The interview was recorded on April 2, 2013 in Novo-Ogaryovo.
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Jörg Schönenborn (retranslated): Good evening, Mr President,
Germany and Russia enjoy special relationship and, economically speaking, they are a good match. However, there exist certain difficulties from the political viewpoint. Quite a number of Germans keep track of the raids in the Russian offices of German funds with great concern. The Russian public must be frightened. Why do you act like this?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: It is you who are scaring the German public instead. There is nothing like this going on here, do not scare the public, please. The media should cover the events objectively. And what does it mean, objectively? The new law adopted late last year in Russia stipulates that non-governmental organisations engaged in Russia's internal political processes and sponsored from abroad must be registered as foreign agents, that is organisations which participate in our country's political life at the expense of foreign countries. This is not an innovation in international politics. A similar law has been in force in the United States since 1938.
If you have any additional questions, I would be pleased to answer them in order to clarify the situation to you and your or, in this case, our viewers.
Jörg Schönenborn: Mr President, I am not aware of any similar confiscations or raids carried out in the United States. In our opinion, the term ‘foreign agent’, as these organisations are to be called, sounds something like cold war.
Vladimir Putin: Then let me explain. First of all, the United States adopted a similar law, which has been in effect ever since. And our, Russian, organisations have followed the same practice that was established in that country decades ago.
I am going to show you a paper in which, not long ago, the United States Department of Justice requested a non-governmental organisation to submit documents confirming that its activities were to be financed from abroad; the list is very long.
We have adopted a similar law that prohibits nothing; let me stress it, the law does not prohibit anything, nor does it limit or close down anything. Organisations financed from abroad are not forbidden to carry out any type of activities, including internal political activity. The only thing we want to know is who receives the money and where it goes. I repeat: the law is not some sort of innovation of our own.
Why do we consider it so important today? What do you think is the number of Russia-sponsored non-governmental organisations functioning in Europe? Any ideas?
Jörg Schönenborn: I am afraid I cannot assess the situation, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: Let me tell you. One such organisation operates in Paris, another one – in North America, it is registered in the USA. And this is it. There are only two of them – one in the United States and another one in Europe.
”The new law adopted late last year in Russia stipulates that non-governmental organisations engaged in Russia's internal political processes and sponsored from abroad must be registered as foreign agents, that is organisations which participate in our country's political life at the expense of foreign countries. This is not an innovation in international politics. A similar law has been in force in the United States since 1938.“
There are 654 non-governmental organisations operating in the Russian Federation, which are funded, as it has turned out, from abroad. 654 organisations make quite a network nationwide, the Russian regions included.
Over the four months alone that followed the adoption of the law in question, the accounts of these organisations augmented by… How much money do you think they received? You can hardly imagine; I did not know the figure myself: 28.3 billion rubles, which is almost $1 billion. 855 million rubles via diplomatic missions.
These organisations are engaged in internal political activity. Should not our society be informed of who gets the money and for what purposes?
I would also like to stress – and I want you to know this, I want people in Europe, including Germany, to know this – that nobody bans these organisations from carrying out their activities. We only ask them to admit: “Yes, we are engaged in political activities, and we are funded from abroad.” The public has the right to know this.
There is no need to scare anyone saying that people here get rounded up, arrested, have their property confiscated, although confiscations could be a reasonable thing if those people break the law. Some administrative sanctions are envisaged in these cases, but I think all this falls under rules commonly accepted in a civilised society.
Now let us look at the documents that our organisations in the US are required to provide. Note who asks for these documents, signed at the bottom of the page. The Counterespionage Section. Not the Office of Attorney General, but the Counterespionage Section of the US Department of Justice. This is an official document that the organisation received. And note the number of questions they pose. Is this democratic?
Jörg Schönenborn: Mr President, we will examine this document. I do not know if any such searches took place in the US.
I would like to ask you once again: we understand democracy as the coexistence of the state and opposition. Political competition is an integral part of it. Does Russia need a strong opposition?
Vladimir Putin: Certainly. We do need it to say the least. I believe that without competition no development in either economy, or in politics is possible today, and we want to ensure this development for our country and our people. Without this competition we would not be able to make effective, sound and justified decisions. Which is why we will undoubtedly strive to make the competition a cornerstone of every sphere of our society's life, including politics.
But this does not mean that opposition should be financed from abroad, don’t you think? Or do you have a different opinion?
Jörg Schönenborn: Does this imply that the opposition can freely participate in demonstrations?
Vladimir Putin: Absolutely, as long as they abide by the law. There are certain rules that provide for various forms of political activity. Voting means publicly expressing your opinion, as does participating in demonstrations. There is law. Good or bad, it can be changed democratically, but it must be abided by. Ordnung muss sein. It is a well-known rule. It is universal and applicable in any country. There must be order, and there must be no chaos. Northern Africa is a vivid example of what chaos leads to. Does anybody want that?
As for the activities of the opposition, I would like to draw your attention to the following fact. Just recently, a political party was required to have at least 50 thousand members to be registered. We have radically reduced this number: now one only needs 500 members to register a party and engage in legal political activities. 37 parties have already been registered, and, I think, several dozen more have filed their applications. This is how it is going to be, we will encourage this political competition.
We have changed the procedure for the election of members of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, the Federation Council; now they are elected by secret ballot by citizens of corresponding regions. By the way, I do not think that the upper chamber of the German Parliament is elected this way: if I am not mistaken, its members are elected by their respective landtags.
In this regard, we have gone further; I refer to the election of heads of the Russian regions that I reintroduced. We have returned to direct voting by secret ballot. Germany elects heads of its regions through landtags. Many of our political actors thought that we should go back to forming the Parliament through a mixed election system with simple majority rule nominations and strict party-list nominations. We have arrived at this mixed system, so we are moving, we are looking for those forms of our society’s political organisation that would be most suitable for us at this stage and would satisfy the requirements and aspirations of our people. This, of course, concerns political parties as well. Naturally, we want competition.
Jörg Schönenborn: You are going to Germany for a major trade fair. The economic relations between our countries are important for you, I believe. Are you worried that the issues we have just discussed may cast a shadow over your visit?
Vladimir Putin: No, on the contrary, I am very glad about it. And I am glad about our today's interview too because this gives us an opportunity to clarify the situation, to explain what is actually happening and what guides us. Now, what was your first question? About searches and arrests. What searches? What arrests? Who has been arrested? Can you give me at least one name? This is not true. Don’t make anything up.
Jörg Schönenborn: I didn't say anything about arrests. I spoke about searches.
Vladimir Putin: It sounds alarmist: ”Hey everyone! Look! Terrible things are happening here!“ Well, yes, there is the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation that is obliged to ensure that the laws adopted in the Russian Federation are respected. And all the citizens, all organisations, all individuals and legal entities operating in Russia must take this into account and have due respect for Russian law.
Jörg Schönenborn: What are you expecting from your visit to Germany in terms of economy? I assume you are going to encourage the Germans to invest. What exactly are you expecting?
Vladimir Putin: Russia and Germany are very important partners for each other. This is really so. The EU countries and the EU itself are our major commercial partners. They account for over 50 percent of our turnover. Well, the figure can fluctuate a bit: a little over 50, a little under 50 percent due to the economic difficulties faced by the Eurozone and the EU. It is under 50 at the moment, I believe, but it is still a lot. In absolute numbers it amounts to over $430‑450 billion. We are EU's third major commercial partner after the US and China, and the difference is not very big. If our total turnover with Europe amounts to some $430–450 billion, the turnover for the US is a little over $600 billion and $550 billion for China. So as you can see, not that big of a difference.
”There are 654 non-governmental organisations operating in the Russian Federation, which are funded from abroad. Over the four months alone that followed the adoption of the law, they received 28.3 billion rubles, which is almost $1 billion. Should not our society be informed of who gets the money and for what purposes?“
Germany is our primary European partner. Our turnover amounts to $74 billion and it continues to grow no matter what difficulties there might be. To make it clear for both Russian and German citizens, I need to say that these are not just numbers; there are jobs behind these numbers, there are cutting edge technology behind them, moving in both directions.
By the way, as far as Germany is concerned, the trade pattern is not only in line with its economic capabilities but also in line with its interests since the emphasis in trade and economic cooperation with Germany is put on the industrial production. And behind this – let me stress this once again – there are thousands if not tens of thousands of jobs, and the incomes of Russian and German families. Besides, Russia supplies 40 percent of all natural gas and 30 percent of all oil consumption in Germany.
We are expanding our cooperation in high technology sectors, aviation, engineering, including transport engineering, nanotechnologies, and next-generation physics engineering. This is a very diverse, interesting and promising cooperation.
Germany is one of our major investors with $25 billion in accumulated investments. Last year alone their amount increased by as much as $7.2 billion. This means that Germany invests rather actively in the Russian economy. I would like to stress again that all this is important, interesting and promising.
We are going to have six pavilions [at the trade fair], large ones. They are all united by a single slogan – the industrial production, in which Germany has always been strong, and which is of interest to us. Over a hundred large Russian companies will be exhibiting in those pavilions.
I invite you and all our friends in Germany to visit the 2013 Hannover Messe and Russia’s pavilions there.
Jörg Schönenborn: You've spoken about 27 billion of German direct investment in Russia. I would now like to touch upon the Cyprus issue. A lot of Germans realised for the first time how much Russian money is there in Cypriot banks and are now wondering why German businesses have to make investments while you pull your money out of Russia?
Vladimir Putin: Don't you see all the absurdity of your question? Just please don't get me wrong. What does Russia have to do with Russian investors in one of the EU countries? The more you ”pinch“ foreign investors in the financial institutions of your countries, the better for us because the affected, offended and frightened (not all of them but many) should, so we hope, come to our financial institutions and keep their money in our banks.
Why, at some point, many Russian investors moved their funds to zones such as Cyprus? Because, frankly speaking, they did not feel they could rely on the Russian financial system. And, indeed, it was not reliable. Just recall the year 1998 – an economic collapse, or the year 2000 (and that was already our common problem) – again there were widespread fears regarding the future of the financial system. But in 2008, when the new crisis hit, we not only managed to preserve the integrity of our financial system, we strengthened it without letting a single financial institution collapse. There were problems, of course, but we did not allow any of the financial institutions to abandon their customers. Of course, people went through a lot of hardships during the crisis but we arranged the work of our banking system in a way that made it possible not only to support but also to strengthen it while taking some measures to carefully restructure it, again in order to strengthen it. And I hope that people today will understand that.
Forfeiture of investors' funds, including of Russian origin, wherever it happens, in Cyprus or in other places, undermines credibility of the banking system of the entire Eurozone.
Now regarding the issue of whether to provide support or not and who is to blame. Is that fair, that people invested their funds, merely deposited their money with banks without breaking any laws, whether the laws of Cyprus or those of the European Union, just to see 60 percent of their deposits forfeited? They did not violate any rules. As to the allegations that Cyprus was, as they say in the financial community, a laundry for dirty money, they have to be supported with hard facts. One of the basic rules that we all are supposed to know and observe is the rule of the presumption of innocence. A person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. How can we ignore that? How can we accuse all people concerned of being crooks? Then anybody can be declared a crook.
Did we create that offshore zone? No, we didn’t. It was the European Union that created it. Or, rather, it was created by the Cyprus authorities with the connivance of the European Union. And is it the only such zone created by countries of the European Union? Are we not aware of offshore island zones in Great Britain or of other such zones? They do exist. If you consider such zones a bad thing, then close them. Why do you shift responsibility for all problems that have arisen in Cyprus to investors irrespective of their nationality (British, Russian, French or whatever else).
I have met with senior officials of the European Commission. We have very good personal relations, though we disagree on many issues. Is it Russia's fault that Cyprus is now facing problems? Indeed, incoming investors are a positive factor as they support the banking system and the entire economy of the host country with their funds and their trust.
Jörg Schönenborn: You are angry that the European Union did not ask you for help and that many Russian nationals were affected, are you?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, not. On the contrary I am even glad, to some extent, because the events have shown how risky and insecure investments in Western financial institutions can be. By the way, our tax regime in that context is also more favourable than yours. The income tax rate for individuals in Russia is only 13 percent. What about Germany? How much do you pay?
Jörg Schönenborn: It would be great if we paid only 13 percent. Of course, it would be great. Fight against tax increases is a hot topic during the election campaign.
Vladimir Putin: So, fight for tax cuts.
”Russia and Germany are very important partners for each other. This is really so. The EU countries and the EU itself are our major commercial partners.“
Jörg Schönenborn: Mr President, I would like to touch upon the issue of euro. You spoke about the European financial system. Russia holds more than 40 percent of its currency reserves in euro, which makes you keenly interested in euro. Do you still trust euro?
Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to say it outright: yes, we trust euro. We also trust the economic policy of major European countries, including, in the first place, the economic policy of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. We are fully aware of various opinions on that issue, including on aspects, such as economic development, maintenance of economic growth and ensuring monetary stability. I agree with the opinion that, before pumping liquidity, it is necessary to address the root causes of crises.
But I wouldn't like to go into detail now and discuss the issue that has no direct bearing on us as that is the prerogative of the leaders of the European countries themselves.
However, judging by what we hear and see, what our colleagues are doing in the leading economies of the Eurozone, what the European Commission itself is doing, – and I would like to repeat that we do not agree on many issues and we do argue – we believe that fundamentally they are moving in the right direction. It gives us confidence that we have made the right choice having decided to keep such a large share of our gold and currency reserves, of our reserves in general in the European currency. I am confident that if the situation continues to develop the same way, our colleagues and friends in Europe will overcome the difficulties they are facing today.
And our reserves are rather substantial: the Central Bank reserves worth $534 billion, another $89 billion representing one of the Russian Government’s reserve funds, another $87 billion (a third fund) representing the second government fund, the National Welfare Fund. So, this is a rather substantial amount of money.
Jörg Schönenborn: Mr President, our time is almost up, but I would like to draw your attention to another crisis area that raises great concerns in Germany – that is Syria. Hundreds of people die there every day. Your stance and the stance of the West in the UN Security Council obviously differed.
I would like to ask you the following. How do you see the opportunities for stopping the bloodshed? What are the Russian authorities doing, what is the Russian Government doing to finally put an end to this bloodshed?
Vladimir PUTIN: I think that we should seek an immediate cessation of hostilities, of shelling from both sides, and a cessation of arms supplies.
We often hear: ”Russia is supplying arms to Assad.“ First of all, there are no bans on arms supplies to incumbent legitimate governments. Secondly, only recently the opposition has received 3.5 tons of arms and munitions through the airports near Syria. This is the information published by the American media, I believe, by The New York Times. It has to be stopped.
However, – I would like to stress once again and I believe it is extremely important, – there is international law. There are international legal norms stating that it is inadmissible to supply arms to the armed groups that strive to destabilise the situation in a certain country with the use of arms. Such norms exist and they remain in force; nobody abolished them. So, when they say that Assad is fighting against his own people, we need to remember that this is the armed part of the opposition. What is going on is a massacre, this is a disaster, a catastrophe. It has to be stopped. It is necessary to bring all the warring parties to the negotiation table. I believe that this is the first step that has to be done, and then it is necessary to elaborate further steps during a discussion, which is important in our view.
”It is obvious that we have made a decisive choice for democracy and we cannot imagine any other way of development. We need to develop tools based on the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow for the vast majority of people in our country to influence domestic and foreign policy. It is the majority that must have such an influence, but the majority should also respect the opinion of the minority.“
I have already said it in public and I would like to tell you this, so that your viewers also know about our real position. We do not think that Assad should leave today, as our partners suggest. In this case, tomorrow we will have to decide what to do and where to go. We have done it in many countries. To be precise, our Western partners have. And it is unclear where Libya will go. In fact, it has already split into three parts. We do not want to have the situation of the same difficulty as we still have in Iraq. We do not want to have the situation of the same difficulty as in Yemen, and so on.
Therefore, we believe that it is necessary to bring everyone to the negotiation table so that all warring parties could reach an agreement on how their interests will be protected and in which way they will participate in the future governance of the country. And then they will work together on the implementation of this plan with due guarantees of the international community.
By the way, at the recent forum in Geneva (a few months ago) an agreement was reached on this issue, but later our Western partners unfortunately went back on these agreements. We believe that it is necessary to work hard and search for mutually acceptable solutions.
Recently, we have received Mr Hollande, President of the French Republic. I think he has some interesting ideas that can be implemented, but it requires some diplomatic work. We are ready to support these ideas. We need to try and put them into practice.
Jörg Schönenborn: Mr President, at the end of our interview I would like to go back to the topic that we have started with. Democracy is a very controversial issue. I would like to quote your Prime Minister. Mr Medvedev said that the democratic changes in Russia can be assessed only in 100 years. In our view, this is not very ambitious.
Vladimir Putin: It may be a translation issue. Could you tell me again what he said exactly?
Jörg Schönenborn: In essence, Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that ”development of democracy in Russia can be assessed no earlier than in 100 years.“ My question is whether there are truly no ambitions about it.
Vladimir Putin: To be honest, I have not seen or heard of Prime Minister saying that, and it is always necessary to consider the context which I am lacking now.
It is obvious that we have made a decisive choice for democracy and we cannot imagine any other way of development. It is also obvious that certain standards used in some countries are difficult to implement or apply elsewhere. I think it is quite clear. We need to develop tools based on the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow for the vast majority of people in our country to influence domestic and foreign policy. It is the majority that must have such an influence, but the majority should also respect the opinion of the minority and consider it. If our domestic policy and public institutions are fully based on such fundamental principles, then it seems to me, we will be able to talk about the success of democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, it is obviously the path that Russia has chosen, the path that it follows. Just compare the situation in the Soviet Union and in modern Russia in terms of development of economy, political sphere, and all other areas associated with democracy. There is a very significant difference. It took other countries 200, 300, 400 years to achieve this goal. Do you expect us to cover this distance within two decades? Of course, we are gradually taking all the necessary steps. We know our destination, and will not abandon this path.
Jörg Schönenborn: In conclusion, I shall try to ask you a personal question.
You were President for eight years, and then you became Prime Minister. You will be President for the next six years. Do you have a personal plan? Do you want to be President as long as you are elected? Or may be you have some plans about your life afterwards?
Vladimir Putin: Every normal person tries to look some distance ahead. Moreover, I am far from being the longest serving politician. There are people in leading positions in European politics who have worked there much longer than me, both in Europe and in North America, Canada actually. However, I do expect that after my retirement from political life and public service I will have an opportunity to busy myself with other things and challenges. I like jurisprudence and literature, and I do hope I will have a chance to occupy myself with these without any link to my public service duties. May be, I will look into other issues. It can be social life, sports, etc.
Jörg Schönenborn: Thank you very much for the interview, Mr President.