Question: It looks as if at the government level everything between you and President Chirac is shaping up beautifully. Does this mean that everything is perfectly cloudless in the Russian-French relations?
President Putin: We indeed have much in common in the approaches to solving major international issues. Our bilateral relations are developing not badly and indeed in all areas.
We are not pleased with everything. We are not pleased with the level of trade and economic relations, — but it is a matter of time. This is not the main thing. The main thing is that France and Russia have common approaches to constructing the future edifice of international security. As we believe here in Russia, and as the French President Chirac believes — the future edifice of world security must be based on a multipolar world. This is the main thing that unites us.
I am absolutely confident that the world will be predictable and stable only if it is multipolar. This does not mean, however, that our views coincide on all problems and all issues. We may have differences in the tactic of attaining the objectives which we regard as being common to us. And these differences may sometimes be quite considerable. For instance, our approaches to the settlement of the situation in Yugoslavia.
We continue to believe that our position was more balanced because the hostilities, in my profound conviction, have failed to resolve the main problem — they failed to bring about a final settlement. But the quality of relations between Russia and France enabled us, despite these differences in the approaches, to gather our common potential for drafting a joint solution on the problems of post-war settlement. And together with France and together with other members of the UN Security Council we got to a common solution.
Question: Speaking about the threat of war with Iraq, I wish to ask the following question. President Chirac believes that it is necessary to use all the possibilities in the search for diplomatic solutions before starting some military actions. What will be your final decision which you will probably have to take within the coming weeks, considering the impatience with which Bush and the US administration strive to sort it out with Saddam Hussein?
President Putin: I think we have different tasks. We do not have the task of sorting it out with Hussein.
The United Nations Charter has nothing in it that permits the UN Security Council to take decisions to change the political regime in a particular country, — whether we like the regime or not.
The only task facing the international community there is to satisfy itself that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction or to find them and force Iraq to destroy those weapons. In this connection we share the position of our American partners which is that we must do everything in order that Iraq would engage in a full-fledged cooperation with the UN inspectors.
The difference of approaches lies in the following: we believe that this problem can and must be resolved by peaceful political-diplomatic means. The inspectors are working there. We trust them. They have not found anything there; at least they have not yet found anything. They do not say that the authorities of Iraq are hindering them in their work, preventing the pursuit by them of their activity. Essentially they themselves raise the issue of continuing the work. I am convinced that we must make such an opportunity available to them.
Question: Both Russia and France have immense oil interests in Iraq. Do you not fear any economic reprisals or sanctions from George Bush and his administration in the event of your refusal to follow them in the war in Iraq?
President Putin: Russia — and I am profoundly convinced of it — is a reliable partner in international affairs, because we are not being guided by short-term benefits, expediency or any emotions. We have certain principles and we abide by them.
We have our own interests there, not only in the oil sphere. But we are not going to bargain, as if we were in an oriental market, bargain, selling our position in exchange for some economic benefits. If together with the UN Security Council members we see that the situation calls for a change, for a toughening of our position, we shall work cooperatively with all our colleagues in the UN Security Council. The results of the work of the inspectors so far do not give us any grounds for toughening the position.
As regards our economic interests, I will repeat that they exist. We are not hiding this and of course we also intend to defend them. The very best prerequisite in safeguarding both the interests of Russia and France, strictly speaking, as of any other country, including the United States itself, is that we must follow the spirit and letter of international law and, above all, the United Nations Charter. Then the world will be predictable and understandable, and we shall act according to uniform rules which we all respect.
Question: Don't you feel, Mr. President, that this war can still be avoided? Or you believe that the Americans have already decided on the start of hostilities which some high-ranking diplomats in Washington made it perfectly clear to me?
President Putin: I did not talk to high-ranking diplomats in Washington but I keep in touch with President Bush, with President Chirac, with other European leaders — constantly, practically daily. They all, practically all the leaders of countries — permanent members of the Security Council, including President Bush, as he told me himself — believe that the problem can still be resolved by peaceful means. And he does not wish a war.
But there is a method — worked out by international law — of resolving issues of this kind. I will not say anything new if I remind you that such decisions can be taken exclusively by the UN Security Council, and, as we know, the Security Council has discussed this question and come to the conclusion that so far there are no grounds for the use of force. The inspectors must continue their work. Incidentally they have already gone there. In my opinion, today Blix and ElBaradei were expected to go to the location, and to present a regular report by mid-February. We will see the results of that report.
The inspectors must tell us precisely and clearly what they are still lacking, what they must request from Iraq in order to tell us precisely, clearly and understandably — that there are weapons or there are none. After these demands have been formulated, our task will be to prompt the Iraqi leadership to present all the information needed by the UN inspectors.
I will tell you how our dialogue has developed with our partners in this area. First we all decided that it is necessary to bring pressure to bear on Iraq so that it would let the UN inspectors in without any conditions. Acting in a concerted way, we obtained that decision from Iraq, although few believed that Saddam Hussein would agree with this.
Quite recently our Deputy Foreign Minister travelled to Iraq and persuaded the Iraqi side that Saddam should not obstruct the departure of Iraqi scientists abroad to provide appropriate information to the inspectors. The Iraqi authorities agreed.
The Iraqi side agreed to the examination by the UN inspectors — of private homes, which, strictly speaking, in my opinion, is already bordering on violations of human rights but the Iraqis also agreed to this.
The inspectors must tell us what else is necessary to make the inspections effective. And after this we together with other Security Council members must bring our influence to bear on Iraq so that it would agree with the these demands. We are prepared for such joint work. And we need indeed to act until we get convinced that Iraq either has no weapons of mass destruction or it has and it is destroying them. And it seems to me that acting persistently, vigorously, consistently and concertedly, we may accomplish this noble objective.
Question: What, in your opinion, Mr. President would be the consequences of US unilateral actions undertaken outside the UN framework? What would be the consequences of a new war for the Middle East as, incidentally, for all the other countries of the world?
President Putin: I am convinced that unilateral actions would be a big mistake. The first main negative implication would be that a real threat of a split in the UN Security Council and in the Anti-Terrorist Coalition would arise. This could cause Iraq's disintegration with consequences for the neighbors that are hard to foresee. I think this would complicate issues of settling the Middle Eastern problem and of course it would radicalize the Islamic world, might well cause a new wave of terrorist acts, prejudice the leadership of those Muslim countries that are guided by democratic values.
Quite recently practically all neighbors of Iraq got together in Turkey and stated that they see no threat from that state. They are not supporters of the regime of Saddam Hussein but they are afraid of war. And they have all the grounds for this…
Question: The war which your country continues in Chechnya is still criticized in a number of countries. We realize that not all Chechens are terrorists but it is known that their leaders, many heads of bandit formations hail from Saudi Arabia and Jordan and have links to Al Queda. Is a political settlement to the problem possible in such a context?
President Putin: We said it many times, including, I think, your asking me a question concerning Chechnya at our previous meeting.
We understand the concern of the public in our country and in Europe — concern over events occurring in Chechnya.
I must say that in general we are opposed to any war, including the war in Chechnya. It is for this reason that we actually granted independence to Chechnya in 1996. From that moment, the forces that you have mentioned interfered in the situation of a settlement. These are international extremist forces in certain Islamic states which, under the slogans of Chechnya's independence, set themselves and began to implement different objectives, namely wrenching from the Russian Federation practically the entire North Caucasus and establishing there a new Islamic state called a khalifate.
Essentially there occurred an attack on Russia for the purpose of wrenching a territory. Considering that this does not correspond to the interests of the Chechen people or other peoples, for that matter, who populate North Caucasus, regrettably with fatalities — and quite considerable fatalities at that — but the problem is practically closed for us today. There is no war in North Caucasus. This does not mean, however, that there are no problems in Chechnya at all, connected with the issues of separatism.
And this problem can be resolved exclusively by political means within the framework of a broad autonomy on the basis of the Russian Constitution.
After the recent major terrorist act in Moscow, when almost 800 people were taken hostage, the representatives of Chechen public themselves, I think, acted correctly: in order to prevent the growth of anti-Chechen sentiment in the country they came out with the initiative of speeding up the political processes and holding a referendum on the adoption of Chechnya's Constitution.
I supported that initiative, and now we are helping the initiative group to carry out that work. We will take a look at the results of the referendum on the adoption of the Constitution. It is prepared by that group on the basis of the Russian Constitution, and we sent a draft document to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, we are cooperating with them and we have invited observers from there so that they would participate in the work. This is the first step on the road to a political settlement.
The second is electing, on the basis of that constitution, the legitimate authorities, the president of the republic, the parliament and establishing other entities that would enable the Chechen people to take the power in the republic into their own hands in the full sense of the word.
Question: Can Russia, Germany and France together to provide a counterbalance to the USA, considering, among other things, the US desire to occupy dominant positions in the world?
President Putin: This is one of the bad scenarios for the development of the situation in the world. It is a bad scenario for both the United States and Europe.
I think that the world will develop in a way that we will have very many threats, threats of a general character. In order to effectively confront these threats, it is necessary to unite efforts rather than divide countries.
But in order to pursue such a policy, it is of course necessary to respect the opinion of each other and to observe these interests. This is the choice of Russia. We hope that all our principal partners will make the same choice. I think that we are all interested in preventing the United States from adopting some isolationist position. This would not be in the interests of building a new structure of the world but we, of course, cannot pay for this with our national interests.
Now there are many acute issues and problems. And the most acute one, of course, is the problem of Iraq. But there are even more important problems — they are the future structure of the world and the future architecture of international security. For this we need to draft general principles of behavior and follow these principles. Now there should be less emotional statements and more common sense in the political theory and in ensuring the political practice.
The United States is one of our major trade and economic partners. And at the same time Russia is a European country. We have special relations with the Federal Republic of Germany, with France, with Great Britain and with Italy. We intend to strengthen our interaction with the European Union as a whole. And now, together with the leaders of certain European countries we are thinking about formalizing this vector of interaction, the European vector of the Russian policy.
I hope that in late May this year at the Russia-European Economic Community summit in St.Petersburg we will be able to do that.
Question: You know that President Chirac speaks a little Russian and is very fond of Russian culture. I hope that you like French culture. Don't you speak French?
President Putin: President Chirac is a ”formidable“ man: ask him any question, and he knows the answer.
He is indeed a very interesting interlocutor. I think he is interested not only in Russian culture… He told me certain things from the history of Russia which generated a genuine interest in me: he speaks about the wale route and other things of universal value and to which here in Russia we do not attach such significance but which are really of interest for the history of humankind and the development of civilization.
Question: A few words in French?
President Putin: Regrettably, I do not speak French although I can of course say a few words.
As regards the French culture, we have a powerful symbiosis with that culture. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the French culture ends and the Russian culture begins and vice versa. I think that in France they do not even have an idea as to how great the French culture's impact is on the Russian culture. Victor Hugo, Balzac, Jules Verne and many others — they are perceived almost as Russian classics here. The same situation is in regard to music and painting. My favorite painter is Renoir.
Question: I know that quite recently you received the French writer Academician Maurice Druon. I know that you will meet with him in a few days at the famous vineyards of Saint-Emilion not far from Bordeaux. Do you like French wines?
President Putin: I think that all who tasted French wine at least once could not fail to appreciate it. But this is not the main thing.
We had a long conversation with Mr. Druon when he visited me at my place. Incidentally, he said very important things with which I absolutely agreed. He reasoned out loud and asked the question: what are the roots of European culture that unite us? Where are these roots? They are the culture of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Byzantium. This is the basis of a future big Europe. I absolutely agree with him.
Thank you. Good-bye. (Said in French).