Moscow/Tunis, 29 September 2017:
Russia says it takes no sides in Libya and is convinced that the only way to achieve peace and stability in the country is through national reconciliation mechanisms that come from the Libyans themselves, not ones imposed from outside. However, it firmly believes that the United Nations must remain the main coordinator in attempts to settle the crisis and that while help from international, regional and neighbouring states are valuable, these must be harmonised.
In an interview with the Libya Herald, Deputy Russian foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who has specific charge over Middle East and African affairs, explained the fundamentals of Moscow’s policy towards Libya and what it hopes can be achieved.
Q: How would you characterise Russia’s approach to the resolution of Libya’s political and military crisis? You have always said that your policy is even-handed. You have welcomed the representatives of both sides to Moscow recently – Ahmed Maetig, Mohamed Dayri and Ahmed Mismari. However, the perception is that your links with the east of Libya, specifically with Khalifa Haftar, are far stronger than with the west of the country. Flying Khalifa Haftar to the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft-carrying cruiser from where he had a video conference with Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu reinforced that impression.
A: As part of Russia’s contribution to international efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya under the auspices of the UN, we maintain contacts with all participants in the intra-Libyan political process launched in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015. We have had the only goal – to help the Libyans overcome the current differences and reach sustainable arrangements on the modalities of national reconciliation. We are convinced that, taking into account the Libyan circumstances, such well-balanced approach is valid. This is the only way to achieve the desired result.
At the same time, unlike many Western and regional players actively involved in Libyan affairs, we do not impose ready-made solutions on the Libyan parties. In addition, we consider this approach counter-productive. Our position of principle is that it is the Libyans who should determine the fate of their own country.
To leave no doubts in this regard, I will repeat that we take no sides in the intra-Libyan conflict and our work is guided exclusively by the imperative to preserve Libya’s unity and territorial integrity. This is our absolute priority. We want Libya to overcome the protracted crisis, once again become a prosperous state relying upon strong state institutions and forces of law and order capable of confronting terrorism, and reinstate its status as an important player in the Middle East arena as soon as possible. This is the main focus of all our efforts.
Speaking in Grozny on 14 September 2017, Ahmed Maetig said that Russia had a leading role to play in resolving the Libyan conflict and reconciling all parties. How does Moscow envisage that actually happening? Are there any plans to hold a meeting of the warring parties in Russia?
We believe that the main coordination role in the efforts to settle the political crisis in Libya should remain with the United Nations. It is enshrined in the relevant UNSC resolutions on Libya, the Skhirat Agreement, as well as in the Paris Declaration adopted at the meeting between Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the Presidency Council and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army, held in the suburbs of Paris on 25 July 2017.
At the same time, it is obvious that the UN, particularly its Support Mission in Libya with its new Head Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Libya, cannot tackle all the challenges by itself. The desired result requires effective assistance of the external players.
In this context, we believe that the proactive steps taken by various international and regional sponsors of Libya’s settlement process, in particular the UAE, are useful, as well as those by neighbouring countries – Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. We also note the attempts made by the Quartet composed of the UN, the African Union, the Arab League and the EU.
The groundwork appears to have been laid by the mentioned meeting between Faiez Serraj and Khalifa Hafter in Saint Cloud [in Paris] organised through mediation of French President Emmanuel Macron. We welcome that meeting and consider it a step towards rapprochement of Libyan political poles of power.
Besides, we deem it unnecessary to diffuse the efforts by creating some other formats of work on Libya in addition to the existing ones. We are not sure they would help. In our view, it is more important to focus on the implementation of the existing achievements through the already working and well-proven mechanisms.
For our part, we will stand ready to further support efforts under the auspices of the UN to promote the broad intra-Libyan dialogue aimed at resolving all the problems on today’s Libyan political agenda. We will do it while continuing close cooperation with all Libyan sides – participants in the political process.
Much de-mining work has been done by various UNMAS-sponsored clearance teams in the west of the country, most especially around Sirte. But in the east, the Libyan National Army (LNA) is struggling to cope with the vast amounts of unexploded ordinance left behind in former conflict zones in Benghazi. Does Russia have any plans to assist the LNA in any manner with this huge operation?
I think we could consider this issue if we got such a request. But, in any case, our decision on this or another similar matter will be built on our current obligations arising from the UNSC decisions on Libya.
At various times since 2014 when Libya descended into division, American, British, French and Italian special forces have mounted land operations in Libya. Has Russia ever sent any of its own special forces to Libya or training units to assist either party to the conflict?
Our understanding is that the countries you have mentioned assisted the Libyan parties in fighting terrorist clandestine organisations firmly installed in the country. In particular, in 2016, the operation to liberate Sirte was carried out with the US air support. Last May, the extremist positions were bombed by the Egyptian Air Force, including around Derna.
Speaking of Russia, I can definitely say that we have not planned to send Russian special forces to participate in operations of that kind, especially since neither government in Tripoli nor military-political leaders in Tobruk have asked us to render such assistance.
It has been argued, not least by new UNSMIL chief Ghassan Salamé that there are too many separate international initiatives currently under way to try and bring Libyan rivals together. Can you see Salamé’s point that there are too many separate efforts? If so, what do you think can be done to bring about a coordination of these efforts through UNSMIL, whose mandate your UN ambassador has just joined with all other UN Security Council members in renewing?
We share this opinion of Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Libya Mr. Ghassan Salamé. In our view, Libyans have too many “advisers” often acting separately. The problem is that the key actors have different interests. Moreover, many of those offering Libyan parties their “good offices” promote unrealistic plans to settle the conflict and their own visions for the country’s future development in all spheres of life. Unfortunately, such activity is far from meeting the task of restoring Libya’s unity on the basis of interests of all political forces, as well as tribal and regional groups of the country. All this resulted in the stalled political process after the Skhirat Agreement.
In general, while not denying the importance of vigorous international support for the process of national reconciliation in Libya, we consider the task of consolidating the mediation efforts under the UN supervision relevant. We believe that it will be extremely difficult to resolve the crisis in Libya without harmonising the external assistance. As we understood it, this was the goal pursued by the high-level meeting on Libya organized by Ghassan Salamé on the sidelines of the ministerial week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Moscow was once the prime supplier of arms to Qaddafi’s Libya. How much money is still outstanding for contracts which your country has fulfilled? When the UN arms embargo is lifted, will Russia seek to renew that dominant role in the supply of military equipment?
I think that the question about the amount of Libya’s debt for the Russian arms supplied under Qaddafi should not be addressed to the Russian Foreign Ministry. In any case, this subject is currently beyond our discussions with the Libyan representatives.
As for the resumption of the military and technical cooperation with Libya, we will certainly be ready to consider this set of issues when the appropriate opportunities are provided, including the lifting of the international restrictions you have mentioned.
In the wake of the 2011 Revolution there were high hopes that Russia and China would resume the ambitious railway and other projects that Qaddafi had initiated. In the event, all of these have been abandoned because of the collapse in security. What are Russia’s hopes for the resumption of the civilian works in which it was engaged?
The Russian companies that actively worked in the Libyan market before the beginning of the civil conflict and were forced to freeze their activity after 2011, confirm their willingness to return to Libya. We undoubtedly support such a mood. We have signed a lot of contracts that cover various fields and these should be executed. Besides, we are ready to participate in the post-conflict economic recovery in Libya, join development projects, including in such fields as energy, industry and transport infrastructure.
Libya has also demonstrated its interest in the resumption of fully-fledged trade and economic cooperation with Russia.
We are convinced that the normalisation of the situation in Libya, including in the security area, will help translate these plans into practical action.
Gazprom, Tatneft and Rosneft acquired important stakes in Libya’s hydrocarbon industry. Indeed, there is a Misrata warehouse still holding large quantities of Gazprom equipment that was to be used for offshore exploration. Does Russia, with its own extensive hydrocarbon sector, plan to play a bigger role in the Libyan market? Furthermore, in the light of the St. Petersburg oil producers’ conference in July, does Russia still believe that Libya should be exempted from any voluntary OPEC production caps?
I have already answered this question in general. At the same time I would like to note that the Russian companies you have mentioned – JSC Russian Railways, PJSC Gazprom, PJSC Tatneft – still have a number of unresolved problems which they confronted after they were forced to stop their work in Libya in 2011 and in the subsequent period. This is why they incurred, and continue to incur, heavy financial losses. To settle this issue, Libya needs to demonstrate political will and take reciprocal actions. We count on the assistance of the Libyan authorities in removing as soon as possible the obstacles to the revival of our full-fledged cooperation.
Concerning the OPEC oil-production quota, this matter should fall exclusively within the competence of the OPEC Member Countries.
Are there plans to again have a diplomatic presence in Tripoli, even if only with one diplomat there at a time?
This question is currently not on the agenda. We will be able to re-establish our diplomatic presence in Libya only when the security situation is fully normalised. As far as we understand, other states that have evacuated their diplomatic and consular missions in Libya for the reasons mentioned, maintain this position.
We hope, however, that the opportunity to return to Libya will sooner or later arise and our embassy, which has been temporarily based in Tunisia since 2014, will resume its work in Tripoli.
To this end, we will have to find a new building or a new lot for the construction of a new embassy compound. As you might know, the old building of the Russian Embassy has been rendered inoperable as a result of the armed attack in October 2013.
Is Russia looking to provide training support to help Libya rebuild?
At present, approximately 30 Libyan students study civil disciplines in Russian universities in Moscow, Ryazan, Kazan and other cities. I am convinced that bilateral cooperation in education will continue. Libya can always count on our assistance in training qualified personnel who, with the new knowledge and skills they obtain, can become competitive in civil service as well as in other spheres in Libya.