Question: Mr Putin, thank you for your time and for agreeing to answer our questions. Because I represent Quebec I’ll ask my question in two languages, in French and in English. Have you decided to pardon Edmond Pope?
Vladimir Putin: Under applicable Russian legislation such a decision can only be taken after the court ruling comes into force. It will come into force at midnight on the 14th. From that moment on I will have the right to make the decision. (The interview was recorded before the President flew from Moscow to Cuba. – Press service.)
You probably know that the Presidential Commission on Pardon, which consists of prominent public figures in Russia, has already made its decision and asked me to pardon Mr Pope. Of course, I cannot ignore the Russian public opinion. And I will take it into account in making my decision, as well as the high level of relations between Russia and the United States at present.
Question: Mr Putin, Canadians feel good about relations between Russia and Canada. As regards their impressions about Russia and about you personally as the President, what would you like it to be?
Vladimir Putin: I would like it to be similar to your impression of our play during the first ice hockey match between the NHL and the Soviet team in 1972. We are good neighbours, we are strong states. We have something to be proud of, we almost have a common border, we are neighbours in the north. We have common problems. We are ready to tackle them together – both bilateral and multi-lateral.
I think if we treat each other with respect, we will have a good chance of finding effective solutions to common problems.
Question: What is your impression of Canada?
Vladimir Putin: It is not hard for me to draw my conclusion about Canada because I have been there, albeit only once, about six years ago. I visited a research centre in southern Canada.
Besides, we are very similar countries in terms of size. We are both vast countries. Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of territory and Canada comes next after Russia. We have a lot of natural resources. And we have developed our territories in roughly similar ways. Russia developed its territory from west to east and Canada, as far as I know, from east to west.
Investments, including foreign investments, played a very big part in the economic development both of Russia and Canada. I have mentioned that we are both northern countries. And we are still underpopulated countries. So, we have many problems that are similar, to say the least. Besides, there are many immigrants from the former USSR and even pre-revolutionary Russia living in Canada. That also has left an imprint, a positive imprint.
We all, and I personally, have a very favourable impression of Canada as a robust state which is very well disposed towards my country. And we think of Canadians as the guys whom we first saw at a hockey match between the NHL and the Soviet team in 1972.
Question: Mr Putin, many Canadians have, perhaps erroneously, a fairly negative idea of your country. For instance, that you can’t do normal business here, that the problem of poverty is very acute and there is not enough law and order. Could you say how you think that opinion can be changed?
Vladimir Putin: First, we must eradicate the problems that really exist. And second, the real picture of life in our country should be presented objectively and fully. It is true that our population is not wealthy, our people’s incomes are average and there are very many poor people, it’s a fact.
But our population does not consist of paupers, according to statistics and United Nations criteria. Average wages have recently, especially during the past year, increased by 24%. Pensions have grown by between 35% and 40%; perhaps 35% is closer to the truth. And people’s real incomes have grown by about 9%. The number of cars increased by three times in the past 10 years. That is a very rapid pace.
All this shows that Russia does have the social problems that exist in every country, especially at a turning point in Russia’s history. They do not impede normal development of the state. So, I wouldn’t make too much of these concerns.
Question: Mr Putin, how much time do you think Russia will need to implement the reforms that would make it an equal partner in international economic relations? Some economists think it will take six months and others think it will take two years.
Vladimir Putin: One can predict more or less accurately when a child will be born, provided we know when it was conceived. And even that doesn’t always work. As for the answer to your question, it depends on a number of circumstances, including the development of the world economy. Today we often speak about the problems of globalisation. Surely, everything that happens in the world economy has a direct impact on the state of affairs in Russia, on Russian finances and the rate of economic development.
If the positive trends we see in the Russian economy hold, then I think that the fruits of economic growth will become very real for the population within the next three, four or five years. But I think it will take a little more time to become fully integrated into the world economy. But of course it does not always depend only on us, and I mean you too.
For example, our industry constantly faces tough measures from Canadian official bodies, which insist on not recognising the market character of our economy, and our goods encounter problems in the North-American market. If we get a fair deal, then the time you are asking me about will be brought forward significantly.
Question: Many Canadian businessmen have certain fears based on their practical experience of doing business in Russia. Sometimes contracts have been broken and their rights have been violated. All this breeds some mistrust and suspicion. What do you think about it?
Vladimir Putin: I think these problems exist, or at least they used to exist. To a certain extent, we have to accept this because the country has been in a state of transition for a number of years. Many issues were not properly regulated by the law. But now this is receding into the past.
One has to be honest and admit that the shortcomings of our laws were connected with a lack of consensus in society. It was difficult to pass the necessary decisions for the State Duma, Parliament of our country. Today we more and more frequently achieve a consolidated vote on key national issues. This gives us hope that the legal field for business will be cleared.
At the same time, it has to be said that any businessman when starting work in another country must thoroughly acquaint himself with the laws of that country and build his business not blindly but with the help of specialists. By the way, I think Canadian business could prepare the ground for its work in Russia, partly by influencing the Canadian Government. How? I think that all the potential partners of Russia would like it to become a member of the World Trade Organisation. And we have a strong hope that Canada will back Russia’s plans to join the WTO. If that happens, the procedures and rules of conducting business in Russia will be harmonised to a large extent with international standards. This is in everybody’s interest. We count on Canada’s support in this matter.
Question: Earlier you spoke about the favourable economic situation in Russia this year. But what will happen if oil price drops next year, as some analysts think? Is Russia ready for the shock?
Vladimir Putin: Russia is preparing for it. We are trying to develop our economy in such a way that it does not depend simply on the favourable foreign economic situation, but on internal processes within the economy.
And I must say that although there is no denying that the world economic situation is favourable for Russia, the Government is doing much not to fritter away the positive resources that exist and is pursuing a meaningful economic policy.
I want you to note that we could, in spite of our windfall profits from the sale of energy, act in a very different way. And then we would hardly have the macro-economic indicators that we have managed to sustain. This was made possible by the consistent moves of the Government, in spite of the pressure from the opposition.
But we could have acted more resolutely. The Government has difficulty in controlling the money supply going into the economy. But it is still in control. And I think we will stay the course not only until the end of this year, but we will continue it next year. So, we are aware that such a favourable world market may not last. But we are prepared for that.
Question: Does it mean that you agree with your economic advisor Andrei Illarionov, who made a statement to the effect that Russia should move faster in the economic field if it is not to miss a good opportunity?
Vladimir Putin: By and large, I agree. Of course, we would like to act more energetically. But we shouldn’t forget about the social problems of our people. One of your colleagues has put a very good question and I must say that it is discussed at all international forums. It is hard to implement economic transformations if there are negative social processes.
So the Government has found itself between a rock and a hard place and it has to choose the optimum course of development. On the one hand, social issues have to be addressed if we are to move forward. On the other hand, it should be done in an optimum way in order to preserve the potential for development. So far I think we have succeeded in striking the balance.
Question: Mr Putin, do you think Russia and Canada can have relations which, like on the issue of the ABM Treaty, on which our states’ positions are close, are based on the similarity of interests and views so that our countries could play a corresponding international role and contribute to peace and security?
Vladimir Putin: I believe the answer is yes. It is true that our positions on the problem of world security, on the problem of preserving the 1972 anti-missile defence treaty are very close. It shows that we can find common ground on cardinal, key issues of our time and use it for the benefit of bilateral relations and for the benefit of the whole of humankind. I can say that without exaggeration.
I have already mentioned that we are neighbours in the northern latitudes and developing the North is our common task. So, we have a large field for cooperation there. I think it would be relevant in this connection to mention environmental problems. They are global in character, and of course Canada and Russia are equally interested in seeing such problems solved effectively. I think that there, as in other areas, we have much common ground and broad opportunities for effective joint efforts.
Question: Even if these agreements between us antagonise the Untied States?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think our agreements have to or can be directed against the interests of third countries. When we met with Mr Jean Chretien and discussed these problems, we invariably took into account the position of our partners. I think if we follow the path of pooling the efforts of all the countries involved in the solution of this or that problem, we will succeed. But of course almost every success of this kind is a compromise. And in any compromise someone has to meet the other side halfway.
Question: Many people in Canada were sorry that the Soviet Union collapsed. We are a neighbour of the United States, and sometimes we don’t like the fact that the United States has such influence today. Do you think that as Russia grows stronger the geo-political situation may change?
Vladimir Putin: I think that Canada is not alone in being unhappy about the attempts to create the uni-polar world, to use a fashionable phrase. But we are basically comfortable with Russia’s present position because it does not impose excessive strain on us in the defence field. It does not require that we bleed the country’s economy white, although at present we spend considerable amounts of money to maintain the nation’s defence capability.
The fact that the geo-political situation has changed and we do not see the United States as an enemy, as an adversary, changes the situation and often not for the worse as far as we are concerned. I understand that it may become a problem for the United States. But that is not our problem.
Question: So you are happy with this. Let them worry and let them solve their problems. Is that it?
Vladimir Putin: No. You know our position. We come out for the creation of a multi-polar world. We believe that the world cannot develop effectively and positively if any single state has a monopoly on making and executing the decisions it takes and considers being fair. This state of affairs cannot result in positive development. In human history, the attempts to establish such a monopoly have never led to any good. So we promote everywhere the idea of a different structure, a different democratic world order. I think our position finds favour with the majority of our partners in the world.
Question: How would you define the grandeur of Russia today? Does it stem only from economic or military factors?
Vladimir Putin: I think we should determine what we mean by the grandeur of a country. We have mentioned the size of territory. Both Russia and Canada are among the largest countries in the world in terms of territory. Although Russia lost more than 30% of its territory after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it is still the largest country in the world. Canada is in second place. Both Canada and Russia have vast natural resources. Russia remains a major military power. And of course, the underpinnings of our military power are our nuclear forces, which we maintain at the proper level.
But of course, we should not forget about another important component of grandeur of any state: the level of culture, education and science. Nobody has ever challenged the great contribution Russia has made to the treasure trove of world civilisation.
Today the focus of competition has moved from the military to the economic sphere. One has to be realistic. Russia is in the middle of the list of countries in terms of economic development, it is in 15th place. But Russia has very good opportunities and good prospects. We take all this into account, and it is enough to make us optimistic about the future.
Question: You have mentioned the military factor. Your country is in the process of military reform. What will be the role of nuclear forces in Russia’s Armed Forces, in its defence potential?
Vladimir Putin: The leading role. Russia inherited its nuclear forces from the Soviet Union. Our task is to maintain them properly, to modernise them, and we will to do it.
But I must say that in our opinion the lower the level of nuclear confrontation between the main powers the better. So we call on the international community and our partners in the nuclear club to act jointly to bring down the level of nuclear confrontation. We believe it is possible if we combine our efforts, especially in the field of missile launch control. If we use the technical possibilities we can assure security for all.
Question: Yes, we understand that. But still many, especially in Canada, are worried about the recent events connected with the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Many in Canada are also worried about the Russian nuclear potential. Do you think there are grounds for such worries?
Vladimir Putin: No, there are absolutely no grounds for such worries. I am serious, this is really true because there is no confrontation between the two systems, that’s history. There is no confrontation between the two nuclear giants, the US and the USSR. The USSR no longer exists. We have an absolutely different foreign and domestic policy. We are not looking for enemies. We seek cooperation, including in the nuclear sphere.
Question: Mr Putin, you said that there is no military confrontation between Russia and the West. But why have we seen an increase in the number of military exercises lately? More and more often exercises are held close to the military facilities of Western countries, including US naval vessels. Why does it happen if you say that there is no more confrontation?
Vladimir Putin: I think your information is inaccurate. We are not holding more exercises than in previous years. I can safely say that there are fewer exercises than in the former years.
As for approaching some military assets, naval vessels, perhaps you are referring to our planes flying over some US naval vessels. I have to tell you that the US Navy itself took it absolutely calmly, as a routine event, there is nothing unusual about it. But we see a different development. We see the NATO military organisation moving towards our borders. It cannot but worry us because NATO doesn’t want to admit us as members.
Question: Would you like to join?
Vladimir Putin: As you know, we have declared that we would be ready to join. But the answer came that the Western community is not yet ready for it.
It is true that we have to react to what is happening on the southern frontiers of Russia. But there, too, there has been no reaction from Russia or from the international community that is adequate to the threat. We know what is happening in Afghanistan. Why hasn’t bin Laden been extradited? It is a challenge to the international community. So far neither Russia nor the world community have reacted to that threat adequately.
Question: We have been told that you don’t like being asked the question I am about to ask you. You are often characterised in terms of your previous work as a security officer. Does it irritate or disappoint or annoy you?
Vladimir Putin: Why do you think I am annoyed? I have never said I was annoyed. I don’t know if it is appropriate to recall my first meeting with Mr Kissinger for whom I have great respect. When I told him that I started my career as an intelligence officer, he paused and then said: “All decent people started their careers with the intelligence. Me too.” I am ashamed to say that was something I hadn’t known before.
So what? There is nothing you can do about it. I know that some leaders in other countries, even US Presidents, once worked with the intelligence. I served my country and I did it honestly and I have nothing to repent about. And I must say that, strange though it may sound, I have never broken the laws of other countries. It was an interesting and a highly professional job. It played a positive role in my life. It was interesting work.
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Question: Mr Putin, Chechnya is constantly on the agenda of world leaders and your talks with them, including Mr Chretien. Everybody wants to know whether peace in Chechnya is possible; and if it is possible, how can it be achieved?
Vladimir Putin: You know, the problem of Chechnya is not only a Russian problem. I agree with you there. It is a pity that the world community, the Western public opinion do not know enough and are not accurately enough informed about the events that take place.
Few people are aware that large-scale action in Chechnya in the summer of 1999 began after Russia had granted full de facto independence to Chechnya. In spite of this in the summer of last year an unprovoked armed attack was launched on Russian territory, on the neighbouring Republic of Dagestan. It happened four times. Four times we drove major groups of terrorists out of our territory. It was only after that and after the explosions of residential buildings in Moscow that we decided to move to liquidate terrorist bases on the territory of Chechnya.
We share the concern of the international community over the humanitarian aspects of the case. Above all, civilians must not suffer. But these are forced actions on our part. Humanitarian rules should not apply to terrorists. Nobody speaks about the humanitarian rights of bin Laden, who blows up American embassies and American naval vessels. We have the right to demand the extradition of such people and their trial.
As for serious and enduring settlement, it should be achieved with the people of Chechnya and not with these international fanatics and terrorists who today attack the civilised world in various parts of the globe and have formed a whole arc running from Indonesia to Kosovo. And if we seek a settlement with the population in Chechnya, I absolutely agree that the settlement can be achieved exclusively by legal and political means. And we have contacts with those who want to and are committed to having negotiations of this kind. I am sure that eventually we will solve that problem.
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Question: Mr Putin, before you became President many people felt that there was anarchy in Russia and that the Russian state almost did not exist. And from Canada it appears to us that one of your main goals is to restore the Russian state. But we also hear that many people in Russia don’t like it. The journalists have been screaming that “there is no more democracy”, that you are infringing upon their rights. The oligarchs feel that they don’t have as much influence as before. Do you believe that strengthening the state is a priority for Russia in this difficult period of transition? Does it mean that some democratic institutions that existed previously will cease to exist? And that business will no longer play such a big role as before?
Vladimir Putin: No, I don’t think so. We shouldn’t confuse different concepts. If we speak about business, it does not mean that business has the right to privatise the institutions of state power. The people who have more money than others should guide society outside the framework of state procedures and institutions. It means that the oligarchs you have mentioned must not and do not have the right to influence state decision-making except through legitimate bodies of power, through Parliament, for example.
Perhaps some people don’t like being deprived of the unique position they enjoyed in Russia up until now or losing that privileged position. But it does not mean that the development of democratic institutions is not directly linked with the development of the state.
When we speak about the strengthening of the state we don’t mean curtailing democratic freedoms because a market economy cannot develop without effective democratic institutions and respect for human rights, including in business. When we speak about strengthening the state we don’t mean reducing democratic freedoms, but strengthening state institutions that are able to guarantee compliance with the laws the state itself passes.
If somebody is unhappy about this state of affairs, if somebody is used to anarchy, I am sorry, but they will have to agree with the rules that society proposes.
Question: How do you respond to some of your critics who say that strengthening the state means weakening democracy?
Vladimir Putin: Everyone is entitled to have his own opinion and should uphold that opinion through the democratic procedures I have mentioned, through elections. Let them argue their case in the course of election campaigns, put their deputies in Parliament and pass corresponding laws which the Government is obliged to obey and enforce. There is no other way.
Question: Earlier you spoke about consolidation of Russian society. But some observers feel that consolidation means there is practically no opposition to the President left. Do you agree with this assessment?
Vladimir Putin: When I leaf through newspapers or watch some television programmes it is hard for me to believe that there is no opposition. And if what I see on television and read in newspapers is not opposition, what is it? Then it is simply hooliganism. But I don’t want to use such terms with regard to the people who disagree with what I do. So, let us say that it is not, after all, hooliganism, but opposition. Not always civilised opposition, in my opinion, but opposition still. Opposition, as we see it, is the people who disagree and who propose a different solution. There are a good many such people in society and in the State Duma. They openly express their views and they argue, though not always in a proper manner. Well, these are the by-products of democracy and one has to live with it.
Question: Perhaps I read articles written by the hooligans you have just referred to, but judging from the Russian press there is a political struggle going on among the people around you, between people from the security agencies and your economic team of young reformers, as they are called. Is it true that there is rivalry between them? And if so, who do you side with?
Vladimir Putin: Security agencies should do, are doing and will do, at least while I am the President of the country, their main job, which is law enforcement. Their job is to guarantee that the law is honoured by everyone. They do not interfere, must not interfere and will not interfere in the country’s economic policy. But total calm can be achieved only in a cemetery. And where there are living people, there are clashes of opinions and views, and there is nothing strange about it.
But I would like to stress that there hasn’t been and won’t be any confrontation between the representatives of the security agencies and the economic team within the country’s leadership.
Question: Mr Putin, many Russian journalists have voiced their fears about free speech, especially in connection with the proposed code of conduct for journalists. People are afraid that in the course of economic reform attempts will be made to infringe upon the right of journalists to say and write what they see fit. Are there any restrictions on media freedom, in your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: You know, there was a European film in which the main characters say: “A decent man should always try, and a decent woman should always resist.” This is what happens not only in Russia but in all other countries. The state always tries to create the most favourable conditions for itself and always tries to ban something. I am absolutely convinced that this road leads nowhere. There are always forces that resist such trends, which are characteristic, I repeat, of almost every state.
Are there any limits or restrictions in Russia? Of course, there are. They are the Constitution and the courts. And I assure you that there is no danger that the democratic society which has been created in the past 10 years will be dismantled. Russia is under no such threat.
Question: But journalists still have expressed concern about restrictions on the freedom of speech. As a journalist I am not aware in Canada of the kind of restrictions our Russian colleagues are complaining about. Why are they complaining and what can be the grounds for restricting their freedoms?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I don’t see any restrictions myself, because those who complain about the alleged restrictions continue to criticise the President and the Government in a very fierce way. But I don’t know whether your colleagues in your country behave in the same way. I am not sure. But our journalists do behave in that way. And that is the main proof that nobody is imposing any restrictions on anyone, at any rate the state does not restrict the press. Everybody says what he likes. Unfortunately, they also show whatever they like, and that is not always right. Because some stuff, for example, in North America, in Canada and in the United States, is only broadcast by cable television on grounds of morality. In my country everything goes on the air, unfortunately. I think the public should pay attention to that.
But as regards political issues there are no restrictions on anyone. The problem in Russia lies elsewhere. The problem is that some so-called oligarchs, who have already been mentioned here, influence the state. They see the mass media as the main lever of such influence.
But like any other sphere, this sphere should be governed by the law. You have borrowed money to finance your business activities, including the media business, and you have to pay it back. If you can’t, give away your property. If you don’t want to give away your property, strike some kind of deal with your creditor.
Everybody has got accustomed, especially in recent times, to getting all they want from the state and using it however they like. They don’t want to live by the law. I don’t think that is right.
Everyone – government officials and the media and all the institutions in society and the state – should learn to live within the law and abide by the law, whether they like it or not. And if they don’t like it, they should change the law through democratic procedures. That is all.
Question: You say that you are acting only against the oligarchs, but these actions breed fears and concerns among journalists. Do you think these fears and concerns are unjustified?
Vladimir Putin: I think they are absolutely unjustified. All the media representatives continue to work without any restrictions and they take a very tough stand with regard to the Government and the President. Nobody keeps them from espousing the views that they do. We see all this on our television screens every day and every night. This is the main proof that there are no restrictions.
I repeat, it is not about the freedom to diffuse information, but about financial relations with the owners of media outlets. They must act within the law. But of course, the teams behind certain businessmen in this sphere are not indifferent to what is happening to the company they work for, like in any other sphere of business.
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