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"Multilateralism the best solution"

By Amit Baruah

SERGEI LAVROV looks and sounds more like a professor than a diplomat. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, the Russian Foreign Minister spelt out his country's stand on Chechnya and its differences with the West on the issue. He was clear that multilateral approaches were the best solution to global problems and regional conflicts. On the bilateral front, Mr. Lavrov said India should eventually recognise Russia as a country with a market economy. Excerpts:

Question: In the wake of the Beslan terrorist attack, what can Russia and India do to fight the terrorism menace together?

Sergei Lavrov: We are already doing several important things together. First, we are very active members of the counter-terrorist coalition. We [follow] the same political principles in this fight, in particular, at the United Nations. While India was strongly supporting the need to universalise all counter-terrorist conventions and also initiated the adoption of a comprehensive counter-terrorist convention, Russia on its part suggested a new international convention on fighting nuclear terrorism.

On October 8, the Security Council, in a Russian initiative, adopted a new, very strong counter-terrorist resolution, which among other things, called upon all countries to remove hurdles in the path of speedy adoption of both the Indian and Russian conventions.

I highly appreciate this dialogue and practical cooperation and I believe that Beslan and Egypt and other terrorist acts in other regions should only strengthen our resolve to be more persistent and more resolute in this fight.

After the terrible killings in Beslan, the advice from the West was for Russia to engage the Chechen separatists or terrorists. So, why not engagement, then, between the West and Al-Qaeda?

That's exactly what my President [Vladimir Putin] said when he had meetings with visitors from Europe and the United States ... they say we should reach a political solution in Chechnya, but these calls ignore the reality on the ground.

The political process in Chechnya is well under way. The Chechen people... they also voted to elect their President as another step in the political process. President [Akhmad] Kadyrov, who was murdered on May 9, actually, not long before his election, was fighting Russian federal forces as leader of one of the armed groups. But he never fought children and women.

And, at some point, he as a soldier, decided that he wants peace for his people... and because of that he was murdered. In August, elections for a new president of Chechnya took place, and again people came and expressed their will and the new President, Mr. [Alu] Alkhanov, is now in charge of the Republic.

All those, including those who were fighting against federal forces, who wanted to join the [political] process, are already there. If the calls to engage have in mind persons like [Akhmed] Zakayev, who got political asylum in London, or [Ilyas] Akhmadov, who got political asylum in United States, our answer is that these people are guilty of being connected with terrorist activities and we want them to be extradited and we would insist on their extradition.

The resolution of the Security Council that was adopted [on October 8] contains provisions, which make the case of those who refuse extradition much more difficult.

Turning to the India-Russia relationship, there have been concerns that while the political and defence relationship is strong, our trade relationship is not on a good footing.

That was the central theme of my discussions here. I came to New Delhi exactly with this concern. And, I was very gratified that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign [External] Affairs were basically reading from my speaking notes.

They also expressed dissatisfaction with the state of our trade and economic relations. We do want India to recognise Russia, eventually, as a country with a market economy, which has been done by many countries already. We still haven't got a decision from India though the previous government was saying, publicly, that they were sure Russia was a market economy.

I am glad to say that the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh] was very firm that this must be done before President Putin comes here [to India in the first week of December]. We also want that Indian banks and other financial structures accept guarantees of private Russian banks. All this would certainly move economic cooperation up.

India is keen to expand cooperation in civilian nuclear matters with Russia beyond Koodankulam. Will Russian obligations as a member of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) come in the way of this?

The international law now provides for some principles and we are members of the non-proliferation regime — the NPT, NSG and the Missile Technology Control Regime. We do believe that this is crucial to prevent the proliferation of WMD.

We will be continuing the current cooperation in Koodankulam, but we have to follow our international obligations. The discussions could continue, but within this framework.

The annual India, China, Russia Foreign Ministers meeting did not take place due to scheduling arrangements in New York. Are there plans to meet now?

Yes, but it will take place in Almaty on October 21. There is a meeting on Cooperation and Confidence-Building in Asia, which is a mechanism created at Kazakhstan's initiative.

It [the meeting] is about shared values on how to approach international relations these days. It's about our common belief that multilateral approaches are the best solution to global problems and regional conflicts. It's certainly our belief that our three countries can do a lot together to keep and promote stability in the Asia-Pacific region, Eurasia in general and in the United Nations.

What's your view of Saturday's elections in Afghanistan? There are controversies surrounding the poll process.

I haven't got the final information. There were some troubles, I heard, some attempts to undermine the voting ... we do want this election to bring more stability to Afghanistan. We support the elections, though our original, very strong preference was to stick to the decision reached in Berlin in April that there should be simultaneous elections to the Presidency and Parliament.

This was a decision endorsed by President [Hamid] Karzai, by the Government of Afghanistan. But, somehow, unfortunately, this was not possible. I hope these [parliamentary] elections would be done sooner rather than later because these would certainly solve some of the problems related to the building of national consensus in Afghanistan; it would involve major political forces and make them feel represented.

On Iraq, we have a timetable for elections by the end of January next year. We also see a spiral of violence — attacks, killings and air raids. Do you see Iraq as a problem that will be around for a long time to come?

I think so. After the war was declared over and the Security Council was asked to help stabilise Iraq, we were ready to do this. All those countries that believed and still believe that the war was unjustified participated in the negotiations about the role the United Nations could have in the process.

Not all of our concerns were taken into account. Eventually, the Security Council did adopt quite a good resolution, I would say, last June. But, our preference was to form the provisional government, which would be preceded by a national gathering of all Iraqis, including the opposition; with the support of the neighbours, members of the Security Council and the Arab League.

That's what we called an international conference on Iraq, similar to the one on Afghanistan held in Bonn, which set the stage for the current political process in Afghanistan. We believe that the creation of an interim government on the basis of such national dialogue... could stabilise the situation better than just having some sort of process, which was not very transparent and the list of people that emerged was then just brought to the Security Council.

We want the current interim government to succeed, but we do believe that even now the need for a national dialogue, national consensus is as acute as ever. We do think that it is not too late to organise a meeting, which would promote national consensus and help the interim government to start a dialogue with the opposition, especially on issues related to preparation for the elections. There is some understanding of this need and the idea of an international conference with approximately this agenda is gaining ground and it might take place before the end of November.

But, a lot of people believe that the presence of foreign troops is the real problem and as long as these troops remain present the situation in Iraq is not going to stabilise.

The foreign troops presence, again, was endorsed by the Security Council as an interim measure for as long as the Government of Iraq reaffirms that they want these troops to be there. In any case, the resolution of the Security Council provides for a review of the situation early next year.

Again, I believe, that more the efforts we all make to make sure that the opposition is involved in the political process, the greater chances we have that the violence would decrease and the day when the foreign troops, the multinational force, could leave Iraq, would become close.

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