Question: Mr President, the first question from Polish television if I may.
In times past we used to say that friendship and brotherhood reigned in the relations between our peoples. Those were the slogans at the time. Today we prefer to speak about common interests.
Mr President, what aspects of bilateral relations do you find satisfactory and what would you like to see changed?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I would like to say that we find this approach reasonable, it suits us very well. If we talk about common interests, then we build our relations on a solid foundation. That is the only way if we are to build long-term relations.
Let us not forget that we share not only past problems but a lot of positive things belonging to the past. Suffice it to recall the friendship between Mickiewicz and Pushkin. It has to be said that although the Poles were constantly fighting for their freedom and independence against their neighbours to the west and to the east, there has always been sympathy in Russia for the Polish nation, as impartial people know very well.
That mutual sympathy can provide a basis for our relations, above all of the economic character and here of course we are talking about our pragmatic interest in each other. Today trade between our countries stands at $5.5 billion, or more. That is a significant figure. And we have to bear in mind that there is a considerable deficit on the Polish side in our mutual trade. And we are not at all happy about it because it indicates an imbalance. We must reach a balance in that respect.
Both Russia and Poland have a mutual interest above all in promoting trade and economic ties. That aspect dominated our negotiations with Mr Kwasniewski and the new Polish Prime Minister.
I think that if we follow that approach and identify the right areas of cooperation, our interaction will be very effective. And such areas exist. They are above all infrastructure projects and in that sense Poland has every chance of occupying the place which it has nearly always occupied in history, that of a bridge between East and West in the best sense of the word. It will truly benefit from that position in terms of the development of energy programmes between Russia and Europe, in terms of transportation programmes, and in terms of upgrading some sectors of the economies both of Poland and Russia. I am referring to agriculture, the mining and metallurgical industry, and so on. I think there is a good Polish proverb: agreement builds, disagreement destroys. We in Russia know about it and try to keep it in mind.
Question: Mr President, first, thank you for finding the time for us, we know how busy you are. But we used to have a common friend, I was friends with Anatoly Sobchak. Once during our conversation he told me that Russia had a problem because it had freedom but not yet democracy, there was no such institution.
On one occasion you said that you were in favour of a manageable democracy. Could you explain what it means?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t remember talking about a manageable democracy and it is hard for me to give a definition to that term.
If you are interested in my attitude to what is happening in Russia and how the institution of democracy is being built, I can tell you that in my opinion we should not reinvent the wheel, we have to follow the road that all the industrialised democratic countries are following.
I think what Anatoly Sobchak told you was probably true ten years ago. Of course, a lot has changed since that time, but on the whole he is right. We have many freedoms but few democratic institutions. Such institutions include free speech and political parties that act freely and so on. It is like having money and no effective banking system. There are such countries. And it only shows that they are in the transitional period. It’s the same with freedom and democracy.
Of course, we must create a solid and reliable legal framework for democracy. Democracy is not the same as anarchy and total permissiveness. It is about rules enshrined in laws passed by a constitutionally elected representative body of power, the country’s parliament.
We are moving down that road, and we are moving with confidence and consistency. Last year, as you know, a new law on political parties was passed in my country. Its aim is precisely to create in Russia strong national political organisations that represent the interests of various strata and groups in society. Once a balance is achieved between the interests of different groups and strata in society, as expressed in the position of various parties, then we could claim that we had built the foundations of democracy.
Not least, of course, we must provide the economic basis for a free media, create a civil society and help the evolution of new trade unions which, both in your country and in ours, used to be called “the school of communism” (it is unclear what kind of school it was as it worked under a single party that held the monopoly of power in the country), to help the evolution of other civil society institutions and non-governmental organisations. That involves multi-faceted work, but it can only be based on existing laws.
Question: Where do you see a threat to your policy coming from? Today you have a fantastic approval rating. No other Russian President ever had such a rating. But we remember that there were forces that hindered both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Vladimir Putin: You know, I wouldn’t speak about threats, I would rather speak about problems and difficulties. And I think many of them are similar in our countries. All the countries of the so-called former “eastern bloc” have some problems in common. And one problem is how the population perceives its relations with the state and the obligations of the state to the population.
Until fairly recently the state in your country and in our country was the monopoly owner of everything, and naturally it was responsible for everything. That was the case for many decades. In Russia it lasted much longer than in Poland, so that in Russia the sense that the state is obliged to solve all the problems has, unfortunately, deeper roots. I say “unfortunately” because today we have a market economy, and it is obvious that there is no alternative to the market economy and democracy. The alternative is simply stagnation and falling behind on every count. However, although people understand that the market economy and democracy must be promoted, they find it hard to come to terms with the idea that in that case the state cannot be responsible for everything.
And that, in my opinion, is a very serious problem that demands attention, but one should proceed in a very balanced and tactful way. We have to bring it home to every citizen and to win him over to the idea that his own position, the position of his family, the position of the region and their contribution to the common effort and the quality of their work determine the material well-being of every concrete individual, district or region and the whole country. People should personify their own contribution to the overall state of the economy and the well-being of the whole people. It is quite a long and complicated process.
Question: There is nostalgia for the communist era in all the post-communist countries. We see that in Poland and in Eastern Germany. Aren’t you afraid that there are forces and people in Russia who are against your policy and the market economy and, for example, your friendship with the West and the United States in the wake of September 11? I have read in the communist newspapers, for example, that President Putin has betrayed his country, that he is a defeatist.
Vladimir Putin: You know, first of all, in my current position I have no right to be afraid of anything, I am forbidden to by definition. If I were afraid, I wouldn’t be fit to occupy the office which I now hold.
It is not about being or not being afraid. It is about awareness of what we are doing and awareness that we are doing the right thing and whether I am doing the right thing or not. I believe I am doing the right thing. And as ever, what has been the problem? Respect for one’s own people. That respect should take the form of patient clarification of your position. You should never assume that everything you do will be embraced by everyone without any reservations. We should steadfastly and consistently and, I repeat, patiently explain our position, explain why we act the way we do and where the interests of the country as a whole and every Russian citizen lie when the leadership makes certain decisions.
I am absolutely sure, I know that every ordinary citizen can understand the interests of his own country, the interests of his own state. Who in my country is interested in a confrontation between Russia and the rest of the world and one of the world’s leading countries, the United States? Who is interested in that? There are no such people. There are only groups of people who are pursuing their own interests seeking to regain power or seize power. But that has nothing to do with national interests. And if one says it openly and without mincing words, the number of followers will not diminish.
I have heard this many times from the military: allegedly the generals in Russia are unhappy about what the President does and so on. I can tell you that our generals are no worse than civilians. They are intelligent people and certainly they are at least as smart as their counterparts in other countries. They know very well what is confrontation and military rivalry. Today’s generals are very well aware of the interconnection between the development of the Armed Forces, the real state of the Armed Forces, their combat readiness and the social security of the servicemen and the development of the country’s economy. I assure you there is such awareness.
To ensure a high level of military capability, we need a high level of the economy. And to ensure economic development, we need favourable external political conditions. To this end we should foster our relations with Europe, the United States, with the countries that are far away from the borders of Russia and with our traditional partners such as Poland for example. There is such awareness.
Perhaps it is a question of tactic. We may argue as to whether certain things should be done in one format or another. We may argue about the pace of development, but that is a matter of taste and, I repeat, tactic. Actually there are no serious opponents in Russia to the development of relations with the leading countries, political organisations, including NATO, because it does not contradict the main goal towards which the leadership of any country must work – improving the well-being of its people and the position of the country in the world.
A.Michnik: Many people are asking and thinking that you are a President who defies stereotyping. You are neither left nor right, neither pro-Western nor ….
Vladimir Putin: You are referring to our common friend.
A.Michnik: Yes, I had great affection and respect for him.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, he was that kind of person. He recognised no authorities on the left or on the right. If he saw that some of his traditional allies among the democratic opposition in the early 1990s were mistaken, he said so openly and bluntly; and he nearly always criticised the left political spectrum, as you know as well as I do.
I think that is the only correct approach to politics in general. We began this talk by pointing out that the soundest approach is to seek to build the relations between our countries on the basis of pragmatism and pragmatic interest in each other. It should be the same in every area. I think what is necessary is not to proceed from abstract schemes and not to speak in generalities, but to speak about concrete things, and then everything will be clear.
You know, all too often we fall back on schemes and theoretical concepts which have little substance. Just a short while ago a good friend of mine told me a fine joke: “An opinion poll was conducted by telephone on January 1. As many as 13% said “hello”, 25% said “yes” and the rest found it hard to reply.” (laughter). So, what conclusions can you draw from this?
You see, if we do not proceed from such polls, but look at the root of each problem, study it and make decisions proceeding not from general political ideas, but from the interests of our countries, we will rise to the challenges that face us.
Question: I remember similar debates. You are still a young man. It was a debate between Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. Do you think that debate is still relevant to Russia?
Vladimir Putin: What exactly are you referring to?
A.Michnik: When Solzhenitsyn wrote letters to the Soviet leaders, he insisted that there would never be a democratic system in Russia, and Andrei Sakharov said, no, we are a normal country and it can be democratic like other countries.
Vladimir Putin: It all depends on how you interpret what these people meant to say. Perhaps they were saying pretty much the same things, but we know the peculiar views that distinguish Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is very keen on Russian history, he makes certain assumptions based on historical events in his analysis of the present day and in his vision of the country’s future, and I think that is very important.
However, my personal opinion is that for all the uniqueness of Russia, just like of any other country, which we must certainly take into account, there are still some general principles which must be recognised in theory and in practice if we are to build our state. And if we understand these general principles as the main principles of democracy and freedom, then, I repeat, without these universally recognised principles we will never build a normal democratic state.
Question: Your opponents make great play of the fact that the liquidation of NTV, the Segodnya newspaper and TV-6 indicate that it poses a threat to the free media, to the opposition and so on. Could you comment on that?
Vladimir Putin: Honestly, I don’t know what happened to the Segodnya newspaper. It is the first time I hear that it has been shut down.
Voice: Yes, it has. Back in spring.
Vladimir Putin: Frankly, I wasn’t aware of that. As regards NTV and TV-6, of course, I knew about them.
There are several aspects to this case. The first is purely legal. When I hear this talk, I don’t quite understand what we are expected to do. Do they want us to use extra-judiciary methods and pull strings to interfere in the prerogatives of the courts? Then what happens to democracy? And which is better and which is worse? Would it be better if the government bodies rode roughshod over an independent branch of power, the judiciary, and commanded and issued orders to it? Would that promote democratic principles? Probably not. It applies to NTV and even more so to TV-6 because there is a quarrel there between absolutely independent economic entities which have nothing to do with the state.
Speaking about the substance, I think that just like we don’t have a solid and established multi-party system, so our free press is only emerging. The main thing that needs to be done is to create an economic basis to enable a free and independent press to exist by itself.
By the way, without solving that problem we won’t be able to create a fully democratic state. We are aware of that and you should have no doubt about it.
Finally, the third circumstance that is also important. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russia, things have been happening which could only have happened in a country with a weakened political regime, a political regime that is in a state of flux. There was a danger that Russia would follow the road of an oligarchy when certain individuals who had links with the government and had partly monopolised government influence political processes in the country not being guided by national interests, bypassing democratic institutions, representative bodies of power, using the money they obtained during the course of privatisation or other processes, not always in a legitimate way, in order to further their corporate interests.
We know how much ink has been spent over this issue by the Western media, how often alarm has been expressed. In my country it often happens that a person who has got drunk and smashed his neighbour in the face is jailed for five years for hooliganism. And somebody who has stolen a bag of potatoes is jailed for stealing, he is declared to be a thief. But those who have stolen or illegally acquired a fortune of tens of hundreds of millions of dollars are declared to be political figures.
These people have nothing in common with democracy and, having gained control over the mass media, they do not promote free speech but their personal commercial interests.
I repeat, to create the basis for a genuinely free press it must be provided with its own economic base. We will of course address that problem while at the same time strengthening the judiciary and the administrative system, creating conditions in which journalists could pursue their profession without being dependent on anyone.
Question: We distributed a questionnaire jointly with our friends in Moscow and one question there is: should Poland have a feeling of historical guilt with regard to Russia? 30% of Russians replied “yes” and 33% replied “no”.
What can be Russia’s grievances with regard to Poland? First, for not being grateful enough to the Red Army during the Second World War. And second, for the fact that Poland hosts a Chechen information centre. What is your comment?
Vladimir Putin: You know, you may find my comment somewhat unexpected. I prefer to love Poland because Poland gave the world Chopin. I prefer to love Poland for Mickiewicz. I prefer to love Poland for the Polish spirit and the Polish character. And what worries me today is that although the level of trade between us is high, there is an imbalance.
I think we have so many common interests that we must and can solve the current problems together. If we permit ourselves to bicker over problems or trifles, we wouldn’t be thinking about the future and we would permit the problems of yesterday, problems long gone, to drag us back and to prevent us from moving forward. And that would be a very big mistake.
Question: Have there been debates inside Russia as to whether Russia is part of Europe or Eurasia or whatever? Do you think it is a Eurasian or a European country? I have read a headline in the Russian newspapers: “President Vladimir Putin is a Westerniser”.
Vladimir Putin: You know, I have very high regard for Professor Likhachev. He was an academic and public personality in St Petersburg.
And I must agree with him that the essence of any country and the essence of any people stems from its culture.
From the geographical point of view Russia is of course a Eurasian country. But in spite of the difference in living standards between its eastern part and, for example, the capital, I assure you that they are all people belonging to one culture. And that is the crux of the matter. And on that I absolutely agree with Likhachev. In that sense, Russia is without any doubt a European country because it has a European culture. There can be no doubt about it.
It has always been that way. The question you have asked me has been an eternal question in the country’s political life. To be more precise, I would put it this way. Of course, Russia is a very unusual country with its own history, a rich history with many unique features. But then almost every country has unique features. In that way Russia is no different from any other European country. But I would like to stress that it is a country with the European culture, so it is a European country.
Question: What is Stalin’s place in the history of Russia?
Vladimir Putin: That is a somewhat provocative question.
A.Michnik: A little bit.
Vladimir Putin: Well, not a little bit. (Laughter). Stalin, of course, was a dictator. There is no doubt about it. He was guided to a large extent by his interest in preserving his personal power, and that I think explains a lot of things.
The problem is that it was under his leadership that the country won the Second World War, and that victory is to a large extent associated with his name. It would be foolish to ignore it.
You will have to make do with this incomplete answer.
Question: Was he more like Ivan the Terrible or like Peter the Great from your point of view?
Vladimir Putin: More like Tamerlane.
Question: You often speak about pragmatism, is there room for the Russian idea in your pragmatism? What can be the guiding idea of the post-Soviet Russia? If it is the traditional road of expansion, are you against the policy of expansion? Where are the roots of your thoughts about present-day Russia?
Vladimir Putin: My answer will be simple to the point of being primitive. It is economic development of the vast territories that are part of the Russian Federation and joint work with Europe and the rest of the civilised humankind to develop these territories and simultaneously improve the well-being of the Russian people, and natural integration in the political, economic and defence structures of civilised nations.
Question: There are those who say that the law on political parties can prevent the creation of new political parties.
Vladimir Putin: Nothing of the kind. The law on parties can only prevent political anarchy. Until a normal and viable multi-party system is created, we will not have a parliamentary democracy in the full sense of that word. We will have small political groups, and people in the national elections will be looking not at the party values for which the party is responsible, but at concrete individuals.
It may be more or less acceptable for states in the period of transition, but it cannot be the case in the longer term. So, it is extremely important to create a legal framework for the emergence of national parties with political influence throughout the country’s territory. Parliamentary democracy cannot develop without it.
Question: And the last question. What will happen to Chechnya? I know that everybody puts this question to you.
Vladimir Putin: There is nothing strange about it. We know the background and we know how things developed a hundred years ago. I once had occasion to speak about it publicly, and it remains for me to repeat my position. Without any doubt what we have in Chechnya is an explosive mixture of international terrorists and separatists.
As for international terrorists, I don’t think there is anything to argue about, they should be either condemned and isolated or liquidated. Which is in fact what we are seeing in Afghanistan, and nobody has raised any questions about it. As for Chechnya, there is a kind of symbiosis between separatism and international extremism mixed with extreme manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism. I don’t think anyone wants to support extreme forms of fundamentalism.
As for separatism, I can also ask a question to which there is no answer. Almost all countries in the world today face the problem of separatism. They include such large countries as India and many European countries. I don’t want to name them so as not to stir up this issue. You know these countries in Western Europe and especially in Eastern Europe.
If we permit ourselves to support separatism in one part of Europe, not to speak about other regions of the world, there will be no end to attempts to redraw borders. Europe will become immersed in an endless process of division of powers and territories. That is particularly true of Eastern Europe.
We do not support it in other countries and we very much hope that there will be no outside support for separatism in Russia. I have mentioned Europe, but let us look farther afield.
The Kurdish people have been fighting for their independence for many years. A people of 40 million. They live in several countries, and I think there are about 20 million of them in Turkey. Does that mean that you are going to support annexation of territories from stable national governments? That would be an extremely short-sighted policy.
Terrorism, fundamentalism and other manifestations of extremism thrive on territories that are not controlled by internationally recognised governments. We should on no account allow that to happen. But that does not mean that we should not take into account the legitimate demands and interests of any people or any group of the population. That fully applies to the people of Chechnya. Complicated processes are taking place there.
By the way, the army is not involved in any hostilities there, it is conducting only local operations. But simultaneously a political dialogue is going on with the population and with those who want to have a dialogue. And of course a final solution can only be achieved through dialogue.
We intend to follow that road to achieve a final solution of the issue.
Question: Everybody has been urging me in Poland to tell you that the Pope very much wants to come to Moscow. Can you do anything about it, Mr President?
Vladimir Putin: You may have noticed that I have great respect for the Pope. I visited him at the Vatican and I am grateful to him for receiving me.
I don’t know if you will find it odd or perhaps quite natural, but we even have a feeling of pride that a representative of a Slavic people has become the Pope. He is a Pole and we are pleased about that.
Speaking about interstate relations, there are no problems. I am ready to invite him at any moment. But the Pope himself thinks that if he is to visit Moscow, it should be a full-fledged visit connected with the relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. And that, unfortunately, does not depend on me.