Question: In the light of the documents you have received today, do you agree with NATO’s conclusion that bin Laden is behind the terrorist attacks on the United States?
Vladimir Putin: We did not receive any documents today. It has to be said that cooperation between the Russian and US special services has been developing successfully, especially of late. But I still can’t say that the level of cooperation is satisfactory. At the same time I would like to note something that is of fundamental importance in this context. Russian special services do not need additional proof that bin Laden took part in or was complicit in terrorist acts in the United States. Our special services have no doubt about it as it is. The only thing that is still unclear is that we can’t figure out some details of the case, and perhaps our American partners could inform us about it. But I don’t think it matters now.
Question: Mr Putin, how do you assess the results of your meeting today with the Belgian business community?
Vladimir Putin: The meeting with the business community today was constructive and very business-like. The businessmen took note of the positive changes in Russia recently. These include, of course, political and economic stability, positive trends in the economy, and improvements in the law-making sphere, above all, in the tax sphere. But they also mentioned some problems and I could hardly disagree with my interlocutors. They have to do with the need to strengthen the judiciary system, to improve the customs system, and to make structural changes in the economy, including in the financial and banking spheres. I stress that we think these remarks are fair. We do of course have a certain plan, but still it was useful and interesting for us to hear the opinion of our partners. And we will take it into account.
In one pleasant and indicative episode during the talks a participant said his firm had invested $350 million in Russia and he did not regret it, in fact he was glad, because his business was doing very well. That is a good sign.
Question: Mr Putin, are there any American or British warplanes in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan today? And the second question: do you think it is possible to topple the Taliban regime by military strikes?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the presence of the foreign military on the territories of third countries, you should ask the Americans and the leaders of the countries you have referred to. In this connection I am reminded of the remarks by the Saudi Defence Minister, who said that there would be no servicemen on their land who are preparing strikes against Muslims. I think that is a fundamental mistake. This is not about servicemen who are going to strike at Muslims. This is about servicemen who are going to strike at terrorists. We support the efforts of the Central Asian countries which are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States aimed at organising the international community’s efforts in fighting terrorism.
On the second question, I think military strikes alone are not enough to fight terrorism. And I don’t think anyone has suggested that the fight against terror will be limited only to military means, to some kind of strikes. Of course, we should think how to eliminate the base on which terrorism thrives, how to eliminate the causes. In this connection I would recall the very clear stand taken by World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who says the international community must unite its efforts to fight terror. Of course, one has to work hard to resolve conflict situations in the world. On the practical side, undoubtedly the channels for financing terrorists should be closed and their infrastructure liquidated. The fight against terror will only be effective if it is multi-pronged. Another important thing is that it cannot be effective unless the international community pools its efforts to create a single front to fight terrorism.
Question: How do you see the creation of the European collective security system?
Vladimir Putin: I think it is one of the basic issues today. We are ready for broader cooperation both with NATO and the emerging security systems in Europe. We are ready for a qualitative change in our relations with NATO and with the European security systems which are taking shape now. As for Europe, one could think about creating permanent security structures. We discussed it in some detail yesterday evening with the Prime Minister and we continued the discussion today.
Question: Mr Putin, do you think an international coalition should be formed to solve the Chechen issue?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I think we have to be totally honest and frank with each other. Then it will be easier for us to understand each other and to cooperate, to set goals and achieve results. We are not going to try to get political mileage out of the situation that has arisen in the world in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US. What happened in Chechnya was undoubtedly connected with international terrorism. That is obvious. Indeed, how else can you assess the attack launched from the territory of Chechnya on the neighbouring Republic of Dagestan in 1999? What has that to do with the independence of Chechnya when they announced that more territories should break away from Russia to create a fundamentalist state between the Black and Caspian seas? But we are not inclined to declare everyone there to be a terrorist. The events in Chechnya have their prehistory. After an ideological and religious vacuum was formed there, international terrorists filled that space and in fact made the Chechen people hostages to their objectives. That is why several days ago I called on all those who have not yet laid down their arms in Chechnya to make contact with the federal authorities to discuss disarmament and ceasefire and integration into peaceful life. This is a clear signal that we want to cooperate with all those who want peace. I think those who want to solve existing problems by peaceful political means should be given a chance to do so and those who do not want to – and this is their considered choice – will remain on the black list of international terrorists.
At the end of the day most issues in Chechnya, like in many other parts of the planet, can be solved by political means. With terrorists, we will resolve these issues by force. I would like to stress that we are not going to speculate on the situation that has emerged in the world after the terrorist attacks on the US. But I would like to stress one point. Terrorists, like pernicious bacteria, quickly adapt to the organism which hosts them and behave as parasites. They use the Western institutions and Western ideas of human rights and the protection of civilians to further their own ends, but they do it not in order to promote these ideas, not to protect the Western values and Western institutions, but in order to fight them. Their ultimate goal is destruction. That should be understood and taken into account, and we cannot ignore it in forming public opinion.
Question: The planned operation in Afghanistan is fraught with great human losses. Who will be to blame for civilian casualties?
Vladimir Putin: This is in fact a follow-up to the previous question. Of course, I cannot rule out that innocent people, civilians, may suffer as a result of military actions in Afghanistan. But I think it would be a fundamental mistake to put the blame for this on those who carry out operations against terrorism. The responsibility rests with those who cover up terrorists and the terrorists who make the people of Afghanistan hostages to their own goals. It is exactly the same as what happened in the Chechen Republic. But of course, everything must be done to ensure the rights of civilians and minimise casualties. Ideally, there should be none.