M.Kozhokin: Mr Putin, the first question is obvious. It is almost a year since you were elected President. What are the results of the year? In your opinion, what have you managed to do, what have been the successes and setbacks?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, we have not done everything we wanted to, and perhaps what we have done we have not done well enough. But still I think most of what has been planned has been accomplished. I won’t go into too much detail although there is much that I can and want to tell you about.
First of all, I think it is not only me, but all of us who have accomplished something because it is the result of the efforts not only of the head of state, but also of the State Duma, the whole Federal Assembly and regional leaders. We have made a significant step forward in strengthening the Russian state.
Let us recall what kind of country we lived in until recently.
As much as 25% of all the legislation in the regions of the Federation contradicted the Constitution and federal law. Two thirds of these have now been harmonized with the Constitution.
But that was not the main problem, although there were some incredible discrepancies. Many constitutions and charters of the regions of the Federation featured all sorts of things: they declared themselves to be subjects under international law and all but had their own armed forces. The only thing that was lacking was that an administrative or territorial entity is a constituent member of the Federation.
But, I repeat, that was not the worst of it. We did not have a common economic space or a common financial space. I can say it now because it is already in the past, though it became the past only very recently. Some regions of the Federation paid practically no taxes into the federal budget. The Finance Ministry and the Federal Treasury had no writ in some regions. It was only recently that we established Federal Treasury institutions all over Russia…
… And another important thing is that it has been joint work. I wouldn’t like to put the blame on anyone or speak ill of anyone. Perhaps the country needed such a period, a period of cleansing. It could not but be accompanied by some destructive processes and centrifugal processes. There was a period of “throwing stones”. It has now become evident to everyone, including, I repeat, the regional leaders, that our common strength lies in the unity of the state. Everyone has a stake in it. And so another process has set in, the process of consolidating our resources. In my opinion, this is the key thing.
By strengthening the state we have made a step towards the consolidation of society. This created prerequisites for achieving economic success. In addition to the favourable global economic conditions from which our country and our economy have benefited, the consolidation of society also had a positive effect. We have achieved a significant rate of economic growth. According to the latest statistics, it is 7.8%. I think that by the end of the year GDP will have grown by about 8% and industrial output by about 9%.
The key result is that the Government has been able to meet its social obligations to the population. Arrears on the payment of various benefits to people have been markedly reduced. On the whole we can report an improvement in living standards and real incomes, even though it may be only a slight improvement. That is a fact. And I think that is the bottom line.
What are the disappointing things? There are some. I won’t speak now about what we have failed to do in practical terms, but there is one problem that cannot but prompt sad thoughts: it is very hard to combat Russian bureaucracy. Decisions are hard to arrive at and hard to communicate to those who are to carry them out and, of course, even harder to implement. This problem makes one think about improving the system of administration in the country as a whole.
P.Gusev: The economic growth rate has turned out to be less than expected. How do you square your wish to carry out economic reforms and achieve a breakthrough while at the same time preserving all the social benefits to prevent social upheaval?
Won’t it cause a split between the Presidential Executive Office and the Government, who I think have different assessments of Russia’s economic growth? Let’s face it, they take different views on the matter.
Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t agree with you that we had expected more impressive growth. We had expected more modest growth; we spoke in terms of four, five or at most six percent or a little more. It has turned out to be almost eight percent. So, the result has exceeded expectations. We know for sure that we haven’t had such a growth rate in the last fifteen years.
Could more have been achieved? I agree with you there, perhaps, we could have achieved more. I will tell you later what we have missed, but first I would like to answer the question about the contradictions between individual members of my staff, the Presidential Executive Office, and the Government over approaches to reform.
The main thing is, you know, that the Government and the Executive Office think in similar categories, they have common strategic goals and common tasks and interpretation of these tasks. They differ over the methods and the instruments of achieving these goals. That is true.
You know, what worries me more is a situation when there are no arguments. Then one becomes truly worried that we may make a mistake, overlook the most acceptable course of development or of tackling a specific task. When there is argument, that is normal, it does not worry me. So, I repeat, given the shared goals and approaches to solving common tasks, differences of methodology do not appear to me to be something critical or dangerous. On the contrary, it is a positive sign.
Today we note a slight slowdown of economic growth towards the end of the year, but we know that other countries face similar problems. Take Japan. The problems there are much more serious in terms of economic growth. But we shouldn’t use others as an excuse, we should mind our own business. It is of course a subject for serious analysis of the economic situation by the Government and a subject for discussion within the Government and the Presidential Executive Office, which may involve a rethink of the means being used to achieve our economic goals.
As regards the relationship between ensuring economic growth and the social situation, my position is as follows: it is impossible to reform the economy without popular support. And popular support cannot be won without the state meeting its social obligations. Everything is so intertwined that it warrants the firm conclusion: any shock therapy, however well intentioned it may be, is fraught with serious dangers.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Once popular trust diminishes, progress stalls. So, we should balance the Government’s social obligations to the population that I have mentioned with the economic goals that it sets for itself.
V.Sungorkin: You have also inherited huge debts. We know the state in which the country was when you took over and that it had huge debts. In the mystical year 2003, when billions will have to be paid, will our economy be able to bear the burden? And going beyond economics and speaking about social obligations to the population – the Government has to pay its people and pay off foreign debts – how can you balance all these things?
Vladimir Putin: As regards Russia’s debts, it is a serious problem. They are a burden on our economy, that is true. I have had occasion to speak about it publicly. I don’t think we did the right thing when we assumed all the debts of the former Soviet Union. Why should we have done that? The money was borrowed by the whole Soviet Union and was spent on all the former Soviet Republics. Why should Russia carry the burden of responsibility and financial obligations on behalf of everyone?
The reasoning behind it was the so-called zero option, whereby Russia assumed all the liabilities but also all the assets, including the so-called overseas assets, the real estate. I know only too well what kind of real estate we have abroad.
M.Kozhokin: This was part of your job.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, though not for long. The assets are incommensurate with our debts, with the debts of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, even though these assets are incommensurate with the debts, some of our partners refuse to recognize that decision and have sent out notes to the international community. These countries refuse to renew our title to the property. We are talking about Russian property abroad that has not been registered in Russia’s name.
P.Gusev: It is still considered to be Soviet property.
Vladimir Putin: It is considered to be Soviet and disputed property. Meanwhile, we are already paying debts, we are paying billions, on behalf of everyone.
So, I don’t think it was a well thought-out and reasonable decision. And of course one has yet to see how that money has been spent.
You know, there are various points of view regarding the use of credit to develop the domestic economy. In principle, it is a normal phenomenon of present-day economic life. Everybody readily takes credits, but the question is how that money is spent. If it is spent in an effective way to develop the economy, that’s one thing. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s another story altogether. When the main government institutions are in an inchoate state, one can hardly expect the money to be spent effectively, and not because somebody has stolen it or pilfered it. An inefficient state cannot make efficient use of credit resources and that is what happened here. The money has not been effectively spent. It’s a fact. The money has been frittered away.
Russia has assumed these obligations. If we are a civilized country then we must fulfil the obligations we have assumed. Russia has never renounced its obligations. But there can only be one approach. We have paid and intend to pay our debts proceeding from the premise that our main priority is to develop our own economy, and on that basis meet the government’s social obligations to the population. Failing that, if the Russian economy goes downhill then the creditors won’t get their money back. Both the creditors and we are equally interested in it. I have to say that the creditors are aware of this. By and large, so far we have managed to come to terms with them, and I think we will manage to do so again this time around.
Now about the year 2003. It is true that due payments will peak in 2003. To compound the situation the country’s basic assets are rundown and that situation may also reach a critical point by 2003. But there will be no emergency. On the one hand, society understands the situation we are in, and that is very important. It is a problem that engages the minds not only of the President and the Government, but also of the State Duma deputies. They are aware of it and they are designing policy, including in the budgetary sphere, accordingly. That is one thing.
And secondly, the economic forecasts warrant optimistic conclusions. Yes, the years ahead will be difficult, and this year in particular will be difficult. But, I repeat, we do not expect a cataclysm, and we will safely pass that peak.
A.Potapov: This leads me to a question that is not new, but that is still, unfortunately, relevant. What do you think about the situation, which has lasted for many years, concerning the flow of money abroad? You know the figures well; last year an estimated 30 billion dollars escaped abroad. Are any options available, for example, an amnesty of capital or perhaps some decisions are in the pipeline that would protect the investor and create a normal and healthy competitive environment, which ultimately hinges on the need to reform the judiciary? What are your thoughts on this matter?
Vladimir Putin: This is not a problem that belongs in the domain of criminal law. It is an economic and not a criminal problem. As for amnesty of capital, by and large, I have nothing against it. It is not a bad measure to create certain conditions for the functioning of the market, for the inflow of capital and investments, but it is not the only measure and it is definitely not sufficient by itself. Just to announce that nobody will be prosecuted for taking capital out of the country and then expect money to come running here would be absurd, I think.
We have to create a good climate for investment. The worst that we can do is to bang the table with our fist and cry, “Seize them and don’t let them go”. Then capital will certainly flee the country on a still larger scale. This is borne out by the experience of a number of countries that have passed through the same stages of development as us.
It may seem odd, but the only way to keep capital from leaving is to liberalise the capital market, though of course to regulate this process up to a point. If you are a potential investor you face the question where to invest: in Russia, in China or India or in some European country.
If you know that in a certain country the setup is such that if you invest 10 million dollars you will never be able to take that money out, the chances are you won’t invest there.
And if you are confident that the money you have invested in a country’s economy will yield a profit and you will be free to dispose of the profit under that country’s law (which you know, understand and which is sure to be in place at least long enough for your investments to pay back), then you will not be afraid to invest there and will not remove capital from there. So, there needs to be a certain economic and political stability. Why move your capital somewhere else if you are quite happy here? One usually leaves well alone.
Well, we have to create such favourable investment conditions. Then there will be no flight of capital. No coercive means and methods will bring the money back. We must create a favourable climate for investment.
A.Potapov: What is your assessment of the situation? Do you see any positive shifts in this sphere?
Vladimir Putin: I think I do. Investments in basic assets are increasing. We introduced the 13% income rate and tax revenues have increased.
We have liberalized the customs policy and drastically reduced import customs duties and the collection of customs revenues has improved.
The results are obvious. So far, not much has been done, but there are early signs that the investment climate in Russia is improving.
P.Gusev: To pursue that topic further, the small and medium-sized business forms the backbone of the world economy. Here in Russia the small business has been strangled by bureaucrats and gangsters.
Vladimir Putin: So you have put bureaucrats first?
P.Gusev: Yes, you have to obtain up to 200 approvals. And every piece of paper is at the mercy of the bureaucrat who may or may not sign it. How can the excessive power of bureaucracy and to some extent crime be stopped in Russia?
Vladimir Putin: Only by passing corresponding laws. There is no other way. Unfortunately, not all the necessary bills have been sent to the Duma. Two were introduced recently. The Government has promised me that it will introduce the third law next week. It is to do with liberalization and cutting red tape in the sphere of licensing, with a change in the licensing procedure.
As for small and medium-sized businesses, of course they are having the worst of it, because they are overwhelmed by all this red tape. I very much hope that the bills introduced in the Duma will be passed quickly and will come into effect.
I don’t want to advertise anyone, but it was Irina Khakamada who reminded me of it, and I appreciate it very much. I have to say that after our meeting with a group of deputies the Government stepped up its work in this area. I repeat, two bills have already been introduced and one will be introduced in the next few days.
Some other measures to fight bureaucracy are contemplated. We all know these ridiculous situations when a police inspector comes and says: “Bar up the windows because thieves may get in.” The window is barred up and then a fire inspector comes and says: “The bars need to be removed because if there is a fire they will obstruct the firemen.” And this rigmarole goes on and on.
There is no other way except passing laws that regulate this sphere.
P.Gusev: And what about criminals? Protection rackets exist in Russia both at the government level and at the day-to-day criminal level.
Vladimir Putin: Protection rackets at the government level are called corruption, and at the day-to-day criminal level they are primitive rackets, in the proper sense of the word. There is no other remedy here except strengthening the law enforcement bodies and tighter control. There is no other option.
V.Sungorkin: A year ago you took part in a phone-in session at the Komsomolskaya Pravda editorial office and you said that you were quite relaxed about the idea of creating a market for land, of land being sold and bought. Your answer to the question about land evoked great resonance. What is the outlook? When will a land market begin to emerge?
Vladimir Putin: You know, de facto a lot of land is already privately owned. The lack of robust, clear and transparent rules in this sphere is a brake on economic development, on the development of industry and not only of agriculture. For now we have agreed with some parties and public movements which object to introducing the provision on the purchase and sale of agricultural land in the Land Code. I think as a first step that is not so bad. It would not be bad if a Land Code were adopted and legal sale of land were allowed. Even though it initially excludes agricultural land. But that already would solve many problems in the industrial sphere.
As for agricultural land, I think we could do well to follow the path Russia embarked on in the past when implementing reform. After putting in place the basic law and the legal framework valid for the whole country, we could delegate certain powers regarding the sale of agricultural land to the regions. I think that is a possible approach. But the final decision of course rests with the State Duma.
P.Gusev: You were elected President a year ago and yet your approval rating is extremely high. This cannot be an end in itself for a president or a political leader. In the work of the president or any high government official sooner or later moments occur when they have to take unpopular decisions, the benefits from which may become apparent only in the future. So, my question is, is there anything for which you would trade 15–20% of your approval rating?
Vladimir Putin: That’s a delicate question. What is the popularity rating? First, I know that it is pretty high, even higher than before the elections. Normally it is the other way round.
So, first, it indicates a certain level of trust on the part of the people and I take this opportunity to thank all the people who trust me.
Secondly, it is very important in any country, and especially in such a country as Russia where the institutions of state are still shaky, because people’s confidence is the basis for any transformation. I have to tell you that I treasure this. Not because it pleases me but because it enables us to pass laws and make decisions with confidence.
In my opinion, it is important to explain your actions to the people and to be honest with the people. Certain actions may meet with criticism, they may be liked or disliked, some people may agree with them and some may disagree. But if one behaves in an open and honest manner, one will retain the main asset – popular confidence. And then one needn’t be afraid of losing a few percentage points because it is offset by another feeling – a sense of fulfilling your duty to the people who have elected you. I will remain committed to these values.
A.Potapov: You have said that Russia needs full-fledged parties with broad popular support and that in the future the President should be nominated by public and political associations.
Vladimir Putin: Could be nominated.
A.Potapov: Could be nominated. My question is, are you happy with the way this process is moving forward?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the growing influence of parties and the emergence of national parties, I think it is an important element in strengthening the state and society. I think if we arrive at a situation when the country has several large and influential national parties it might indeed make sense to adopt a system whereby these parties promote candidates to top jobs in the nation.
But at the moment I think that the head of state should represent the interests of the whole of society. The Duma has just had a debate on the law on political parties. All this should be put into practice. When it becomes reality, when these parties materialize, then we can in practice adopt the system you have referred to. I think that is a possibility.
M.Kozhokin: Now that we have moved on to politics, one more question about politics. At present the system of the President’s Plenipotentiary Representatives in seven federal districts is seen as playing the key role. Does it mean that the Federation Council is a moribund structure and that the whole legislature is going to be reorganized?
Vladimir Putin: The Federation Council is the upper house and the upper house has certain functions under the law. While until recently the majority of the Federation Council members worked there only from time to time while simultaneously discharging their massive and complicated functions of governing their regions, today the Federation Council is turning professional. I think that is sure to improve the performance of the Federation Council as a law-making body.
I am sure that the decision to create seven federal districts was sound and is yielding positive results. I have said several times that their task is not to administer the regions but to regulate and coordinate the actions of federal and local government bodies.
Now, together with the regional leaders, they have to tackle another and equally important task, namely, delimitation of the powers between the federal and regional governments. So there can be no talk about a diminished role of the Federation Council because its prerogatives are sealed in the law.
As for regional heads, you know that a State Council has been set up to bring them in touch with the problems at the federal centre. In my opinion, it is doing its proper job as a body for strategic planning.
I find it quite helpful in my work. It is a kind of “purgatory” for the Government and a “sifter” that helps to take balanced decisions at the government level. The whole system of government and administrative bodies is becoming more effective.
M.Kozhokin: We journalists know that the question I am about to ask you now always makes your eyes steely. It is Chechnya. You have been in office for a year and the second year is beginning. How do you see the prospects for resolving the Chechen problem?
Vladimir Putin: If we recall the period after the Second World War, do you remember when the last of the “forest brothers” were done away with?
M.Kozhokin: They were active until 1954–1956.
Vladimir Putin: And that under a totalitarian regime, with sealed borders and on flat terrain. Today, of course, the situation is much more complicated, we must be realistic. What has been accomplished so far? The major bands of militants have been destroyed, that is a fact. They are unable to resist the Russian Armed Forces in an organized way. That is a fact.
We control the whole territory of the Republic. That is also a fact. I think it is hard to imagine a large-scale invasion being launched from Chechnya into neighbouring territories. All these are necessary but absolutely insufficient conditions for a final solution of the issue. What is the solution? We agree with those who believe that the solution can only be political and it can only be done by the Chechens themselves. I know that the overwhelming majority of the population wants it.
You know, Russia’s main task is to prevent that territory from being used as a bridgehead to destabilize the Russian Federation and attack neighbouring territories. And that is exactly what happened when we left Chechnya. We know the forces that filled the vacuum. They were radicals of various persuasions: national and religious.
We see exactly the same thing in Kosovo. And the situation on the border of Kosovo and Macedonia is developing under the same dramatic scenario. Already heavy weapons are being used there, and you remember that this was what we were criticized for. The same thing is happening there. And we have warned about it.
But back to Chechnya, closer to home. Can a final solution of the problem be achieved there? Yes, it can. What is the solution? At present it is the strengthening of the local government bodies, the improvement of their performance, the recovery of the social infrastructure, the public health system and, most importantly, of the economy. At present you see anyone from kids to old folks planting all these booby-traps and explosives. Do you think they are doing it for ideological reasons? Planting an explosive device costs 10–50 dollars.
M.Kozhokin: So, it has been put on a commercial basis.
Vladimir Putin: Why? Because they have to make a living, they have to work somewhere. As it is, there is total unemployment. And that, of course, is a formidable and costly challenge. And it too can only be met by the Chechens themselves, with our support, of course. That cannot be done without establishing constitutional order there. If there are terrorist attacks and bandits, you cannot build or create anything because tomorrow it may be destroyed, looted and so on. It is a very challenging and comprehensive task. But I have indicated the direction in which we must move.
M.Kozhokin: Will troops be withdrawn?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. It makes no sense to have excessive troops in the Chechen Republic. The Army should either fight or hone its combat skills, that is, conduct exercises. The amount of troops currently in Chechnya is well above what we need to do the fighting, and training is impossible to conduct. Why keep our Army there? It is meaningless and harmful. But we retain the troop strength that Russia needs in the region.
A.Potapov: You have touched on the question of Macedonia. What is our interest in Macedonia?
Vladimir Putin: We are interested in stability in the region. That is the first and most important thing.
Secondly. We have special relationships and common historical, religious, cultural and even linguistic ties with many groups of the population in the former Yugoslavia. So, we have many interests there and that is why we follow the developments there with anxiety. It is difficult to discuss the prospects of settlement at present. For such prospects to appear the international community should take a consolidated and tough stand.
Let us face it, the Albanian separatists did not get their weapons from nowhere, they were provided with weapons. But later those who had armed them agreed with Russia’s proposals and voted for United Nations Resolution 1244 whereby the Albanian Liberation Army was to be disarmed. But nobody is doing anything towards that end. Indeed, some people have been telling me privately that this is no longer possible.
If we want to see peace and prosperity in that land compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution must be enforced. The so-called Kosovo Liberation Army must be disarmed and the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and Macedonia must be assured. Separatism cannot be allowed to develop in Europe, otherwise the future looks bleak for that part of Europe. And in general, it reflects badly on the image of Europe, the economic situation, and brings down the exchange rate of the Euro and so on.
We have always taken a consistent and clear position on the issue, and the way events are developing indicate that Russia was right, and that can hardly be challenged. But we do not believe that we should be telling them “we told you so”, and refuse to play ball with them because they made a mistake. Of course, we will not behave like that. But we will try to rally public opinion on the issue. I think if we bring about a common approach to the problem of Kosovo and Yugoslavia and Macedonia, the result may be positive.
P.Gusev: Just a minor addition regarding Chechnya. Practically nothing is said about the Russian, and not only Russian, refugees who have been expelled from Chechnya. They are exiles in their own country. I think that is a big mistake, don’t you think?
Vladimir Putin: I agree with you. We are indebted to these people and a government program needs to be developed to help them. I absolutely agree.
P.Gusev: Sometimes one gets the impression that we have no consistent approach in upholding our economic interests in foreign policy. Indeed, one gets the impression that the President is the chief economic lobbyist for our country. Is it true that there is no relevant system in place or perhaps such issues cannot be solved at anything but the top level?
Vladimir Putin: There is no system in place because as you know in Soviet times our diplomatic missions were largely ideological. That is clear. Today things are changing, it is true. One must give due to our diplomats who are changing their approach in many ways.
One of the tasks that I set before our foreign policy establishment is to make sure that every citizen outside the Russian Federation knows that his country’s diplomatic mission protects his interests, the interests of the citizen or a legal entity.
As for the head of state who lobbies for the interests of the Russian economy, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. In general, this is the practice everywhere in the world. When I meet many heads of state, issues of this kind are almost the first to be raised. The position of any country in the world depends on several factors. They include economic potential, the level of economic development, the defence capability and the way society and the state are organized. There are some other factors, but I have named the basic ones.
Note that I put the level of economic development at the top, and it is directly linked with how effective our industry is both inside the country and abroad. So we all – the head of state and the mass media – must support the domestic producer. I repeat, I see nothing wrong about that.
You are right that some things need to be articulated at the highest level. Some problems are almost impossible to solve without political support. It has been and will remain an important aspect of my activities in this sphere.
P.Gusev: You have made trips to such countries as Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Mongolia. Are these countries promising partners for us?
Vladimir Putin: The first thing that may occur to one is that we are restoring the former quality of these relations. But that is absolutely not true. I repeat: our international links in the past were heavily ideological. We funnelled vast resources into many of these countries without any idea of when and in what form we would get returns on them and sometimes without even an idea of why we were doing it. But I assure you that not everything was done thoughtlessly, although the costs incurred were immense. Our own economy was mismanaged. But why lose the immense potential and the results of the work of generations over several decades?
For instance, when I came to Vietnam I was struck by the way we were welcomed everywhere by ordinary citizens. Such things cannot be orchestrated or artificially programmed. Why forfeit such a potential of friendship? It is a very important thing. And while we have forgotten about Vietnam our enterprises have been operating there and extracting offshore oil. Last year that enterprise contributed 500 million dollars in hard cash to the Russian budget. Before my visit to Vietnam its government decided to transfer to the enterprise another oil-bearing area on the continental shelf, which previously was given to another company. They took it away from that company and gave it to our enterprise.
And there are other important factors. Take Cuba. We have facilities worth billions of dollars there, which have been mothballed. We spent 30 million dollars alone to mothball an unfinished nuclear plant last year. Are we going to spend 30 million year after year? We have to make up our minds as to what we want to do with these facilities.
And the same is true of every country. Take North Korea. First, it is our neighbour. And we have a vital stake in stability, peace, order and prosperity on the peninsula. The adjacent regions of the Russian Federation depend on that. And not only the adjacent regions. We have agreed in principle with South Korea and North Korea on linking up the Trans-Korean and Trans-Siberian Railways. That would greatly improve the economic performance of the Railways Ministry and of the regions the Trans-Siberian Railway passes through, and would in general boost Russia’s economic development.
So we should proceed not from some arcane considerations, which we ourselves do not quite understand, but have our feet on the ground and know where our interests lie and act accordingly.
A.Potapov: A question about relations with the United States. How valid are the fears that with the return of Bush, Bush Jr. this time, to the White House we may see a cooling of relations and a return to a cold or “semi-cold” war? Spy scandals, State Department declarations about our human rights and free speech record, the issues connected with NATO’s advance to the East, not to speak of the plans to create a national missile defence shield. How do you see the future? And what is the short-term and longer-term outlook? How well-grounded are these fears?
Vladimir Putin: Russia’s foreign policy will be devoid of any “great power chauvinism”. We are committed to promoting equal relations with all countries. But Russia of course will pursue an independent policy and will take its rightful place in international affairs, given its geopolitical position, the size of its territory and its military and economic potential. The United States is of course one of our main partners.
As regards the new Administration’s policy towards Russia and our relations with the United States, I don’t think we should over-dramatize things. In any country, and the States is not an exception, when a new Administration comes to office the policy of the previous White House incumbents undergoes a revision. We hear some critical assessments of the previous Administration.
But, I repeat, I would not over-dramatize things. We differ on some international issues, key issues in the sphere of security, and that applies to our assessments of the 1972 ABM Treaty. We believed and still believe that the Treaty and its fundamental elements form the cornerstone of international security today. We will insist on it and we count on a positive dialogue with our American partners.
The US President recently said that Russia was not an enemy or an adversary of the US. I think that is a positive signal, we have not missed it and we treat the States in the same way. I repeat: we look forward to a positive dialogue.
V.Sungorkin: Do you know when you will meet with the President?
Vladimir Putin: Our dialogue with the Administration is uninterrupted, which is very important. As for my personal meeting with the US President, of course it will take place, but it has to be well prepared.
M.Kozhokin: A question about the former Soviet republics. It’s about the future of the CIS, our neighbouring states and our relations with them, and especially with Ukraine, which is seeing some complicated and controversial processes. And a related question: the Russian-speaking population in these countries, Russia’s policy with regard to the Russian-speaking communities there, our countrymen who live and will apparently live there permanently, but who nevertheless regard Russia as their other homeland, so to speak.
Vladimir Putin: The CIS is the key and priority area of our foreign policy precisely because 25 million people who consider Russia to be their second homeland and Russian to be their native language live there. And also, these are our main trade and economic partners. We are committed to developing our relations with these countries. And, let me stress, we will do it on an equal basis. This is in our political and economic interests.
We are not going to dominate the area, it simply does not make economic sense for us. But of course we will proceed from our own interests while taking into account the close relations that we have with these countries. We will seek not only to maintain, but to develop these relations. We will seek to remove every barrier in the way of cooperation, economic and humanitarian.
And that is where the question of the Russian-speaking population in these countries comes in. Let us be honest and recognize that those who could have left for Russia have already done so. Those who failed or didn’t want to have stayed and, as you rightly said, will live there. Of course, we will not treat these people as aliens. We will keep a close watch on the conditions in which they live. We will insist on ensuring that they can use their native language and develop their culture and have access to everything that Russia and our joint history have to offer.
But in addition to the CIS countries we should, I think, recall the Baltic states. We know that some of these countries have particularly complicated relations with the Russian-speaking population. They have even coined a local term, “non-citizens”. Latvia has 600,000 such “non-citizens”. This is our great worry. We will insist on their legitimate rights and interests being respected.
But I think it is in the interests of our fellow citizens there that there should be no confrontation. These issues should be resolved through dialogue. I don’t think we should burn bridges or set up insuperable barriers. We should protect their interests patiently, persistently and consistently. But, I repeat, we should do it in the process of a civilized dialogue.
P.Gusev: We have discussed at length the prospects and many positive things that happened during the past year. But there have been setbacks and tragedies, like the sinking of the Kursk submarine. What is your personal attitude and what did you experience in this connection?
Vladimir Putin: The Kursk tragedy. Whatever I might have done, unfortunately, it was a fatal conjunction of circumstances that are still unknown to us. Unfortunately, nothing I could do could have made any difference.
As for how I feel about the tragedy? Yes. I am still hurt very deeply.