V.Malkin (Strana.ru, Moscow): Mr Putin, first of all I would like to thank you for receiving us and for agreeing to answer our questions and questions from our readers. We have already received more than 16,000 questions, and they continue coming in real time. Of course, we will be able to ask only a small number of these questions. We have tried to select the most important questions that are of objective interest to the majority of our audience, but still, we will be unable to ask all the questions.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): The BBC and I personally are very glad to have the opportunity to take part in this event. We too have thousands of questions. And my first question perhaps reflects the concerns of many people. Jonathan Jones from Texas, US, asks: “What is more important to you, democracy or legality?” And I would like to add a question from Dmitry who is 16 years old and lives in Nizhny Novgorod, who writes as a representative of the new generation: “I am very worried about the political situation in Russia. I know communism will never come back, but still some of your moves put me on my guard. What path should Russia follow today?”
Vladimir Putin: As regards the relationship or priorities in the sphere of democracy and law and order, it is a somewhat odd question because in its classical interpretation the word “democracy” is inseparable from legality. If society is guided by universally accepted rules set out in regulatory documents, which is another way of saying laws, and if these laws are passed according to democratic procedures, this is a democratic society. I think it is unprofitable and harmful to separate one from the other. So one of our main areas of effort is to improve the legal framework of the state and the judicial system in the country.
As for the concerns some of our citizens or those who sympathise with our country abroad may have about the path our country will follow, I can say one thing. As long as I am the head of state we will adhere to democratic principles, we will develop the political structure of society, we will develop civil society, and we will seek to put the institutions of state under public control. We will do it steadfastly and consistently. And I am sure that the country simply has no alternative to democratic development and the market economy.
V.Malkin (Strana.ru, Moscow): Here is indeed a frequently asked question. Before you the word “reform” was usually used in combination with the word “economic”, and one did not exist without the other. With you in office, there has been more talk – and you have named it among your priorities – about the reform of the state system as such. Does it mean that economic reform has been carried out or, on the contrary, that it is impossible to carry through without a reform of the system of state power?
Vladimir Putin: If by reform one means a final transition from a planned to a market economy, in a sense that result has been achieved. But this is not the ultimate goal of reform. The ultimate goal is to ensure a high rate of economic development and on that basis growing prosperity of the people. A lot still needs to be done to put such a mechanism in place. But obviously it cannot be achieved without an effective state and its institutions. This is related to the question put by Bridget, namely: it is impossible in a democratic society to pass corresponding laws without a measure of consensus in society. Why has our economic reform been practically marking time for almost eight years? Because in a democratic society, when the country’s Parliament had to make the decision and there is no consensus in society and inside Parliament itself, no laws can be passed. That is why we were treading water. Both these spheres are closely interconnected. And it is impossible to achieve results in economic reform without transforming the way the state functions.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): We have many questions about Chechnya. This question comes from Ilse Hombek from Denmark. She asks: “Do you believe that the Chechen people against whom Russia has used such cruel repressive methods can regard Russia as a friend in the future?” And a question from Isa Ahmet, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland: “Perhaps it would be wiser to commit the resources you spend on the Chechen campaign to restoring and developing the Russian economy?”
Vladimir Putin: I would like to thank our correspondents for these questions because they reflect in microcosm the failure of many people in the West to understand what is happening in the Caucasus, and in particular in Chechnya. The Russian army and the Russian people as a whole have never waged any war against the Chechen people. The Russian army, especially if you think about the recent events, has had to respond to the challenge of extremists and international terrorists who attacked Dagestan.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): The people who live there, the Chechens – and I myself was on the border with Chechnya and talked to a lot of people – have a very negative attitude to Russia and the Russian Government.
Vladimir Putin: Many have a negative attitude, but many have a positive attitude; and I can tell you why. The Chechen people got nothing but looting and robbery from their self-proclaimed rulers. And we believe that the actions of the Russian army are aimed at liberating the Chechen people from the terrorists who have seized power there and are compromising Islam and the Chechen people by attacking neighbouring territories. It’s the same as what is happening between Kosovo and Macedonia. That is one thing.
Secondly, as regards redirecting the resources that we commit to restoring order in Chechnya and elsewhere, I have this to say. In general, money and resources do play a role in economic development. But let me stress that it is by no means the determining role. The determining role is played by the conditions that the state creates for the economy and the ability of the government to enforce compliance with these conditions. If we have neither the strength nor the possibility to restore elementary order in our own country, if we live in a country that is decaying and disintegrating, it makes no sense to speak about economic development. You can spend any amount of money and resources, and all that money would go down the drain. There will be no result. So I call on all those who hear us and see us and want to hear and see us and to understand, to cooperate with us to solve one of the key problems of our time: the fight against extremism and terrorism. And then there will be order, prosperity and development in our country, in Europe and the world.
V.Borodulin (Gazeta.ru, Moscow): Moldova recently had parliamentary elections and the Communists won. This was immediately followed by statements, at least by some Moldovan officials, that Moldova would like to join the Russian-Belarusian Union. How do you assess such statements?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, we cannot but be interested in and concerned about what happens in a friendly state (Moldova is a CIS member). But that is an internal matter for Moldova. We have closely followed the developments there and we will respect the choice of the Moldovan people whatever it may be. If the Communists won, so they have won. If they express friendly feelings towards us, this is heartening. As regards accession to the Russian-Belarusian Union, I think Moldova first has to go through some internal procedures. But the Russian-Belarusian Union is an open organisation, and it can be joined by anyone who accepts its statutory goals and tasks. We welcome that statement.
V.Malkin (Strana.ru, Moscow): Thank you. We have been getting many questions on the following topic. In connection with the recent developments and the proposed no-confidence vote in the Government by the Duma and the possibility of an early parliamentary election, the theme of the new law on political parties acquires added relevance. The representatives of the Unity party indicated yesterday that an early election under the new law would win them even more seats in the Duma. In any case, many think that the next election – both presidential and parliamentary – will take place under the new law about parties. Do you believe that we will really soon have two or three, perhaps four strong and effective national political parties? Don’t you think that the country’s president should be the leader of one of these parties who relies on its support so that there is never any doubt as to which is the ruling party?
Vladimir Putin: The issue is handled differently in different countries and governed by different regulations. In some countries the leader is nominated by the party and continues to be a member of the party and pursues its policy. In other countries, on the contrary, the head of state cannot be a member of any political party.
What do we have in this country? I think today, when there is still just talk about the emergence of a political system and a political structure and civil society, it is still something we aspire to, but in reality we don’t have our own system. We don’t know when and if it will happen. We can only guess and make projections. As of today, I think the head of state may be elected as a representative of a party, but he must represent the interests of the whole society and the whole people regardless of his party affiliation. And I think in the context of Russia today it would make more sense if the head of state were outside party structures.
V.Borodulin (Gazeta.ru, Moscow): A citizen of Kazan thinks that many changes are a travesty of reform. He notes that while some taxes are cut other taxes are introduced. The rhetoric in the media about the tax reform remains rhetoric. In reality entrepreneurs, especially small and medium sized companies, see no change; or if there is change, it is for the worse. Could you comment on this?
Vladimir Putin: My comment would be that of course we would like things to improve more and faster. I would agree with the questioner that perhaps things could have been done better and faster. We could have done better. But I think one has to admit that even though we are not happy with the rate and even the quality of reforms, we are still moving forward. That has to be admitted.
I think our questioner and other Internet users would agree that the new 13% tax rate should make a difference. The introduction of the Tax Code should make a difference. Improvements at customs should make a difference to those engaged in foreign trade. I am referring to the cut of customs duties and reduction of red tape in this sphere, although much still remains to be done.
Of course, a lot needs to be done in the sphere of small and medium business. I agree with that even more. For my part, I have demanded and will go on demanding that the Government speed up that work. As you know the package of laws on cutting bureaucracy is under consideration. I hope that it will be submitted to the Duma soon. But that of course is not enough. We should make sure that the whole range of issues connected with banking activities and the liberalisation of currency legislation is addressed.
Of course, we should strengthen the judicial system, especially that part of it operating in the economic field.
There are more challenges than there are solutions.
Question: If I could ask for a clarification? Do you intend to issue decrees to speed up reforms? The Duma is democratic, but a very slow moving mechanism. Many reforms can be implemented, and in the past they used to be implemented through presidential decrees.
Some readers have been asking this question. They propose that you exercise your right to issue decrees on the economy.
Vladimir Putin: There used to be many interesting practices. I prefer to proceed within the law of the land. There are spheres that are not regulated by laws, and there the President has the right to fill the gap in legislation by issuing a decree. But if a law, say, on currency regulation, is in force, it cannot be replaced or amended by a decree. That is illegal.
We have to get Parliament to pass a corresponding decision. There can be no other way in a democratic society and state. That is complicated, but it is the only correct way because it is legitimate and therefore it is here to stay.
If we achieve a decision through such a procedure, we will win the confidence of our domestic potential investors and market participants and potential market participants outside the Russian Federation. And that would be an effective and the only correct path to take.
A.Timoshenko (Rostov-on-Don): What are the prospects for judicial reform? Where are you planning to begin? What steps need to be taken in the short term?
Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t like to run ahead of events. Let me just tell you that we are shortly to complete the drafting and introduce to Parliament a package of laws pertaining to that sphere. It will be aimed at improving the judiciary system. It contains a whole range of proposals aimed at improving the mechanism of the judicial system and strengthening the judicial system. At that point I will introduce a law to improve the relations between the different structural units or areas of law enforcement activities. I mean the competence of the prosecutor’s office, the law courts and so on.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): Now an international question. Many people would like to know your opinion about Russia’s relations with NATO, and in particular with America. Especially now that a new President has been elected there with whom you have yet to meet. A question from Patric Santozo Canberra, Australia: “What will you do if the US goes ahead with the National Missile Defence system? Reportedly you may break off all arms control talks. Is that so?”
Vladimir Putin: We are not going to present anyone with ultimatums. We want to be in the negotiating process and we hope we will be. Judging from the reaction we have had so far from the new US Administration, our American partners are similarly inclined. This gives us some cause for optimism. If, however, it decides to unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty, legal consequences will ensue which do not depend on Russia. I want to stress this and I want all those who take part in our meeting today to understand that the consequences that will ensue do not depend on Russia. A number of treaties and agreements on international security hinge on the 1972 ABM Treaty. As soon as we remove that hinge, they will automatically tumble down. The whole structure of present-day international security will collapse.
To elaborate: for example, Russia has ratified START-2 on the reduction of our strategic missiles. But the Ratification Law says that ratification becomes effective only if the 1972 Treaty is honoured. So, automatically under the law we will not be obliged to stick to the quantitative restrictions in the sphere of missile defence.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): So, are you suggesting that if the Treaty is violated, the negotiations can legitimately be broken off?
Vladimir Putin: No, we are ready and we will continue negotiating. We simply think that things should not go to such lengths. We believe that in the course of the current negotiating process we should look for answers to our present-day concerns about international security so as not to upset the existing system of international agreements and determine the degree and character of the threats that are common to the United States, Russia and Europe and other regions of the world. And having identified the character of the threats, we should think together how to neutralise these threats without prompting uncertainties or suspicions with regard to each other.
B.Kendall (BBC, Moscow): Do you think the relations with the new President, George Bush, can be as good as with the former President Bill Clinton? Or will it be more difficult in connection with this issue?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think it will be more difficult. I hope that common sense and a profound awareness of national security interests should prompt our American partners and us to act in a positive way and seek an end result together.
Rosbalt Agency (St Petersburg) and Novosti Pskova newspaper (Pskov): Do you regard Russia’s integration into the united Europe as your priority, and will Russia be able simultaneously to uphold its national interests and remain in the European integration process?
Vladimir Putin: One has to be realistic. The united Europe today is a complicated organism. It has tough rules. I am not sure that Russia today fully meets these rules. Take the external indicators. We are still a country with no well-guarded external borders. We still don’t have a well-guarded border in the south.
Within the united Europe, for all its democracy, there are strict customs and border rules. Under the Shengen Agreement, you have to follow a strict procedure and even the slightest deviations are not allowed. So, it is, in my opinion, totally unrealistic for us today.
And, to answer your question directly, I think it would be right if we devise our legal basis in accordance with how these matters are regulated in the European community, especially in the economic sphere. In fact, in most cases that is how we proceed. In this way we will gradually build up Russia and the Russian economy to match the rules that operate on the continent, of which Russia is an inalienable part. That is one thing.
Secondly, Russia’s trade with Europe is already very large, accounting for more than one-third of its total trade. Central and East European countries play a big part in this. If they become members of the united Europe, we insist, in dealings with our partners, that for a certain period at least their special relations with Russia should not be disrupted, which is in their own interests, in the interests of Europe and Russia. We would seek preferential relations between these countries and Russia.
This meets with understanding from our European partners, for which we are grateful; and we hope that such understanding will endure. All this gives us grounds to hope that in the more remote future we will approach European standards and at some stage will become a full-fledged part of the united Europe.
V.Malkin (Strana.ru, Moscow): A truly wrap-up question. Many readers and journalists want to know your assessment of your first year in office, the main achievements, setbacks and plans for the future. And I would like to put my question in this way. Your previous address to the Federal Assembly set three main tasks in three main areas: building an effective state, reform of the Federation, and equalisation of the possibilities of the various regions, unification of the country; and third, providing legal guarantees for the development of the Russian economy. In which of these areas has there been the most progress during the year, and in which areas did you encounter the biggest problems?
Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to say that it has been a very intense year. It was a hard-working year. We have worked with utter dedication, I have to say. We have moved forward in practically all these directions. Perhaps in some areas more could have been done. But there has been progress in practically all these areas. On the whole, I am satisfied with the results of our work this year.
H.Ackerman (London): I am concerned that it looks as if you, Mr President, are trying to suppress reasonable criticism of your Government and its actions. Are my fears justified?
Vladimir Putin: That was a feisty question asked by one of our correspondents. Not very tolerant. Nevertheless I will try to answer it as I see it. You know that during the past decade this country has witnessed many positive and destructive processes, and some of these destructive processes were driven by a small group of individuals who had appropriated, not always legitimately, entire sectors of the economy and the political structure to further their economic ends. In a sense, government structures and the media had been privatised.
We will develop political processes in a way that is traditional for Western democracies, and I would like to stress that. But it does not mean that anarchy and permissiveness should hold sway in Russia. Some people inside the country and abroad don’t like our attempts to put our house in order in that sense. I am not claiming that we are succeeding in everything we do. Perhaps we have made some mistakes, but they don’t like the very fact that we are trying to get the whole country to live according to the law. I suspect that there are people who would like to live according to former rules and fish in troubled waters. But that is just not on. And equally, we will not destroy democratic structures and institutions and act outside the law. That would be not only counterproductive but would run counter to the whole philosophy of what we are trying to do in this country. I would like to assure you that Russia has become a democratic country and will do everything to stay the course and develop in that direction.
V.Malkin (Strana.ru, Moscow): Our interview has come to an end. In conclusion, I would like to thank you for your frank answers to the tricky questions asked by our readers. Thank you.