Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 18:35 UK

Lavrov looks beyond army pull-out

As Russian troops pull back from its so-called buffer zones inside Georgian territory, next to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tells the BBC how he sees the region's future unfolding. The text of the interview follows:

Sergei Lavrov
Sergei Lavrov says Moscow trusts the European Union observers

BBC: Minister, the withdrawal from the buffer zone has now started. Can you guarantee it will be completed by the end of 10 October?

LAVROV: Absolutely. The withdrawal was conditioned on the deployment of EU observers in the areas of Georgia adjacent to the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The withdrawal started very soon after the first contingent of EU observers arrived, and it will be complete by 10 October as agreed by Presidents Medvedev [of Russia] and Sarkozy [of France].

We have discussed through our peacekeepers in those areas with the EU observers, the need to follow certain procedures including for the EU observers to clearly take stock of what we are leaving behind, and signing documents which would testify to the fact that they are taking over the area.

Because the EU… undertook to be the guarantor of the non-use of force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is important that these procedures are followed very scrupulously.

We have also indicated to our European friends that the recent series of provocations against South Ossetia and against Abkhazia, which took place in the last few days, causes concern and we warned them very seriously to pay attention to the need to keep these areas free from any illegal or legal armed groups, except for the Georgian police, which must look after law and order there.

BBC: Let me ask you about that the other way around. Some EU observers were stopped briefly yesterday by South Ossetian militia. Can you for your part control those militia?

LAVROV: Well the areas adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia are going to be controlled fully by the international observers.

When this scheme was negotiated we suggested that the EU deploy there not only observers but also international police, knowing that these buffer zones, as they are called, should be monitored very closely and that law and order in these areas should be a matter of particular attention.

As far as additional monitors are concerned, it is absolutely unambiguously stated that they would be deployed in the areas adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Sergei Lavrov

The EU at that moment was not ready to deploy police, but we are satisfied by the number of observers they are deploying.

Certainly there must be some mechanism between the South Ossetians on the territory of South Ossetia, between the Russian contingent - which is stationed on the territory of South Ossetia at its request - on the one hand, and the international observers on the territory of Georgia.

BBC: You are talking about how scrupulous they must be in ensuring law and order there, do you mean that if you think they are not performing this task adequately, you retain the right to return to these areas?

LAVROV: No. No. They undertook in the name of the president of France, who is the president of the EU, to guarantee the non-use of force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is the EU matter, and the EU cause of pride, if you wish.

BBC: So you trust them?

LAVROV: We trust them, yes.

BBC: Will they be allowed also to go into Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

LAVROV: Why should they? They clearly signed up as the EU, [European Commission] President Barroso, President Sarkozy and Secretary General [EU foreign policy chief] Solana, that the international presence inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia will continue in the numbers that have been on 7 August.

This means the numbers of OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] observers in South Ossetia before the Georgian attack would remain, and the South Ossetian government agreed that this should be the case.

They also agreed that the number of UN observers who had been working in Abkhazia before 7 August would continue working there.

That is clearly written in the Sarkozy-Medvedev plan. As far as additional monitors are concerned, it is absolutely unambiguously stated that they would be deployed in the areas adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

BBC: That's not how the EU currently understands it though.

LAVROV: The EU… negotiated a very unambiguous document on 8 September, and this document is available and leaves no room for any misinterpretation.

They took that to [Georgian] President Saakashvili, and he continued his manipulation. They signed three or four papers, one saying that they asked him not to use force, the other paper was signed by him saying that he is accepting this offer, and they also gave him a paper saying that the EU is ready to deploy inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It's a matter of security of these countries, which have been repeatedly attacked by Georgia in the last 16 years
Sergei Lavrov

Being ready doesn't mean that there is an agreement. As I said, what the EU signed up to in Moscow clearly says that their observers would be deployed outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

BBC: You're withdrawing from the buffer zone, but you're not withdrawing from, or at least not completely, from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. You will have 3,800 troops in each of those. Isn't that a violation of the agreement that talks about a withdrawal to the positions of before 7 August?

LAVROV: That was the situation on 12 August, when we stopped the war and when, after that document was signed, we withdrew the additional army contingents moved inside South Ossetia to defeat the Georgian attack, and they left.

The contingents that you mention have been moved inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia in response to the direct request of these two newly recognised states, at least as far as Russia is concerned, at the request of the legitimate, democratically elected governments.

It's an absolutely different kind of presence, based on the treaties signed by the Russian president with the presidents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It's nothing to do with any form of peacekeeping. It's a matter of security of these countries, which have been repeatedly attacked by Georgia in the last 16 years.

BBC: But doesn't a bilateral agreement with South Ossetia and Abkhazia on that issue contradict the Medvedev-Sarkozy principles which talk about international discussion on the future stability and security of those two territories?

LAVROV: Not at all. This actually contributes to the international discussions because it gives them some very important substance, namely the provision of Russian guarantees that any attack against these republics, if tried again - and we cannot exclude it, in spite of the EU guarantees that force would not be used against them - but we have additional guarantees inside these republics that any attack against South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be repelled.

BBC: But that's not internationally agreed, is it?

LAVROV: Bilateral agreements are for us, as for any other countries, an international agreement.

BBC: But that pre-empts any possible international discussion…

LAVROV: Not at all. Internal discussions, which begin in Geneva on 15 October, should concentrate on the real threats and the real threats as we all know them relate to the militarisation of Georgia.

Russian armour at the Kventakosa checkpoint
Nearly 8,000 Russian troops will stay in the disputed regions

So we would be insisting on steps to prevent Georgia from getting arms, at least as far as offensive arms are concerned.

It would also relate to the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to have a special regime, monitored by international observers - the EU, the OSCE and the UN - who already work there.

And this also means that these zones should have some regime that would not allow the use of aircraft, including drones, except those used by international observers.

These type of steps are very important. As far as pre-empting discussions on security, I understand that you mean the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and actually on 12 August, when the first document between Presidents Medvedev and Sarkozy was agreed, part was to have international discussions on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and ways to ensure their security.

When this paper was taken to Tbilisi by President Sarkozy, President Saakashvili refused to leave reference to the status.

And then President Sarkozy called President Medvedev and asked if he would mind if the reference to the status was dropped, and President Medvedev said he wouldn't mind, so there is no mention of status in any agreement regarding the agenda of international discussions.

BBC: So as far as you're concerned, the question of status is now closed?

LAVROV: Of course. And the reaction of President Saakashvili to the first paper agreed by Presidents Medvedev and Sarkozy on 12 August persuaded us absolutely and without any doubt that the only way to ensure the security of these countries was to recognise them and to sign security treaties, which was done.

The interview was taken by the BBC's Tim Whewell in Moscow on 8 October 2008.

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