The Russian Popular Front’s first interregional forum addressed specific issues the regions face in their work to implement presidential executive orders of May 2012 and instructions issued following ONF meetings. More than 600 people took part in the session, including civil society activists from Russia’s southern regions, federal and regional experts, representatives from the executive authorities, and journalists.
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President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends,
I greet you all at this, the Russian Popular Front’s first interregional forum. There are plans to hold another three such conferences this year.
I hope and believe that this will provide an opportunity for exchanging information, in-depth study and analysis of the situation in specific regions, evaluating what is taking place, and gaining a deeper understanding of the specific circumstances in the regions in this part of the country and examining their problems and difficulties.
I think it is important too that these forums’ organisation will get an increasing number of active and committed people involved in the ONF’s work. There are such people in probably every region, town and village. The ONF gives them the chance to join the discussions and, I hope, to not just take part in the discussions, but also in resolving serious issues, the most pressing and sensitive issues for people, problems such as raising the quality and affordability of healthcare, education and public utilities services, and taking part in projects that have already won public support such as the For Fair Public Procurement project, Let’s Evaluate the Quality of Roads, Popular Initiative, and For Borrowers’ Rights.
The activists from the For Fair Procurement project, for example, have analysed purchases made by 100 customers from 40 different regions and drew up the 2015 Index of Wastefulness of State Authorities and Companies. I think the relevant agencies, including those responsible for fighting corruption, should pay close attention to these facts and information that the ONF provides.
The For Borrowers’ Rights project is designed to defend the interests of consumers of financial services. This is a particularly topical issue and the project’s participants have already done a lot to raise public awareness and help individuals who have ended up in debt-related difficulties.
Getting new people from the regions involved in these and other ONF projects will most certainly be a useful contribution to the common effort.
We are holding this first interregional forum in southern Russia, and it is not by chance that we chose to gather here, in Stavropol Territory. We all know that our southern regions’ economic and social development is very closely linked to development in the agriculture sector.
This sector was the focus of particular attention during yesterday’s discussions, the forum’s first day of work, as were interethnic relations, fighting wastefulness and corruption, raising our people’s quality of everyday life, and strengthening dialogue between the authorities and society.
My colleagues said just now that the results of these discussions have been summarised and proposed solutions to the most pressing issues have been drafted. This approach needs to continue, of course, at the future interregional conferences.
At the ONF’s third action forum at the end of this year, we will review the results and analyse what we have managed to accomplish in terms of resolving the regions’ problems. This will not be an easy task, of course, but your experience, determination, and focus on results are the proof that you are up to this task.
When I looked over your discussions from yesterday and the proposals you drafted, I said to myself that we will not limit ourselves to meeting only with the ONF core members. I, at least, will not stop at this, but, based on your work’s results and analysis of the material you provide, will get my colleagues, the regional heads, together in Moscow to analyse your proposals together with them and look at what can realistically be carried out. Later, at the end of the year, we will look at what we have achieved through these common efforts, what we have not yet managed to do, and why.
As you recall, it was here in southern Russia, in Volgograd in 2011, that the proposal first came to establish the Russian Popular Front. Since that time, the movement has proven its effectiveness, established its place, and won the public’s trust. People’s respect for your work is one of the key conditions for the ONF’s successful work.
It is also important to build up relations with the local executive and legislative authorities, with the regional authorities. We know very well that you are not met everywhere with welcome and understanding. The ONF activists know this better than I. Sometimes you are not welcome at all because you shed light on some of the serious problems that the authorities at various levels have not yet managed to resolve. But these serious problems are what concern the public, and this is the most convincing argument for you to continue your work.
Yes, many difficulties can arise, but this is no excuse for tolerating indifference to people’s needs. I am sure that you understand this well and do everything you can to work in constructive and reasonable fashion, for the public benefit.
I would like to hear from you today your thoughts and ideas on how we can move forward and resolve the most serious and urgent issues that you discussed yesterday.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Vladimir Putin: I will make sure to get my colleagues, regional heads and representatives of various federal ministries and agencies together in Moscow so that your proposals – though I do not think we can put them all into practice, but those that we can – are not ignored but are taken into consideration in major practical solutions. We will definitely get together in Moscow to discuss this.
Vladimir Putin: (responding to a question about his personal attitude to the founder of the Soviet state Vladimir Lenin and his removal from the Mausoleum and burial) As for the burial and other such matters, you know, I believe we should be very careful here, so as not to take any steps that would divide our society. We need to unite it. This is what matters.
Regarding the assessment of the brief discussion we had at the Council for Science and Education, what was it all about? Generally, if you want to know my opinion, you know that like millions of Soviet citizens – over 20 million – I used to be a member of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and not just a regular member: for almost 20 years I worked for the organisation called the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union [KGB]. This organisation derives from the Cheka [Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage], which was then called the armed unit of the Party. If for some reason a person left the Communist Party, they were immediately fired from the KGB. I did not join the party simply because I had to, though I cannot say I was such a dedicated communist, but I treated this with great care. As opposed to numerous party functionaries, I was not one of them; I was a rank-and-file member. As opposed to many functionaries, I did not trash my membership card, I did not burn it. I would not want to criticize anyone now – people had different motives and this is their own business. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union fell apart; my membership card is still out there somewhere.
I have always liked communist and socialist ideas. If we consider the Code of the Builder of Communism that was widely published in the Soviet Union, it strongly resembles the Bible. This is not a joke; it was actually an excerpt from the Bible. It spoke of good things: equality, fraternity, happiness. However, the practical implementation of these ideals in this country had little in common with what the utopian socialists Saint-Simon or Owen spoke about. This country had little resemblance to their Sun City.
Everyone accused the tsarist regime of repressions. However, what did Soviet power begin with? With mass repressions. I will not speak of the scale, but will simply give most outstanding example: the execution of the Tsar’s family together with their children. There could have been some ideological grounds to destroy possible heirs, I suppose. But why did they have to kill Doctor Botkin? Why kill the servants – people of a proletarian background? What for? To cover up the crime.
You see, we never gave this a thought before. Fine, we fought with people who resisted Soviet power with arms in hands, but why kill priests? In 1918 alone 3,000 priests were shot, 10,000 over a period of 10 years. Hundreds were drowned under the ice of the Don River. When you think about it, and when you get new data, you tend to see things in a different light.
In one of his letters, to Molotov I believe, Vladimir Lenin wrote that ‘the more representatives of the bourgeoisie and the clergy we shoot – the better’; I do not remember the exact words now. You know, this approach does not go very well with some of the ideas we used to have about the very nature of power.
We also know of the role the Bolshevik Communist Party played in the collapse of the World War I frontlines. The fact that we lost to a losing nation – several months later Germany capitulated, and were losing the war to a losing nation – was a situation unique in history. Why was this done? To gain power. Knowing this, how should we assess this situation now, with the huge, colossal losses the country had to bear?
Then, there is the economy. They had to adopt the New Economic Policy because even the surplus appropriation system did not work. It became impossible to supply major cities with food. That was why they had to shift to a market economy, to the New Economic Policy, but then they quickly did away with it.
You know, what I am saying now is my personal analysis of the situation, the conclusions I have come to. A planned economy has certain advantages, making it possible to concentrate national resources on the most important tasks. This was how they resolved the issue of healthcare, which was an obvious achievement of the Party in those times. This was how they resolved the situation with education – also an obvious achievement of the Communist Party. This was how they dealt with the industrialisation of the defence industry.
I believe that if it were not for the concentration of national resources, the Soviet Union would not have been able to prepare for the war with Nazi Germany. The chances of being defeated in this war would have been great, with catastrophic consequences for our statehood, for the Russian people and for all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Therefore, those are all obvious achievements. However, in the final count, the inability to embrace change, to embrace technical revolutions and new technology led to a collapse of that economy.
Finally, the main reason why I was saying that we need to take a fresh look at the ideas the former leader of the Soviet state Vladimir Lenin formulated. What were we talking about? I was saying that a bomb was planted at the foundation of our statehood. What did I mean by that? I will give you the details now. I was referring to the discussion between Stalin and Lenin regarding the creation of the new state, the Soviet Union.
If you are a historian, you should know that back then Stalin came up with the idea of the autonomisation of the future Soviet Union. Pursuant to this idea, all the different subjects of the future state were to join the USSR as autonomies with broad authority. Lenin criticised Stalin’s views, saying it was an untimely and wrong idea. Moreover, he promoted the idea of uniting the future entities, and there were 4 then – Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and, as a matter of fact, the south of Russia, the North Caucasus Federation, as it was called – you know this better than I do.
So, Lenin said the state, the Soviet Union should be formed on the basis of full equality with the possibility of seceding from the union – I may have gotten the exact words wrong, but that was the idea. That was the time bomb that was planted under the structure of our statehood. Not only did they set the borders for ethnic groups of a multinational, essentially unitarian state; the borders were also established arbitrarily, without much reason. Thus, why did they make Donbass part of Ukraine? The reason was to raise the share of the proletariat there to ensure greater social support. Pure nonsense, as you may see. And this is not the only example, there are many others.
Say, cultural autonomy is one thing, an autonomy with broad state authority is another, while the right to secede is something else altogether. Eventually, this, along with an inefficient economic and social policy, led to the collapse of the state. This was the time bomb.
What was it if not a time bomb? That is exactly what it was. We simply need to carefully analyse what happened in the past using the opportunities we have today. However, we cannot paint everything in the past black, or present a rosy picture of everything that is happening now. We need to make a careful objective analysis to avoid the mistakes that were made and develop our statehood, our economy and social sphere in a way that would only make the state stronger. We have such an opportunity, and the Russian Popular Front has a part to play here as well.
Remark: I would like to speak on my own behalf and on behalf of the multi-ethnic people of the Chechen Republic. I am a member of the regional ONF headquarters in the Chechen Republic and board chairman of the Vozrozhdeniye Russian Republican Centre in the Chechen Republic. We will also submit our proposals, but I would like to thank you (a slightly different topic) for your decisive actions to counter international terrorism in Syria, because this concerns us. We are speaking about various things here, but if we do not have peace, we will not have any of that. This talk would be pointless.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you for your support and I would like to thank our military for their efficient action. As for the Republic – it has all been done by you, the people who live there. We should thank the first President of the Republic, and the current leader. This is efficient work.
Remark: I have lived in the Republic for over 4 years now and I know first hand what the people had to go through. We suggest continuing these decisive actions to resolve this issue – counter terrorism, so that this never happens again, so that it never threatens this country again, so that our children can sleep peacefully.
I work with children, I have a drama studio. They asked me to tell you that they love you and they know you would always protect them.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Remark: This is what really matters, because it comes from children, this is priceless.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.
We will proceed, as a film character used to say, “with care, but forcefully”, or maybe the other way around “with force, but carefully”.
Vladimir Putin: With regard to inflation: we must watch carefully to ensure people’s living standards stay at a high enough level, because in modern conditions, in today’s economic conditions, this is probably the most important thing that should be at the centre of attention at all levels of government. Incidentally, we all know about the ruble exchange rate and the inflation you just mentioned. According to the final calculations, it will even be slightly lower, I believe, than what we initially said. But indexing, especially for retirees, should be observed in accordance with the decisions made and the laws that have been passed.
Of course, we must work with our budget’s revenues. And how are the expenditures paid? From the revenues. Plus, of course, in the conditions we are experiencing today, we must use our reserve funds – carefully, but use them nevertheless – first and foremost, the Government reserve funds. That is why reserve funds are created, to finance social obligations during times of economic decline. We will certainly do all of this.
At the same time, I want to point out that the difficulties we are experiencing – and agricultural producers know this better than anyone else – give us certain opportunities, but not just in agriculture, where we have partially but significantly cleared our own market for Russian producers, but in manufacturing as well.
Incidentally, we had a 3.3 percent decline in manufacturing, while experiencing nearly 3 percent growth in agriculture. But we will certainly see growth in manufacturing as well, including due to import substitution programmes, because they are aimed at more than just replacing something we do not have. They are aimed towards ensuring modern technological development for our economy, creating a new innovation economy, not just in the defence sectors but in civilian industries as well. It is just that there is more of a lag there than in agriculture; it takes longer to see returns than in agriculture, but there, too, it will happen with 100 percent certainty.
In addition to everything else, the main foundations for the functioning of the economy give us reason to be cautiously optimistic. Why? Because, you see, our inflation grew, and our budget deficit is lower than we expected. The Finance Ministry reported to me that it would be about 2.6 percent instead of over 3 percent, but at the same time, we have a trade balance surplus, which means we earn more than we consume, so we have sufficiently large reserve funds and low national debt.
You see, when we have low inflation and low debt, it is one of the fundamental, basic conditions for future development. Naturally, we must maintain this and proceed very carefully in the social sphere, without increasing these expenditures, but certainly ensuring people’s living standards.
Aslan Shafiyev: On January 1, 2016, the Russian Federation imposed sanctions on Turkish companies, including construction companies. An enormous number of job vacancies were created. Question: why can’t we fill these vacancies ourselves with the help of our construction companies? Especially since we have proven our abilities, and our guys have known how to build well and work hard since Soviet times.
In modern Russia, too, we are showing good results, participating in major infrastructure projects such as the Vostochny Space Centre, Peaceful Atom in Rostov Region, the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant and many others, including Olympic facilities. Why can’t we fill these vacancies with our workers, including workers from the North Caucasus regions and the Southern Federal District?
And another suggestion. In order for this work to be even better and for us to move forward, we need to make another breakthrough towards improving vocational training, basic vocational training. Because we cannot move forward without welders, for example, and other highly trained workers. This should include great emphasis on career-oriented activities in the working and construction trades.
Vladimir Putin: As far as personnel training, this is absolutely right, because just as you said, back in Soviet times, people from the south, from the Caucasus, worked well. This is true. We need them to work well today, too. And we need them to work better, not worse, than Turkish workers, and for our construction companies to also work better, not worse, than Turkish companies.
Today, we have about 300 Turkish companies working on the Russian construction market. They signed contracts worth about $50 billion in total. This is a very substantial figure. I will not talk now about why and when we enacted these limitations. It is clear, I have already spoken about this many times, we feel that the Turkish leadership made an enormous mistake when they downed our jet, as well as the people on the ground whom they were supposedly protecting, when they shot our pilot. Our reaction has been more than restrained in response to this war crime.
We made the decision not to break existing contracts, because not only would this be a clear response to the Turkish authorities, but it could cause us a certain amount of damage. Thus, the existing contracts remain in effect; nevertheless, the restrictions in this sector will expand.
The Government has made the decision not to conclude new contracts with Turkish contractors. Naturally, this will create an opportunity for our construction sector to expand its work and will require new skilled personnel. According to our initial assessments, our companies will soon be able to replace about 87,000 jobs, but we need them to be prepared for this work – prepared, first and foremost, in terms of professional training.
I fully agree with you; we are essentially doing everything to work towards this goal. When we respond to the destructive actions of certain European nations and the United States by limiting food products brought into our market, this is first and foremost aimed at liberating the market from foreign domination. Our actions in this area are quite justified in terms of the WTO rules, because we are acting in response to the destructive actions of our partners. We are doing the same with regard to Turkey. But our builders must be aware of this, they must analyse the situation and be ready to cover part of the demand in the domestic market with their services.
Vladimir Putin: The cost of a barrel of oil reflects the decreasing global economic volumes. This has resulted in the overproduction of this fuel; it is not used in today’s economy the way that economists had predicted earlier. This is one of the reasons for today’s difficulties. But you are certainly right in that we need to develop domestic resources, and we have enough of them. I fully agree with you.
Loans are cheap there and expensive in Russia. The economy there is different. They are experiencing deflation, but we have inflation. There, manufacturers produce goods, often at such a cost that they cannot sell them at a price that would cover production, so there are all sorts of incentives to avoid that situation. They have nearly zero percent interest rates, and in some countries, they are already saying, “Take the money, we will pay you just to take it.” It is an entirely different frame of reference. With our inflation levels, if we follow the path of lowering the cost of loans, we can drive it so hard that the business community will not thank us for it. This inflation will simply turn the whole economy on its head and kill incomes for the public and for businesses.
So we must act very carefully, based on the reality of the current situation. But one thing we can do – and here, I also agree with you – we must broaden economic freedoms, free our economy of corruption and nepotism. That is why we have forums like the Russian Popular Front. And I very much hope that we will clear these Augean stables together.
Naturally, we must also expand the freedom of enterprise. This is absolutely right. But this does not mean that we cannot or should not provide individual support to specific sectors, certain areas facing particular difficulties, including through the provision of soft financing. This concerns small and midsize businesses. I am not going to list everything now, we have a whole set of support measures for small and midsize enterprises. These measures are working better or worse – in some places they work, and in others they do not, but we have this set of measures.
The Government is currently preparing an automotive industry support programme. We are also drafting a programme for a sector of particular concern: construction. Incidentally, two years ago, I believe we built 83 million square metres of residential housing, one of our records. Last year, in 2014, the figure was 80 million. This is a very good indicator.
In other words, overall, our economy is surviving and is fairly confident. Of course, we need targeted support for individual sectors of the economy and individual industries. We have many more problems, but we will resolve them together.
Vladimir Putin: Friends,
Thank you very much. I understand that there are many questions, and you discussed all these matters actively yesterday. As I already said, I will certainly gather the heads of Russia’s southern regions in Moscow, we will summarise all your suggestions and ideas and strive to implement as many as possible – perhaps it will not be possible to realise all of them, but as many as we can.
I very much hope that we will continue our joint efforts to resolve problems that are important for our society, our state and our people.
Our shared task is to resolve the problems standing before us. But without careful attention towards these problems by members of the public, without establishing this feedback loop at all levels of government and with all organisations and structures that hold government powers, we will not be able to do effective work for the good of our nation. So I want to thank you for our work together and express my hope that it will continue.
Thank you very much.