Fiona O'Cleirigh of Exaro -
The Russian ambassador to the EU's blunt comments to a private lunch in Brussels about "protecting" ethnic Russians abroad in places like Estonia and Latvia, left the western diplomats attending stunned and raised fears about further armed intervention in Europe, the London-based investigative website Exaro can reveal.
In comments made to a lunch club held at the Russian embassy in the Belgian capital a fortnight ago and leaked to Exaro, Vladimir Chizhov, permanent representative of Russia to the EU, described Russia as "the most dispersed nation on earth," and said that its president, Vladimir Putin, was very conscious of this. "President Putin wants to protect them," he said.
The ambassador referred to a report that he said was produced by Javier Solana during his term as the EU's high representative for foreign and security policy. This, Chizhov claimed, said that if the minority population from one nation made up at least 20% of a country's population, then they should have equal rights with everybody else.
One source who attended the lunch told Exaro that the Russians were preparing an excuse for intervention further afield than Crimea. "It sounded as if the foreign office in Moscow had been researching busily through obscure documents," the source said.
Russia has justified its annexation in March of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that previously was part of Ukraine, on the grounds that it was protecting ethnic Russians in the region, who make up a majority of the population. The region was previously part of Russia.
Chizhov told the lunch club in Brussels that Russians made up 38% of the population in Estonia, and 28% in Latvia, but had been declared "non-citizens" by the two governments. Official figures show in Latvia that 27% of the population is ethnic Russian against 25% in Estonia and 6% in Lithuania. The "non-citizen" label is because these Soviet-era migrants who stayed on in the Baltic states after the restoration of independence in 1991 have never bothered to take the simple naturalisation tests required to gain citizenship.
Chizhov said that Russia remains concerned about the actions of the governments of Estonia and Latvia towards ethnic Russians in the two countries.
His comments come amid growing tension in eastern Ukraine. Clashes between ethnic Russian protestors demanding greater autonomy (or outright independence via referenda) and Ukrainian security forces are growing, with the Russian Foreign Ministry warning on April 9 that a crackdown by the authorities could lead to civil war. "We are calling for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which could lead to civil war," the ministry was reported by CNN as saying in a statement on its website.
During a question-and-answer session at the lunch, one guest asked the ambassador who the mysterious masked figures were that had appeared in Crimea prior to the takover. The well-armed, professional military men had no identifying markings on their uniforms. "They were not Russians," replied Chizhov. "They were the Crimea self-defence organisation that spontaneously sprang into action." Nobody questioned the reply. The source said: "It would have been rude, but people agreed afterwards that it was not a very good lie."
A guest from Greece light-heartedly pointed out that Crimea used to be part of Alexander the Great's empire. Perhaps, Crimea should be handed back to Greece, he suggested. The source said: "We all laughed a lot, and even the ambassador laughed. But I do not think that is going to happen."
Chatham House Rule
The informal group, mainly Brussels-based diplomats and Belgian businessmen, meets once or twice a month at different locations in Brussels. It hears talks from special guests under the so-called "Chatham House Rule", meaning that attendees are asked not to attribute comments to the speaker.
Chizhov was scheduled as a speaker several months ago, before tension between Russia and Ukraine reached crisis point over Crimea. A former deputy foreign minister, Chizhov was Russia's special representative for the Balkans between 2000 and 2002. He speaks English, Greek and French.
The source told Exaro: "Having attended many previous lunches, he offered many weeks previously to host a lunch himself, and to give a talk. His subject was not specified at the time. Events happened, and the occasion turned out to be perfect for discussing the hot subject of the day – Crimea."
Kirill Ivanov, press attache at Russia's permanent mission to the EU, declined to comment on Chizhov's comments. Ivanov said that the meeting was "closed", under the Chatham House Rule, "and this is why any comments on that are impossible."
Chizhov's comments came as Nato's supreme allied commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said that Russia may have another region in its sights after Crimea, mentioning in particular Transdniestria (also known as Trasnistria), which declared independence from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1990 and whose leadership have expressed a desire to join the Russian Federation.
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