BEIRUT: Russia hopes that Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election will be a strictly internal process unconstrained by regional or international factors, the country’s envoy to Lebanon said Wednesday.
Alexander Zasypkin explained that the choice of a Lebanese president must be subject to internal Lebanese issues, not external factors.
“It is too early to discuss specific names that are candidates for the presidency and it is difficult for Russia to back a particular party over another Lebanese party,” he told The Daily Star. “According to our diplomatic norms and traditions we consider this the right of the Lebanese.”
Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, according to the veteran diplomat, is a fait accompli and is aimed at protecting Russian citizens from “neofascists.”
Zasypkin also said that Russia was interested in partnering with Lebanon in large infrastructure projects such as constructing railways, dams and oil and natural gas exploration.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Russian diplomat discussed relations with Lebanon, the Syrian war, the Ukraine crisis, and the fight against extremism.
Zasypkin said Russia’s relationship with Lebanon was deep and would not be undermined by his country’s position on the crisis in Syria. Russia backs Bashar Assad’s embattled regime and has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at punishing his government.
“Historically, from the time of the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union to modern Russia we have had diplomatic traditions that are not tied to circumstances,” he said. “We consider Lebanon a repository of vital energy that can play a strategic role to deepen our relations and our presence in the Arab world.”
He said that ties with Lebanon go back to the emergence of Eastern Orthodox culture in the region and during the era of the liberation movements at the time of the Soviet Union’s existence.
At the time, many Lebanese students graduated from Soviet universities, and relations with the Russian Federation are even more extensive, he said.
“Our relations are solid and are not affected by emergencies or passing circumstances,” he said.
Zasypkin said that Russia sought to conduct large-scale infrastructure and joint economic projects in Lebanon, such as building a railway line and train stations, large dams to store water and even to invest in the search for oil and natural gas.
“It is not new for Russia to be very interested in the discoveries occurring in this area of the Mediterranean basin,” he said.
Zasypkin said that Russia had extensive experience in developing oil fields, but investment in the Mediterranean basin’s oil reserves was dependent on the interest of Russian companies.
“We are not a primary side in the negotiations and we are, until now, interested in creating a specific dynamic between Russian companies and the Lebanese side,” he said.
Zasypkin expressed satisfaction with the creation of a new government. Lebanon formed a Cabinet of “national interest” last month after arduous 10-month negotiations, and a presidential election is due in May.
“We of course support the Cabinet’s existence,” he said. “We must reiterate the principles of Russian foreign policy which is absolute noninterference in internal affairs.”
“For that reason we do not interfere in the shape of the government coalition or the distribution of seats and the participating factions,” he added. “We do not lean toward one faction or the other, but we condemn any external interference in internal Lebanese affairs.”
Zasypkin said that Russia encourages continuous dialogue in Lebanon in order to overcome various obstacles.
But Zasypkin acknowledged that there were threats against his embassy, which is surrounded by new protective measures.
“We live at a sensitive stage and in a heated region and the dangers do not surround us alone,” he said. “Explosions could target other centers and therefore we have taken preventive decisions and strengthened measures around the embassy.”
Lebanon has been the target of several bombings and rocket attacks in recent months, particularly in areas traditionally associated with Hezbollah. Militant groups claiming responsibility for the attacks cite the party’s involvement in Syria.
Zasypkin added, however, that terrorism does not affect Russia’s position on Middle Eastern issues “despite our interests facing danger.”
On the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world, Zasypkin said that Russia warned against perceiving the developments in the region from a sectarian or religious point of view, without also working on resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute.
He said that Russia was subjected to “deception” by powers who exploited the humanitarian situation in Libya, obtaining authorization for a no-fly zone and then using it to overthrow the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
The U.N. Security Council endorsed a no-fly zone in 2011 to protect civilians from an onslaught by Gadhafi’s forces. NATO-backed rebels eventually ended four decades of his rule.
Zasypkin said that Russia was alert to an attempt at repeating that experience with Syria.
“We must not encourage sectarian or religious fighting in the Arab world,” he said. “We encourage continued dialogue and closing the gaps as much as possible rather than increasing the rift.”
Zasypkin also said Russia was committed to combating terrorism and religious extremism.
On the Arab-Israeli dispute, Zasypkin said that U.N. resolutions were a good starting point in negotiations. In an apparent reference to the U.S., he said that no single power could achieve a resolution to the conflict without the involvement of others in the international community.
Zasypkin also defended Russia’s decision to annex the Crimean peninsula. The pro-Russian government of Ukraine was overthrown in a popular revolt this year. Crimea declared independence after a referendum that endorsed the region’s unification with Russia.
“Crimea is Russian land with sovereignty and the popular referendum on the issue has occurred and President Putin approved the agreement and the issue is over,” he said. “What is happening in Ukraine is not Russia’s choice.”
“We will not accept the choices of the neofascists in Ukraine and we must defend our citizens and interests,” he said.
Russia has frequently claimed that Ukraine’s new government is backed by extremists and armed neofascists.