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Joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte

July 4, 2019, Rome

Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte (retranslated): Good evening, everyone.

I am very happy to have this opportunity to welcome President of Russia Vladimir Putin here in Rome. His last visit to Italy was in 2015, four years ago. And I am glad to use this opportunity to welcome him with the same hospitality as he showed me in October [2018] when I visited Moscow.

On my own behalf and on behalf of the Italian government, I conveyed our condolences on the death of the 14 members of the submarine crew as well as the dozens of flood victims.

Our meeting was very positive and warm-hearted. Our work will continue in a little while because we will move to a different venue where dinner will be held with many representatives of civil society, because, as you well know, recently the Civil Society Forum has concluded at the Foreign Ministry, where the ties between our countries at all levels have been reaffirmed.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin and I have emphasised the excellent relations our countries enjoy despite the conditions related to the European sanctions against Russia. It is a very complicated global moment.

Bilateral relations between Italy and Russia are in our mutual interests. Italy is the second largest European producer and should not be afraid of globalisation but seize every opportunity. And Russia, of course, provides important opportunities for our companies and enterprises.

I would like to mention only two facts: Russia is our fifth export market outside the EU, involving 500 Italian companies and enterprises. The year 2017 saw our trade returning to growth, which continued in 2018; but we can work harder in this area.

The joint opportunity to establish the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti investment platform and its Russian partner would enable us to provide new support to Italian companies that want to work in various areas, with a focus on small and medium-sized businesses and innovative start-ups.

We also enjoy excellent cooperation in culture and science. I have reminded President Putin that I highly appreciate the fact that Italian is very popular in Russian schools. It is already taught at 50 schools as well as at various centres and universities. We also collaborate through universities in various spheres.

We also had a chance to discuss international issues of mutual interest. It is obvious that Russia plays a fundamental, important role in responding to global challenges threatening Europe, Russia and the entire world.

At the G20 summit in Osaka, we said we believed Moscow to be a vital element in finding ways to address the main regional principles. President Putin and I said that these ways must be sustainable and, first of all, political. This is why we intend to rely on constructive decisions and cooperation with Russia in all international contexts together with our partners.

In particular, we discussed Libya. We said that a threat to stability and balance could further escalate the situation, which may result in a humanitarian crisis as well as the introduction of the terrorist elements and a threat to energy facilities.

We have spoken about the need to continue supporting the United Nations and working together to find a way to switch to talks as soon as possible. We believe that an inclusive political process involving the united international community is required to cease fire immediately and achieve a long period of peaceful development for Libya.

We also discussed the Syrian crisis: considering our geographic proximity and the scale on which the crisis is affecting our region, this topic is important for Italy. It is necessary to find a long-term solution to this problem using inclusive and pragmatic political means in conformity with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We hope that together with UN Special Envoy Pedersen we will be able to involve all the participants in the dialogue.

In this spirit, we also discussed issues related to the crisis in Ukraine, which must be settled as soon as possible. This is related to the fundamental relations between the European Union and Russia. Continuing with this dispute may result in losing the trust and the rules elaborated in the 25 years of our dialogue.

Today there is no alternative to the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. I would like to reaffirm that Italy believes the Normandy format to be very important, as well as the trilateral [contact group] within the OSCE. We think that the new presidential mandate the Ukrainian people gave to Mr Zelensky opens up new opportunities in this area, which must be seized.

We also discussed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. We believe that everyone must do what is necessary to make a contribution to addressing the task of using this treaty in the dialogue. Addressing this task is of utmost importance.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen,

I entirely agree with my colleague Mr Giuseppe Conte and his assessment of our talks. They were very business-like and constructive. The same is true of the in-depth talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

During the visit, the entire range of issues on bilateral cooperation was reviewed in detail and a number of international and regional affairs were touched on.

Russian-Italian ties have traditionally been mutually beneficial. There is an ongoing political dialogue. We were pleased to receive Mr Conte in Moscow in 2018. Last April, we met in Beijing. We recently talked “on the go” in Japan. Contacts are being maintained between the two countries’ governments, parliaments, business communities and members of the public.

Much attention was attached to economic cooperation during our talks. Italy is an important trading partner. In 2018, trade between the two countries increased by almost 13 percent to $27 billion. I would like to remind you that that figure for 2013 was $54 billion. This is something we should be striving for.

Accumulated cross-investment has reached $7.5 billion. As the Prime Minister has said, some 500 Italian companies and banking organisations are represented on the Russian market. The Russian-Italian Council on Economic, Industrial and Monetary Cooperation is quite active. An impressive delegation of Italian business captains attended the recent St Petersburg Economic Forum. We hope that next year Italy will become a partner of our major international trade fair Innoprom 2020 that will take place in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

Our countries have built up a wealth of experience in the field of energy cooperation. Fifty years ago, we signed our first contract on supplying natural gas to Italy. Russia is the largest exporter of gas to the Italian market. Last year Italian consumers received almost 23 billion cubic metres, which is 35 percent of this economy’s demand.

Italian funding and technology are involved in Russian energy projects such as Yamal LNG, Arctic LNG 2 and the construction of the Amur Gas Processing Plant. Together we are developing oil and gas fields in Russia and in third countries. I would like to note that this is billions of dollars in investments.

Our major projects include industrial cooperation. I would like to highlight the construction of an ammonium plant in Leningrad Region that was put into operation a month ago. The project received $1 billion in investments. A Russian-Italian electric motor company in Chelyabinsk is reaching its full capacity.

Italian companies are largely involved in infrastructure projects such as extensive road construction in northwestern and southern Russia.

We are expanding our bilateral links in high technology. According to our cooperation programme until 2023, Russian and Italian research institutes will collaborate in such fields as genetics, medicine and pharmaceutics.

We are completing the preparations for an Italian astronaut’s upcoming flight to the ISS, scheduled for July 20.

Cultural and humanitarian links are an important part of Russian-Italian relations. Russia provided its assistance in restoring the city of L'Aquila after the disastrous earthquake in 2009. In particular, we helped to restore unique cultural heritage sites, including the Ardinghelli Palace and the San Gregorio Church. We hope that in November a delegation from Italy will attend the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum.

We are forging ties between the State Hermitage museum and the Venice municipality. We continue our cooperation within the Hermitage-Italy cultural and research centre.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to congratulate our Italian friends on their successful bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. We are ready to assist them in every way, considering our recent experience of hosting the Olympics in Sochi.

I certainly have to note that for Russians, Italy is one of their favourite travel destinations. Last year, more than a million Russian tourists visited your country. The number of trips made by Italians to Russia is also increasing.

Discussing current international issues, we exchanged views on the future of Russia-EU relations, which, in our opinion, should develop only on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and on the basis of genuine common interests of all Europeans.

We agreed to continue coordination on the peace process in Libya, as Mr Prime Minister said, where, unfortunately, the situation is getting worse, terrorist activity is increasing, and the number of victims is on the rise.

In our mutual opinion, it is important that the Libyan military-political forces establish a ceasefire, open a channel for dialogue, and make efforts to resume the political process with the ultimate goal of overcoming the split in the country and building unified effective state institutions.

We have certainly reviewed the situation in the region and talked about Ukraine.

I would also like to say a few words about some of the other events that took place today.

In the morning, I had a meeting with Pope Francis. We discussed issues concerning the development of relations between Russia and the Vatican, and we agreed to pay special attention to cooperation in the field of culture, education and healthcare. We discussed the matter of protecting the Christian population of the Middle East and humanitarian assistance in Syria. It is important that the positions of Russia and the Vatican are harmonious in what concerns the protection of traditional values, and the promotion of interreligious, inter-civilisational dialogue.

Mr Conte and I will also meet with representatives of the Civic Society Dialogue Forum, which resumed its work after a six-year break. The forum is designed to promote broader contacts between representatives of the public, as well as science, culture, and business communities. A large number of prominent entrepreneurs from Russia and Italy are taking part in the forum. In general, we expect to support the forum in every way, promoting its activities and regular meetings.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all of our Italian friends and colleagues for their joint work and for their very warm and sincere welcome and hospitality.

Thank you.

Question (retranslated): I have a question for both President Putin and Prime Minister Conte regarding trade agreements that were signed with China, specifically because the United States and some European partners criticised them.

A question for President Putin. What do you think of Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment as President of the European Commission considering that she was critical of Russia’s international policy? And are you disappointed that during his visit to the United States, after his meeting with Mike Pompeo, Matteo Salvini softened his stance and asserted that Russia must take steps forward when it comes to Ukraine?

Vladimir Putin: We are already used to the fact that Russia is expected to take some steps forward. We are very patient and understanding about it.

We are grateful to Italy for its opinion, which is that it is necessary to restore the full scale of our relations with the European Union. We can see the Italian government’s efforts towards this result and we are thankful for that. We understand that Italy is bound by certain obligations within various integration bodies in Europe and NATO, so we do not have any specific complaints against our Italian friends. But we hope that Italy will express its view consistently, clearly and will fight for what has been repeatedly stated publicly, that is, a complete return to normal relations between Russia and Europe.

As concerns Ms von der Leyen, it is not our role to make any judgements here. It is up to European citizens. We all know that her previous position was Minister of Defence. We do not know yet how she will handle the new job. We hope that Europe’s interest in restoring fully functional relations with Russia will be important for the future leadership of the European Union.

In 2013, our trade with the EU was worth $450 billion and now it is $279 billion, I believe. Where are the missing $150 billion, where are they? I will tell you: this is lost profit not only for us but for the European countries as well, including Italy. It means that the European countries did not supply our market with goods worth billions of dollars. It means that new jobs were not created or existing jobs were lost. People did not get their wages and all levels of the budget system did not receive a certain amount of taxes. This is what it means. It is damaging for all of us.

This is why I hope that the new European leadership will take this into account when developing relations with Russia. In return, we are ready to cover the part of the road that depends on us.

I would like to say once again what I said at a meeting with our Italian friends today: you cannot demand that Russia honour the Minsk Agreements, for example, in particular things that do not depend on us in any way. For example, the Minsk Agreements stipulate full restoration of economic relations between Donbass and Ukraine. This calls above all for invalidating the former president’s executive order on the blockade of Donbass. It directly contradicts the Minsk Agreements. Why do you not ask our Ukrainian partners when they will do this? We cannot do this for them. I can issue an executive order, but what would this amount to? Or take the decision on amnesty: the law has been adopted, but the president has not signed it. This provision is directly stipulated in the Minsk Agreements. There are more things like that. Let us calmly talk about who should do what, without shifting the entire responsibility onto one of the sides.

In addition, the newly elected President, who has received a mandate of confidence from the Ukrainian people, kept saying that he was willing to settle this problem and to launch dialogue with all those on whom this depends. But while on a visit to Europe he suddenly said he would not talk with the separatists, that is, the very people in Donbass with whom he should launch a direct dialogue. This contradicts what he said during his election campaign.

Let us wait until the parliamentary election in Ukraine and see what happens then.

As for talks between China and the United States, we would like to see them reach an agreement that would suit both sides. We are not a party to this process, but we can say with confidence that if no agreement is reached – this is not our opinion but the opinion of international experts and major international organisations – if no agreement is reached, all of us will suffer, the international economy as a whole will be damaged. In this case, international trade will plummet by 17 percent by 2024 and global GDP will slump by 2 percent. It will be bad for all of us.

Therefore, I believe we must do everything in our power to ensure that these agreements are reached. The policy of politically driven restrictions, sanctions and unilateral tariffs must stop. We must learn to come to agreements.

I am aware of the Chinese leaders’ position. They have been quite flexible in a bid to reach an agreement. Let us wait and see what this comes to in practice.

Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte: This is only a remark concerning agreements and memorandums of understanding, signed between Italy and China.

We did not discuss this today because, as you may recall, President Putin and I took part in the Forum in Beijing regarding a new Silk Road. We discussed this new infrastructure and the opportunity for Italy to participate in this project.

Regarding the anti-Russia sanctions, I would simply like to say that my government has taken a very consistent position from the outset, and that it will continue to insist on this position. I have always made my position very clear.

We believe that sanctions are not the goal. We believe that the sanctions will have a transitional nature, and that Italy as a country will work to create the prerequisites for overcoming this state of relations between Italy and Russia, the European Union and Russia. This state no longer benefits Russia, the European Union or Italy, which otherwise might be able to improve its economic and trade relations.

As I have already said, it is necessary to create the prerequisites for achieving our goal, and various conditions and circumstances should also mature. We will work to this end. We are not directly involved in the Normandy Format, but we are always ready to take part in ensuring the prerequisites for a more effective dialogue. There will be a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council tomorrow, and we would like to see prerequisites emerge so that forums and dialogues between the European Union and Russia can be held in the future.

Question: I have a question for both leaders. If I may, I would like to continue with my Italian colleague’s question about relations between Russia and the EU.

You have already said that it is necessary to change the relations, and many countries are also saying this. There have been several decisions emphasising that the situation has changed, in particular, in PACE.

Do you believe that, given the changes in Brussels, considering that there will be a new President of the European Commission as well as of several other European agencies, there is a chance to change the situation? Are there any prospects?

I also have a question for the Italian Prime Minister. How great a role is Italy ready to play in the matter? Perhaps a more important one, a leading role, like a locomotive? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: It does not depend on Russia. I have already said that we are ready to go our part of the way, of course, if we do not have to face artificial obstacles along it.

There are always chances, there are always prospects. We are natural partners in several fields. We are close geographically, we share a common civilisational code; I cannot see such obstacles on the way towards restoring our relations that cannot be overcome. However, I repeat, many things will also depend on our European partners.

Giuseppe Conte: Let me say that when President Putin, our friend Vladimir, says that not everything depends on Russia, he is being too modest, because in fact Russia can play an important role to overcome this.

Of course, as I have already said, it is necessary to create conditions to be able to establish a climate of mutual trust to move ahead. What role can Italy play? I have already said this. Italy is not directly involved in the activities of the Normandy group, but I said at the meeting – and this goes for other European partners, too, – that Italy is always inclined towards a dialogue and an inclusive approach and in this sense, Italy can play a beneficial role in this situation.

Every time we near the date when the sanctions should expire, I am sad, because prolonging them is not what I wish for myself, for Italy or for my Russian friends. Now we have another six months: alas, we have just extended the sanctions for another six months, but we still have time.

Question (retranslated): I have a question about Libya. Today, Tripoli said it would shut down a refugee camp, and Moscow is predicting a possible civil war in Libya.

President Putin, will Russia continue to support Field Marshal Haftar in the context of this hypothetical scenario?

And a question for Mr Conte: is Italy ready to cope with this possible threat, when 8,000 refugees are expected to arrive?

Vladimir Putin: We have had a practical discussion of this matter today. We talked about this in the Vatican, as well as with the President and Prime Minister of Italy. This matter was discussed many times.

Here is what I would like to say at the outset. A question about what Russia should do and what it will or will not do is very important, but, to be honest, it would be good to recall how it all began.

Who destroyed Libyan statehood? To the best of my knowledge, NATO made that decision and European aircraft bombed Libya. The result is here for everyone to see: Libyan statehood has been destroyed. We are witnessing chaos and a struggle between various paramilitary groups there. I do not believe it is Russia’s duty to make any decisive contribution to the peace settlement. Let us ask those whose actions created the situation. This is my first point.

Secondly, we are not shying away from this, but we do not want to focus on this problem completely. We have stable relations with the government of Fayez al-Saraj and with Mr Haftar. Both of them have been to Moscow and both of them have been to Rome.

We believe that that it is necessary to stop the armed standoff as soon as possible (I noted this in my speech), to launch dialogue and to agree on how to build and reinstate Libyan statehood. All of us are interested in this.

I am particularly concerned that militants are infiltrating Libya from the Idlib zone in Syria, and this is a threat to everyone because they can go anywhere else from Libya. So let us not forget about this.We are ready to pool our efforts, including with our Italian friends, to help resume dialogue between the warring parties in Libya and to help the people of Libya to restore the normal operation of state institutions.

Giuseppe Conte: Regarding Libya: as you know, it is a strategic dossier for Italy. We are permanently monitoring the situation and quite recently, I managed to discuss the subject of Libya with many G20 leaders during the summit. I attempted to convince my interlocutors, and we also talked about this with President Putin today, we agreed that a military solution would lead nowhere, it creates instability and there is no doubt that it is the cause of the humanitarian crises, which are hard to keep under control.

I can say that Italy is one of the few countries (maybe this is why we Italians, and I personally, know this matter concerning Libya all too well) – we could instantly sum things up, which allowed us to predict what was going to take place. Alas, we were good prophets. A military solution in this specific context could not have led to unification, but on the contrary, currently we are witnessing a dramatic situation because terrorists and extremists are much more radical.

I fully agree with President Putin: it is a real civil war, armed clashes, more or less serious, but anyway what we see is a civil war. And a humanitarian crisis is just around the corner. Masses of people have lost their lives and there are very many refugees. And I can only say that I will continue to work both with my friends and with people at the international level so that the international community can unanimously make the Libyan players come to a political decision and cease fire. After this, we can create conditions for talks in order to discuss the details of such a possible dialogue.

As for Al-Sarraj, I am calling on Al-Sarraj to fulfil a highly challenging job: he should take responsibility and make all possible efforts to prevent the total outburst of a humanitarian crisis.

Question: Today, you have listed many critical situations, but Venezuela is yet another country. Did you discuss the situation there? Do you think that the crisis in this country has been overcome?

And another question, Mr President, about your meeting in the Vatican. Could you say a few more words about what was discussed and specific agreements? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I have already said that we have indeed discussed this subject at all venues, that is, at the Vatican, with the President of the Italian Republic and with my colleague and friend, the Prime Minister.

All of us are concerned about the situation in Venezuela. The Russian side is also extremely concerned about this. What I want to say is that people are suffering, and this is an established fact. There are many refugees. People are leaving because life is not going well for them and because there are domestic problems.

We are no less concerned about foreign interference in Venezuelan problems and the external pressure that aggravates the plight of Venezuelan citizens. In my opinion, this is unacceptable. Military involvement is unacceptable and must be totally ruled out, and the same is true of any other interference in domestic political life.

Yes, we have a good relationship with President Maduro. And, of course, this relationship was established long ago. We delivered military equipment to that country, we maintain economic and energy cooperation, we have invested billions of dollars there, and we are concerned about how the situation will develop regarding the normalisation of relations between the opposing parties.

I can almost quote what I said at all these venues during our talks today. Thus, opposition leader, Mr Guaido, came out into a square, looked into the sky, addressed the Almighty and proclaimed himself President. Fine, but the Almighty did not give us his response to this appeal, he did not send us any message. Therefore, I believe it is necessary to return to our sinful and frail Earth and be guided by democratic procedures and rules that boil down to one thing, namely, dialogue and an appeal to the people and voters. It is necessary to take part in elections and to address matters of future development during elections.

We welcome the dialogue launched between the government and the opposition in Norway, and we hope that decisions seen as mutually acceptable by all of the country’s political forces will be elaborated during this dialogue without any outside interference, and that these decisions will help normalise the situation. As we know, President Maduro has repeatedly voiced his readiness to conduct dialogue with the opposition.

Giuseppe Conte: A few words about Venezuela.

As was said, we talked a lot about Venezuela. This is a crisis that caught our attention, because, as I reminded President Putin, a community of Italian origin is there, there is an Italian-speaking community living there, and therefore we are particularly sensitive to what is happening in Venezuela.

In this regard, the Italian position has not changed either. From the very beginning, the Italians took a very clear position. And even some countries that at first adopted a markedly different position to Italy’s, later changed their minds. From the very beginning, we spoke about the fact that, alongside other countries of the European Union, we did not consider that the presidential election was held reliably and under fully democratic conditions. Therefore, we did not recognise Maduro as President. But at the same time, we had doubts about the self-proclamation of Guaido as interim President of the Republic, recognising him as the President of the National Assembly.

This is also a situation of stagnation. A window of dialogue is open in Norway, as President Putin reminded us. We also played our part in this, sent diplomatic delegations. And we are doing our best to accelerate the process of transition to democracy or to create conditions for democratic, transparent elections to be held as soon as possible. This is all in order to provide this country and this people, who suffer so much, with opportunities to restore the situation.

Vladimir Putin: As for the talks in the Vatican, I have already spoken about them. It was a very warm conversation on certain issues of an international nature, as well as on the development of bilateral relations between Russia and the Vatican, including the spiritual aspect of this interaction and humanitarian ties.

Thank you.

Giuseppe Conte: Thank you very much everyone.

July 4, 2019, Rome