Lavrov Says Russia Won't Back Down

APForeign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that the country would not soften its stance in major international disputes, slamming the Western position on Kosovo, NATO activities and the behavior of the British Council as outside international law.

Lavrov's traditional annual news conference came a day after an address by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in which the overwhelming favorite to replace President Vladimir Putin after a March 2 election appeared to signal a greater willingness to cooperate on international issues.

But when asked about the possible impact of Medvedev's accession to the presidency, Lavrov said there was no need for any change in foreign policy since current stances had the strong backing of public opinion.

In decidedly sharp comments, Lavrov lashed out repeatedly at the European Union, saying "a reorganization of the entire European architecture" was one of the country's key foreign policy objectives for 2008.

Lavrov accused the 27-member union of promoting the illegitimate interests of individual nations under the guise of solidarity.

"This interpretation of solidarity differs from the Union treaties," he said.

As an example, he singled out the bitter disagreement that has developed with Britain over the activities of the British Council in Russia, warning London not to turn the dispute into an issue for the whole union.

"We hope that European solidarity in such issues will not result in abuses," he said.

Lavrov complained that the council, a British government-funded organization that promotes cultural and educational ties, might be turned into a question for European solidarity, while the EU refused to discuss proposed U.S. anti-missile defense bases in Central Europe because they were "a problem between Russia and the United States."

Russia has asked the British Council to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, claiming that they are operating illegally in the country. Britain defied the order at the beginning of the year but ultimately gave in after council staff were called in for questioning by the Federal Security Service and visited at home by Interior Ministry officials.

Lavrov repeated Wednesday that there was no legal basis for the council's work in the country.

British Ambassador Tony Brenton, by contrast, has called the legal framework "rock solid" and has warned that the dispute may have a negative impact on negotiations about a new cooperation agreement between Moscow and Brussels.

London also accused Moscow of attacking a cultural institution in response to the dispute following the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident former Federal Guards Officer. Russia has refused to hand over Britain's chief suspect in the case, Andrei Lugovoi, citing a constitutional ban on extradition.

Lavrov himself has in the past linked the measures against the British Council to the Litvinenko affair, which culminated in the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by both sides last summer. On Wednesday, however, he described any consideration of recent events as related to the Lugovoi extradition case as "counterproductive."

On the Kosovo dispute, Lavrov warned that Moscow would view the recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence by the Serbian province as an illegal move that would set a dangerous global precedent.

"We must do the utmost to solve [the issue] within the framework of international law and the nonviolation of borders," he said. "Anything else is illegal and cannot be recognized."

The United States and a number of European governments have already said they support Kosovo's aspirations, while Russia is backing its traditional ally Serbia in opposing independence and calling for more talks between Belgrade and Pristina.

Lavrov warned that recognition in this case would set a precedent for 200 territories worldwide.

He called suggestions that Moscow in turn would recognize breakaway republics on former Soviet territories like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, as "absolutely false."

"We clearly understand the destabilizing effect of any separatist movements," he said.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been vying for independence since bloody conflicts with Georgia after the Soviet breakup in the early 1990s. The Georgian government has accused Moscow of undermining its sovereignty by supporting separatists on its soil.

Lavrov was adamant that his government was devoted to regional cooperation and the promotion of stability without meddling in the affairs of its neighbors.

He took a swipe at what Russia has complained was insufficient criticism of this month's presidential election in Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-U.S. incumbent, won in a vote that has been criticized in some corners for not meeting international democratic standards.

"Unlike others, we do not interfere in Georgia's affairs, nor did we interfere in the presidential election, although we are certainly aware of how [the vote] was judged," he said.

Lavrov also accused the West of harboring backward-looking defense policies through NATO.

He argued that the alliance was still clinging to its founding treaty of 1949, drafted for "a totally different situation" from today. For Moscow, NATO's "open door policy ... is not capable of solving any real security issues," he said.

He lambasted the alliance's claims that it was promoting democracy.

"We are being told that NATO is a tool of democratization. But at the same time, NATO members are trying to rewrite history by glorifying Nazi heroes," Lavrov said, referring to Latvia and Estonia. "They can get away with it because now they are members of a respectable club."

Latvians and Estonians fought on both the German and Soviet sides during World War II, and both countries have treated forces that fought with the German army to prevent their countries from being re-incorporated into the Soviet Union as defenders against occupation.