Question: Serbia and Russia have enjoyed centuries of historical, cultural and religious ties; as brothers in arms they have gone through two world wars. Today, we are facing new challenges. What is your assessment of the present state of our relations, and what is your vision of their future development? The new TurkStream gas pipeline is widely discussed. Is there any chance for our country in that regard?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: First, let me extend my warm greetings to all the readers of the Politika daily, which is one of the oldest periodicals not only in Serbia, but also in the Balkans as a whole. I would also like to seize this opportunity to convey my best New Year and Christmas greetings to Serbia’s citizens.
As you have rightly put it, good relations between Russia and Serbia are based on a true friendship between our peoples, which dates back many centuries, as well as on their spiritual and cultural kinship, shared history, including their heroic struggle against Nazism during World War II. We have carefully preserved and are seeking to develop the precious traditions of trust and cooperation in the new, 21st century. This commitment to close cooperation in the political, economic and humanitarian spheres was reflected in the bilateral Declaration on Strategic Partnership signed in May 2013.
Today, bilateral relations in all spheres are on the rise. Mutual trade is growing: in 2017, the turnover reached $2 billion, having also retained the upward trend last year. Russian investments in Serbia's economy have exceeded $4 billion. Cooperation with the Gazprom Neft conglomerate made it possible for the Naftna Industrija Srbije company to become a leader on the Balkan regional energy market. The reconstruction and modernization of Serbia's railway infrastructure is proceeding at a good pace with the participation of RZD.
The legal framework for cooperation has been consistently improved. Contacts between parliaments and political parties and public stakeholders, as well as contacts in science, education and culture are expanding. Russian experts are involved in a project to build the Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade. Thanks to the sponsorship of our businessmen, the central dome of this majestic building has been decorated with mosaics. To sum it up, I strongly believe that such fruitful, diversified cooperation fully meets the core interests of the peoples of Russia and Serbia.
As for the TurkStream project, it follows its implementation schedule. In November 2018, the pipe-laying stage was completed on the sea leg of the pipeline; works are underway to connect it to the terminal being constructed on the Turkish Black Sea coast. The plan is to put the gas pipeline into full operation by the end of 2019.
Besides, Gazprom is currently exploring various options to extend the land-based part of the transit leg towards Europe. One of the options is to transport fuel via Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary to the gas hub in Baumgarten, Austria. In this case, Serbia will not only use Russian gas but also facilitate its transit. This will greatly benefit the Serbian economy, help create new jobs and strengthen energy security in your country and, more broadly, in central and southeastern Europe. The roadmap signed between Serbia and Gazprom in 2017 for modernizing and expanding the national gas transporting network will facilitate Serbia's participation in the project.
Of course, we will take into account the European Commission's position when deciding on the route for Russian gas supplies. We assume that EU member states interested in Russian gas should seek guarantees from the European Union that the plans to extend the TurkStream will not be thwarted by an arbitrary political decision on the part of Brussels.
Question: At a time when certain states in the region are building up armaments and a so-called Kosovo army is being formed, can Serbia count on Russia's support to further strengthen its defense capacity, taking into account our neutrality and the fact that we are surrounded by NATO countries?
Vladimir Putin: We highly appreciate that the Serbian leadership remains firmly committed to maintaining neutrality. At the same time, over the years we have helped Serbia to enhance its defense capability by supplying arms and military equipment and providing maintenance and modernization support. We will continue to develop military and technical cooperation.
To be honest, we were surprised by a rather passive response from the European Union to the decision by Kosovo's ”parliament“ to transform the Kosovo Security Forces into a full-fledged army. It is clear that the Serbians living in the province perceive this step as a direct threat to their security. More broadly, it involves serious risks of escalating the situation in the region. It is hardly in the EU's interest to turn a blind eye to such unilateral actions, which blatantly violate international law, especially if Brussels wants to continue acting as a mediator in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
As we have stated on numerous occasions, the NATO expansion policy, in our view, is a vestige of the Cold War, a misguided, destructive military and political strategy. Today, the Alliance is trying to strengthen its presence in the Balkans. However, by doing so, it only draws new dividing lines on the European continent and blatantly violates the principle of indivisibility of security. At the end of the day, rather than contributing to stability, all of this undermines trust and increases tensions in Europe.
Question: Moscow has long been advocating the creation of a new security architecture, yet lately we have been witnessing some dangerous trends developing in the world, including the recent statements by Washington on its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. In your opinion, what could be done to preserve peace amid exacerbating local and global tensions?
Vladimir Putin: Indeed, the United States is basically pursuing a course towards dismantling the system of international agreements on arms control that prevent it from bolstering its military capabilities, or trying to adhere to the agreements selectively, i.e. only insofar as they serve its interests. The declaration of the intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty has become just another step in a sequence of similar actions. It is obvious that such a course will have the gravest consequences.
Naturally, we are not going to turn a blind eye to the deployment of American missiles, which present a direct threat to our security. We will have to take effective countermeasures. However, Russia, as a responsible and sensible country, has no interest in a new arms race. Despite the United States' declared intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, we are open to further dialogue on ways of preserving the Treaty. In December, we submitted to the American side a number of concrete proposals concerning the issue. We are also ready to hold a serious discussion on the entire ”strategic“ agenda between our countries.
Russia has firmly and consistently championed the improvement of the overall international situation, which, as you have fairly pointed out, remains tense, and, I would also add, unpredictable. In fact, it was to a large extent the continued unilateral actions, including military ones, undertaken by the United States and a number of other Western States that have led to the current situation. The result is that the overall atmosphere of confrontation and mistrust is becoming even worse.
We call on our Western colleagues to refrain from the practice of blackmail, threats and provocations, to respect international law, and to build interstate dialogue based on the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. That is the key to preserving peace and strengthening global and regional security and stability.
In conclusion, I would like to wish the readers of Politika and the people of Serbia prosperity and success.
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The Večernje novosti Newspaper
Question: The intensive cooperation of Russia with Serbia and the Republika Srpska causes irritation in the West and particularly in Washington. How will you comment on statements by Western politicians that Russia is a destabilizing factor in the Balkans, and how do you see relations between Russia and other former Yugoslav republics?
Vladimir Putin: I am happy to have the opportunity to address the readers of Večernje novosti – one of the most popular and influential Serbian newspapers – to answer your questions and share my views.
As for the situation in the Balkans, a serious destabilizing factor there is the policy of the US and some other Western countries aimed at securing their dominance in the region. As early as in 1999 NATO forces – without any UN authorisation –bombed Yugoslavia for two and a half months and forcedly detached the Autonomous Province of Kosovo. And in 2008, Washington and its allies supported the illegitimate declaration of Kosovo's independence.
In 2017, despite the stance of half of its population, Montenegro was absorbed into NATO. The authorities did not risk holding any relevant referendum – as a result, the country is suffering political instability. To ensure an accelerated accession of the Republic of Macedonia to NATO even the process of constitutional amendment and State renaming was launched last year along with the revision of the foundations of Macedonian national identity. However, the will of the Macedonian voters was ignored – the referendum on changing the State's name failed but the pressure from outside persists.
Our country, knowing and understanding all the complexity of the Balkans and the region's history, has always regarded it as space for constructive cooperation. Today, Russia has many friends here, among whom our strategic partner Serbia occupies a special place. Thus, our unconditional priority is to contribute to enhancing regional security and stability. We support respect for the rights and interests of the Balkan countries and peoples as well as for international law.
Cooperation with the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina is mutually beneficial in strict compliance with the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. We intend to further implement our projects in both the Republika Srpska and the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina in such areas as energy, oil refining, trade in fuel, banking, pharmaceuticals, etc. We deem promotion of joint humanitarian initiatives equally important, taking into account the growing interest of Bosnians in the Russian language and culture and in receiving education in Russia.
Our relations with Slovenia and Croatia are developing steadily despite the fact that our dialogue with the European Union whose members they are is facing challenges. There were a number of meetings with the Croatian leadership in the previous year. Trade is growing: over the first three quarters of 2018, it increased almost by 10 percent with Slovenia and by 27 percent with Croatia. Last year, Russia and Slovenia had cross Seasons of Culture and the State Hermitage Museum organized a major exhibition in Zagreb dedicated to the 50th anniversary of twin-city ties between the Croatian capital and Saint Petersburg. We will further develop our relations of friendship and trust, which, I am confident, fully meet the interests of our peoples.
Question: The Serbian Orthodox Church has taken the side of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the ecclesiastical crisis in Ukraine. At the same time, a number of countries are exerting pressure on Patriarch Bartholomew and seek to ensure recognition of Ukrainian ”schismatics“ by Local Orthodox Churches. How do you think the situation will evolve?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to remind your readers, who are greatly concerned about the information regarding the split in the Orthodox community but are probably not fully aware of the situation in Ukraine, what it is all about.
On December 15, 2018, the Ukrainian leaders, actively supported by the USA and the Constantinople Patriarchate, held a so-called ”unifying synod“. This synod declared the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos (decree) granting it autocephaly on January 6, 2019. Thus, it was attempted to legalize the schismatic communities that exist in Ukraine under the jurisdiction of Istanbul, which is a major violation of Orthodox canons.
Yet, hardly anyone in the US or in the Ukrainian leadership worries about this, as the new church entity is an entirely political, secular project. Its main aim is to divide the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, sowing seeds of ethnic as well as religious discord. No wonder Kiev has already declared ”obtaining complete independence from Moscow“.
Once again, this has nothing to do with spiritual life; we are dealing here with dangerous and irresponsible politicking. Likewise, we do not speak about the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It is de-facto fully controlled by Istanbul. Whereas Ukraine's largest canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has never requested autocephaly from Patriarch Bartholomew, is absolutely independent in its actions. Its connection with the Russian Orthodox Church is purely canonical – but even this causes undisguised irritation of the current Kiev regime.
Because of this, clergymen and laymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are being persecuted and deprived of churches and monasteries, and attempts are made to deny the Church its legitimate name, which raises tensions and only leads to further discord in Ukrainian society.
Evidently, Ukraine's leaders have to understand that any attempts to force the faithful into a different church are fraught with grave consequences. Yet, they are eager to put interconfessional concord in the country at stake in order to conduct the election campaign of the current Ukrainian President based on a search for enemies, and to retain power by all means.
All of this does not go unnoticed by Orthodox Christians.
Naturally, Russia does not intend to interfere in ecclesiastical processes, especially those happening on the territory of a neighboring sovereign state. However, we are aware of the danger posed by such experiments and blatant interference of the state in religious affairs.
Question: What are the prospects of economic cooperation between Moscow and Belgrade in case Serbia joins the European Union? How can this affect Russian investments in Serbian economy?
Vladimir Putin: We respect the Serbian leadership's decision to join the EU. Unlike our Western partners, we do not try to pose an artificial dilemma for Belgrade and make Serbia choose whether to be with Russia or with the European Union. In today's global world, integration processes are developing dynamically, involving new countries and alliances and shaping new promising structures. We are convinced, therefore, that neither Serbia's striving for integration into Europe, nor Russia's participation in the Eurasian Economic Union prevents our two countries from strengthening their multi-faceted cooperation.
What is important is that Russia and Serbia remain committed to further increasing their economic and investment collaboration. The free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and Serbia that is being prepared is also designed to promote such cooperation. Another round of relevant negotiations took place in Belgrade recently, on January 10–11. We expect that this instrument will be signed before the year ends and will open up qualitatively new opportunities for improving the efficiency of our joint efforts in the economic area and their practical effect.
I would like to conclude by wishing all the readers of Večernje novosti and all the citizens of friendly Serbia peace and prosperity.