Question: Mr President, you have just recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and this has drawn a very swift and negative reaction from the West. Britain has rejected this move and Germany has declared that it does not conform to international law. Sweden has called it a direct and gross violation of international law. France has condemned this decision. Why did you decide to take a step leading to increased tension and escalation of the conflict?
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: We listen attentively to our partners’ views, but the most important issue in this situation is to protect the interests of people living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This situation has undergone dramatic development for 17 years now. For 17 years the Russian Federation has been carrying out a peacekeeping mission, helping to maintain peace and calm there, preventing the killings that have taken place there since the start of the 1990s, and trying to preserve the unity of the Georgian state. But the aggression and genocide unleashed by the Saakashvili regime have changed the situation. Our main mission was to prevent a humanitarian disaster and save the lives of people for whom we are responsible, all the more so as many of them are Russian citizens. We therefore had no choice but to take the decision to recognise these two subjects of international law as independent states. We have taken the same course of action as other countries took with regard to Kosovo and a number of similar problems.
Question: But when the West recognised Kosovo you were opposed and said it went against international law, and now you are doing exactly the same thing. Is this not hypocritical behaviour?
Dmitry Medvedev: This is absolutely normal behaviour. My colleagues said to me on many occasions that Kosovo is a special case, casus sui generis, as lawyers say. OK, if Kosovo is a special case, this is also a special case. In the case of Kosovo we did not see sufficient reason for recognising a new subject of international law, but in this case, in order to prevent the killing of people and a humanitarian catastrophe, in order for justice to triumph and for these peoples to realise their right to self-determination, we have recognised their independence. No two cases are alike in international law.
Question: But this violates the agreement that you drew up with President Sarkozy. In accordance with that agreement, negotiations would be held to discuss the future status of these republics. By taking this decision are you not renouncing the agreement that was reached, and does this mean that you think this agreement no longer needs to be implemented?
Dmitry Medvedev: We are not at all renouncing the agreement. I think the agreement signed by Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, backed by a guaranteed mission carried out by France, Russia and the OSCE, offers the only possible way out of the situation that has arisen. The six principles in the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement have played their part, including the sixth principle. But we said from the start, and I spoke of this personally with President Sarkozy, that discussions on ensuring security for South Ossetia and Abkhazia would include the question of their status. In this situation we have decided to recognise their independence, and this builds on the sixth principle that we agreed on.
Question: The problem is that you have taken a unilateral decision to recognise independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. You have taken a unilateral decision to move troops into Georgian territory, that is, beyond the limits of the peacekeeping zone, including into the port of Poti, a town which even your generals do not consider part of the peacekeepers’ zone of responsibility. This creates the impression that rather than maintaining peace and carrying out peacekeeping functions, Russia is pursuing its own interests and is realising them through these acts.
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course Russia pursues its own interests, but in this case these interests coincide with the need to protect the security of people in these two territories we have recognised. As for this being an independent decision, any country that decides to recognise a new state does so independently. There is no such thing as collective recognition. Each country makes its own decision. The same was true of Kosovo; some countries recognised it and others did not. Time will tell what will happen in this case. As for our troops’ entry into Georgian territory, our objective of course was to suppress centres of possible aggression, because after what the Saakashvili regime did we could not simply help to deal with the humanitarian disaster in South Ossetia and let it rest at that, because a few days would have gone by and the acts of aggression would have recommenced. The situation calmed down after our troops intervened and moved into Georgian territory to suppress the Georgian military’s aggressive designs. Our troops then withdrew to their previous positions, at the same time maintaining a presence in the security zone.
Question: What are your troops doing in Poti? Are their actions an attempt to block the port, and if, for example, American ships want to enter the port to deliver humanitarian supplies, will Russia try to prevent this?
Dmitry Medvedev: There is no blockade. Any ships can enter the port, American or any other, and deliver humanitarian supplies, or what the Americans call humanitarian supplies – they are delivering arms, of course. We will not prevent this. As for our troops, our peacekeepers, they are deployed in the zones established by the agreements of 1992 and 1994 and by decision of the Mixed Control Commission in 1999.
Question: This does not fit with what President Sarkozy says. He says that your troops have moved far deeper into Georgian territory than was allowed under the terms of the agreements he reached with you.
Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t know what my colleague Sarkozy is saying. On the telephone he says things I find more comprehensible. We have been speaking to each other quite regularly. The last time we spoke, he said it was very good that Russia has withdrawn all its troops.
Question: Observers in the West have the impression that the issue here is not just Georgia and South Ossetia but also the fact that Georgia wants to join NATO. You and your military commanders have expressed dissatisfaction on many occasions with this aspiration of the Georgian leadership. Is what is happening now a continuation of this dissatisfaction? Are your steps an attempt to send a signal to NATO and the United States not to meddle in affairs in your backyard?
Dmitry Medvedev: No, this is not the case. But we do not like the fact that NATO is coming closer to the Russian Federation’s borders.
Question: What impact will all of this have on Georgia and Ukraine – countries that want to join NATO? Judging by their reactions to what has taken place now their desire to join NATO has only grown stronger.
Dmitry Medvedev: I will not say anything about Georgia because we will not have any dealings with the Saakashvili regime. The Georgian people can decide his fate themselves. As for Ukraine, big questions still hang over their aspirations to join NATO. There has not even been a referendum there. On what basis is Georgia seeking to join NATO? They have held a referendum and there is at least a legal basis for their aspirations. But Ukraine has not even held a referendum. Moreover, public opinion surveys there suggest that 60–70 percent of Ukrainians do not want their country to join NATO. The Ukrainian leadership first needs to reach a consensus with its own people.
Question: You said your actions are dictated by the need and desire to protect Russian citizens wherever they may be. Does this mean that you are ready to take similar steps in other regions: in Ukraine, in the Baltic states, in Moldova?
Dmitry Medvedev: This means only one thing: in accordance with the Constitution Russia has the right to self defence, and I, as Commander in Chief and guarantor of the Constitution, have a duty to protect the lives and dignity of our citizens. In certain cases I have no choice but to take these kinds of actions.
Question: One final question, Mr President: many people ask who is really running the country – you or Mr Putin. You are President, but it was Mr Putin who first spoke out about the conflict taking place, and it was he who visited the border with South Ossetia and then reported to you on what is taking place there. So this is the question on many people’s minds: who really runs the country – you or Prime Minister Putin?
Dmitry Medvedev: The country is run by the bodies of state power in accordance with the Constitution. If it interests you to know who decides to use the Armed Forces, it would be a disaster for any country, Russia included, if such decisions were taken by several different people and following procedures other than those set out in the Constitution. Such decisions are made by one person alone – the Commander in Chief.
Question: My final question – on the issue of a split between Russia and the West. Many people fear that a new Cold War could now begin and relations do indeed seem to be deteriorating to this point.
What do you think of these fears, do you share this view and does it worry you? Does the thought of a possible renewal of the Cold War worry you?
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, it worries me, but if we are talking about priorities, our priority is to protect people’s lives, and this is why I have decided to recognise these two new states. We do not want a Cold War. No one has ever gained from it. No matter what some politicians might say, there are no victors in a Cold War. We do not seek confrontation and tension. What we want are normal productive and mostly importantly respectful relations with our Western partners.
Question: But are you worried that a new Cold War could begin?
Dmitry Medvedev: I would not like to see this happen.