Question: In the past the 1955 State Treaty and the Austrian policy of neutrality symbolised the easing of East-West tensions. It contributed to friendship and cooperation between Moscow and Vienna. Do you believe that the State Treaty and the Austrian neutrality are still relevant today, in the context of the new Europe?
Vladimir Putin: The signing of the Treaty and adoption of the law on Austrian neutrality in the mid-1950s did not only usher in a new stage in the relations between our countries. It marked the end of the first post-war decade. Europe was working out the basic principles of future development and cooperation. It was in fact determining its future. So these documents undoubtedly had an impact on the shaping of international policies in the second half of the 20th century. They paved the way for peaceful co-existence and mutually beneficial partnership.
I am sure that the Austrian neutrality is still important and relevant in the context of the new Europe. Opinions vary on that score, but facts prove that the State Treaty and the policy of permanent neutrality helped Austria to strengthen its state and international authority.
But the main and truly priceless advantage that your country gained by adhering to the policy of neutrality is the confidence and respect of other countries. They still provide a solid basis for the friendly relations between Moscow and Vienna.
I agree with the thesis that neutrality has never been an obstacle to the integration of Austria into European and world structures: the country is active in the majority of influential international organisations.
As for Russia’s opinion about the relevance of military-political blocs, it is widely known: we are convinced that the relations between states can be effectively regulated through the instruments of such authoritative organisations as the UN and the OSCE. International issues should be solved on the basis of the norms and traditions of international law. We hope that in the future the neutral Austria will play a unique stabilising role in the world.
Question: Globalisation demands that we tackle the tasks facing us jointly. What are the challenges, dangers and threats to Europe which Russia can help it to confront? And does that require that Russia have a stronger military potential?
Vladimir Putin: It is true that the processes ongoing in the world are tying up all countries into a “knot”, not only economically, but also politically. Many modern threats and risks have a global, trans-border character. And to a certain degree they affect the vital interests of all the countries and nations.
So, we cannot do without effective multi-lateral mechanisms to manage international processes. We cannot do without universal instruments that will ensure security at the global and regional levels.
Naturally, we as Europeans care about the fate of our continent. We are convinced that the hard-won social and economic prosperity of Europe should be preserved and protected against very real threats, against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, aggressive separatism, organised crime, drug trafficking and environmental disasters that may seriously upset the overall strategic stability. Clearly, only close international cooperation can set up solid barriers to these threats. Russia seeks such cooperation. Moreover, we are well aware of our responsibility for the destiny of Europe and we are open to constructive interaction.
Russia is committed to the agreements on strategic and conventional arms and to bringing down the level of armaments in Europe and the world. As part of its military reform, Russia plans significant cuts of its armed forces. Russian proposals on reducing nuclear weapons and initiatives on peaceful space exploration are well known.
And yet, the main dangers today are not of a military character. And they can be countered on the basis of cooperation and respect of mutual interests.
Question: Sustained economic growth is the main problem facing Russia today. What model do you believe to be the best for Russia, especially in the light of the dismal experience of the command economy and the “wild capitalism” that replaced it?
Vladimir Putin: I am sure that there are no ideal or universal economic models. But there are countries whose economic achievements are impressive. And we certainly have to “graft onto our soil” the best and most suitable practical solutions. But in doing so we should carefully consider all possible consequences.
By the way, we find the Austrian development model very interesting. You have managed to effect a successful blend of leading economic schools and trends. The results of such thoughtful synthesis are obvious.
We would benefit by studying the system of relations in your country between the Government and the business community. I am referring to the new principles of social partnership geared to national objectives and not to ensuring profits for a small group of individuals. I think this is an important untapped potential for economic development.
As for Russia, we are building an economic system that is competitive, effective and based on social justice. The Government’s main economic task is to create economic freedom. So we are trying to make our economy less bureaucratic, to relieve it of excessive government regulation and to reduce the tax burden. We are doing much to improve the investment climate.
We are fully aware that it is important that the Government does not seek to supervise all and sundry and to guarantee that market rules are complied with. Above all, we must protect property rights, provide an equal playing field and pass simple and high quality self-implementing laws.
The economic situation in Russia has become much more stable in 2000. The problem of timely payment of wages, pensions and social allowances has been practically solved. We have adopted a balanced budget for 2001. Production has grown by 7%. I think these positive trends in the economy will be preserved.
Question: Russia is already more stable politically and economically. At the same time, your critics say that you seek to establish an authoritarian regime. Could you tell our readers how you see democracy in the complicated Russian conditions?
Vladimir Putin: I have had to answer that question many times already. But the very fact that it is being asked indicates that our policy is not fully understood. Apparently, the stereotypes of the past era are still ingrained in the minds of Europeans. I sincerely regret that sometimes they prevent people from perceiving the new Russia objectively.
Russia’s path towards democracy has been arduous. And hard-won gains are usually valued more. So, we will preserve and build on what we have already achieved in the way of democratic development.
All the main democratic institutions are functioning in Russia, and what is more, they are functioning effectively. We have a real market economy, an independent press and free and fair elections. I must stress that much of the credit for this goes to the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. He recently marked his 70th birthday and I know how many warm and sincere congratulations he has received.
Of course, we are not going to be complacent or slacken our pace. We are doing much to strengthen the government system and create legal mechanisms to protect people’s rights and dignity. This, I am convinced, is the Government’s main task.
Our aim is to develop civil institutions and the social sphere in general. We don’t have all that much to boast of here. But then it is not something that can be accomplished within a year or even a decade. The main thing is to create conditions for the development of civil society. We will not be diverted from that path.
Question: More and more Russians visit Austria. You and your family are also familiar with our country. What are your impressions of Austria?
Vladimir Putin: My family and I have long been familiar with Austria. I visited Austria several times as part of cooperation projects between St Petersburg and your country. I believe that the business contacts we have established in Austria have not only brought real economic benefits but strengthened friendly ties between our political leaders and businessmen. I have many good friends in Austria. And there are some tangible fruits of our interaction in my native St Petersburg. One example is the reconstruction of the St Petersburg airport.
But my strongest impressions are of Austria itself. The country of the Alps and the Blue Danube is memorable for its scenic beauty, the beauty of its cities and friendliness of its people. Vienna is rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I agree with that. And it strongly reminds me of St Petersburg. We admired its architecture, unique historical monuments and its rich museums. And in the streets of the Austrian capital we were aware of the atmosphere of Old Europe.
Today it is the dream of many Russians to see the country of Mozart and Schubert, the ever popular waltzes by Strauss, to attend a concert at the Vienna Opera and try the excellent skiing tracks. I have no doubt the number of my fellow countrymen who visit Austria will increase every year.
And by the way, I don’t mean just tourists. Your country, situated in the very heart of Europe, has been a bridge for economic and cultural cooperation. So we are always glad to take part in international congresses, musical and theatre festivals and sporting events held in Austria.