20 October 2008
Press conference with Slovakian Foreign Minister, Ján Kubiš
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I formally and officially welcome to Australia, Slovakian Foreign Minister, Jan Kubis. I'm very pleased to welcome the Foreign Minister here. And we've just had a formal bilateral.
Mr Kubis is the first Slovakian Foreign Minister to visit Australia in nine years. So it's our first formal bilateral on Australian soil for nearly a decade.
This is not the first occasion that the Foreign Minister and I have met or had discussions. We met in the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York recently.
Can I say, firstly, that Australia and Slovakia have a good and warm bilateral relationship.
Our trade and investment is modest but it is growing. There's an expatriate Slovakian community in Australia of nearly 10,000. Small but active. And we share a number of interests. Some of which we've discussed this morning and some of which we'll continue our discussion over dinner tonight.
For example, we share an interest in Cyprus, we share an interest in non-proliferation and in disarmament matters. But in addition to some important aspects of our bilateral relationship, which went to our trade and our investment, and also, tourist and visa arrangements, Slovakia is of course a member of the European Union. And so a lot of our conversations went to the emerging relationship between Australia and the European Union.
As people would know, later this month, we hope to sign with the European Union the Australia-European Union partnership framework, and we're very grateful to Slovakia for their support of that endeavour.
Mr Kubis is a former Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe, and we had a very good conversation about Georgia and Russia, and our respective views on that matter. And I think it's true to say that in that respect, we share very similar views.
We also had a conversation about Afghanistan. Australia, of course, has nearly 1100 troops in Afghanistan, and Slovakia is currently making changes to its arrangements to see, in the near future, nearly 250 force protection elements from Slovakia in Oruzgan Province in Tarin Kowt working closely and directly with Australian servicemen and women there. And so, we share that experience as well.
Like Australia, Slovakia has had a longstanding interest in Cyprus. Australia has had members of the peacekeeping force in Cyprus since its inception, as has Slovakia, if one takes into account its previous life as part of Czechoslovakia. But we share an interest in hoping to see a resolution to the difficult problem of Cyprus, and we are both, in a sense, optimistic that the current environment is better than we've seen in Cyprus for some considerable period of time.
In terms of our discussions later this evening over dinner, we'll consider a range of issues of interest to Slovakia, so far as Asia and the Asia-Pacific is concerned.
We'll also pursue our discussions on proliferation and disarmament, bearing in mind that today is the first day of meeting of the International Non-proliferation and Disarmament Commission which the Government established, co-chaired by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and former Japanese Foreign Minister, Kawaguchi.
So Minister, thank you very much for coming to Australia. I enjoyed very much our conversation in New York, as I've enjoyed our productive conversation this morning. Can I, before asking you to make some formal remarks, thank you for your invitation to visit Slovakia, which I hope to do in the course of next year.
So thank you for coming to Australia, and I'd be pleased if you could make some formal introductory remarks.
JAN KUBIS: Thank you. Thank you very much, Minister. And, indeed, it's my great pleasure and honour that I can be here. Indeed, my predecessor was here some nine years ago, but it was a different situation I would like to say and difference is more on our side. Because, in the meantime, we became member of the European Union and a member of NATO. And we, as Slovakia, we are one of the most dynamic economies of the European Union, and this is the situation that will continue in spite of the financial crisis and, perhaps, some adverse impacts on the economic development across the world.
So we are, from this perspective as well, trying to look around now and to reach out to our partners. And Australia is, indeed, one of our major partners. Not necessarily in the sense of trade. Trade is, indeed, rather modest at the time - for the time being and also investment, this way or that way, is not that big.
But we would like to be stronger partners. We would like to see, indeed, moves forward that would increase our mutual trade and, perhaps also, investment.
We are partners, as far as the European Union is concerned, and I'm very glad, indeed, that very soon we will move to the next stage of our cooperation under the EU-Australia partnership framework. This is a major document, a very pragmatic document, I would say, that is opening new possibilities for our cooperation, be it bilateral but also between Australia and the European Union.
We are global partners also, but in the framework of NATO. And Australia is with us and we are with Australia in many places. But, first of all, it is, indeed, Afghanistan. I am, indeed, very glad that we have, in a way, almost quadrupled our presence in Afghanistan. And while one year and a half ago we were in Kandahar with some 60 troops, engineers, now we are moving to the south of the country. We were in Kabul, pardon, excuse me. And now we are moving to the south to Kandahar and to the Oruzgan Province. We are changing our posture, moving from having only engineers to providing force protection troops and also some other specialists. And in Oruzgan notably, but also in Kandahar, we are already together, and we will have this 250 troops at the very beginning of the next year. Now, we are already at a level of, I don't know, 140, maybe even more.
We, of course, have also wider bilateral relations. The active Slovak community here, it's not only composed of people that move to Australia in several waves of migration, including the post-war migration. But we have a lot of students here. We would like to have even more of them. We would like to find a way, how to facilitate their stay here, and this is also for us to discuss in the future.
We would like to see more visitors, and that's why we are very happy and grateful to the decision of the government of Australia to open for us also the eVisitor program, that is basically making us equal to all other members of the European Union. We are very glad that Australia, as earlier this year Canada and approximately one month from now, the United States are making moves that are just confirming that we are real partners, and that we would like to work together. So thank you Australia for that as well.
And, indeed, we work also in many other areas, geographical areas under the UN umbrella, like Cyprus, but also in the areas like activities that led to non-proliferation activities of other sort with our helping in peacekeeping operations and peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations. We are strong partners. We would like to be even stronger partners. And that's the reason why I came here, as I said, as a country that is now more strong in our own development, our reaching out to the partners, like Australia. And, indeed, I am very happy that you, Minister, accepted the invitation and I hope very much to see you next year in Slovakia.
SMITH: Well Minister, thank you very much for that. Before inviting some questions, I should, of course, make the historic point that our post-World War II migration program started with the Citizenship Act, which came into effect in 1949. Prior to that, of course, we were all British subjects.
The first person who became a citizen of Australia under the Citizenship Act was a Slovakian who lived near Canberra.
I haven't checked the historical record, but I assume, at some stage, worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. So there's a very important part of our history there shared by Slovakia.
Can I also just underline one of the comments made by the Foreign Minister. We had a conversation about the international financial crisis and in very many respects Australia's analysis is the same as Slovakia; also, what we expect to be the impact on both Australia and Slovakia. Whilst we expect to suffer the adverse implications of slower international and domestic economic growth, we think we're well placed in terms of the prudential and the financial services regulation that we both had in place for some time. So in a number of areas there is some similarity of view and public policy position.
Anyway, we're happy to respond to questions.
QUESTION: Minister, we all have a strong interest in Afghanistan; a number of [indistinct] a lot of commentary relating the situation there is deteriorating quite [indistinct]; countries like Canada and the Netherlands are talking about pulling troops out.
Minister why did your country decided to increase troops? And why do you feel that the war there can be won?
KUBIS: Well, first of all, I would like to say that the increase of our military engagement as is the increase of the military engagement of ISAF as such, is a part of the response, it's not the response. And I would like to - that you look at the situation from this perspective.
This effort cannot be won by arms. This is just a part of the contribution and in cooperation with the authorities of the country. What is needed is much more exposure and engagement in the civilian effort, in the effort that would strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the Government and it would empower the Government to deliver even more than it is delivering now.
This is part of the response. A very active Government acting throughout the country empowered by the, as we assume and expect, by the new elections that are coming in Afghanistan.
But of course when we are challenged by the increased number of incidents by the increased military attacks by the insurgents, we must provide response. Part of the response is to share burden with others.
As I said, Slovakia was previously engaged in Kabul serving at the airport, providing the services of our military engineers. Now we are assuming responsibilities in force protection in two military bases in Oruzgan, but also in Kandahar, as such. And we feel that this is needed not only because of the actual military value of this, but also because we need to give a strong political signal to our allies; allies like Australia, but allies like the Netherlands or Canada, because they are working in the south. And indeed, they need to know that they are not alone, or that this heavy burden is not only reserved to a few, be it NATO or the international community; that we are there to share with them.
So we decided to move to the south also to send a strong political signal and to keep us as the alliance working together, as ISAF, working together, as an international community working together there in Afghanistan.
Adding to this, of course, when I speak about a military site, what we need to have in mind is also how to reinforce the capacities and capability of the Afghan National Army and of the police of the country. But again, this is for a longer discourse perhaps.
So this is my response to you.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, just on the international financial crisis, the big part of Australia's foreign policy towards the Pacific is based around the Millennium Development Goals. Do you think the progress on that front is going to go backwards as a result of the global financial crisis?
SMITH: Well, we certainly hope that it doesn't. But the danger, of course, is that slower and lower international economic growth causes additional difficulties.
The Prime Minister and I have both made it clear that we remain committed to our election commitment which was to increase our contribution to 0.5 per cent by 2015; and we continue to be on track to do that. But as I've said in different contexts, in very many respects the best form of development assistance is economic growth.
So there are obviously concerns which come from what clearly seem to us on all the domestic and international analysis to be lower economic growth, albeit continuing positive economic growth in the Asia Pacific region.
QUESTION: Will Australia attend President Bush’s financial summit?
SMITH: Well, I think details are still being settled and we expect to be in a position to make some further remarks in the next couple of days.
Over the weekend I was in discussion with French Foreign Minister Kouchner, of course wearing not just his French cap but also France being chair of the EU. President Sarkozy and Commissioner Barroso, of course, met with President Bush over the weekend and we saw the suggestion from that meeting of a summit.
So we're waiting for details to emerge. As you know, Australia has been very active in the conversations both in the IMF and Mr Swan in the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in the United States recently.
This morning, I also spoke to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and again the indication was that we expect firm details to emerge in the course of this week.
I can also indicate that when I spoke to Secretary of State Rice this morning, Secretary of State Rice raised with me the question of Prime Minister Maliki's visit to Australia and to seek Australia's forbearance in a postponement of that visit to enable Iraq and the United States to resolve the status of forces arrangements between Iraq and the United States.
I indicated to Secretary of State Rice that we're happy to forbear in the postponement of Prime Minister Maliki's visit to Australia, because resolving the United States-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement is, of course, very important in its own right, but it's also very important because Australia has its own interest in resolving the Status of Forces Arrangements with Iraq at the expiration of the United Nations mandate for Iraq.
So on the financial crisis and any meeting which arises from the President Bush, President Sarkozy and Commissioner Barroso meeting over the weekend, we expect final details in the course of this week, hopefully in the next couple of days.
But I indicated to both Foreign Minister Kouchner and to Secretary of State Rice, that Australia has been very active in these international discussions and we look forward to receiving further details in due course.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, the power-sharing arrangement of Zimbabwe looks on shaky ground at the moment. [Indistinct]…
SMITH: Well, I've been very concerned for some time and for a number of weeks it's been clear that there were difficulties in bringing the power-sharing agreement to fruition.
I think there've been two good signs which remain cause for optimism. One was that both parties, both Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai requested the ongoing activity and intervention of former South African President Mbeki. And secondly, and more recently of course, under the Southern Africa Development Community troika cap, Mr Tsvangirai, Mr Mugabe and former president Mbeki are, in the next 24 to 36 hours, meeting in Swaziland with the troika to seek to resolve the matter.
So yes, we're very concerned. It is now a matter of many months since the brutal Mugabe regime was effectively rebuffed by the democratic will of the Zimbabwe people.
Our preference has always been for Mr Mugabe to leave the stage, but if there is going to be a power-sharing agreement, then we want that to be a power-sharing agreement which goes some way to reflecting the will of Zimbabwe people, but also sees the chance of Zimbabwe's terrible economic and social circumstance and humanitarian circumstance being addressed.
So we continue to be concerned, but we continue to be hopeful that under the guise of the Southern Africa Development Community organisation and also under the African Union and also with former President Mbeki's assistance that the matter can be resolved as quickly as possible and a new government start taking steps to render assistance to Zimbabwe people.
QUESTION: Mr Kubis, with your proximity to Russia and the events of Georgia, do you - did it give you any concerns about the future attitudes of an economically strong Russia in the region or [indistinct]?
KUBIS: Well, first of all we were not happy to see the developments as they evolved in Georgia. We criticised the excessive inappropriate use of force by the Russian Federation. We were not happy to also to see some of the acts of President Saakashvili in response to perhaps provocations, but nevertheless use of force, et cetera.
And we criticise the Russian Federation for the recognition of South-East Asia and ASEAN. We strongly believe in territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders and this is and will remain our position, as it is very much in line with our position for example on the issue of Kosovo. We follow the same line; territorial integrity of Serbia must be respected.
At the same time, it is pretty obvious that perhaps the Russian Federation wanted to send a signal to the outside world, we are here, we would like to be partners, but we have some interest. Talk to us. We'll talk to you.
And, now, in a much more sober way, perhaps a much more realistic down to earth way, we talk to the Russian Federation.
As the European Union, we now are analysing the whole situation in our relations. We are making a sort of internal audit of the whole network of our relations with the Russian Federation, to see where we would like to cooperate, how we would like to cooperate, which is a promising part, which is not; taking into account this new posturing of the Russian Federation that we will be here for the years to come.
And, at the same time, we recognise, both in Brussels, in Bratislava, but also in Moscow, that we are partners. Moscow, Russian Federation, is and will remain a partner of the Slovak Republic, and a good partner to this.
The same it will remain a partner to Brussels. And the same, Brussels will remain, is and will remain a partner to Moscow.
This is perhaps one of the most essential statements, so we will have to find a way. And I believe that very soon, with a much more sober attitude, but we will reconfirm this partnership that is and will be there with the Russian Federation also for the future.
QUESTION: Foreign Minister, the Commission on nuclear disarmament. How effective will it be and does Slovakia have plans to join it?
KUBIS: Well, the first meeting, if I'm not wrong, it's taking place; so it's very difficult to predict the effectiveness. But I can say that the effort as such, and the personalities, and the experience and expertise that is behind this, political engagement that is behind this effort, is perhaps a good platform on which we can expect good results as well.
We, as Slovakia, I can't give you any response to whether we would join or not. We have to study the situation.
Frankly I'm even not aware of the outsiders could join the Commission. But, we are in strong, in favour, and very strongly in favour of nuclear non-proliferation; nuclear disarmament.
At the same time, we are strongly in favour in peaceful use of nuclear energy. We are one of the countries that developed nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
So, we are applauding this effort. We hope that it will be successful, and if we can contribute to the success of this effort, we would be more than happy to do so.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, what would be the measure of the Commission's success?
SMITH: Well, the Commission has two objectives. In the first instance to seek to ensure that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in 2010 is a success.
I think it's generally acknowledged that the last NPT review conference was not a success.
So, in the short-term it is trying to get an international conversation going to bring some focus to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Secondly, it is of course to seek to arrive at what is the Australian Government's long-standing objective which is the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. That's obviously the long-term goal.
I was in New York at my first visit to the United States earlier this year, when I discussed this with people in the United Nations, the response was two-fold: firstly that Australia has good credentials in this area, and it was no surprise that the new Australian Government had come to office wanting to seek to renew its efforts in the non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament area.
But secondly, an initiative in the course of this year, would be well timed. And we think the timing might just be right for some success in this area.
It's a very strong Commission; co-chaired as I say by Gareth Evans and former Japanese Foreign Minister Kawaguchi, and an impressive array of Commissioners.
The first meeting is today and tomorrow in Sydney. The Prime Minister and I had dinner last night with the Commissioners and the support teams.
The Prime Minister hosted dinner at Kirribilli. And, we made the point to them that firstly we value very much their work, and secondly we see this as a genuine second track or non-government dialogue which will encourage a sharp focus by the international community on a short-term good result from the NPT conference. Also to start moving forward again on nuclear disarmament, and also we expect that their conversations will also traverse some of the areas that have halted in recent times - the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for example, a Ministerial meeting of which I chaired recently at the General Assembly in New York.
Can I also just add to the Minister's remarks on Russia and Georgia? Again this is an area where the policy approach of Australia and the policy approach of Slovakia and the European Union is not dissimilar.
Australia was very critical of Russia. Australia supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and for some time we've been urging the Russians to return to the status-quo positions they occupied before the hostilities commenced.
There has been some progress in recent days and weeks, and we look forward to that progress continuing.
More generally, I very strongly agree with the Minister, and with the European Union, that the last thing we can afford to do is to not continue to have a dialogue with Russia.
I met with Foreign Minister Lavrov in the margins of the General Assembly in New York recently, and he was at pains to make the same point.
So, Australia will of course continue its dialogue with Russia, but just as the European Union and Slovakia are working their way through the precise detail and nature of the trappings of the relationship, so too are we doing the same thing.
Prior to Russia's hostility, Russia committing hostilities in Georgia, my disposition was that Australia needed to do more with its relationship with Russia, both in a general bilateral sense, but also in a trade and investment sense.
That of course has been cause for some deliberation since the hostilities in Georgia.
But like the Foreign Minister, I also agree that I think the Russians were sending a signal which was more than just their view of Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. I think the Russians were sending a signal that for too long they had been regarded simply as the losers of the Cold War, and wanted to be regarded as a significant influence, a significant power, a significant economy, and they wanted their views to be, to be taken into account when it came to, in a sense, their own backyard.
So, I think the last thing we can do is not have a dialogue with the Russians. We have to work our way through very carefully as to how ultimately Australia, the European Union, Slovakia, and the international community respond to the detail of the bilateral and general relationship with Russia, given what has occurred.
But I think the starting point is we need to continue to have a dialogue with them. I think that was part of what was behind the Russian response in Georgia.
QUESTION: Minister, could you see a situation where any of the countries with nuclear weapons would abandon them?
SMITH: Well we certainly hope so. I mean, I don't use the phrase foreseeable future, but it is the Australian Government's long-term objective that the manufacture, and the possession of nuclear weapons cease.
This has been the Australian Labor Party's and the current Government's long-standing position.
Do we expect to get there overnight? No. Will this be a staged, step by step process? Yes it will. And starting with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in 2010 I think is a good place to start.
We've also devoted considerable resources to the formation and establishment of the International Commission for the 08/09 year: something like over three and a half million dollars that we've applied to the resources. So we've invested quite considerably, both in a public policy sense, but also in a resource sense, to what we regard as being one of the areas where historically Australia, some might say Labor in government, but historically Australia has got a proud and good record on non-proliferation and disarmament.
Alright. Thanks very much everyone. Thank you.
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