MH17: Russian Ambassador to Malaysia speaks up

  • Nation
  • Monday, 21 Jul 2014

KUALA LUMPUR: Following is the transcript of the interview with Russian Ambassador to Malaysia, Lyudmila G. Vorobyeva, who appeared on the Bernama Today programme which aired on BernamaTV Monday.

Question: What was your first reaction knowing that you are the ambassador to the country of registration of MH17?

Vorobyeva: Good afternoon. I was shocked. I heard on the news about this horrible tragedy when I was in Moscow, when I was amongst my friends in the Foreign Ministry. When we had seen on our smartphones the news about the MH17 disaster, we were all shocked. I was horrified I can tell you.

I would like to seize this opportunity to express my sincere condolences and my heartfelt sympathy for the families that have lost their loved ones in this flight. Not only as an ambassador, but as a human being as well as a mother. I just cannot describe in words how sorry and how shocked I feel.

Q: On the other side, we were not expecting you to come here; you just came here to want to give us information. And the thing is this, we are just going to walk through general thoughts and the general thoughts, the first thing is the finger pointing that Russia has been receiving for the past weeks and so. What are the reactions from the embassy here in Malaysia?

Vorobyeva: Russia is being blamed for this awful tragedy. Last night, our President made a very clear statement on this tragedy and he described the MH17 crash as an awful and tragic event. Those are his words. And he reiterated that Russia had repeatedly called for a peaceful solution of the conflict that is developing in Ukraine and we are very confident that if on June 28, the fighting and bloodshed had stopped, this tragedy would have never occurred.

And, of course, we are very sure that this tragedy shouldn't be used to achieve someone's egoistic political targets. Because this kind of event shouldn't divide people, but should unite people in order to find the solution to prevent this kind of thing happening. Russia has been always in favour of a peaceful and diplomatic solution of this conflict.

Q: When it comes to this conflict, of course the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been ongoing. And with us, we would want to be clear that Malaysia and Russia never had any problem. A lot of people have now started asking, do we have problems with the Russian government, and I don't think we do. What's your comment?

Vorobyeva: First of all, it's not the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but it's the conflict that is going on inside Ukraine, between the government in Kiev and the part of the population of Ukraine (eastern Ukraine) that are not happy with the policy of this government.

This is not only a linguistic divide, but it's a political divide as well because when the Western media called this pro-Russian rebels it implied the people came from somewhere, which is not the case. Actually, they're Ukrainian citizens who are living in Ukraine and they have been living in Ukraine for centuries (as a family). The only thing, they are ethnic-Russians.

Like in Malaysia, you do have Malays, Chinese, Indian ethnics but they're all Malaysian citizens. The same in Ukraine, when you have Ukrainians, you have Russians but they're all Ukrainian nationals, but part of them are not happy with the government in Kiev. And the government in Kiev instead of listening and initiating all-inclusive national dialogues, they are sending troops. That's the problem.

As for problems between Russia and Malaysia, I am not aware of any problem that we could have between our two countries. The relations between our two countries have been developing in a very positive way in recent decades, in all levels.

I know many Malaysians are aware that there are now more than 5,000 Malaysians (close to 6,000 Malaysian students) studying in Russia and, in other areas, we have a very good trade turnover around US$3bil (RM9.5bil) and we have quite active political dialogues going on. We don't have any problems and issues with Malaysia.

Q: Coming back to MH17 and speaking on the flight's black box that has been taken. What is the information given out to the embassy now as to ... a lot has been circulated in the social media too about who has taken the black box?

Vorobyeva: The recent information, well actually I know from the Russian TV, agencies' news is that the black box has been indeed found by so-called rebels, but I do not know whether this information was verified officially but, according to our TV news report, the rebels will hand over the black box to the international committee headed by ICAO.

Q: When do we have an estimate date at least, on when the box will be handed over?

Vorobyeva: As soon as the international commission reaches the crash area, and it depends on the rebels, and the Kiev authorities as well.

Q: Malaysian authorities, team are all now mobilised from Malaysia to Ukraine and they find it hard to get to the crash site. And why do you think that is?

Vorobyeva: OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observers are already on the site. The rebels are actually cooperating in a very positive way, providing all necessary conditions for foreign and international missions to come to this area. The rest depends on Kiev authorities.

Q: Being the Russian Ambassador to Malaysia, how would you provide assistance to the people who need assistance at this point?

Vorobyeva: Whatever assistance that you may need from us, from the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Kuala Lumpur, we are all ready to provide.

I can tell you one small example that we did. We were contacted by a Malaysian person who lost his wife and small child in this tragedy. The wife's iPad was found in the area, and the person who found this iPad posted a message in Russian language, and there was a telephone number in the message.

We contacted this person and it turned out that it is a young girl who found a bag with this iPad and some of the child's belongings ... you must understand that the debris is scattered all around 50km from the crash site. Actually what she told us was that she was very eager to hand over this bag and belongings to the family.

So, actually we advised her to get in touch with the Malaysian experts and to hand it over to Malaysian experts that will be working on the site.

And yes indeed, this example is very contrasting to the information that the site is being looted, and that it is a crime site and many other negative reports.

As I mentioned earlier, according to OSCE observers, people who are in control of the territory, actually, they are providing all necessary arrangements that the site should not be looted and the evidence should not be tampered with.

Q: About the picture of a Russian aircraft which was similar in appearance, with the same stripes as the MAS airline, that is believed to be the reason why it was shot down?

Vorobyeva: Indeed, even the colour of our national flags are very similar but not only Russia and Malaysia are using similar colours because many other countries are using the same colour and symbols.

I do not want to speculate if they were actually targeting the President's (Vladimir Putin's) plane. That's why Russia is calling for a transparent investigation before anyone could be blamed for it. Because all accusations against Russia, how can it be done without any evidence, yet?. They're just speculation.

Q: You said this is not a Russian-Ukraine situation. This is a crisis within Ukraine. In Malaysia, we want to understand this because we are somehow involved in this now. Our plane is there. We only want to understand what the situation is so we can better make judgement when it comes to viewing things politically or internationally.

Yorobyeva: It started with a very legitimate discontent of some part of the Ukranian population with the former government of Ukraine, the president who was legitimately elected. People have the right to voice their discontent with the government or the president. But actually there are legitimate means to oust the president or government. If you don't like your government, you can impeach him, you don't vote for him and then he will be gone.

But what happened in Ukraine was armed coup d'etat that ousted the legitimately elected President. It was a coup d'etat that put in place a government that was not elected by the majority of the population.

And instead of initiating all-inclusive national dialogue that would permit all political forces and regions to express their views on the future of Ukraine, and to discuss ways to accommodate these views in a peaceful way, actually the government in Kiev started a war against its own population.

And when Mr Poroshenko (Ukraine President, Petro Poroshenko) was leading his electoral campaign, one of his promises was to stop this bloodshed in Ukraine.

Telephone Caller: I understand there are not only one section of rebels, there are many rebels down there. How would this convince the international committee on who to discuss with?

Yorobyeva: The leaders of these regions and political forces, they are very well known. There is no misunderstanding with whom Kiev can launch a dialogue. The only problem is the lack of political will from Kiev to have this dialogue with these regions of Ukraine.

Q: When you said lack of political will, what is indicative of the lack of political will by Kiev?

Yorobyeva: Very simple thing that, instead of talking with these regions, they're sending troops to these regions.

Q: Until now we're still yet to get clear passage. Is that one of the indicators? Last week, the Ukraine Ambassador came and talked about how Ukraine feels for the victims and also talked about how he believes it's a problem Russia has to deal with.

Yorobyeva: We're going back to point number one when everyone is blaming Russia for this. There's no evidence as I mentioned. And before coming up with the accusations, there should be a very thorough investigation by the international commission. That's what Russia is asking for. That's what Russia is calling for.

Yesterday (Sunday), the President (Putin) clearly stated that Russia is calling for investigation by an international commission lead by ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation).

The other theories on what happened ... actually one of the theories is that Ukrainian armed forces do have the kind of air defence system fired on this aircraft. I can remind our viewers an incident that happened in 2001 when a Russian aircraft was shot down by a Ukrainian missile.

Q: Talking about before we reach a referendum, can you just walk us through that again before we get another caller? The referendum in Crimea.

Yorobyeva: It's a very different situation in Crimea. First of all, Crimea for centuries has been part of Russia. And it was handed over to Ukraine by one of our leaders during the Soviet times in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev.

At that time it was an undemocratic decision because the population of neither Crimea, Russia nor Ukraine was consulted. But at that time, it really didn't matter because we were part of one country. Administratively, legally it was the Soviet Union. So, it didn't present a problem or issue at that time.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimea became a part of independent Ukraine. Only for 22 years was Crimea a part of independent Ukraine. But the events that happened this year showed that the population of Crimea always wanted to go back to Russia. And a referendum was held.

You can call it legitimate, you can call it illegitimate. But you cannot deny one simple fact, that around 90% of the population of Crimea voted in favour of going back to Russia. If it's not democratic, what is it.

Caller: Now, we are talking about those who are down there. We don't blame anyone of us, we only want, we hope that the Russian President could help us to bring back the remains.

Yorobyeva: Of course, we sympathise. And in conversation between President Putin and Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, he clearly stated that Russia will do what is possible to assist in helping the families of the victims of this tragedy. But it happened on the territory of Ukraine.

And our influence on the situation is not that strong. So, it's up to the Ukranian government and leaders of this region to provide the necessary conditions for the international commission to come in, Malaysian experts to come in and to 'rescue' the bodies.

Q: What Your Excellency stated was a problem within Ukraine. We're coming back to that ongoing spat that is within Ukraine. One thing we cannot ignore is Sevastopol. It is a very important part of Ukraine. What is Russia's stand on the port?

Yorobyeva: Sevastopol is geographically in Crimea. But if you look at the irony of it, when it was handed over to Ukraine, Sevastopol administratively was never a part of Crimea. It always had a special stature, like the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur or Putrajaya. It was a Federal Territory.

But because geographically it's in Crimea, it happened so that Sevastopol also became a part of Ukraine. But we have an arrangement with the government of Ukraine that we will have our navy base in Sevastopol. We had an agreement.

It is very important because this base hosts the Black Sea navy fleet of Russia. But the population of Sevastopol, like the population of Crimea, actually voted in favour of going back to Russia.

And that's what happened. These images were never shown in the Western news reports but Russia TV showed how people cried with joy in Sevastopol, in Crimea when the results of the referendum were known and when the agreement between Russia, Crimea and Sevastopol was signed.

Caller: We Malaysians have hope the Russians will help us bring back the bodies. That is what we want. All Malaysians want that. It's very sad to see Malaysian being treated like that ...(sobbing)

Yorobyeva: Our hearts go out for all the families of the victims of this awful, awful tragedy. I just can't describe how sorry I feel. As I mentioned, I learned about the tragedy when I was in Moscow and we were all really so shocked to hear about this.

I can assure you whatever we can, we will do, but influence is limited in this situation. I know, when you hope for something, you are trying to ask and to find a solution in anything. But actually the people responsible for this situation are the Ukrainians.

Q: I don't mean to put you in a spot. But you talked about influence. Russia is one of the major powers in the world. Wouldn't that carry some weight when it comes to search-and-rescue operations and also to retrieve the bodies?

Yorobyeva: Thank you for saying that. As I mentioned, we're doing whatever we can to help this situation to be resolved. Not only the tragedy of MH17 and, also in broader view, to stop this fighting which resulted in this awful tragedy.

Q: A few months ago, we were reading about the problems within Ukraine and how Russia was involved in. Coming back to Sevastopol, you said it was important for Russia or the Black Sea fleet. Isn't that one of the points as to why Russia is having problems with Ukraine too?

Yorobyeva: Not the issue of Sevastopol. We had a very good agreement with the government of Ukraine on the rent of the navy base in Sevastopol that hosts the Russian Black Sea navy. That was not a big issue in our relations. Actually, we followed the will of the people in this issue when Crimea and Sevastopol came back.

You know, the Western media called it the annexation by Russia of Crimea. In Russia, we call it the reunification of Crimea with Russia and, indeed, it was a joy for the people in Crimea and Russia as well.

Caller: The question is that our Malaysian team is right now in Ukraine already. Why are they not able to get a security pass to go to the crash site. It's being delayed, and they are very concerned about the black box. We hope that we can get the news as soon as possible to release all the anger and frustration of all Malaysia citizens.

At the same time, you told us that Crimea has voted 95% to agree to merge with Russia. But, what we read is false accusation that they are being forced to vote.

Yorobyeva: It is also our wish that the experts and international commission could reach the site as soon as possible. The rebels already have given the assurance that they will provide safe passage. Now it's up to the government in Kiev to provide safety measures for the experts and international commission.

We will do whatever possible to help resolve this situation. Because in our interest, international experts, experts from Malaysia, investigate the incident as thoroughly as possible. That's what the Russian Federation wants.

Q: The second question. The population of Crimea has gone up to 2.5 million. So how many guns does it take from the Russian government as they go out and vote?

Yorobyeva: That's a good question. How can you force two million people to vote for anything they don't want to. It's impossible. No one forced the population of Crimea to vote in favour of joining Russia. It was their will and they were laughing and crying with joy when it happened.

Caller: How can rebels have access to surface-to-air missiles if not backed by a superpower?

Yorobyeva: Actually there is no evidence that rebels had access to this kind of very sophisticated equipment. I'm not a military expert but I know that it's a very sophisticated system that requires special training for the personnel to be able to use it.

Moreover, some time ago, the Attorney-General of Ukraine stated that it is a fact that rebels didn't have any of these systems. On the contrary, the Ukrainian armed forces do have these kinds of systems that are deployed in this region.

Caller: (Asked about the Korean Air plane that was shot down in 1983 by the Soviet Union.)

Yorobyeva: It happened a long time ago during the Soviet era. I don't want to make any parallel. You know, this kind of thing happens sometimes by mistake, sometimes deliberately. As I mentioned, there was an incident in year 2001 when a Russian aircraft was shot down by mistake by the Ukranian armed forces but I think that has no relation to what happened this time.

Question: On access to the site and wanting to get the remains of those on the flight?

Yorobyeva: It's an absolutely fair and legitimate wish of the people of Malaysia, Government of Malaysia, families of the victims, and it has been mentioned already we will provide any assistance we can.

Q: Before we wrap up, I really need to ask you this. And I don't mean to offend anyone's sensitivities by doing this. It's only fair I get a comment from you. Last week, we did speak to His Excellency Ihor V. Humenyyi (the Ukraine Ambassador to Malaysia). We asked him "who do you think did it?" and he said the Russians did.

Yorobyeva: As I mentioned, how can we blame anyone without investigation and without facts. And the facts could only be established through investigation by an international commission. That's what Russia is asking for. Only after the investigation, can any accusation be made.

Q: Your message to Malaysians.

Yorobyeva: First of all, in Russia we sympathise deeply with Malaysia, with the families, with all the people who lost their relatives and loved ones. We're very appreciative of the Malaysian government's position, that is not to blame, not to point fingers, and try to find out the facts. We will cooperate with the Malaysian government fully and we will do all we can to assist Malaysia in these hard times. - Bernama

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