Engagement with the Ambassador of Russia

In the first part of our meeting this morning, we meet the ambassador of Russia, Mr. Yury Anatoliyevich Filatov, to discuss foreign policy. I welcome Mr. Filatov and his accompanying official. The format of our meeting is that we will hear the ambassador's opening statement and then proceed to a question and answer session with members of our committee. Mr. Filatov will be aware, as members are, of the Covid-19 restrictions and so our meeting is time-limited. That notwithstanding, I am sure we will have an opportunity to pursue a most interesting engagement.

Before proceeding to the business of the meeting, I wish to remind members and witnesses that mobile phones should be completely switched off or put on airplane mode for the duration of our meeting as they cause interference, even if on silent mode, with our recording equipment.

I also wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chair to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I remind members who are joining us remotely that if they are within the precincts of the Houses, they enjoy the same parliamentary privilege that we do here but if they are outside of the Houses, care needs to be exercised as they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a person who is physically present.

It gives me great pleasure to call Mr. Filatov to make his opening statement to the committee.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

It is a refreshing moment for me to be outside of the embassy since we have closely followed the restrictions. Let us think of this as a new beginning in our relationship and dialogue. I would like to begin by commending the Chairman for the initiative to have this sort of discussion with the foreign ambassadors present in Dublin. I am sure it provides for a wider view of world affairs and will be of mutual benefit to all of us.

It is hardly possible to give a comprehensive picture of Russia's foreign policy but I will give the committee an idea of some major points. Before we go into more specifics let me turn briefly to the basics. The foreign policy concept of the Russian Federation was approved by President Putin in the end of 2016 and is still in force. This concept establishes that the foreign policy activity of Russia shall be aimed at the following main objectives: to ensure the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, and strengthen the rule of law and democratic institutions; to create a favourable external environment that would allow Russia’s economy to grow steadily and become more competitive, leading to higher standards of living and quality of life for our people; to consolidate the Russian Federation’s position as a centre of influence in today’s world; to strengthen Russia’s position in global economic relations and to prevent any discrimination against Russian goods, services and investments by using the options afforded by international and regional economic and financial organisations; to further promote the efforts to strengthen international peace and to ensure global security and stability with a view to establishing a fair and democratic international system that addresses international issues on the basis of collective decision-making, the rule of international law and the UN charter; to promote the central and co-ordinating role of the UN as the key organisation in charge of regulating international relations; to pursue neighbourly relations with adjacent states, assist them in eliminating the existing and preventing the emergence of new hotbeds of tension and conflicts on their territory; to promote, within bilateral and multilateral frameworks, mutually beneficial and equal partnerships with foreign countries, inter-state associations and international organisations, based on the principles of independence, sovereignty, pragmatism, transparency and predictability; and to ensure the comprehensive and effective protection of the rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad.

One has to admit that the overall international environment in which we try to pursue these objectives is challenging. The world seems to be running a high fever, as we can clearly see, and not entirely because of the pandemic. We have witnessed increased conflict potential and the rise of negativism, aggression and mistrust. The main destabilising factor has been the aggressive policy of a number of Western states, in particular the United States, aimed at destroying the international legal framework of security and replacing international law with its own invention, the so called rules-based world order.

As a result, the lack of trust in global politics and the economy is being aggravated by methods of unfair competition, such as unilateral sanctions, protectionism and trade wars.

Our goal is clear. We seek stability and fair opportunities for all states. Gunboat diplomacy or so-called democratic messianism, or, for that matter, any other kind of messianism, is hardly an option if we want to accomplish this. I believe that more positive and sustainable results can be achieved through joint efforts based on the observance of the norms and principles of the UN Charter. We are upholding this consistently. President Putin’s initiative to hold a summit of the UN Security Council’s permanent members is part of this policy. Heads of all UN Security Council permanent member states gave their consent. Of course, the pandemic thwarted our efforts to agree on specific dates, but we are working on it and developing the concept and the potential outcomes of this summit.

Russia’s stance on strategic stability, arms control and international, including European, security is well known. We will do everything possible to restore the dynamic in the arms control process, almost ruined by the actions of the outgoing US Administration. Russia stands ready to extend for five years the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as START III. We proposed a moratorium on deploying ground-based intermediate and shorter-range missiles after the United States had withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, INF, to sustain a more or less stable level of confidence, especially in Europe. In general, we stand for de-escalating tensions along the Russia-NATO contact line. We came up with a proposal to agree on an arrangement that the exercises on both sides are conducted at a distance from the contact line, and to agree on the minimum distances that may not be violated by military aircraft and warships of Russia or NATO. We believe that the well-known formula - that there cannot be a winner in a nuclear war and it should never be waged - should be reaffirmed at the political level.

We came up with a proposal to do that a long time ago and, I am sorry to say, we failed to see any reciprocity on the part of the United States or in the Russia-NATO format. We believe that implementing these initiatives or, at least, a professional straight-to-the-point and substantive discussion of the subject, possibly along with other steps, would help to improve the overall atmosphere in Russia-West relations. Dialogue itself on these matters would improve it. However, so far, these ideas have been hanging in the air.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as we know, has severely affected the global economy and led to probably the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We believe that international trade is one of the key drivers of the global economic recovery. At the same time, the Covid pandemic must not be used by countries as a pretext for protectionism and trade wars, which could be very damaging for international trade in the longer term. It is widely acknowledged that vaccines can be the very remedy that will pave the way to global economic recovery.

In this regard, Russia makes an important contribution by providing safe and efficient vaccines. As members know, Russia was the country to approve the first Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, which received its emergency use registration in full compliance with Russian law. Mass vaccination in Russia against coronavirus has already started. We need to address the pandemic jointly. There must be no place for a biased, groundless and politicised approach with respect to vaccine development. We encourage international co-operation in this area, especially between producers. We welcome the recent decision by AstraZeneca to carry out clinical trials using components of the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, in order to increase its own vaccine’s efficacy. I hope that Ireland will also be among the countries co-operating with Russia on this very important issue.

In more general terms, let us face it, we do not need interaction with the West any more than the West needs Russia. We are interdependent but if our Western colleagues prefer to stick to certain rules and concepts that they themselves invented, that is up to them. We believe that a dialogue with other participants in international life, including Russia, can solely be based on a generally accepted code of conduct, that is, the rules enshrined in the UN Charter, namely, respect for the sovereign equality of states, the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The recent settlement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could be considered as an example of the above-mentioned approach. The 9 November agreement reached by the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia stopped the bloodshed and paved the way for a long-term settlement. Due to the agreement, thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees have returned to their households and secured conditions for the process of rebuilding of the economy and solution of the humanitarian problems. Now, we can create real conditions to turn the region of the southern Caucasus from instability and internally tense contradictions into a place of stability that is flourishing in the interests of all peoples living there, and Russia will continue to persistently support an advancement in this direction.

Russia will continue its efforts to step up international co-operation in fighting terrorism. We do not divide terrorists into good and bad ones. We act in Syria by the request of the legitimate local government. At the same time, Russia has always been a strong supporter of settling any conflict through a peaceful, inclusive political dialogue, paying special attention to the settlement of humanitarian problems and aid to the victims of conflict. We contributed to efforts to overcome conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya and Yemen. The situation in the region could, to our mind, be greatly improved through the implementation of Russia’s collective security concept for the Persian Gulf region.

This year, the world celebrates three major anniversaries: the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg trials and the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. To make these anniversaries a reality, my country paid an incomprehensible price - more than 26 million of my compatriots became victims of that war. That is the reason Russia stands firmly in defence of truth in Second World War history, preserving the good reputation of victorious soldiers and preventing a revision of the internationally recognised results of the defeat of Nazism. Unfortunately, some EU politicians and even state leaders prefer to demonstrate a weird shortness of memory, accusing the Soviet Union of collaborating with Nazi Germany in unleashing the war. It is not only morally unacceptable; it leads to a revision of the results of the war and, therefore, of the existing world order based on international law. That is plainly dangerous.

Let me give an example. Every year since 2005, the United Nations has adopted the Russian-sponsored resolution on combating the glorification of Nazism and preventing the revival of any form of xenophobia. Just yesterday, the UN General Assembly again adopted the resolution and, again, only the United States and Ukraine voted against, and the EU members preferred to abstain, basing their position on the necessity to uphold freedom of expression.

If one considers former Nazi and neo-Nazi parades to be an expression of freedom of speech, one should not be surprised that next day this freedom will knock at the door with a Nazi salute.

In recent years, relations between Russia and the European Union as a bloc, as an organisation, unfortunately continued to deteriorate - and not through our fault. Unfortunately, EU colleagues made a very shortsighted choice in favour of archaic geopolitical zero-sum games and of creating new dividing lines. This includes their support of the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine in 2014, the introduction of unilateral and illegitimate sanctions against Russia and the destruction of the entire multi-level system of the Russia-EU dialogue. As a result, our Continent is facing a large-scale crisis of confidence and European businesses, including Irish businesses, are suffering serious losses. It was the EU's initiative to suspend many inter-industry formats and political dialogue. Some promising projects were paused, including those aimed at building a common trade, economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. At the same time, Brussels tells us any significant improvement in relations would depend on the implementation of the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, pretending that it is up to Russia to unblock the situation. Regrettably, this artificial linkage persists to this day. That probably suits only the Ukrainian Government, which ignores its obligations under the Minsk package of measures. I remind the committee that the Minsk agreement has been enshrined into the international law by a resolution of the UN Security Council. The Ukrainian Government is not even trying to hide its interest in using the unsettled conflict to maintain sanctions pressure on Russia. The core of the settlement remains the same: the Kiev authorities must come to terms with their own people living in Donbass; that is the essence of the Minsk agreements.

That said, I still believe that there are better prospects for the EU-Russia relationship. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, initiated discussion within the Union on the pros and cons of the current approach to relations with Russia. We are looking at this process with a certain interest, although, frankly speaking, we do not have any big expectations regarding it since the ideologically-blinkered and inert thinking in relation to our country is too persistent in some EU states, even to the detriment of their own national interests. Despite this, there is a better way to live together in our common Europe. Even today, we consider the EU as a potential participant in the greater Eurasian partnership concept proposed by President Putin. We believe this would benefit the European Union as well, combining regional integration potentials and facilitate European economic operators’ access to Eurasian markets. We hope that a sober analysis of the multipolar world will eventually prompt the European Union to rethink its obviously outdated approaches on the Russian track. For our part, we, as before, are always open to honest and mutually beneficial co-operation.

Turning to Russian-Irish relations, in many ways they provide a good example of a positive and constructive relationship based on mutual respect. We have been holding well under the Covid-19 conditions. Political dialogue has been going on between our governments at various levels on many international and bilateral issues. It is an open dialogue: we exchange opinions and work together where we have similar positions. When we disagree, there is still a readiness to listen and to understand the partner’s point of view. That approach will be much needed with the election of Ireland to the Security Council of the United Nations as a non-permanent member for 2021-2022. My country always highly valued the Irish commitments to the UN Charter. We know well the Irish devotion to the peacekeeping objectives in various regions of the world and the strong Irish position in favour of peace building and humanitarian assistance to less developed countries. Russia and Ireland have very close positions on the Middle East peace process and the settlement of regional conflicts based on international law through inclusive political dialogue. I note with special emphasis that our parliamentary co-operation is impressive and ongoing, as witnessed by the re-establishment of the Friendship Group with Russia in the new Irish Parliament. The videoconference between Russian and Irish parliamentarians in the group took place on 25 November. Participants from both sides unanimously supported the idea of continuing the interparliamentary ties as an important part of the entire complex of bilateral relations.

Russian-Irish trade and economic relations have always been based on mutual interest and trust. Being a WTO member, we support trade based on global rules and fair competition. At present, when our economies suffer from the “Corona crisis”, international trade has become of paramount importance as it contributes to employment, economic activity and the speed of the recovery from the pandemic. This year, as never before, our bilateral trade has been impacted by negative global factors. However, according to Russian statistics, in January to October of 2020 the value of our trade has decreased slightly by 9% to €1.5 billion compared to the same period in 2019, which is a lesser degree compared with other EU countries. Our countries have opportunities to change this situation. The next session of the bilateral Joint Economic Commission, which is supposed to be held in Dublin, will contribute to further development of business ties and economic co-operation.

What is perhaps more important is that there is a strong cultural, humanitarian connection between Russia and Ireland and, as we fight back at the pandemic and things gradually open up, which I hope they will, there is a strong prospect of further expansion in this area. For the sake of questions I will now end my remarks. I thank committee members for their attention. I will be glad to answer on anything they may be interested in.

I thank the ambassador for being here and also for his very comprehensive submission to the committee. I will now proceed to questions. I have received indications from Senators Craughwell, Byrne, Ardagh, Joe O'Reilly and Deputy Gannon. I ask members to be brief and to put their questions to the ambassador in a way that allows for a detailed discussion over the next 32 minutes. I call Senator Craughwell.

The ambassador is more than welcome. As a member of the Russian-Irish Interparliamentary Friendship Group it is a pleasure to see him here. It was also a pleasure to travel to his country last summer. What a wonderful place. I strongly recommend Irish people visit it. To get straight to the presentation the ambassador made, there are questions people will ask. The ambassador talked of the rule of law, of peaceful co-existence with Russia's neighbours and of the principle of non-interference. As he will know, we have had presentations from other countries in the region and one of the areas of concern is the relationship Russia has with Georgia and particularly what the Georgians regard as incursions into their country. They claim serious loss of life has taken place over the 30-year conflict in Georgia.

I visited Georgia. Politicians speak about intercountry relationships and sometimes we wonder what the people on the ground think. Meeting Georgians, my experience was that they too were concerned about Russia breathing down their necks, as it was put to me when I was there. We are talking about the destruction of 125 villages and the homes of 35,000 Georgians.

That does not bode well for friendly relations. For example, if my next door neighbour is knocking down my garden shed, then my next door neighbour and I will have difficulties. I am interested in the ambassador's view regarding the Russians sometimes being viewed as the bad guys in world, while the western alliances are viewed as the good guys. I do not subscribe to the notion that everyone on one side of the globe is bad, while those on the other side are all good. I wonder, therefore, how the ambassador's country has come to find itself portrayed as this aggressor in places such as Georgia and in the Crimean conflict.

Recent endeavours by Russia in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been seen by some as interference in that conflict between two sovereign states rather than a peace effort. I will leave it at that, because I do not want to take up everybody's time. I am delighted, however, to see the ambassador here. I have previously facilitated the All-Russian Non-Governmental Organization of Small and Medium Business, OPORA, in organising meetings here in Dublin, and I was also delighted to host the 75th anniversary commemoration at the Mayo Memorial Peace Park in Castlebar for Russian people who wanted to remember the fallen of the Second World War.

I thank Senator Craughwell, and I call Senator Byrne.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

Excuse me, shall I respond now?

No, I would rather we take two sets of questions and then have the ambassador answer. Otherwise, we will not have an opportunity for all members to participate. I thank the ambassador for his indulgence. I call Senator Byrne.

It is good to meet the ambassador again. Having been to Moscow, I endorse Senator Craughwell's view that it is a beautiful city. It is important that we further not only trade but also cultural relationships between Russia and Ireland and the European Union. I welcome Russia's continued commitment to arms reduction, to free and fair trade and to trade deals. In Nagorno-Karabakh, certainly, Russia has the potential to at least keep the peace, if not to establish a long-term peace.

I raise the question of Belarus. The ambassador spoke very strongly about the principles of the UN Charter. The Lukashenko regime, however, clearly does not respect the UN Charter regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ambassador will be aware of the elections that took place in Belarus this year. There are major questions concerning the actions of the Lukashenko regime, and the protests are continuing on the streets in Minsk and many other cities. The approach of the Russian Government is crucial in this situation. It is my view, and I think that of the Government, that the Lukashenko regime no longer has the support of the people of Belarus, and that will obviously have an impact on the region. I would like to hear the views of the Russian Government in that regard.

I would also like to raise an issue that I have spoken to the ambassador about previously. I refer to the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, not just in Russia but in the wider region. Article 19 of the Russian constitution speaks strongly about the equal rights of all citizens, but the policy of the Russian Government continues to be a challenge for the LGBT community in Russia and the region. I would like to know if there will be any change in the policy of the Russian Government in that regard.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

Let me combine my responses a little. Concerning the issues raised by Senator Craughwell, and starting with Nagorno-Karabakh, to my mind this is an example or illustration that Russia is indeed a stabilising force along the perimeter of our borders. There has not been a single case of a conflict at that perimeter which has been initiated by Russia - none. Throughout the modern history of Russia, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, all those conflicts which have broken out have been, more or less, linked to the long history of national, international and inter-ethnical conflicts that had been suppressed during the period of the Soviet Union. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, those conflicts just erupted and we had to deal with that situation one way or another.

That applies to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There has been a war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis since right after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The situation goes back centuries really. With the help of our international partners in the OSCE Minsk Group, France and the United States, we managed to freeze the conflict. What we witnessed this year was the meltdown of this conflict. It was at the request of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis that we responded with mediation to stop the bloodshed. We sent 2,000 of our troops as peacekeepers to act as a buffer between the parties. Azerbaijanis and Armenians alike welcomed our participation. The members of the committee should have seen the people in Stepanakert, who were able to return to their homes. They were thanking our soldiers because they literally saved those people's lives.

The same logic applies to whatever situation we might take, such as Georgia, for example. I am well aware of the remarks made here by my dear friend and colleague, the Georgian ambassador, H. E. Mr. George Zurabashvili, but I am sorry to say that his story about South Ossetia and Abkhazia just turned things upside down. In 1991 and 1992, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had been autonomous regions of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, fought a war of independence from Georgia. Again, the history of that interrelationship is a long one and is centuries-old. It was Russia that did its best to stop the war at that time. In June 1992, in Sochi, Russia and Georgia signed an agreement that stopped the hostilities. Russian peacekeepers were stationed inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia to ensure peace.

For almost 16 years, the situation was quiet. On 8 August 2008, the then ultranationalist president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, of whom the committee might be aware, ordered the armed attack by his troops on South Ossetia, which resulted in the killing of 15 Russian peacekeepers. There were also numerous casualties among the civilian population of South Ossetia. The response was reasonable and aggression was stopped. Following mediation by France, agreement was reached. Russian troops remained in the buffer zone between Georgia and South Ossetia to keep the area quiet, while the remainder of the troops returned to Russia.

That is it. There have been no incursions or acts of blatant aggression on our part. This is simply not true. We are not interested in that. We are only interested in ensuring that the region bordering Russia is stable and quiet. By the way, we have been enjoying what is under the circumstances a more or less normal relationship with Georgia in terms of people-to-people contact and trade. Georgia is Russia's second-largest foreign trade partner.

I am reluctant to intervene or in any way to interrupt a comprehensive reply, but from a time perspective I have to ask His Excellency to move on to address the important issues raised by Senator Malcom Byrne. I certainly do not mean any discourtesy but we are under time pressure.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

I reserve the right to reply to questions about Ukraine later. The Belarusian situation is very complex. It is quite obvious that there have been numerous mass popular disturbances in the country. It is obvious that there is an internal political crisis. A member of the committee spoke about Russia's role. Russia and Belarus have a common union state. That brings obvious positive things for both peoples and responsibilities as well. We cannot simply act as a judge, or a superior power that dictates to the Belarusian people what is best for them. The Belarusians are almost like Russian people. We know very well that they are very wise, capable, tolerant, etc. They have to make their own decisions in a situation of non-interference. I refer to things that have been done and are being done by some neighbouring countries such as Latvia, Poland. One can certainly speak up in favour of political groups or movements, but trying to instigate things inside a country is not a good way to find a solution. We agree that there should be a solution to the crisis. Our president has talked to President Lukashenko at least twice very recently. They have discussed this in earnest and I am sure he knows our point of view. I have to be very careful not to upset the very delicate balance of relationships between Russia and Belarus. In our view it will take a little bit more quiet but strong persuasion and diplomacy, rather than building up emotions, which is not good in any case. That will lead nowhere. That is basically our approach.

I thank the ambassador. I direct him to Senator Byrne's question on human rights.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

Yes. LGBT people were referred to. There is nothing in our legislation that could even remotely be considered to be in any way bad for minorities of any kind. LGBT people are absolutely equal in their rights, at least from the legislative point of view. I can accept that there might be some instances of discrimination, as happens throughout Europe, including in Ireland. This is treated rather harshly under existing legislation, whether it concerns LGBT people or any other minority. There is nothing to suggest that the rights of LGBT people are somehow compromised as a matter of state policy. On the contrary, just like others they have every opportunity to be promoted in their jobs, etc. It is blown out of proportion a little bit. One hears reports that someone made a bad glance at someone somewhere. That is life. It could happen. Nobody denies that. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that their rights are somehow diminished as a matter of state policy.

I welcome the ambassador and thank him for engaging with us today. I would like to ask about the reasoning behind Russian air force incursions into Irish airspace, most frequently in March of this year when it happened twice. It has happened intermittently before that. From the perspective of the Russian Government, what is the purpose of these incursions into Irish airspace?

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

That is our favourite subject.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

I have read so many reports. The fact of the matter is that at no point recently or for many years has our air force made incursions into Irish airspace. There has been none of that kind of stuff. The papers have their own way of putting things. We have a long-standing programme of long-range flights by long-range strategic aircraft. These are training missions. They fly over the north Atlantic, sometimes in the airspace controlled by the Irish air control system. This is not Irish airspace per se, but an area of Irish responsibility. This is perfectly legal. There is nothing bad about that. These flights have been going on for decades, causing no problems for anybody. There are carried out in strictest accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, regulations, safety standards, etc. These are peaceful missions.

Regarding safety standards, there have also been accusations that the transponders on these flights have been turned off, which puts civil aviation at risk. Is it the ambassador's understanding that transponders on these flights are turned off?

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

I am not familiar with the technical details, but I know that sometimes at certain stages of flights they might be switched off and on again. That is done-----

That is not in accordance with safety standards.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

Chapter II of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation addresses this kind of thing. I asked our armed forces personnel to report to me on this. These people are not in politics. They are military personnel. They report things as they are. They stated that these flights have nothing to do with the safety and security of Irish personnel, Irish airspace or Ireland in general. They are very far away from any established international air routes. No issue of public safety is involved here. I am very happy with this response.

The ambassador might share that report with the committee for the benefit of Deputy Gannon and other members.

I thank the ambassador.

I am part of the Irish parliamentary friendship group and I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Filatov's parliamentary colleagues in Moscow approximately a year and a half ago when they gave us a wonderful welcome. I was reunited with a friend because the interpreter had been in school with me so there are many connections.

There are many subjective views on the large number of conflicts throughout the world in which Russia is involved. I do not like to be fickle but the maxim is that there are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I do not think we will solve these issues today. I appreciate Mr. Filatov's view on it and it is very interesting to hear his view on all of the various conflicts in which Russia is involved. What gives me a little hope with regard to international relations with Russia is the fact that Sputnik V and the AstraZeneca team are working together on an improved Covid vaccine. Many of us know there is huge scepticism about Russia, Russian produce and Russians, and the idea it is testing the RAF response time coming into Irish airspace. If we can concentrate on collaborative projects such as the vaccine, it is very helpful and positive and I call for more of this.

I apologise for not being present but I am in the convention centre. I welcome the ambassador. I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg approximately 20 years ago with a parliamentary committee from here and it was a very interesting visit. I will move to domestic issues and ask the ambassador a number of questions. What is the rate of unemployment currently in Russia? I note there is some concern about this. What is the poverty rate? What is the impact of the virus on the economy, unemployment and the Russian people generally?

Why has there been no serious investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny? Why is this matter regarded as not being sufficient for a formal investigation?

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

As it happens, today President Putin is holding his year-end big press conference. He has probably finished by now. With regard to the pandemic, this morning I heard this particular question asked of the president. His answer was quite clear. We have suffered a real overall economic downturn, although much less than we had expected. The decrease in production in GDP was 3% and the prognosis was worse. Yes, the overall population has suffered a decrease in real income. This is true. The government is working on a number of projects involving financial support and shaking up production, more or less along the lines of the Irish Government, to provide support. The situation is very difficult for all of us. It does not help the overall programme of government with regard to eradicating poverty in the first place if we have to fight back a little. I assure the committee this is a priority, if not the most prioritised issue for the president.

With regard to Alexei Navalny and the story about his poisoning, let me give the Chairman a brief answer. There is nothing in the medical test results carried out in the Russian hospital when he got sick to suggest or support the claim of poisoning. We have formally asked German colleagues to provide us with any evidence to the contrary at their disposal, which would enable Russian law enforcement authorities to launch a criminal investigation into the matter. So far, we have not received an answer and this raises questions about claims of poisoning. There is quite clear legislation on when we can open up a criminal case, and with the Chairman's background as a Minister with responsibility for justice, he probably knows that there has to be evidence of criminal intent or something that suggests criminality. Alexei Navalny was treated in the hospital and his life was saved. At the insistence of his family who asked for his transportation to Germany, this decision was made immediately, after consultation between our medics and German medics to make sure he was transported safety. I do not want to go into the propaganda side of things. This question has been asked of the president today at the press conference. He was quite clear in asking another question. It would need years of preparation by special forces to get rid of a person who does no harm to anyone. To us, it looks like a really widespread operation of propaganda against Russia and nothing else.

We are asking people to share with us what they have to suggest he was poisoned. If we find evidence we will look into it and we will find who poisoned him but we have to have something. In Russia, we still have biological material from the probably couple of dozen tests carried out during the 24 hours he was in the hospital in Omsk. There have been two or three diagnoses. I am not a medical doctor but it was not about poisoning; it was about his body reacting to external factors. This is how it stands. We are waiting for real evidence. This is being done within the legal framework of the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Legal Matters. There are obligations on Germany and we insist it meets them.

I am very conscious of the time and I ask Senator O'Reilly to confine his remarks and to be brief. I will then ask the ambassador for his concluding remarks.

The ambassador's responses to me can be included in his concluding remarks. I thank the Chairman for this opportunity and I will be quick. The ambassador is welcome. As leader of the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe, and supported by the Government, I was one of the strong advocates for Russia's continuing participation in the Council of Europe and for the brokering of its re-entry to talks in the Council of Europe. This dialogue is important and it is worth mentioning Ireland's position. I will not repeat any question that has been asked. Will the ambassador comment on how he evaluates the Middle East peace process and the climate change issue in Russia? Will he also speak about Donbass in his concluding remarks? I will not say more. There is no point in a speech at this hour of the day.

I invite the ambassador to conclude.

I apologise to members and the ambassador, as we could go on for another hour and have an interesting discussion. Unfortunately, I must ask the ambassador to confine his remarks to about two minutes but we will have a further opportunity, maybe next year, to pursue many of the issues. I ask the ambassador to send a note to Deputy Gannon on the important issue he raised.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

First of all, we need to emphasise one very important basic point, which relates to all the issues raised today, in one way or another. Russia is not an aggressive entity. We are not looking for a fight with anyone. We are not looking to destabilise our neighbours. It is to the contrary in that we would like to see the stability of all things around our perimeter. We proceed from that assumption and from that fact, and it is a fact. The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement clearly showed that when we are faced with something from the past, we deal with it on a par with the people we know and who trust us. It has been done.

Unfortunately, that cannot be done everywhere. What happened in the Ukraine, for example, was not the result of any action by Russia. The uprising in Donbass and the self-determination of Crimea were a direct consequence of the armed overthrow of the legitimate government in Kiev by the extremist ultranationalist group with a distinct anti-Russian bias. That overthrow was prepared and implemented with the direct encouragement and support of the United States and some western European governments. However, the root of the problem is that the people in the south-east of Ukraine and Crimea, who are predominantly Russian speakers, did not accept the coup of 2014, which directly threatened their way of life, national self-consciousness and even safety. The point of the Minsk agreement, and the whole story since 2014, was for the Kiev authorities to listen to their people, to have a dialogue with them and to settle things with them. That is the real issue. We will be supportive and have been supportive of them.

As far as the Irish connection is concerned, today's dialogue is representative of the mature state of our relationship. Not only do we talk about nice things, but we discuss some really difficult issues and we do it with a willingness to understand each other's position, which is really important.

Yes. On that note, I reiterate my thanks and, indeed, the appreciation of members of the committee for your attendance. I wish you a very happy Christmas and new year.

I ask that a note be repaired in response to Senator O'Reilly's question on the role of Russia in the Middle East peace process. I do not recall a reply to Deputy Stanton's question on the unemployment situation in Russia, so perhaps a note on that can be provided as well. I will bring matters to a conclusion by thanking you for attendance and engagement.

H.E. Mr. Yury Filatov

Thank you. I wish all members a merry Christmas or, as we say, happy Christmas.

Thank you.