Vladimir Putin: Before we start I would like to thank you for your interest and your readiness to meet today for an informal talk. I cannot honestly say that I was aware of the impressive figure of 20 million readers you have just told me about, but I know for a fact that the people in our countries have much more interest in their own regional press and in watching their regional television programmes because they are closer to their own lives. Therefore in my talk with you I hope to be able to answer the questions that worry or interest French people in connection with the development of the relations between France and Russia. This is a unique opportunity for me. I would like to thank the Regional Press Association of France for organising this meeting today.
As for the results of the visit to France, I would like to say that they exceeded our expectations and I assess them as highly positive. It is not solely or largely the documents we have signed, although we have signed a good many. More importantly, we have not only reaffirmed the high level of trust between France and Russia, but have raised the bar of our interaction. We have reaffirmed that there are more things that link Russia and France than current tactical interests. We have noted that our mutual interest in each other is based on profound mutual geopolitical interests, on our shared vision of the development of international relations, the development of Europe and the world, and our shared vision of how the system of international security should be built in the 21st century.
During the course of the visit much attention has been paid to the expansion of the European Union and its relations with Russia. It was very important for me to see and to feel that France supports the closest interaction between Russia and the enlarging Europe. There are problems here that worry us, but we have also discussed possible joint instruments for tackling them.
We devoted a lot of time to bilateral relations. In this context we discussed primarily cooperation in the energy sphere, in the spheres of high technologies and agriculture.
On the whole we can safely say that another step has been made in developing Russian-French relations.
I would like to end my monologue there, and I think that it would be far more interesting if we moved into questions and answers.
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Question: With your permission, I would like to start with “hot” news. When and from whom did you learn that Al-Jazeera had broadcast a recording of Osama bin Laden?
Vladimir Putin: I watched it on CNN yesterday. I was not overly impressed. I haven’t yet had a chance to discuss it with my colleagues. First, bin Laden, if he is alive, tends to meddle in everything. And it says nothing as to whether or not he has links with Baghdad. Second, I do not rule out that it is a material cooked up by somebody in order to add fuel to the fire over this problem. A closer look into this is in order. There are no grounds for drawing any long-term serious conclusions from it. But of course we cannot just ignore it.
Question: Mr President, French President Jacques Chirac has threatened to exercise the right of veto at the UN Security Council if the US tries to act unilaterally bypassing the Security Council. Why hasn’t Russia, which also wields a veto, also said it out loud?
Vladimir Putin: What’s the point of saying it out loud? We have this right and we will exercise it if we feel that it is necessary. We have exercised it more than once. If necessary we will use it again. I don’t think we should aggravate the issue by starting a polemic. A bigger challenge is to agree with the other Security Council members that do not at present share our point of view. Our positions with France are practically identical.
Secondly, we believe that the use of force, especially unilateral use of force, is absolutely inadmissible. We should allow the inspectors to do their job. If we look back at how the situation has developed, initially we sought to secure Iraq’s consent to accept international inspectors without any preconditions. Acting in concert with the United States and together with the other members of the Security Council, we have secured such a decision from Iraq. The inspectors are there, they are working and we trust them. They are not telling us that Iraq is obstructing them in their work. They demand greater openness from Iraq, and we too demand the same. From the information obtained from these inspectors, Iraq is making some accommodating steps. It has agreed to the interrogation of scientists, including outside Iraq. It has agreed that the inspectors can make challenge inspections in private homes, which, as we understand, is little short of violating human rights, but Iraq has agreed to that too.
Mr Blix has just reported that he was cautiously optimistic about Iraq’s recent steps. Iraq has supplied additional information requested by the inspectors. The inspectors are due to report back to the Security Council on the results of their work in a few days’ time and to tell the Security Council what is still missing for their work to be totally effective. If there is something missing then the Security Council will present another series of demands to Iraq. And depending on that the Security Council will decide how to assess the current situation and what to do next. If Iraq cooperates that would be one situation. If it doesn’t, it would be another situation. Together with the members of the Security Council we will consider ways of stepping up pressure on Iraq. War is always an extreme solution. At this moment we do not see any need to launch military actions and to expose civilians to danger.
The countries bordering on Iraq had a meeting in Turkey recently. Iraq’s neighbours stated that Iraq was not threatening them. When I was in Berlin on Sunday, the Turkish Prime Minister called me and reaffirmed that position. He also said that he did not think war was necessary and thought that war could be avoided. In the opinion of Mr Blix, even if one assumes that Iraq has hidden some weapons somewhere, the presence of inspectors there over a long period of time will prevent Iraq from producing or using the weapons it has, even if it has them. So, why start a war? This is the basis of our position. It is clear, transparent and absolutely moral.
Question: Mr President, the Western public opinion has great sympathy for the civilian population in Chechnya, which suffers from the actions of the Russian army. Will you issue an order to stop the atrocities reported by the media and non-governmental organisations?
Vladimir Putin: You have accurately described what is happening. You have asked me if I would order a stop to the atrocities reported by the media and some kind of organisations. One can report anything. It does not always correspond to reality. This is not to say that there are no problems. As to the real situation on the ground I can tell you about it. I would like to take a couple of minutes to look back on history. Without it the present situation cannot be understood.
I won’t go hundreds of years back. Let us look at recent history, the break-up of the Soviet Union. By the way, it happened “from the top” and not “from the bottom”. But since it happened it could not but have its impact on the Russian Federation, which is a federated state with a fairly complicated mechanism. Considering that the break-up of the Soviet Union was accompanied by an economic collapse, which had very adverse consequences for the population, many constituent entities of the Russian Federation began to wonder, as always in such cases, how to find a way out of the situation and try to improve their position in the course of the disintegration. In this situation, like in any other country, separatist trends increase. As a result of a series of mistakes both on the part of the federal government and the leadership of the Chechen Republic things deteriorated to the point when military clashes began. This is how the first Chechen war started, and it ended with Chechnya being granted de facto independence in 1996. Russia did not recognise the independence of Chechnya legally, but in fact it was independence because all the Russian troops had been pulled out and all the bodies of power and administration of the Russian Federation had been dismantled. Legal recognition of independence was only a matter of time. The stage was set for them to strengthen their own state.
What happened next? The power vacuum was quickly filled by destructive elements from amongst Islamic radicals. They effectively took Chechnya back into the Middle Ages, started imposing an alien brand of Islam on the Chechen people and launched genocide of the non-Chechen population. We estimate that about 30,000–35,000 people had been killed. The population was being exterminated. Attacks were launched on neighbouring territories of Russia. In effect we saw an attempt by criminals to gain control of the Russian economy. Not to mention the 2,000 kidnapped people and the slave trade that they had initiated. But even that did not seem to be enough.
These radical elements – and control there was seized mainly by mercenaries from some Muslim countries – set a very different goal for themselves. That goal was to separate from Russia the whole southern region, the whole of the North Caucasus and some other regions of the Russian Federation, and eventually to form a new quasi-state, the Islamic Caliphate, between the Caspian and the Black seas. Those who have followed the events know that their goal is to create a worldwide caliphate. That is to be the first step. It is not much different from the idea of the world communist revolution or the Nazi idea of world dominance, only under the slogans of Islam.
Before long talk was translated into actions, and in 1999 a large-scale attack was launched against Dagestan, another Muslim republic, in the hope of gaining support among the local population. To be honest, the reaction of Dagestan’s population came as a surprise to me. They took up arms and organised resistance. If you followed our media during that period you must have heard their appeals. They appealed to us: if you cannot protect us give us weapons and we will defend ourselves.
We drove them out of Dagestan, but they returned again and again. It was only then that we decided to launch military actions in Chechnya itself.
It had become clear that they would not leave us alone and would use it as a bridgehead to launch attacks and destabilise Russia. At a certain point their goal changed: from separatism, the secession of Chechnya from the Russian Federation, while they continued to talk about independence, in fact they passed on to the next stage, as I have said, to the annexation of more territories and the creation of a caliphate.
At present there are no major military units, they have been destroyed and their infrastructure has been destroyed. I must say that the attempt to introduce Wahhabism, an Islamic trend that is alien to the peoples of the North Caucasus in Russia, was very much to our advantage because we felt that the population was supporting us. At present the activities of the prosecutor’s office, the law courts, the bar, the notaries have been restored, in other words, the legal and judiciary system has been created. We will strengthen that system. A civilian administration under local representatives is in place in every region in Chechnya. The administration of the Chechen Republic has been created. It is headed by a man who used to fight the Russian troops and used to be a field commander.
This is not to say that there are no more problems. The terrorists, including mercenaries – and there are some mercenaries there – are still hiding in the mountains and are still capable of delivering significant strikes. Of course the Russian military has to respond. I do not rule out that civilians may suffer during such operations, but the responsibility rests with the terrorists who commit terrorist acts. In effect they set up the local civilians.
There is yet another problem I would like to draw your attention to. I must speak about it openly. Because until recently there were no law and order bodies in Chechnya and the army had to maintain order. The army is not created to enforce law and order, but to fight. Of course sometimes it behaves like the proverbial bull in a china shop, and I think that is why problems arise. But no major military actions are taking place at present. There won’t be any such actions because there is no need for them. And just recently we created the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Chechnya, which will be staffed entirely by local people. They are armed. We will strengthen them and transfer to them the responsibility for maintaining law and order in the republic.
After the taking of hostages in Moscow, there arose of course the danger of a groundswell of anti-Chechen sentiments in the country. In that situation part of the Chechen community launched an initiative aimed at holding an early referendum to adopt the constitution of the Chechen Republic. We backed the initiative. The referendum will take place on March 23. The referendum will also adopt laws on the election of parliament and the president. If the referendum adopts the constitution it would mark the start of political settlement. Later a parliament and a president will be elected. In short, a political process is beginning inside Chechnya. I think that is a positive process.
Question: Mr President, after September 11, 2001 you immediately joined the international anti-terrorist coalition. Is it possible that the situation over Iraq will force you to make a choice between your reluctance to support the military operation against it and your support of the anti-terrorist coalition?
Question: If I could add a follow-up question. Have you discussed with George W. Bush the Russian, French and German position on Iraq and your statements?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, if unilateral actions are taken it would not strengthen the anti-terrorist coalition. It is not only about Russia. To be quite frank, all those with whom we have discussed this problem are against the war. As soon as it comes to saying it out loud, various opinions surface. But in fact when we discuss the matter, practically everyone is against war. I have presented the arguments against war at the start of our talk. They cannot be swept under the rug. They are so obvious that they can hardly be challenged. Of course things will get even worse when there appear signs of a split within the UN Security Council. But whatever our differences over Iraq, we will seek to cooperate on the key current issues, one of which is the fight against terror. Of course I assume that our own interests and our point of view will be taken into account. Otherwise joint work would be impossible. But one thing I can say for sure: Russia will never return to a state of confrontation with our partners in Europe and in North America.
Every leader acts proceeding from many considerations, and these considerations sometimes influence the decision-making. I do not know what final decision the United States will take on the issue. But I know, and President Bush has said it to me repeatedly, that he himself does not want war, that he is against it. I know that he is a very serious man, a strong politician and a decent person; I can assure you of that. And I have every ground for considering him to be a friend and I hope that he will be in the future. It does not mean that our opinions coincide on all matters. As you see we differ on the question in point. When we discuss problems with him we exchange opinions, express our points of view and we try, as befits decent people, not to discuss third persons in their absence.
Question: You have spoken eloquently just now about the arguments political leaders use when taking decisions. In this case it is important for the Americans to avoid losing face. Can they avoid war without losing face?
Vladimir Putin: I am sure they can. Moreover, I would say that without the tough stand of the United States it would have been hard to get Iraq to shift its position. It would not have cooperated with inspectors so readily. So one cannot say that their tough position has been futile. A tough position and corresponding actions in themselves constitute a strong element of pressure. We are exerting pressure by diplomatic means. The United States believes other means of pressure can be used, and in principle the results are there. The position of France and Russia is that there is a line that we must not cross. That line is the start of military actions if we believe that the diplomatic means have not been exhausted. And we are sure that so far they have not been exhausted, and it is still possible to resolve the problem by peaceful means. As for the American position, you should direct these questions to American politicians. I am sure that their aim is not just to save face. Their aim, like ours, is to answer the questions: does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? And if it has them what can be done to make sure that these weapons are destroyed?
Question: For several weeks now the coast of our department has been lapped by black tides after the wreck of the Prestige. Do you feel affected by that problem?
Vladimir Putin: Only in the sense that it is a very beautiful coast, with very nice people, and we are truly sorry that they are living through such hard times. We are really sorry. The same is true of the Spanish and the French. I think that it is a real tragedy for the people who live there and whose livelihood depends on fishing and the sea. We should do everything to avoid such tragedies in the future. Russia is ready to take part in international efforts aimed at solving that problem.
I am aware that the French press has carried various articles about the involvement of Russian companies. I must say that the Russian state has nothing to do with it. That’s the first point. The second is that, as far as I know, the Russian companies involved conclude contracts to carry fuel, including oil, in full accordance with the law; and they have not violated international laws. Of course they are interested in selling oil. But there are those who buy and consume Russian energy resources. Western Europe, North America and the whole world are interested in buying and using Russian oil. The question is how to best organise that work. For our part we are ready to discuss any issues connected with these activities, and in this concrete case we are ready to provide any information and render any assistance in investigating the tragedy connected with the sinking of the Prestige tanker.
Question: We closely follow your work on reforming Russia. In your speeches you frequently use the term “vertical power structure”. What meaning do you read into these words?
Vladimir Putin: The need to strengthen state institutions arose when we began building a new Russia, which we had to build on the ruins of the former large state. Separatist or quasi-separatist trends arose in many parts of the Russian Federation, and not only in Chechnya. That led to some outrageous decisions which defy all legal norms and common sense.
For example, in our country the heads of regions are elected, they are representatives of the executive branch. But until recently they were members of the upper house of Parliament working to all intents and purposes as law makers. That totally violates the principle of the separation of powers. That is not just theory. It has had negative practical consequences. As soon as a law needed to be passed in the interests of the Federation, a law of a nationwide character that infringed upon any regional interests, that law was blocked. Practically in every region of Russia the charter or constitution of the republic within the Russian Federation violated half of the provisions of the current Russian Constitution. These constitutions and charters gave rise to a body of local legislation that ran counter to federal legislation. Of course it impeded the development of Russia and prevented our partners, notably in the economic sphere, from working effectively. Some Russian regions had not paid taxes into the federal budget for several years. In fact, the unity of Russia was heavily undermined and in fact it had ceased to be a united country in the full sense of the word.
The adverse consequences of this state of affairs were affecting both the federal and the regional bodies of power. It became necessary to eliminate these negative phenomena in the development of the Russian state. Which is what we have been doing consistently and continue to do, but the bulk of the work has already been done. This formed the meaning of the concept “vertical power structure”. The federal bodies represented in the regions must promote the interests of the Federation as a whole. Because the economy was malfunctioning, the federal ministries and agencies were unable to finance their bodies in the regions; the prosecutor’s office was underfunded, the courts and other federal agencies in the Russian republics and regions were underfunded. So, much of the funding of these bodies was assumed by the regions. The results were not hard to predict. Every normal person knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune. And the federal bodies of the prosecutor’s office or the court or any other federal body in a republic began to perform regional and not federal functions.
The Federation has 89 constituent entities, and each of them has many federal bodies. To make the situation more governable I created seven Federal Districts, which combined the efforts of federal bodies within each region. We harmonised legislation and brought the federal bodies of power to the federal level. And we did some other work to restore the federal functions in the Russian regions. That work has been practically completed.
But it is not our intention to go back to an over-centralised system of administration, like it was in the Soviet times. We don’t believe it was an effective system. The regional and municipal governments must be vested with rights, they must have duties and sources of financing to fulfil these duties. Over the past ten years we have clarified many things because we acquired experience of enforcing legislation. For about a year now we have been working – we have set up a large working group comprising members of the Presidential Executive Office, the Government and representatives of regional governments – to prepare a whole package of bills on the delimitation of powers between the municipal, regional and federal levels of government. In parallel we will introduce amendments to the Tax and Budget Codes in order to ensure financing mainly for the municipal level so that they could fulfil the obligations that will now be solely their obligations.
Question: Thank you, Mr President. The last question about the Prestige. Do you admit to being personally acquainted with Michael Friedman, the head of Alfa Group, and the client of the Prestige, and do you believe that he assumes a share of the responsibility for the tragedy?
Vladimir Putin: I know all our major businessmen and, to put an end to all speculations, I regularly meet with each of them at the Kremlin. I know Friedman, but I don’t meet with him personally because these meetings are attended by one of his directors. But Friedman is in attendance when we meet with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. It is a major group, one of the biggest in Russia. Oil and petroleum products is one of its activities. I assure you it is perfectly legal, and acquired an even firmer foundation a couple of days ago when British Petroleum bought about half of its shares. Before that deal was struck the British Prime Minister called me and informed me of these plans because it involved a major investment: $7.5–10 billion. So you can put all these questions to British Petroleum from now on. But seriously, to try to discuss the links between big business and the leadership of countries, including Russia, means diverting people’s attention from the real problems.
We should look at the hard facts: who signed these contracts, what were the contracts, are there irregularities in the activities of the companies that chartered the vessel, who is the owner and whether he is in breach of any rules or laws. One should work on the problem professionally and not politicise the issue. I frequently have to deal with issues of this kind and, as a rule, when people are reluctant to look deep into the problems they politicise them. I must tell you that Russia will do everything it is required to do to objectively investigate any incident, including this one. For us the country’s reputation is more important than the profits of individual businessmen. Having said that, we intend to protect them against unfair competition.
Question: Mr President, I would like to ask a question about the European Union, notably its enlargement: next year the EU will have 25 members, and then 27 and probably 28. How does Russia feel about it, especially in the context of its relations with the former Warsaw Pact and Common Market countries?
Vladimir Putin: I have just visited Mr Druont. When he was in Moscow he said a wonderful thing. He was telling me about European culture and its foundations. It is based on the culture of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Byzantium. And we consider ourselves to be part of that word. It seems to be invulnerable, but actually it is fragile and small.
And if it is strengthening its foundations and becoming consolidated we can only welcome it, we are happy about it. I personally am happy about it. Only these processes should really make it stronger. So, in principle our attitude is positive, and as you see, not out of tactical but out of strategic considerations. But at the tactical level many questions and problems arise. One of these is that about 40% of our trade is with the European Union and after enlargement it will be more than 50%. Europe has rules which, unless they are adjusted in a timely manner, will restrict our trade and economic ties with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Experts know what I mean. Everybody agrees that it should be done in a timely manner, but nothing is being done in practice. Political agreements often sound fine and positive, but when it comes to actual work on the ground everything grinds to a halt. The second problem is communication between people. That is a very important problem because business and cultural cooperation depend on it.
Previously Russian citizens could not freely travel to the Schengen zone, but they did not even need a visa to go to Eastern and Central Europe. Now both Eastern and Central Europe will be closed to our citizens. The only remaining place where they can go without a visa is Turkey. There you can get a visa for $10 upon arrival at the airport. Well, we will travel to Turkey. Russian tourists in Turkey already outnumber West Europeans.
Joking apart, this is the hard reality. One can say a lot of fine words, but these are the realities. And one gets the impression that wittingly or unwittingly Russia is being sidelined. However, when I meet with my counterparts they all say that Russia is a very important country, that everybody needs it and everybody wants to have closer relations with it. But the hard fact remains that we will have to move in some direction.
Some proposals are on the table. The proposals are not bad. For starters we need to create a mechanism to enable us to harmonise European and Russian laws. Much needs to be done inside the Russian Federation to create conditions for closer interaction. That involves strengthening the border, passports and many other issues that we have to solve ourselves. But we must work out a mechanism together and indicate in what direction we are moving. Some European leaders have attractive proposals in that sense. I think we can discuss them at the EU-Russia summit in late May in St Petersburg.
Just a couple more questions.
Question: Sometimes you speak about Holy Russia. And you have now mentioned Rome, Greece and Byzantium. On the other hand, we know that Holy Russia is the Third Rome. And what is Holy Russia today?
Vladimir Putin: After Russia became an object of a powerful and ruthless social experiment it turned out that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be destroyed. For thousands of years Russia developed as a multi-national and multi-confessional country with a predominantly Christian population. Unlike Europe where there are many representatives of various cultures and religions, but they are as a rule immigrants or the children of immigrants, in my country representatives of non-Christian cultures live in their homeland. They are Russians. We have worked out a practice of interaction between cultures. This blend of cultures is a unique practice. We cherish this diversity and we will of course support and develop it.
But the largest part of Russia, I repeat, are Orthodox Christians and people who associate themselves with Christianity, in this case Eastern Christianity.
When people speak about Holy Russia they mean the revival of traditions, of the moral foundations of our culture, which is based on Christian values. But it does not mean that the state should not be modern. It must be modern, effective and strong. Having said that, during my work as President I have become convinced that any state is by nature a huge and lazy animal. To make it effective one must always bear this in mind and keep working to improve the state. We are determined to follow that path.
I would like to thank you for your attention and your questions. I would like to wish all the best to you, your readers and all the French people. Thank you very much.