VILNIUS – Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who visited Vilnius last week, believes that Russia’s war in Ukraine can only be resolved through diplomacy, irrespective of who is the aggressor.
Nonetheless, Islamabad, which has been balancing between Russia and the West, refuses to condemn Kremlin’s invasion of the neighboring country and abstains when voting on UN resolutions on the issue.
“While we understand and appreciate everybody's point of view on the war of Ukraine, we continue to believe it is in everybody's interest – the interest of the people of Ukraine and the interest of Russia and the interest of Europe, and the interest of the entire world – that this does not become an extended conflict and that there is some sort of resolution and the only way that can happen is that dialogue and diplomacy must play its role,” the top diplomat of Pakistan said in an interview to BNS.
Speaking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zardari repeatedly drew parallels with Afghanistan.
“So as far as being an aggressor or not being an aggressor, ultimately... For example, if I take the war in Afghanistan, there was a clear aggressor and there were non-aggressors, but both sides had to ultimately sit down and negotiate a solution,” he pointed out.
Nevertheless, Islamabad is currently focused on domestic challenges, such as political stability, strengthening of the economy, the country’s reconstruction after floods, and terrorism.
Pakistani group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is a separate entity to the Taliban in Afghanistan but shares a similar Islamist ideology, has been responsible for hundreds of attacks and the killing of thousands of people since its inception in 2007.
The group has intensified its attacks since the pullout of US troops from Kabul and the Taliban’s takeover of authority in Afghanistan.
In 2022, Islamabad and TTP agreed on the Taliban-sponsored ceasefire, which proved to be tenuous, until it was called off by the group at the end of the year.
Adding to tensions in the region are the relations between Pakistan and India.
India will host the upcoming meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Islamabad has been invited to attend.
However, it is not yet clear whether a Pakistani delegation will take part in the event in the neighboring country and, according to Zardari, internal consultations on the issue are ongoing. A foreign minister of Pakistan last visited India twelve years ago.
– LET'S START WITH THE SITUATION IN YOUR COUNTRY. LAST YEAR, PAKISTAN WAS HIT BY DEVASTATING FLOODS. WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION IN YOUR COUNTRY?
– So, Pakistan is facing almost a perfect storm of crises. We were anyway in a tough economic spot before the floods, given the fallout of the COVID pandemic and the consequences of the war in Ukraine, with inflation and food and energy, and security. So, we were barely holding our heads above water.
And then with these floods, which were the most catastrophic climate catastrophe that we have ever seen in Pakistan, we had a third of our country's landmass underwater, one in seven of our population.
That's 33 million people – many times more than the population of your country – affected and a large chunk taken out of our GDP. We are still undergoing negotiations with the IMF.
And then, ever since the fall of Kabul – and that's also been about a year now – we've seen an uptick of terrorist activity [by Pakistani Taliban] and we have had the latest two big terrorist attacks, one in Peshawar, that cost almost 100 lives, and one in Karachi, more recently, so, we're facing challenges on many fronts.
– HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH ATTENTION FROM THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY REGARDING THOSE ISSUES?
– So as far as the floods are concerned, I think, given that everybody is experiencing the post-COVID economic consequences and that the international community has a lot of its bandwidth, its attention span is taken up with the Ukraine war, in that in those relative terms, I think we have had attention to the floods in Pakistan.
We had International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan, which was the first post-flood climate event development conference where it was our aim to not only start our reconstruction and rehabilitation but we want to build back better and our conference was very successful. We raised more than 9 billion dollars in the international community.
And there was a unique example, I think, where across the geopolitical divide – from China to the United States – the international community stood up and supported Pakistan despite the various challenges that we are facing.
However, we need more cooperation, I think, going forward on the issue of terrorism. And just because NATO and the West have left Afghanistan, it doesn't mean that those issues have gone away.
– MOVING ON TO THE TOPICS YOU'VE DISCUSSED WITH THE LITHUANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DURING YOUR VISIT. YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT THE RUSSIAN WAR IN UKRAINE, WHAT SPECIFICALLY DID YOU DISCUSS?
– Look, as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned, I think that Lithuania and Pakistan come at this from different perspectives. For you, given your history with Russia, given your geographic location, I mean for all of Europe, this is the first war after World War II. For us in Pakistan, we've just come out of a 20-year forever war in Afghanistan and we're facing economic consequences of COVID, of the flood, and everything else.
So, like much of the Global South – while Pakistan, in particular, attaches a great deal of importance to the United Nations, the UN Security Council, and international law, particularly in view of our issues in Kashmir – as far as this conflict is concerned, we're part of this effort that would advocate for the cessation of hostilities or an end to the war as soon as possible and the deployment of dialogue of diplomacy in the pursuit of peace.
But aside from this specific conflict, there is an overall flux in geopolitics and therefore many countries in Europe and the rest of the world are looking to diversify their economies.
I think Lithuania is one of those countries and Pakistan is one of those countries. So we're taking that as sort of the broader aspect and with which we had a conversation to see how we can unlock the economic potential between Pakistan and Lithuania, enhance our economic cooperation, and find more ways that we can complement each other's economies.
You have a port. We have ports, so we hope to be able to have cooperation, maybe even sister ports and there's a whole host of discussion topics that came under discussion.
– LITHUANIA, BOTH AS A STATE AND AS PEOPLE, HAS BEEN VERY ACTIVE IN SUPPORTING UKRAINE, WHICH HAS BEEN TRYING FOR A YEAR NOW TO REPEL THE RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE. AT THE SAME TIME, PAKISTAN, AT LEAST SO FAR, HAS TAKEN A MODERATE STANCE, AS THE UN VOTES SHOW. HAS YOUR POSITION CHANGED IN LIGHT OF THE GROWING EVIDENCE OF RUSSIAN CRIMES?
– No, our position has not changed. We continue to abstain from the United Nations resolutions. We and my people in Pakistan, we're exhausted of war. We've gone through 20 years of this conflict, but with this short gap in between there was yet another conflict in Afghanistan.
And we've learned from our experience where in 2002 the Taliban were ready to surrender and negotiate, but none of us were willing to take them up on that offer. And then ultimately, after the longest war on record, we saw how that conflict ended through negotiations. And the results are before all of us.
So while we understand and appreciate everybody's point of view on the war of Ukraine, we continue to believe it is in everybody's interest – the interest of the people of Ukraine and the interest of Russia and the interest of Europe, and the interest of the entire world – that this does not become an extended conflict and that there is some sort of resolution and the only way that can happen is that dialogue and diplomacy must play its role.
– BUT RUSSIA IS THE CLEAR AGGRESSOR IN THIS CASE…
– So as far as being an aggressor or not being an aggressor, ultimately... For example, if I take the war in Afghanistan, there was a clear aggressor and there were non-aggressors, but both sides had to ultimately sit down and negotiate a solution. Had that negotiation taken place earlier on, most certainly, less lives would have been lost, less treasure would have been spent, and perhaps the overall turbulence in our region that we are facing today wouldn't be as severe.
– HAVE YOU HAD CLASHES WITH MINISTER GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS DURING YOUR MEETING REGARDING DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW?
– I think we both respect each other enough to know that people can have – and countries can have – these different points of view on various issues. I understand that your foreign minister is particularly active in this context, but we are focusing on areas where we do agree.
– DESPITE YOUR MENTIONED NEUTRALITY, THERE IS A MEDIA REPORT THAT PAKISTAN HAS SENT THOUSANDS OF ARTILLERY TO UKRAINE. IS THAT TRUE?
– The reporting about the supply of defense items by Pakistan to Ukraine is not accurate. Pakistan maintains a policy of non-interference in military conflicts. Pakistan only exports defense stores to other states based on strong end-use and no re-transfer assurances. And this is the case of Pakistan’s position in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
– MOVING ON FROM UKRAINE. YOU'VE AGREED ON BILATERAL POLITICAL CONSULTATION WITH YOUR LITHUANIAN COUNTERPART. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
– That establishes the formal mechanisms between our two countries to enhance their bilateral relations and have extensive conversations between experts and the ministries of foreign affairs to find ways and means for enhanced cooperation between our two countries.
– IN WHICH AREAS?
– We're obviously looking for the economy and trade and the agricultural sector and the finance sector, but the specifics will be worked out by our two ministries.
– LITHUANIA HAS A DEDICATED AMBASSADOR IN TURKEY AND PAKISTAN HAS ITS AMBASSADOR IN POLAND. DO YOU SEE A POSSIBILITY TO ESTABLISH AN EMBASSY HERE IN LITHUANIA?
– You're absolutely right. Our embassy is based in Warsaw, your embassy is based in Ankara. And I'm actually the first foreign minister of Pakistan to visit your country and this a matter of pride for me because the diplomatic relations between our two countries were established in 1994 when my mother was prime minister of Pakistan.
Obviously, I'd like to see the day when we both have embassies in our two countries. Until then, I hope to do whatever we can to enhance that.
– WHEN COULD THAT HAPPEN?
– Eventually, eventually.
– REGARDING REGIONAL ISSUES, ARE YOU PLANNING TO ATTEND THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANIZATION MEETING IN INDIA THIS YEAR?
– Pakistan's a member of the SCO, we were an active participant and we've received the official invitation for the SCO, but the final decision on that will be taken after completing internal consultations which are ongoing.
– THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME.