex after the sale by BP of its stake in TNK-BP? How realistic are the plans for extended Nord Stream to Britain, is there interest in this in London?
A.: I welcome BP’s continued commitment to working in Russia. The proposed deal between BP and Rosneft is a commercial matter for the companies concerned, but Russia is a vital energy supplier for Europe and needs partnership with international energy companies to develop its oil and gas fields. I am aware that Russia is interested in exporting more gas to the UK and I hope that this is something our respective energy ministers might explore further together. However, any contract for gas supply would be a commercial matter, and would have to comply with relevant EU as well UK regulatory requirements.
Q.: How would you characterize the level of interaction between Britain and Russia on the international stage, particularly in the situations in Syria and Iran? From your point of view, has the time not come for the passage of new resolutions by the UN Security Council concerning these two problems? As regards Syria, how long in your estimation can Bashar Assad hold onto power and can the situation in that country realistically be settled by diplomatic means?
A.: Russia is an important partner for the UK. It is important that we work together as permanent members of the UN Security Council and in other international institutions to address the most pressing global issues. A stronger UK-Russia relationship means that we can voice differing opinions and analysis wh ere we do not see eye-to-eye, while attempting to work pragmatically to find solutions.
Two years after it began, the conflict in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. The total estimated death toll is now over 70,000 people. Ballistic missiles have been used against civilian areas, the UN has found evidence of grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and there are now one million refugees who have fled the country. At the end of January the UN and Arab League Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi set out a credible plan for the establishment of a transitional authority in Syria. We are working with allies to achieve if at all possible Security Council backing for a transition process.
But the fact remains that diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim. Each month of violence in Syria means more death, wider destruction, larger numbers of refugees, and bloodier military confrontation.
The international community cannot stand still in the face of this reality. This is why the UK government has to move towards more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria, stepping up our support to the opposition and thereby increasing the pressure on the regime to accept a political solution. What we face is not a choice between diplomacy on the one hand and practical assistance on the other: helping the opposition is crucial to bringing about a political transition and saving lives, and both must be pursued together.