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Russia's Foreign Minister Praises Better Relations With West

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his annual news conference in Moscow on January 13
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has praised the emergence of what he calls an increasingly democratic and stable world order, saying less confrontation and more cooperation had created a "new paradigm" in international relations.

"Not everyone is ready for these changes," Russia's top diplomat told reporters during an annual news conference in Moscow. "Some are lost, others are trying to stop them. That affects the uncertainties and the many layers of what's taking place on the world stage."

Lavrov said improving ties between Russia and the United States were especially responsible for the increasing "healthiness of the international situation."

"Today there's more uniting us and the United States than dividing us," Lavrov said, "and let's hope that reality won't become victim of short-term political maneuvering."

The upbeat rhetoric was a marked departure from previous years, in which Lavrov often lashed out against the West. Washington will take it as another sign President Barack Obama's decision to "reset" relations with Russia in 2009 has paid off.

That policy began after Russia's invasion of its neighbor and U.S. ally Georgia had plunged ties between Moscow and the West to Cold War levels.

Lavrov praised developments since then, including the signing of new nuclear arms and energy deals, talks over Russia's joining the World Trade Organization, and the "full-scale functioning" of a bilateral presidential commission he said was addressing "all spheres of our cooperation."

"Our fundamental task now is to preserve the basis for healthy, equal mutual relations between Russia and the United States and widening the sphere of our strategic interests," he said.

Lavrov said the improving ties had enabled Moscow's relations with NATO to emerge from a "freeze" following the Russia-Georgia war, and that Russia had also "seriously strengthened" what he called its strategic partnership with the European Union.

He said Russia's proposal for a new European security agreement had played an "important role" as a catalyst for dialogue, saying Moscow wasn't expecting an answer, but warning the Kremlin wants to see the current system changed.

"Some want to change nothing, and continue providing for European security on the basis of NATO-centrism, but wiser people understand that's impossible because without Russia's participation as an equal partner, there can be no European security system," Lavrov said.

Critics say Russia's proposal is meant to undermine NATO and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), one of the main pillars of Europe's current security arrangement.

Lavrov dismissed proposals by Germany and other Western countries that Kremlin help solving the so-called frozen conflict in Moldova's pro-Moscow breakaway region Transdniestr would signal its real intention to cooperate with the West. Instead he said Russia's inclusion in a U.S.-led missile defense system would be a better test. Moscow says it's concerned the missile shield would be aimed against Russia.

Asked whether overwhelming international condemnation of a second conviction for jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky last month would affect Russia's improving relations with other countries, Lavrov dismissed the reactions as "emotional."

"In most cases, countries that are our partners have pragmatic leaders who can separate grain from chaff and will address each question in our relations on its own merits," Lavrov said.

The sentencing of the former oil oligarch -- widely believed to be a political threat to the Kremlin -- was seen as a major barometer of Russia's authoritarian government, which has marginalized independent media and human rights groups. A Swedish arbitration court today ruled the state takeover of Khodovkovsky's Yukos oil company was "unlawful."

But Lavrov said Russia has boosted its cooperation with civil society, which he said was part of Moscow's modernization drive.

Responding to Polish criticism from January 12 over a Russian investigation into last year's crash of a plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and other top officials, Lavrov warned against "making political gains" from a tragedy.

Addressing other issues, Lavrov said Iran's nuclear program was a "serious problem." He said Tehran's recent offer to Russia and China to visit its nuclear facilities deserved attention. But he added that "such visits cannot in any way be considered a substitute for IAEA inspections."

"And also, these visits and the group of countries participating in these visits must not be considered a substitute for the talks between Iran and the sextet," Lavrov said.

Lavrov also praised last year's agreement with Belarus and Kazakhstan to form a free-trade zone, saying one of Russia's priorities for next year would be to strengthen integration inside the loose alliance of former Soviet republics called the Commonwealth of Independent States.
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