Until recently his country’s representative in the «quartet» on the Middle East crisis, the Russian Federation’s new ambassador in Athens, Andrej Vdovin, is an extremely experienced diplomat. He is currently in the limelight again due to the Russian veto on a UN Security Council resolution on the Cyprus issue, just days before Saturday’s referenda on the east Mediterranean island. Kathimerini met Vdovin the day after the Security Council session and a few hours before the polling booths opened in Cyprus. In the interview, the ambassador emphasized his country’s opposition to the attempt to influence Cypriots and explained that whatever the result, Russia would play an active and constructive role in resolving the Cyprus issue in the near future. He expressed his country’s desire for a strategic alliance with Europe, and his concerns over the enlargement of NATO and the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic republics. Of particular interest is Russia’s proposal for an international conference on Iraq, with the participation of the Iraqi opposition. Russia’s stance at the UN Security Council in the debate on the Cyprus issue was a pleasant surprise to many in Greece. What led your country to exercise its veto? We were not alone in our opposition to the idea of having a Security Council resolution before the Cyprus referenda. Many members of the council shared our view that it was not appropriate to express a view before the referenda. There was an attempt to promote a resolution that would influence the outcome of the polls, meaning they would not be as free as they should have been. Our feeling was that any kind of pressure would simply be counterproductive. That is why we were not in a position to back a resolution. In addition, the amendments Russia proposed were not taken into consideration. The haste with which such an important issue was treated was something we could not accept. That is why we resorted to a «procedural veto» which had nothing to do with the substance of the problem but the methodology. We believe that after the referenda, everyone should continue to do their jobs and Russia will adopt an extremely constructive stance on the issue. If the Annan plan is adopted in the referenda, we will be ready to deal with the security concerns that are certainly there. The veto on Cyprus, a year after Russia’s clear opposition, along with Germany and France, to the war against Iraq, has been interpreted by many as the forerunner of Russia’s «return» to the role of a major international power after a period of introspection. Does this have any basis in fact? Look, Russia has never abandoned its role as a major power, as a permanent member of the Security Council, which accords it a particularly responsibility in international affairs. I believe that Russia, particularly in recent years under the presidency of Vladmir Putin, has made great strides toward a foreign policy that is consistent with its national interests and with international legality and the multipolar approach to the modern world to the benefit of global stability. This policy is being furthered in a way that will not cause unnecessary conflict and takes into consideration the interests of all concerned in each specific international problem. These basic principles will continue to guide Russian foreign policy in the period to come, after the re-election of President Putin. Double standard Russia has been a particularly useful ally of the US in the «war on terrorism» after September 11, particularly in Afghanistan. Nevertheless not only does it not appear to have been rewarded for its stance, but has been put under pressure on issues of domestic security such as in Chechnya. What is your view of this double standard? We appreciate the cooperation between Russia, the United States and the European Union on dealing with terrorism. There have been specific achievements – you have already referred to Afghanistan – and we believe that we can continue with this cooperation to the benefit of world stability. Now in relation to the double-talk, I believe that it is a phenomenon that we should all be concerned with. For example, it is quite unnatural for the European Union to lodge a demarche with the Geneva Human Rights Commission, expressing concerns about Chechnya and not mention anything about the rights of Russian-speaking populations in certain Baltic states. As for Chechnya, the situation there has changed a great deal in recent years. The Russian Federation has initiated a process to settle the problem by political means, a process which has achieved considerable successes that some prefer to ignore. I believe that we should not be teaching each other lessons. The West should not be advising Russia to get involved in negotiations with terrorists, just as no one could imagine a European country negotiating with terrorists, such as Spain with the ETA. So we should not be using a double standard, otherwise the impression being given is that one is serving other purposes than those stated. This feeling is very prevalent among the Russian public. The US’s sudden about turn on the Palestinian issue, as expressed in the recent meeting between US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington, has led to a number of international reactions. Is the Russian Federation planning to take initiatives in the Middle East to try and overcome the standoff? Russia has been an active force in the Middle East within the framework of the «quartet» (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia). The major achievement of this cooperation was the drafting of the road map, which at Russia’s initiative was adopted by the Security Council. Today there is an Israeli initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. It is a step in the right direction but it must be combined with an overall settlement of the problem and within the terms of the road map. We will insist on that in our future talks within the framework of the quartet. ‘Selective killings’ How do you view the killings of Palestinian leaders, particular the leaders of Hamas, by the Israelis? We believe that these «selective killings» are counterproductive and do not contribute to a positive outcome. Israel has the right to defend its citizens’ security, but it has to do so within the bounds of international law.