This discussion completes the series of Dmitry Medvedev's meetings with regional journalists, which were held in the past month.
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Excerpts from transcript of meeting with journalists from the Urals Federal District
Mikhail Vyugin: I have a question that doesn’t have to do with specific regions but is about politics in general. During the entire previous decade, the expert community and politically active members of the public debated government policies, for example, the renouncement of the democratic freedoms and many tools that had been adopted in the 1990s, and the growing role of the state in the economy. The implications of corruption, for example, were widely discussed, and other issues.
There was a lot of talk about your initiatives, for example, the story with the Federation Council: the senators can be elected from among the regional and municipal deputies, which eventually has lead to the situation we have now, when Governors are not necessarily appointed from among the previous Governors but any old pal can be appointed following the set procedure. Now people are saying that the current political and economic trend may continue for the next 12 years, and perhaps it may even grow stronger.
Could you please tell me, why we are renouncing some of the freedoms of the 1990s? Why is the state’s role increasing? And do you see these things as possible dangers for the country?
In the same vein, there is a view that in the current election cycle we are choosing the political power for the next 12 years, or even for 24 years. Do you believe that is true?
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Do you want a short answer or a long one? The short answer is that everything you just said is wrong. The long answer may take some time but let’s try to analyse this anyway.
First, with respect to trends. There are no particular trends. There is a real situation that has arisen in recent years. Some may like it and others may dislike it. It is a matter of choice. Incidentally, let me remind you that any democracy is based on elections and who represents which interests.
In our case, for example, there is a party, as Lenin used to say, the United Russia party. If it wins the majority of votes, that will mean that it represents the majority of people, and that in turn means that everything it does is in the interest of the majority.
The question arises as to the minority: what should it do? But that does not mean that it should ignore the minority. That is absolutely not true. At the same time, based on common democratic principles, the party that has the parliamentary majority implements policies in the interests of the majority. If at some point these policies diverge from the views of the majority, it will lose most that majority, that’s all.
Why do I tell you this? Because none of the democratic institutions have been multiplied by zero in recent years, despite what those who don’t like the current trend, as you call it, may say. This is the first point.
Second. Nobody has renounced the rights and freedoms that have been established by the Constitution; at least I cannot name a single example of abolishing a democratic institution, although some institutions have changed.
To some, these changes seem right while others may not agree with them entirely, for example, the procedure for appointing the Governors. But that does not mean that the basic provisions of the Constitution have been violated, because if the Constitution had a provision on this issue, then no one could have changed the law on appointing Governors.
Therefore, in my opinion, it is true that we went through a rather difficult period of 10 years or so when there were conflicting policies. On the one hand, the state’s role was increasing and that was absolutely imperative because at the beginning of 2000s, which you mentioned, we had an absolutely inefficient state.
I have just held a meeting with business people. You see, human memory is short and usually we remember only the good, positive things. They reminded me, for example, about the interest rate of 200% and such things. Yes, we had that. But we also had an inefficient state at the beginning of the decade.
The state has been strengthened and this immediately gave rise to the question of whether we have gone to far. Perhaps something in the system should be weakened? I can tell you one thing: everything is a matter of a particular political practice and in some areas perhaps we should pursue one direction, while in other areas policies should be different, but the fact is that the state system as such has not undergone any radical changes.
I see no disaster in the fact that we have a political force which has a chance to be elected the third time in a row – only for the third time, I want to emphasise that. I recently discussed with some of your colleagues why we are always so critical of our political forces? Perhaps this is normal because they are our political forces, right?
Nevertheless, let's review what is happening in other countries. When the German Christian Democrats stayed in power for 20 years during a rather challenging period, nobody said that it trampled democracy or did not reflect people's interests. They were elected and stayed in power. After Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power in 1979, the party ruled the country for 18 years, and nobody said that it contradicted some democratic trend.
They were elected for as long as they were popular. Then John Major became Prime Minister, if I remember correctly, and they lost their popularity. After that the Labour Party won and now the Conservatives again. Therefore, there’s nothing tragic about it.
If we talk about the state’s role in the economy, here I would agree with you more, because we must do everything possible to make the state’s presence in the economy sufficient but not excessive. Let me remind you that some time ago we adopted a new programme for the privatisation of state enterprises, taking into account the current situation.
As a result of its implementation the state should get about $40 billion from the sale of its stakes. I think this is useful. But most importantly, it will free the economy because it is true that we have an over-representation of the state in a wide variety of industries. And as President I have always proceeded from the fact that we must transfer a number of assets into private ownership, simply because state participation in them is inefficient.
At one point we needed to get rid of officials on the boards of directors. I issued such an order and it was done. This does not mean that the companies have become more efficient now that there are no more officials on their boards, but they have more freedom to formulate their positions and to make decisions that are not dictated only by state policy but also by considerations of economic feasibility for the company.
I sat on the board of Gazprom for eight years and I know how such decisions are made. So if we talk about economic development, then, perhaps, yes, at some point we had to stop and take the necessary decisions.
The investment climate. Here, perhaps, we still need to do a great deal for the investment climate to reach a level consistent with the potential of the Russian Federation. Because when foreigners come here, they say, “Yes, you have fantastic opportunities in your country, you have great natural resources and huge intellectual resources, but the investment climate is very poor.”
Of course, the investment climate is not something that can be transformed through the decision of the President or the Prime Minister; it reflects the totality of all social relations, relations that exist within the state system and within public structures. It cannot be changed by issuing an executive order or a decree, but it is possible to establish a legal framework for it.
Going back to the investment climate, for example, I can say that even the decision to fight corruption, which was adopted on my initiative, has also contributed to a change in the investment climate. Whether it has been effective or not is a separate issue and unfortunately it has not been very effective. In addition to the laws it is essential to create conditions in which these laws will work. Take, for instance, the judicial system, which also often comes under criticism: it must adequately respond to violations of investors’ rights and only then will we have a coherent policy, with anti-corruption legislation, the application of these laws in courts and protecting the interests of a particular investor.
Why am I saying all this? Because, going back to your question, my answer generally is that many different things have happened in our country over the past 12 years, and some of them I think were absolutely necessary. Without them, our state would have simply collapsed, including the fight against terrorism and strengthening of state power.
A country like ours cannot have weak state power. We had to do it. Yes, this has its costs, but I believe that it was absolutely right. There were other issues too and our people will show us in the elections on December 4 what they think about them. But it is absurd to talk about the emergence of some authoritarian trend that is dominating everything and that is embodied by the United Russia candidate for president, for example, or for the prime minister, or the United Russia party itself. There is no such trend. Instead there is a totality of many different things that happened in our country.
Finally, one last point. In response to your question I can say this: I believe that in the past 12 years we have led Russia to a fundamentally different level from where it was in the 1990s. Russia has again become a major league country, a country to be reckoned with, not only because we have nuclear missiles and other weapons, but also a country with growing wages and pensions.
Incidentally, the average wage grew from 3,000 to 24,000 rubles since 2000. Not a single government in any country in the world has achieved anything like that. And the current authorities must certainly get the credit for it but, I repeat, the voters will give their final assessment on December 4.
I do not feel ashamed for what I have been doing in the past three years or since November 9, 1999, when I moved from St Petersburg to Moscow.
Mikhail Vyugin: What could you say about the election cycle? How long will it last?
Dmitry Medvedev: How long? It will last in accordance with the law. What 12 years? If the State Duma is elected, and it will be elected, and if United Russia, for example, wins the majority of seats, and there are indications that it will… But nothing has been decided because I do not know how people will vote. There are very different processes going on.
United Russia loses points in some areas, which is natural because people lose interest in any ruling political force, it's also understandable. We are all people, we understand it. There have been achievements, but there are also expectations of great success. In any case, the State Duma will be elected for five years.
If the United Russia candidate, Vladimir Putin, wins the presidential election in March, and his chances are also quite good because Mr Putin is a popular man and because his achievements are well known, it will be for a term of six years. What's next, I do not know.
Do you know? Neither do I. What 12 years? Why 12 years?
Response: Two presidential terms.
Dmitry Medvedev: Why two? For that one has to be re-elected and the State Duma has to be elected again, and some other things will need to happen. In this life, everything changes so quickly that those who measure everything using the maximum terms usually end up in trouble. Naturally, we must think about the future but we bear in mind the situation in which we are now and think about today’s problems. By the way, that's what we tried to do together.
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Tatyana Gostyukhina: The Arctic is a region that is very rich in natural resources. An ancient civilisation has survived in the Arctic – indigenous peoples. Mr President, I would like to know, what is the development strategy for this region, what are our interests and priorities?
Dmitry Medvedev: The strategy is usually based on documents. We have a strategy for developing our presence in the Arctic. It was confirmed, if I am not mistaken, back in 2008, and we are working based on this strategy. It implies one simple principle: Russia is a full-fledged and very powerful participant in the Arctic community.
You know, certain nations are trying to get into the Arctic community, to become Arctic nations, but some are actually located almost as far away as Antarctica, or in any case, in very different zones. However, we actually are an arctic nation. We are a nation with expansive northern borders, and are a true participant in all Arctic relations. But this should not be an abstract issue; it is entirely concrete. What do we seek from our presence in the Arctic?
First of all, we must make use of the Arctic resources, developing them in various ways. Second, we must use our geographic position, including the Northern Sea Route. Third, we must think about people (indeed, this should be our first priority) who live in adjoining regions and absolutely try to help our northern peoples that live in that Arctic belt and whose lives are not always easy. Fourth, we must think about strengthening our security, because we have a long Arctic border and – I emphasise again – these are free areas beyond this border, but at the same time, they are within the zone of our interests.
And that is why we have to do everything to ensure that the presence of those who sail under foreign flags in these waters, those who fly over these places, those who research these areas, conforms to the international laws and our interests. These are probably the principal directions of our presence in the Arctic.
But these four directions lead to a number of government programmes. I talked about support for indigenous peoples. You know, in recent times, we have aimed quite a bit of money toward this programme. I am now meeting with our colleagues who represent corresponding ethnic communities, and they all recognise that money is coming in via various channels for developing businesses, for traditional trades, and for education. Because, of course, people are our greatest asset.
If we take the energy component, we have a whole range of major energy projects with foreign states’ participation. And we must defend our interests so that the energy resources located in those parts of the Arctic that are under our authority are used with our participation, rather than simply by other, outside structures. In this regard, what is being done in Yamal fully correlates to our overall approaches to Arctic development, and even a whole set of major projects that are currently being launched in your region.
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Mark Riskin: Mr President, following your initiative, a mixed electoral system is currently being introduced for electing municipal representative bodies. Do you think there are any positive results so far?
Dmitry Medvedev: Assessing the results of reforming the government authorities is always a thankless task as far as the authorities are concerned, since it is easy to reproach them for taking a subjective position. But let me try nevertheless. I think that there are results. Where do I see them? When what we do helps to develop parties at the municipal level and within the municipal representative bodies, this contributes to strengthening our political system.
No matter what anyone might say, I think that our party system has become stronger over these last years, and I am not just talking about United Russia, which as the biggest and strongest of our parties helps to shape the political climate, but about the situation in general.
Today’s parties have established organisational structures and programmes, funds of their own, and supporters, who vote for them from one year to another, one election cycle to another. This does not mean that these parties will be around forever (I am not going to make any comments in this regard because it would not be proper), but I think that some shifts will take place within our political system whatever the case. The left will grow stronger, the right will become more structured and organised, and the centre – United Russia in this particular case – will also change.
This is inevitable because everything in life has to change. What I am trying to say is that I believe our party system today is a lot more developed than it was, say, in the early or mid-1990s, when we had a great many parties that had no weight and were essentially meaningless, but that gathered votes. People would cast their vote and by the next day have already forgotten what the party they cast their vote for was all about.
We are therefore trying to integrate the political party element into the municipal level, and I think this is another sign of our democracy’s development. Coming back to the general political issues that we discussed at your prompting, what, in my view, is developed democracy all about?
I think a developed democracy is a democracy in which you understand just who you are voting for. People need to vote, as we know, not just for specific individuals, but for their programmes too. I think that we will achieve a modern developed political system when we all realise that each political force is associated with particular ideological preferences.
We are on the road to this system at the moment. We have parties that bear a clear and enduring ideological stamp, the communists, for example. You could say in principle that those who vote for the communists are voting not so much for the party’s particular leader or leaders (for all my respect for them), but for a particular ideological choice.
I would say the same goes for the right wing. The party at this end of the spectrum is not going through the best of times at the moment, with the change of leader and so on. The party has a new leadership now. But there are people who take the position that they will vote for the right simply because they want to give this party their support because it fits with their ideas of what constitutes the fair and proper way to develop our country.
I think that ultimately it is also very important for United Russia not to be seen as just a party deciding a range of state, economic and social issues, but also as a political force that people associate with a particular political course. When this happens we will be able to say that United Russia has finally become a strong and structured political party.
It is already just such a party, a party for which the majority of voters cast their votes, but it has yet to consolidate its ideological base, in my view. I think that if it succeeds in this – and I am not indifferent to the party’s future – it will have real political prospects ahead.
To put things in frank and simple terms, if United Russia can get to a level of development where its success will not depend directly on who heads its list – Putin, Medvedev, or whoever else – the voters will start to perceive it as a political party with an established ideological foundation too. I underscore that this is a task we still have to resolve, despite the fact that United Russia has already proved itself a very effective political organisation in its work.
Coming back to what you said, I think that every political party needs to be based on a particular platform and set of programme ideas. You could object by saying that the notion of the end of ideology is all the fashion these days and that political parties are just voting machines. You could say that the USA’s experience is convincing enough evidence here.
But Russia is not America. I think that we will probably see the emergence of several parties with their own powerful foundations and voter support. We already have such parties, but what I mean is that we will see the emergence of two or three parties that will compete with each other for and succeed each other in political power, and are unlikely to be no more than just voting machines.
Taking into account our current situation, the size and complexity of our country, and our political culture, if you will, along with all of our very dramatic history in the twentieth century, I think that it will remain relevant here for some time yet to have political parties firmly identified with the left, right, or centre of the spectrum. Perhaps in 100 years’ time this might lose its relevance, perhaps in 50 years’ time, but I think that right now this is not yet our choice. Of course, it is always possible I am mistaken.