Question: Mr President, the bilateral relations seem to be making good headway. At the same time the dialogue about many problem issues is more muted than before. Take, for example, the question of old debts: there has been no real progress since the St Petersburg meeting. Then there is the problem of art trophies. Besides, the German public opinion seems to be concerned with the problem of the freedom of the press in Russia.
Could you express your position on all these issues?
Vladimir Putin: As regards debts, you know our position, I have repeatedly stated it. But more important than the statements are the concrete actions and the policy pursued by the Russian Government. We service all the debts of the former Soviet Union and the Russian debts incurred during the past decade. Moreover, in our relations with the International Monetary Fund we have been paying back our debts ahead of schedule. I see no problems there.
The year 2003 does pose a question mark because the peak of payments falls on that year, but we are structuring our budget in such a way as to be sure that we cope with that problem under any, even the most pessimistic, scenario of the development of the world economy. That’s number one.
Now there is the question about the debts of the Soviet Union to the former GDR. We are in intensive consultations with our German colleagues. On the whole, I have reason to believe that during our meetings and negotiations in Weimar we stand a good chance of closing that issue. Only the technical problem of committing these agreements to paper will remain. But I repeat and stress that in principle there is every chance of reaching an agreement on the issue in Weimar.
Number two. I don’t have to explain how sensitive that issue is for both Germany and Russia. I repeat, it is sensitive not only for Germany, but also for Russia. I would like to stress that, and not only because of the lingering feeling that Russian culture and arts sustained heavy damage during the Second World War, but also because some of the art works taken out of Russia are in the West. They are said to be in private collections and for that reason governments cannot influence their fate. In Russia many of the cultural works that have found their way here during the Second World War are at the disposal of the state and the state can decide their fate.
I think this topic calls for a responsible approach, patience and a friendly attitude on both sides. The German and Russian leadership are working to create such a situation. Suffice it to say that we for our part have been handing over some artworks, as you know, to the German side and intend to continue this practice. The German side, for its part, is assisting Russia in restoring some of the lost works of art. For example, the Amber Room in Pushkin outside St Petersburg is being restored with direct German support. But there is more. German colleagues are helping us to restore other cultural assets and lost works of art.
I think all this will eventually make the public in Russia and Germany and Parliaments of both countries realise the need to continue this kind of policy and to create conditions in which people in Russia, Germany and the whole of Europe and the world at least have access to these works of art, and are able to see, know and enjoy them.
In our bilateral talks Chancellor Schroeder always pays great attention to this. And I share his attitude.
Now regarding the freedom of the press. You know, I am absolutely convinced that there cannot be a democratic Russia without a free press. But our free press, like all the democratic institutions, is in the process of emergence.
If by free press you mean the freedom of individual oligarchs, as they are called, to buy journalists and dictate their will to them proceeding from their group interests and promote the oligarchic way of the development of Russia, which they have been imposing on the country over the past decade – if press freedom is interpreted in this way, then yes, it is under threat. I don’t think we can allow certain individuals to determine the country’s strategy at will, stuffing their pockets with illegally acquired money.
However, if press freedom is defined as the possibility for journalists and creative teams to openly, freely and fearlessly set forth their points of view on the main problems of the development of the state and society, to criticise the actions of the government and demand a corresponding reaction from the government, I am absolutely convinced that such a situation will prevail in Russia. To a large extent this is already the situation and the government will work persistently to consolidate it.
In this connection I think it is important to create conditions for the economic freedom of the press, its economic independence. And I must say that in this regard we are working consistently to provide the necessary conditions for the activities of that important aspect of Russian life. We are committed to proceeding in this way in the future. I repeat, the media cannot be directly dependent on funding, they must have a chance to develop on their own basis if we are to have genuine and not imagined independence.
Question: The US recently announced the development of a new nuclear strategy. It seems once again to have nuclear targets in Russia. How much of a concern to you is this strand in the American foreign policy? Will you discuss it during your next meeting with US President George W. Bush in late May in Moscow and what place will these problems occupy in your talks with Mr Schroeder in Weimar?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think we can currently talk about a new US nuclear strategy, because for now, luckily, these are just individual remarks by some US officials.
I must be frank with you, these remarks do worry us. And I will tell you why. The United States complies with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but it has not ratified it. So, there is potential for resuming nuclear weapons tests. You know our position regarding the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The treaty envisaged the possibility of such a uni-lateral withdrawal. In that sense our American partners have acted correctly. In accordance with the terms of the treaty, they gave us advance notice of their withdrawal. Legally, everything has been done in an impeccable manner. And one may go along with some of the American arguments, but on the whole our position is that it is a mistaken move in terms of building security institutions in Europe and the world.
The issue you have mentioned cannot but worry us. And I’ll tell you why. We hear occasional remarks about the possible use of nuclear weapons by the United States, including against non-nuclear states. Number one.
Number two. We hear remarks and proposals about the development of low-yield nuclear devices to be used in regional conflicts. That lowers the threshold of possible use of nuclear weapons to a very dangerous level. The approach to the problem may change and then we would be talking about a change of strategy. In that case the nuclear weapons, instead of being weapons of deterrence, would be downgraded to the level of operational weapons, and that I think is very dangerous.
At the same time, there have been some positive signals from our American partners. We welcome America’s readiness to link the issues of offensive and defensive weapons. We believe that is the right approach. We welcome the readiness of the US to cut its strategic offensive weapons to 1,700–2,200 warheads. We are actively working with our partners as part of the preparation for the visit of US President Bush to Russia in order to work out and perhaps sign a new document on strategic stability. I think it would be a very important document that may form the basis of future strategic stability in the world. In that sense President Bush’s visit to Moscow may well be a truly historic one.
We take note of the positive shifts on the issue of translating our agreements on disarmament and nuclear arms control into the language of documents and treaties. The American partners are meeting us halfway on that and we have achieved some compromises during the negotiations. We shall see what the results will be by the time of Mr Bush’s visit to Russia. I very much hope that agreements will be reached and legally sealed.
Question: You have spoken about strategic dangers and pressing strategic tasks. What can you say about the criticism in Europe and the world of the Russian policy in Chechnya, including the claims that Russia is violating human rights there?
Vladimir Putin: My position is that one should never be dismissive of criticism. It is always possible and necessary to identify the elements of the criticism that can help you to adjust your own actions, your own position and policy. So we respect all our partners who have expressed concern over certain Russian actions, including those in the Caucasus.
If we want to live in a common European home, we must respect each other’s opinions.
I have to tell you that a great deal has been done recently to establish a normal legal process in Chechnya. A judiciary system has been created there for the first time. Previously, there were only Sharia courts and executions in squares. I think you remember that. I would like to remind you about the beheadings of people there, including foreign citizens. I wouldn’t like the Western public to forget it.
But before normal conditions for the functioning of a civilised justice system are created, that system should be put in place. I repeat, a judiciary system has been formed, the prosecutor’s office and the bar have started working. More than 20 Russian servicemen have had criminal charges brought against them. A justice system has been put in place.
That of course does not mean that violations cannot occur, and that is why monitoring by non-governmental, including international, organisations is extremely important. Russia is not interested in hiding anything or covering up the people who commit offenses. We are absolutely upfront. More international observers from more international organisations are working in Chechnya than perhaps in any conflict zone or explosive spot on the planet. Representatives of some international organisations – the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the UN, the Red Cross – visit Chechnya practically every week.
We are absolutely open to the press, including the international press. Your colleagues have a chance to come to Chechnya at any time, and to move about freely, although of course with the problems of security, to meet whoever they want, to talk with whoever they want, to get information and disseminate it.
We must be aware that we are dealing with terrorists and in Chechnya, as I have said before, the problem of separatism and the problem of terrorism are intertwined and are impossible to separate. People receive money from the same financial centres that fund al-Qaeda, militants are trained in the same training camps and are moved to the Caucasus. It is a terrorist international of militants. It still exists and, unfortunately, is active.
Of course, abuses cannot be ruled out. I am not speaking about the people who commit offenses – that is a separate situation and those cases should be dealt with on their merits – but collateral damage and casualties cannot be entirely avoided. Take the bombings in Afghanistan. Don’t they claim civilian victims? It is a forced measure and it is not the Americans who are to blame. The blame rests with the terrorists who have occupied Afghanistan and have exposed the civilians in the country to strikes. In fact they are using civilians as human shields in the same way hijackers of planes or other means of transport do. The situation in Chechnya is absolutely the same.
So, while we respect the criticism and heed it and try to change the way we act, let me make it quite clear that we will continue the fight against terrorism, including in Chechnya. We will eliminate the armed militants who do not want to surrender and we will build a new peaceful life for the people, create the social and legal conditions for the normal life of the Chechen people helping them to become re-integrated in a peaceful life and break out of the vicious cycle of violence in which the region has been caught in for ten years.
I am sure that if we proceed persistently and unstintingly, with international support, we will solve these problems. International consolidation and support is just as important in Chechnya as in the other regions where the problem of terrorism arises. I repeat, this is because funding comes from the same centres, weapons come from the same places and fighters are trained in the same camps and so on. Russia cannot solve these problems single-handed. We are aware of this and it prompts our active stance in the anti-terrorist coalition, because not even the biggest world power can cope with this problem alone.
I would like to stress again that we count on the world community taking a similar stand with regard to us when we fight terror. The same attitude that we take in assisting the international coalition in fighting terrorism where other countries have confronted it.
Question: Mr President, since you came to office, and especially after September 11 you have pursued a policy of rapprochement between Russia and the West. One has the impression that many of your countrymen cannot quite keep up with the pace you have set. Are you aware of some resistance to your foreign policy and could an attack on Iraq, for example, impede this policy?
Vladimir Putin: I am frequently asked similar questions. People ask me whether things may go the same way as under Gorbachev. He too sought to mend fences with the West, but it did not go down very well with the population and he faced major problems.
Analogies of course are possible, but they are irrelevant in this case. Unlike past times, Russia today is cooperating with the West not because it wants to be liked or to get something in exchange for its position. We are not standing there with an outstretched hand and we are not begging anyone for anything. The only reason why I pursue this policy is that I believe it fully meets the national interests of Russia, and not because I want to gain favour with anyone.
Naturally, this cannot receive universal approval, but then it is not my goal to have 100% approval.
Some people tend to criticise you no matter what you do. We don’t mind that. On the whole, it may even be a good thing. I repeat, one can derive benefits from criticism. One can look to see whether perhaps what they are criticising needs to be changed.
But the majority of the population understands that this policy meets the national interests of our country because our main tasks today are to ensure economic growth and boost the standard of living. That is impossible to do without ensuring a favourable atmosphere around Russia in the world. We are working in that direction. I repeat, I see that the policy has the support of the majority of the country’s population.
But speaking about politicians and the military, the overwhelming majority of high-level specialists share this attitude. I am often told that the military may be displeased. Well, that is not so. The military understands it, if anything, better than any other people. And that is why it is easier to persuade them than other people. I can tell you more: before making any moves I compare them against what Russian diplomats, Russian politicians and the Russian military say and think about it. So, a rapprochement with the West is not Putin’s policy, it is the policy of Russia.
Now regarding Iraq. You know our consistent position in the fight against terrorism and in supporting the anti-terrorist coalition. I am convinced that we should continue to act in concert if we are to defeat terrorism. And in connection with this I would like to note that any uni-lateral actions by whoever and against whoever, are counterproductive.
That fully applies to the policy vis-a-vis Iraq. Especially since there is no objective confirmation nor proof that Iraq has backed al-Qaeda. This is not to say that there are no problems with Iraq. The problem is to persuade the Iraqi leadership to allow international observers to inspect the facilities which some experts believe may produce weapons of mass destruction.
We have no proof that Iraq possesses or is developing such weapons. But if the international community entertains such fears, then of course it has the right to raise the question of inspections. It is our common task to persuade Iraq to allow international observers back into the country. That goal can be achieved in many different ways. The means are far from exhausted. And I think it is at least politically incorrect to speak about the use of force today when other means have not been exhausted. I think that would be a mistake.
Question: A draft resolution that would ban the Communist Party has been prepared and is apparently going to be discussed by the State Duma on April 19. This is not the first time the issue has been raised in the country. What is your position?
Vladimir Putin: My position is negative. No problem has ever been solved by imposing bans.
The Communist Party is a constitutional party which proceeds in the framework of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and millions of people vote for it. Not to notice it would mean to show disrespect for millions of our citizens. I do not share the policies, especially economic policies, or the practices of the Communist Party. Lately, in particular, I have noticed that Communist Party deputies at the State Duma do not vote even on laws which the Communist Party experts recognise as valid for the country. I think that is a mistaken practice, but it is none of my business, it is up to the leaders of that party. In any case, it is not grounds for banning it.
And there is another aspect to this matter. Any ban in the political sphere leads to radicalisation. To drive a real political force, such as the Communist Party, underground would be a mistake.
Question: What will Russia do if the United States or anyone else starts bombing Iraq?
And the second question. You said that you seek well-being for your people. What hopes do you link with Weimar? What do you expect from the German businessmen? Do you think that “transferable roubles” can be turned into investments? And can you imagine Russia directly supplying gas?
Vladimir Putin: As regards Iraq, we do have an idea as to what we will do if the situation develops according to different scenarios, but I don’t want to indulge in guesswork. As far as we know, no decisions have been taken on bombing Iraq either by the United States or Britain. I mean massive bombings, large-scale operations, because bombings on a smaller scale have never stopped. By the way, I am not sure if they are effective. Those who do the bombing probably say they are effective, but the results are not very obvious. But I repeat, I don’t think I should discuss that topic because no decision on the issue has been taken.
Let me stress again that in my opinion any unilateral actions would be counterproductive, and not all the means of achieving the main goal – and that is bringing international observers back to Iraq – have been exhausted. One should act in the framework of and in accordance with the rules of the United Nations.
Now about transferable roubles. I have already said that the experts at both finance ministries are about to reach a solution to that problem. And I very much hope that in Weimar we will resolve the issue in principle. That does not mean that we will sign the final documents, but a decision may be reached in principle. I believe that transforming these debts into investments is a good way of solving the issue. I think it is in the interests of both Germany and Russia.
We could restore interaction between the eastern lands and the Russian Federation. Of course, it is not “Hermes”, but it can be a good basis for work. It could also provide the load for the enterprises, especially in the eastern lands, in the shape of orders from Russia as part of the solution to the problem of transferable roubles. The ball is entirely in Germany’s court. We have repeatedly made such proposals. So far there have been no positive signals from our German colleagues, but I don’t think everything is lost. I think the Russian side should persevere and come up with proposals that are valid and economically beneficial for our partners. I don’t think everything has been lost.
Now the final question regarding Gazprom. In general, Germany is our number one partner in the gas sphere. You know that the gap between the price at which we sell gas on the border and the price paid by consumers in Germany is very wide. We cheaply sell gas. What contributes to the high price in Germany? The high price for consumers in Germany is due to the local taxes, the cost of storage and distribution of gas. It is also the so-called “consumption peak problem”. In the evening when housewives are back home they turn on the gas, and consumption jumps. By night everyone goes to bed and only people suffering from insomnia use gas to make their coffee. But there aren’t many such people, so consumption goes down. And there are seasonal fluctuations between winter and summer. All that prompts the need to store and distribute gas. That is expensive and that is why the price rises.
Today Gazprom is creating joint ventures with BASF and Wintershall in order to distribute gas directly not single-handedly, but together with the German partners in joint ventures. That may stabilise the market and may even bring about a price reduction. Why? Because then Gazprom could run its supplies in such a way as to reduce the cost of storage and distribution. So, Russian and German partners are working together on that and I think that is right.
Question: The conflict in the Middle East has grown to a dangerous scale. Can you see Russia acting as a mediator in defusing the conflict considering that, on the one hand, many Russian citizens live in Israel and on the other hand Moscow traditionally has had good relations with Arafat?
And one more question in connection with this. When Mironov visited Israel recently, he chose not to meet with Arafat. Was it his spontaneous decision based on his own impressions from the visit to Israel or had it been agreed with you as President? Does his move mean that Moscow is distancing itself from Arafat?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the situation connected with the visit to Israel by the Speaker of the Upper House of the Russian Parliament, Mr Mironov, and his refusal to meet with Chairman Arafat, that is his own decision. Mr Mironov made it without any consultations. He has explained his actions himself. And I don’t think I should explain the actions of the Speaker of the Upper House.
Under the Constitution he is the number three man in the country after the President and the Prime Minister. That is a very high political position and of course an official of such a level is entitled to have his own opinion.
But the official Russian position is based on the advantages you have referred to. They consist in our traditional trusting relations with the Arab world in general and Palestine in particular.
On the other hand, more than a million Israeli citizens are former Soviet citizens, they are Russian-speaking Israelis. In that sense, Israel is almost a Russian-speaking country. You are sure to meet someone who speaks Russian in any shop and in any restaurant there. Many of them have relatives and friends in Russia and cultivate the Russian language and culture and visit Russia. Our attitude to émigrés from the Soviet Union has changed dramatically. In the Soviet Union all these people were seen as almost enemies of their country, as defectors, traitors and so on. There is nothing like that today. I think there is a good and positive potential for the development of inter-state relations. And we of course must use it.
But for that potential to be tapped it is necessary to win the confidence of these people. They must see that Russia takes an even-handed position and pursues a policy aimed at settling the conflict and ensuring the interests of all the people who live in that region, including the interests of Israel.
We are not going to force our services on anyone, but we do have a feeling of responsibility. Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a co-sponsor of the Middle East peace process.
We are constantly working on it jointly with the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. Our roving ambassador Mr Vdovin frequently goes to the region. He is in constant contact with the leadership of Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. We will continue to work jointly in a cooperative manner. It is important for the international community to have a common position. It must be worked out no matter how difficult it may be. And of course pressure must be brought on both sides to draw them back to the negotiating table. It is unlikely that the problem can be solved, given the current situation, without diplomatic, moral and political pressure. But of course there must be limits to the pressure. It should not destroy the situation but, on the contrary, help to break the vicious cycle of violence in the region.
We are very worried about the way the situation is developing. We think there can be no justification for terrorism. In that sense of course we cannot but recognise Israel’s concern about the security of its citizens. However, all the actions should be proportionate to the threat.
And there is another circumstance I would like to point out. I think it would be a mistake to try to remove Chairman Arafat from the political scene, because in my opinion even an attempt to do it (let alone actually doing it) would radicalise certain forces in the Arab world and increase their influence. And that is a danger too.
On top of that, Arafat is an internationally recognised leader who commands respect and influence in the Arab world and of course in Palestine. If he is not the man to talk with, who is? Where is another negotiating partner? And if there is no other negotiating partner, the only remaining instrument is force. But we say that the negotiating process must resume. I think that Russia and the United States should perhaps act more resolutely, and the same is also true of the European Union.
Question: Mr Putin, you have been in office for two years. Many in your country have noticed the anniversary. And along with praise there have been some critical remarks arguing that while your authority is sky high, there are no worthy leaders of a lower level around you. I wonder if we may see some personnel changes in the following years of your presidency.
As you know, the struggle between the so-called “Petersburg lot” and the Family is an open secret. How do you see that problem?
Vladimir Putin: You have said that it is a common opinion that I am in a very exalted position, yes?
Voice: Yes, there is such a sense.
Vladimir Putin: Well, in this connection I can tell you that I look down on all the fuss about the fight between the “Petersburg lot” and the Family from that exalted position. I think it has been blown out of proportion. There are problems between personalities, and clashes of opinions and positions in any team. I see nothing unusual or unique about it. That is absolutely normal.
At the same time I would like to note that in spite of the clash of opinions and approaches over certain problems, decisions are taken. And once they are taken they are common goals that are implemented. That is very important. There is still much to be done in terms of streamlining the administrative system, including at the highest level. We have spoken a lot and frequently about re-organising the Government and the Executive Office. These are problems that will need to be addressed.
Every bureaucratic structure is always in need of improvement because life changes and the country changes. The system was created in the past and has continued to muddle through, increasingly falling short of the demands of the present time.
Let me stress that we are not going to act with undue haste. We will gradually bring everything in line with common sense and the requirements of the social life and economy.
So, I don’t think it is a major problem, it is practically non-existent. The press of course is interested in gossiping about everything. It makes for very good reading, makes the periodical more popular and increases the advertising fees gaining a wider audience for the publication.
You referred to my “being in office”. It was not just the case of my “being in office”. I think I have worked quite actively and I will continue to do so. It is not for me to judge the results and the quality of my work; it is up to the others. What I would like to see above all are positive results that make a noticeable difference in the life of the ordinary citizen. <…>
Question: There has recently been much talk about the death penalty in Russia, and I think you have said more than once that you oppose the death penalty on the grounds that Russia is a member of the Council of Europe.
Is that your only argument against the death penalty? And how will Russia treat that problem in the future? Will the moratorium on the death penalty hold? Will the death penalty be abolished or re-introduced? How will that problem be solved?
Vladimir Putin: I have indeed spoken about this issue on many occasions. I have mentioned our obligations to the Council of Europe, but that was not my main argument. Of course, we have to stick to certain rules if we want to live in the common European space. But we wouldn’t have agreed to these rules if it hadn’t been in our own interests.
The main thing is not that we have obligations to honour, but that tougher punishment unfortunately, as much as we would like it to be the case, does not in itself decrease crime rates. For internal political consumption, it may be useful to project an image of a strong leader who is prepared to shoot or electrocute people. But even the knowledge I acquired at St Petersburg University entitles me to maintain that in order to effectively fight crime – not by slogans or populist actions but to do it in a serious and responsible way – one has to act on a broad front. It calls for hard work, effort and financial resources. It calls for the strengthening of the law-enforcement bodies, improvement of the country’s economy, above all the eradication of poverty, as well as for legal education and the spread of legal culture and simply for a higher overall cultural level and much else.
Although I could probably score some points in purely political terms by announcing a return to the death penalty and close that problem for myself, leaving it to those who succeed me to sort things out. I think it would amount to cheating the population and the nation. I have no right to do that.
Of course, we should not forget about our obligations in the framework of the Council of Europe. Russia must be a reliable and predictable partner that honours its obligations. That is how we have acted up until now. I think we must act in the same way in the future.
I know that this is a heavily politicised topic in my country. Some political forces are sure to try to get some mileage out of it during the elections for the State Duma and the future presidential elections because the majority of the population would like the death penalty to be reinstated. All the opinion polls show that, and of course it is easy to get political mileage out of the topic. But that position is irresponsible. I do not share it. And as long as I have my say, there will be no death penalty in Russia.
Question: I have a question about the payment of compensation to the former Russian victims of Nazism. The Russian Fund is in a bit of trouble, and there is a danger that some victims will never get compensated because they had expected 150,000–160,000 claimants, and now their number is almost 500,000.
Is there a way out? Will you touch upon this issue in Weimar?
And the second question. I have heard that the delegation or part of your delegation will visit the Buchenwald concentration camp, but from my information you will not take part. Why?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the question you have asked, I would like to first stress that it was a very positive decision on the part of Germany and its leadership. I think it is a very important step not so much financially as morally because it helps us to build our relations, to get rid of the problems of the past century and to attain a new level of interaction.
Frankly, I am not very well versed in the issues you have raised. I am aware of some problems and I will make a point of looking into it. I will simply talk with the fund officials. If they need our help we will try to help them.
Regarding the problem of the stay in Weimar and the visit to Buchenwald, honestly, I do not yet know the programme and who is going to visit what places. I am absolutely not in the loop about Buchenwald. I do not look at the part of the programme that is being arranged by our protocol service. I have visited Buchenwald when I lived and worked in Germany. I think it is a place to be visited by the whole world. We must never forget about it. You know that when the Chancellor was in Russia we visited the cemeteries where the victims of the Second World War are buried. Now, with the participation of veterans’ organisations in Russia, more and more attention is being paid to the graves of German soldiers in Russia. I think that the involvement of Great Patriotic War veterans is a very positive element which indicates genuine reconciliation, and a rethinking of our joint history.
I will pay special attention to the issues you have raised there.