President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Federal Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen,
We are delighted to have this opportunity to meet with Mr Kurz in St Petersburg. It is already the second visit for the Chancellor, and our fourth meeting this year.
There is no doubt that intensive contacts at the highest political level create the business-like atmosphere we need to promote the relations between our countries in all spheres.
Mr Kurz and I have just held bilateral talks in a business-like and constructive atmosphere. As you have seen, before this meeting we attended the opening of the exhibition titled Imperial Capitals: St Petersburg – Vienna. Masterpieces of Museum Collections here at the Hermitage. Cultural and humanitarian contacts are one of the foundations for our bilateral relations alongside contacts on the inter-parliamentary, inter-regional and civil society tracks.
At the talks, we paid special attention to economic matters. Russia and Austria are reliable trade partners. Despite the current uncertainty in terms of international politics and economy, Russian and Austria have seen positive momentum in their trade and investment ties. Trade was up 40 percent to $4.1 billion in 2017, and almost doubled in the first seven months of 2018.
Austria has become a top importer of Russian goods among EU countries, while Russia ranks second in terms of investment in Austria. The cumulative investment by Russia in the Austrian economy exceeds $31 billion, while Austria’s investment in the Russian economy stands at about $6 billion.
Companies from both countries are engaged in joint projects in various spheres. The Russian-Austrian Business Council is very effective. There is also a mixed commission on economic cooperation that had its regular meeting on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in May 2018. By the way, Austria had one of the most high-profile delegations at the forum.
I would like to highlight the long-standing fruitful cooperation between Russia and Austria in the energy sector. Our country is continuously supplying Austria with energy resources; we also supply other European countries via transit through Austria’s territory. Without a doubt, it is one of the key aspects of our cooperation.
As a result of the talks held this July in Vienna, Gazprom and the Austrian oil and gas company OMV signed an agreement on extending the long-term gas supply contracts with Austria to 2040. Another agreement on involving OMV in the development of the Urengoy gas and condensate field, which was signed just now, showcases the strategic nature of this company’s partnership with Gazprom. OMV is also participating in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction project. The Russian side welcomes the Austrian Government’s position on supporting this project, which is of great importance to the entire European continent.
We also discussed expanding our trade and industrial cooperation, and commended the progress made in implementing the 2011 Declaration on Partnership for Modernisation. Within the framework of this declaration, a total of 28 joint innovation projects worth 2.8 billion euros are underway.
I would also like to point out one large infrastructure project: the construction of the broad gauge railway between Vienna and Kosice, Slovakia. When this project is completed, volumes of cargo transportation between Europe and Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railway will grow significantly, while the costs for end-users will decrease.
Of course, we also exchanged opinions on a range of issues on the international and regional agenda. We informed our Austrian colleagues of our approaches to resolving Ukraine’s internal crisis – this time, we only exchanged our ideas.
We also discussed the issue of resolving the Syrian crisis. We can see the prospects for revitalising the political process on the basis of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the agreements reached within the framework of the Astana Process. This will secure the progress made in the country and create the environment necessary for the restoration of civilian life and the refugees’ returning to their homes.
We would like to point out Austria’s readiness to participate in humanitarian campaigns to support the Syrian people. It is important for the aid to be provided via the channels approved by the legitimate authorities, and for it to extend to all Syrian regions affected by the terrorist aggression and the civil war.
On November 12, Austria will celebrate 100 years since the proclamation of the Republic of Austria. Tomorrow, together with the Federal President of the Republic of Austria and heads of state governments, Mr Kurz will host a ceremony to launch a series of celebrations marking this important date. I would like to take this opportunity to extend my warmest greetings to the people of Austria, wishing them happiness, well-being and prosperity.
I would also like to thank Mr Kurz for the meaningful talks that we had today.
Thank you for your attention.
Question (retranslated): My question is about Syria. First, to the President of Russia. You and President Erdogan spoke about an agreement on Idlib. Is this agreement working? Will it be implemented? Can we expect that there will indeed be no major military activity?
Also, a Syria question for the Federal Chancellor of Austria. For several months now, Russia has been encouraging European countries to finance the recovery efforts in Syria. Is Europe ready for this? Under what conditions would Europe be ready to take these steps?
Vladimir Putin: Speaking about the Idlib de-escalation zone, militants from all across Syria were brought there. Unfortunately, there were too many representatives of radical groups, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the like.
By the way, we have been witnessing clashes between these groups inside the Idlib zone as well. But we are not concerned about that. We are concerned about the fact that Syrian residential areas, including the second largest city, Aleppo, have recently been subject to more frequent shelling from that zone.
It is even more troubling to us that this zone is a source of attempted attacks on our military facilities, Russian military facilities, including the Khmeimim Airbase, using makeshift but no less dangerous unmanned aircraft. We had to respond and strike the sources of those threats. It was the main issue during the talks with President Erdogan only recently in Sochi during his short working visit to Russia.
During the talks, we had an idea to create a demilitarised zone 15 to 20 km deep in order to heighten the security of the Syrian civil facilities, cities, residential areas and our military base in Khmeimim.
We agreed to create that demilitarised zone 15–20 km deep, which must not include any representatives of any radical groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, and no heavy weaponry, regardless of its ownership.
I want to inform you – and I have already said this today in Moscow – that we are working in solidarity with our Turkish partners and see that they are taking these agreements very seriously and carrying out their part of the obligations. They are removing or at least facilitating the removal of any radical militants and heavy weaponry from the area. We are doing our part.
We will continue to take joint measures as planned, including joint patrols by the Turkish troops and the Russian military police.
All this would have been impossible without the coordination of such agreements with the Syrian official authorities and without the support of Iran. We are working cooperatively. The work is basically moving in the right direction. I have every reason to believe that we will achieve our goals. And this means that no large-scale hostilities are expected there, so fighting for the sake of fighting is not what we need. We need to achieve certain goals. The tools that we have chosen to achieve these goals are currently working effectively.
The second part of the question was addressed to the Chancellor, but I will allow myself to take two minutes of your time and express my point of view.
I do not know how united Europe will act in relation to rendering assistance to the Syrian population, but, in my opinion, it is necessary to depoliticise this work. You cannot divide the people of Syria depending on where they live. What's the difference anyway in humanitarian approaches when people need help, whether they live in the area controlled by official authorities headed by President Assad, or controlled by some non-systemic opposition, militants or whoever.
You have to agree with me: what difference does it make for us? Do people have to suffer because they live in a particular area controlled by a particular political force? This is the first purely humanitarian consideration.
And now the second point. Europe is extremely interested in refugees returning back home. According to our estimates, in less than a year, around 150,000 have returned home. Now what if we provided assistance, some elementary help together? Such as repairing the sewage system, water supply and drainage, electricity, the infrastructure that would help deliver food, medical products, medicine, I mean creating the conditions so that people can return home and live normal lives. Isn't Europe interested in this?
Yes, I heard my colleagues say: probably those who have fled to Germany and live there on social benefits, they would probably not want to return. It's your business if you want to pay high social benefits to refugees from the Middle East or from Africa. Why should they go home? What they would normally earn is one third of your social benefits.
Ok. Now those people living in camps – there are millions of them in refugee camps in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan – they certainly could have returned home rather than create an additional burden as potential migrants to European countries. In my opinion, this is the simplest consideration. It is plain to see. Let's work together to resolve these not-so-complicated and, by the way, not-so-expensive, but very important problems for specific people.
Question: Today turns out to be a big energy day: you have just signed important agreements and you have discussed this topic at the Russian Energy Week. In both cases – speaking about Russian-Austrian cooperation and today in Moscow – you mentioned Nord Stream 2. Mr President, you have said that in any case Russia will implement this project alone, but nevertheless you have added that there may be some problems. The threat of primary and secondary sanctions on the project participants – our European partners – is becoming ever more real. Would you say please how big is the risk that the threat of sanctions can slow down this project or even freeze it?
Vladimir Putin: You know, everybody, or at least those who are interested in global energy and international relations, are aware of the sad aftermath of another project: South Stream, when our pipeline should have been built right to the European Union, to Bulgaria.
Let me remind you that our Bulgarian colleagues assured us that they will fight for South Stream until the end, because it complied with their national interests and improved Bulgaria’s geopolitical status as a gas transit country to Europe. The income they would have received would have accounted for about 400–500 million euros per year just because there is a pipeline on their territory.
This will provide them with an opportunity to create several thousand jobs. But in the end Bulgaria, being under external pressure, refused to implement this project. Now they regret this and say that they would like to use TurkStream to get gas. It would be sad if the whole of Europe was like Bulgaria, showing its weakness and inability to defend its national interests. I have spoken about this in detail at the Moscow energy forum today; I do not think there is any need to repeat this here.
But let me assure you that Russia – we have already spoken about this today – has always been, is and, of course, will always be the most reliable provider, because the pipeline system goes reliably right from the primary source on Yamal, in Siberia, and there are no transit risks, and so on, among other reasons.
I have already said that the volume of sales is growing and the exploration in Europe is decreasing. This is inevitable; in fact, there are no other options. Well, there are some, but they are more expensive and they will decrease the general competitiveness of the European economy, if they back out of such a project.
This is why I believe that we all – and we all are interested in implementing such projects – will fight to implement them. Even today, now, this year, we will sell 200 billion to Europe. All pipelines we have are working and the load is almost 100 percent.
But the demand is growing, and will continue to grow. So what, if Europe gets gas from other regions, including the US, paying 30 percent more? Of course, it is possible, but this is stupid, you see, this is a waste of money and decreases their global competitiveness. The final user, citizens and economies, will get a more expensive product, so I hope that common sense will give all of us a boost to implement such projects. We will fight for it. We will see how it will be in practice. I stick to the idea that such projects should be implemented in the interests of the global economy and, first of all, people who live in our countries.