The issues discussed included healthcare, labour legislation, preschool education, transport infrastructure development, support of agriculture, gas supplies to the regions and easing visa regulations with European countries.
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Excerpts from the transcript of a meeting with journalists of the Northwestern Federal District
Maxim Aliyev: Karelia has a fairly long border with Finland: it stretches for 700 km. Naturally, the abolition of visas is highly relevant for the people living here. Has there been any progress in the negotiations with the EU on this issue?
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: I devote a great deal of time to it. Our EU partners are probably tired of me going on about it because it’s become a tradition for me to conclude every event by telling them that Carthage must be brought down and visas must be abolished. They tell me: ‘Yes, absolutely, we agree, Russia is such an important partner for us.’
By the way, it is true that Russia is an important partner. If you compare us with China – and China is a huge country – our trade with the EU is the same as China’s. This is a serious figure. I am sure you understand how important China’s role is now for the world economy. I'm not even talking about the fact that we are an irreplaceable source of energy supply and some other products. But the answer remains: ‘We are ready to do it but gradually, depending on the political situation.’ Currently we are preparing a “road map”.
My task is to make sure that we can see light at the end of the tunnel. It can’t be a promise to abolish visas in 2025 – that wouldn’t make any sense. It should be a clear perspective, something we can expect in the short term. This is the first point.
Second, we have succeeded in easing visa requirements for a number of our citizens, including young people, businesspeople and public officials traveling on business. It is imperative for us to continue in this direction. It has become easier to obtain the Schengen visa now, and the visas are issued for longer periods, especially in relations with individual countries. We and also involved in talks with Finland.
Ultimately it will depend on how consolidated the EU position will be, and there are countries that say to us: ‘Welcome, we are very glad to see you and want to make the change tomorrow.’ That is especially true of those who are interested in the tourist flow from Russia. There are other countries that say: ‘Yes, we are ready, but we have our own domestic problems, so we would like to move carefully, depending on the situation.’ This is understandable, but we expect that they will address their problems. And there is a third category of countries which hint that they do not trust the Russians and believe that Russia can cause problems for them. I think this is a short-sighted and a very strange position, because if we look at the problems of the European Union, of the Schengen area, we will see they do not originate in Central Asia, as they allude all the time, but are connected with the internal politics within the European Union, the contradictions that exist between different countries, and, incidentally, with the problems associated with the existing agreements between the EU and a number of other countries on visa-free travel, of which there are many. I have repeatedly suggested that our partners should explore these practices and determine the source of the biggest problems, including drug trafficking and organised crime.
Alexander Katerusha: Long-distance trains traveling from Kaliningrad to Moscow or St Petersburg spend at least four hours on the borders. Is it possible to avoid this somehow, for example by adopting the same mode of operation as the Allegro train from St Petersburg to Helsinki, where passport and customs controls are implemented along the way, so the train doesn’t stop for that?
Dmitry Medvedev: I will answer your question briefly. It is possible if the governments of neighbouring states agree to use such a scheme, as Finland did. We came to an agreement with Finland and the Allegro train became very fast and convenient. If our Lithuanian partners agree to it (and the working group is holding talks now), we will obtain the same result.
Alexander Katerusha: So we have something to look forward to. This issue is especially acute in connection with your recent statement on missile defence. What do you think we should expect now?
Dmitry Medvedev: I see, that’s what you’re hinting at.
Alexander Katerusha: That as well.
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I think that where there is good will we can agree on everything and the trains will travel without stopping, and the missiles will be there as well, if need be. Neither can be excluded.
But seriously, these things are not entirely connected because after all, our relations with the European Union are very multifaceted, multidimensional, they are not confined to discussions on missile defence system in Europe. Especially since to put it bluntly, the European missile defence is largely imposed by the United States and my partners (different partners, I will not name them so as not to put them in an awkward situation) have occasionally hinted at that, saying ‘What are you asking me for? The Americans have made up their minds, they have decided on this and they are promoting it. And our role is this: we are NATO members, we will provide our territory, and that’s all. We won’t even contribute financially because we simply don’t have the money for this’. Therefore, we need to hold negotiations on missile defence primarily with the United States and NATO.
As for the visas, it is an issue of the EU and the Schengen Agreement.
Ilya Sverdlov: Looking at some of the government’s recent steps in the social sector, many have started talking about a new stage in dismantling the social safety net. Education and medical care are essentially becoming paid services, particular services and areas, at any rate, are no longer free. Tariffs are going up all the time, and there is talk of raising the retirement age and even lengthening the working week. All of this raises a lot of concerns about the future among many of our fellow citizens. Do you think that if events continue developing in this way, Russia will remain a social state, and what kind of social policy will the government that you are likely to head carry out?
Dmitry Medvedev: That Russia is a social state is not the idea of any particular state official or political party, but is enshrined in the Constitution. It is another matter what sense we give to this concept of ‘social state’. This sense can change, and I do not pretend otherwise. This is the case around the world. The vision of the social state in the 1950s-1960s differs considerably from today’s vision. What remains unchanged is the general commitment to a social model in which citizens’ and workers’ fundamental rights and interests are guaranteed and so is social partnership.
You listed some key areas. Yes, there are changes taking place in these sectors, but I do not think they are evidence of any dismantling of our social policies.
You mentioned medical care. Yes, this is certainly an important and sensitive area. We all have our one health to look after. I recently signed a new law on the basic principles of healthcare provision. No matter how much criticism it might receive, this is a needed law. We need it because we must have modern legislation in this area. The old situation was worse. Under the old system, we had disparate outdated rules, and this gave rise to a legal vacuum that let people do as they please – force paid services on people, not comply with healthcare standards. We had to do something to regulate this situation. That was our first consideration.
Second, as far as healthcare is concerned, we have the general principle that there is a basic standard of guaranteed free healthcare, a set of standard healthcare services provided free of charge (and this is a long list ranging from first aid to complex high-technology operations). This all remains unchanged. But we needed to regulate paid medical services. They exist, and we should not pretend that they don’t. We need to make them legal.
Finally, we need to introduce the basic principles and new rules for financing the healthcare system. These need to be modern rules, insurance-based rules, as are in place elsewhere throughout the world. The important thing is that this work be done competently.
You mentioned the retirement age. I think we do indeed need to address this issue, but we must do this through discussion with our people. Yes, it is true that many other countries are raising the retirement age. We have not taken any decisions in this area, either formal or informal. However, life expectancy is increasing here now, which is good to see. Our men, unfortunately, due to having not the healthiest of habits, do not live so long – 63–64 years on average, though this is up from the 59 years it stood at not so long ago. Our women do rather well with an average 75 years. I am happy with this trend, which has brought us up almost to the European level. Of course this has an impact on the working population and on our priorities, and these are all things that must be taken into consideration, but we have to go about this in a considered and competent manner. Any decisions should be taken only after detailed social and economic analysis. I stress that no decisions have yet been taken on this matter and the retirement age remains unchanged.
You mentioned the working week. As I have said before, let me say again now that no one is going to increase the working week, even if some businesspeople support this idea.
Finally, the question of tariffs, this is a more complicated issue and it is true that they are increasing. The state’s responsibility in this area is, first, to regulate tariffs in accordance with inflation, not letting them get out of hand, so that the general increase in tariffs remains within the expected inflation limits. Some tariffs might be higher, some lower, but the main thing is to ensure that what people pay is an average that remains within the inflation limits, and this is a rule that we must comply with absolutely strictly.
And then we have particular groups of people who are still entitled to preferential tariffs, which is something that does not exist in most countries these days.