Question: Mr. President, allow us to thank you for the interview, which will be watched with enormous interest in Bulgaria. In it there will be questions about bilateral relations and about the situation in the world.
Vladimir Vladimirovich, a Russian President for more than ten years has not visited Bulgaria. During this time in our countries there has grown up a generation which knows little about our common history.
What can be expected from the new dynamics in the political dialogue between Bulgaria and Russia?
Vladimir Putin: We've discussed this question many times with the leadership of Bulgaria: both with the President and with the Prime Minister. Very much binds us in the past, and I am sure that we have a future, a good future. Russia and Bulgaria are European states and close neighbors, and well complement each other in the economic field. You certainly know that 90 percent of our export to Bulgaria is energy carriers. We are now thinking how to develop in Europe, including in Southern Europe, the infrastructure of Russian business. Russian companies are gradually beginning to invest their capital in the Bulgarian economy. Just one of our companies invested about 400 million recently. I am sure that if there are good conditions for cooperation, mutual penetration will be noticeable and effective.
As to political cooperation, that's only natural — we've got many coinciding geopolitical interests. Even the fact that my visit coincides with the 125th anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottoman yoke probably speaks volumes already.
And of such things as cooperation in the humanitarian sphere, in the spheres of culture and art I won't even speak — we are culturally close peoples, so mutual influence is very important.
Question: Vladimir Vladimirovich, for you it still hasn't become a tradition to visit frequently the countries of Eastern Europe. Now during the course of less than one year you will meet, I think, for the fourth time already with our President Georgi Pyrvanov, just as with your friend George Bush.
Please say why, at this tense moment, you are making a stopover at the station ”Bulgaria“ on the ”Moscow-NATO-Washington“ route?
Vladimir Putin: I do not agree with that definition of Bulgaria as a station, an intermediate station. We are developing relations with all countries of the world, on all vectors of our cooperation.
In recent years, indeed, high-level contacts weren't as many as should have been. It depends, and depended, not only on Russia. Let me be plain here — substantial changes occurred in our countries. Yet many still continued to view Russia as the center of an Eastern bloc, which, as we know, ceased to exist long ago. Still, the inertia of thinking made itself felt. It was necessary that in our partners too there should take place some reinterpretation of what was happening both in Russia and in the world as a whole. It was necessary that our partners too should understand that Russia was a new country, a new state, a big state, a friendly state which wanted to foster relations on the basis of good-neighborliness and mutual respect. And, with regard for the interests of each other, would build these relations with all countries of the world, but, of course, in the first place — with our traditional partners, to which Bulgaria always belonged and, I hope, will belong.
Question: As a pragmatist, where do you lay the stress of your visit: on the economy, on politics, on historical ties? You know, by the way, I think that since the times of Leonid Brezhnev there was not a Russian leader of your rank who would have visited Shipka.
Vladimir Putin: I personally already was on Shipka once, with pleasure will go there one more time.
As to priorities, in relations with Bulgaria, such a close country for us, it seems to me that this must all be in interaction and help each other. Without economics there can be no full-fledged interstate relations, particularly in the present-day conditions. But an economy cannot develop effectively unless there is a good humanitarian basis provided, a basis of cultural cooperation, and unless there is understanding in the field of political cooperation between countries in the international arena. I hope that we will manage to work along all these vectors exactly.
Question: How does Russia feel about the fact that most East European countries are already, or intend to become members of NATO, are candidates for the Europe Union?
By what motives does Russia guide itself in building new relations with the countries of Eastern Europe?
Vladimir Putin: The motive is simple: we want to create favorable conditions for the Russian economy. We want that all would live richly and happily — and these simple goals can be reached only if we have a good international setting, and if we so build our relations that contacts in the political sphere help the economy develop. And in this sense we have supported and will continue to support all that meets the interests of international security, the interests of international and European peace, all that contributes to economic development.
You know that Russia has established a special relationship with NATO, and that the Russia-NATO Council has been created in which Russia is present practically in a full-scale format and has the same voice as all other members of NATO on a number of questions of interest to us. On questions which are not of interest to us, we don't aspire to influence, but on the other hand we feel free in decision-making, and this state of affairs suits us fully. This corresponds to our national interests.
With regard to Europe and the enlargement of the European Union, we welcome this process. There are certain things which, undoubtedly, worry us. But I think that this ought to worry the potential new members of the European Union as well, because with some of these countries we, Russia, have special economic relations established over a long period of time. And these special economic relations even benefit sometimes not so much Russia as our partners. I think that for us and these partners alike it is important not to lose this special status of economic ties, and this kind of threat upon entry into the EU exists because in foreign trade there operate certain rules and restrictions. These restrictions and rules can extend automatically to the new EU members, a development which can do substantial damage to our economic ties. All this claims our attention, and we are conducting a continual discussion with the European Union. We think that these problems ought to be settled before the real EU enlargement.
Question: Vladimir Vladimirovich, since the Soviet military actions in Afghanistan the United States has been practically the only country which fought and now too is preparing to fight far from the homeland. Does this not affect the image of Russia as a great force?
Vladimir Putin: I think that, on the contrary, this underlines the new quality of Russia as a country peace-loving and oriented toward solving all the disputes arising in the world solely by peaceful means and on the basis of international law. We have been adhering to this principle consistently and persistently.
The same applies to the situation around Iraq, which you, apparently, bore in mind when you spoke of possible combat actions. On the contrary, I am confident that this helps to strengthen the image of the Russian Federation.
Question: And how would you formulate the present real interests of Russia in the Balkans?
Vladimir Putin: They differ little from our general purposes: to build relations that meet the national interests of both Russia and our partners. We want that common sense and legality would ultimately prevail in the Balkans. We advocate that all kinds of discord should end there as soon as possible on the basis of agreements between states. We advocate that international law prevail again in this region of Europe — a very important, explosive region. That all the peoples who inhabit this region should feel comfortable and should not feel hurt or frustrated.
And Russia, as you know, has contributed within its powers to this process. It intends to do so in the future too. We feel the interest of all the parties to this process in an active role of Russia and will do our best not to deceive anybody.
Question: Whence do the main threats to the security of the modern world come? What risks are appearing against the background of the Iraq crisis? And how do you perceive the role of leaders of states? Can a war in the Gulf provoke a split among the world community? And is a scenario possible in which Russia may find itself outside the international coalition?
Vladimir Putin: Let us begin from where you left off. With reference to the Iraq crisis and generally, on the whole, may Russia find itself in isolation?
As far as we know with you, and if somebody does not know, I shall recall that today the position of Russia on Iraq is supported by the overwhelming majority of members of the United Nations, by a majority of the members of the UN Security Council and by a majority of the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. So thank you for that concern for Russia, but, I think, concern must now be exercised for a different thing — how to resolve this problem by acceptable means.
War is always a last resort. During war people die, the civilian population suffers. Of course, this may lead also to adverse consequences in the region, to the growth of the terrorist threat; this is a vast space from Pakistan to North Africa. And this entire region may turn out to be destabilized. This, no doubt, may affect fairly stable governments in the Islamic world and, of course, it does not strengthen the international antiterrorist coalition.
Yet I would like to hope that the fundamental principles of international law will be observed by all participants of the international community. And on this basis, we will be able to find solutions acceptable to all, without leading matters to a split not only of the world community, but also of the antiterrorist coalition.
Question: The fate of Milosevic is a precedent in international law. Does the aggravation of the crisis around Iraq mean that the same fate may be in store for Saddam Hussein? Who, in the final analysis, should decide — to try or not to try state leaders: their own peoples or the world community? And isn't there the risk of turning Saddam Hussein from a rogue into a hero for outcast regimes?
Vladimir Putin: As regards Milosevic and the person of Saddam Hussein, I shall say the following. For you know, the aim of all the measures which the international community carried out in, say, Yugoslavia, and the aims which the international community sets itself now in Iraq, they after all do not close and should not close on specific people, on particular individuals. If we are discussing how the people who have violated the law should be punished, then this, of course, is primarily a matter of national courts. And only in the most exceptional cases is it possible to speak of international legal proceedings if in a region or a country the necessary conditions for using the national judicial system do not exist.
By the way, the same applies to Yugoslavia. The conditions weren't there in their time, and so the international court arose. But now, don't we trust today's democratic Yugoslavia?
I have my own stand on this issue. There has arisen the situation with the international court, it is working, and let it solve its tasks. But on the whole, as a rule, people should bear responsibility before their national justice, before national courts.
As to the question whether Hussein might become a hero-martyr — well, of course, such a possibility probably really exists. That's why we believe that issues and crises of this kind should be solved exclusively by peaceful means. This is the first point.
The second point is that the international community — the UN — cannot set itself an aim other than the disarmament of Iraq. In the Charter of the United Nations there is no inscription or guidelines that we have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, even less so with the aim of changing the regime, whether we like it or not.
Question: Today the world is trying to unite under the common motto: ”Everybody against terrorism.“ Practically it turns out that this isn't quite possible, and each is saving himself as he can: the US from bin Laden, Russia from Maskhadov, a part of the NATO countries from Hussein. Do you think the world will really be able to unite against terrorism, despite the economic and political interests of the big states?
Vladimir Putin: That you have put Maskhadov on a level with bin Laden is the right thing. But that you have doubts about whether the world can unite, I think that this is a mistake. The world is already united. I believe that the international antiterrorist coalition is the realities of the contemporary world. It's another matter, of course, that not everything is proceeding smoothly, as we would like. Probably, it was hard to expect that any question within the framework of this antiterrorist coalition would be dealt with easily.
We, for example, don't consider that the threat of Iraq is a bigger threat than that which emanates from certain other countries. And when we hold with our colleagues official conversations or converse informally, many do agree with us. But this does not mean that there does not exist, say, the problem of Iraq. We agree that the issue of disarming Iraq exists. We must make sure for ourselves that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and if they are there, they must be eliminated — this is the aim which the international community has set itself, about this everybody is talking, and with this everybody agrees.
Similarly on certain other questions. Thus, there are after all basic things with which all concur — it is necessary to agree on what means we will use to achieve the common aim. But my firm conviction is that whatever means we use, we must always remain within the bounds of existing international law. This is the indispensable basic condition for effective joint work.
Question: In this spirit, if we look for an analogy, how is it possible to resolve the problem of North Korea, which has also arisen now?
Vladimir Putin: In the same way — through negotiations, by consistent and persevering actions of all the participants of this process.
I think that the United States, the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China and, of course, Japan and the European Union could play an active role here. It has to be understood in what situation and condition the economy of North Korea is, one has to get the feel of what the people there live in. And based on these considerations, to offer solutions.
As far as we know at this moment, and we are in contact with the leadership of North Korea, North Korea is ready for that dialogue. It is necessary to choose a form acceptable to all participants of this process. I think that this is possible.
Question: Will Russia seek for itself the role of a mediator in this conflict in a more active role than now? It has been said that you will mediate in the dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
Vladimir Putin: That's what we are engaged in. The Prime Minister of Japan visited North Korea recently. As you remember, the first to go there was your obedient servant. This then evoked a mixed reaction in different media. Practice has shown that this was the right step. After this not only the leader of Japan paid a visit to Pyongyang, but a whole array of leading countries of the world established diplomatic relations with North Korea.
I am absolutely convinced that if we conduct a dialogue, look for solutions, we shall find them, and all the more so as North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is ready for this. That is the approach that, by the way, the leaders of the Republic of Korea, that is, South Korea, also share. Here we have complete mutual understanding and the coordination of efforts.
Question: I would like to ask on a different theme. It is believed that your exceptional popularity is conditioned by the measures which you have been taking in the struggle against corruption. Do you think and hold that in the post-socialist states corruption is an inevitable evil? And what recipe seems to you the most successful in the fight against it?
Vladimir Putin: As to popularity, I don't think that this is the main thing after all. The main thing is the real changes. For if you recall, when I became premier, back in 1999, wages in our country used to go unpaid for months; for months, for half a year and more the pensions were not being paid, sufficiently low pensions — and even those weren't being paid. Now, in three years, the GDP of the country, that is, the economy, has grown by about 20 percent — 19.4 percent; industrial production has risen by more than 20 percent; the real cash incomes of the population have increased by 32 percent, and the real pensions by 73.5 percent, in absolute figures. The trend is positive, it is obvious. Unemployment has been reduced by 2.5 percent.
Therefore after all, I think, if I am to speak of popular support, then in the first place it is explained by just these concrete deeds. Although, I must tell you, I am far from pleased with all that is happening. There are also alarming trends in the economy; very many problems remain unsolved in the social sphere. We could have worked better.
But speaking of corruption, it is, of course, one of the major problems facing all the countries with transitional economy. This is due to the unsettledness in legislation, on the one hand, and to the introduction of market mechanisms, on the other — along with the lingering unwarranted meddling by the state, or in plain terms, by the various bureaucrats and officials in the market economy. There still remain in the hands of officials quite a lot of levers which they, using demagogic talk about the need for regulation as a cover, apply as a tool for gaining corruption incomes. And the most reliable way to put an end to corruption is to so change legislation that the state gives up its unwarranted meddling in the economy. The judicial and law enforcement spheres need to be strengthened, of course.
Question: And how do you explain your high popularity rating among Russians: more as recognition or as expectation? Do you think the people want a firm hand or liberal reforms?
Vladimir Putin: The ordinary citizen, of course, is not indifferent to whether he lives in a democratic society or not. But if you stay within the bounds of democratic institutions and live in a normal country, then by and large what kind of policy the Government is pursuing: either liberal or with some state regulation — to this the ordinary citizen is generally indifferent. One simply wants a worthy life. And that's what we must be striving for.
As to popularity, I've already spoken of that. I am not inclined to exaggerate anything here. You know, we have a folk saying, ”From love to hatred is but one step.“ Here under no circumstances can one turn up his nose and think that all is very well in our country. We've got more problems than positive solutions. But there are, of course, some things which I, for example, treat very scrupulously. Under no circumstances can you lead somebody on, cheat and dupe. You can't promise and then do nothing. Better don't promise at all, better keep silent. Or if there are problems or outstanding issues, you have to be honest about that. Herein lies, it seems to me, the basis of the activities of a leader of any rank, from municipality to the state.
Question: An interesting, excuse me, private question. A person was just an ordinary citizen, and suddenly he enters the presidential office. What was your first thought about what had to be done in the first place? Are there recollections of this thought?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. As for that time specifically, to me it was clear that the state mechanism was very badly out-of-balance, that there were disproportions between various levels of power and administration. And it was understandable that under such conditions to pursue any intelligible reforms was impossible. Therefore at that period of time the bringing of the legislations of the subjects of the Federation into conformity with the Constitution of the Russian Federation was set as the principal task. It was necessary in the most elementary manner simply to gather the country. I do not think that we have as yet succeeded in doing that in full, but the main things have been done. And on this basis it was necessary to carry out measures for the modernization of the economy, of the social sphere and of the political sphere, I mean the creation of a real multiparty system in the country. I repeat, we have been moving along this road and as purposefully will continue to move.
Question: How do you treat the jokes about yourself? Have you any favorite one?
Vladimir Putin: I, you know, try to devote less attention to my own person and not to concentrate on this. I have not yet read a single book that has been written about me, and so far am not going to do so. Until I retire, I won't do that. I generally look with surprise at the fact that some literature is appearing in this connection. In fact, I do not know what can be written there. I would personally be unable to write about myself so much.
Question: Is there a person whose opinion you prize most of all in the world, say, whom you respect most of all?
Vladimir Putin: Most of all, you know, what one should be guided by… Come to think of what one should most be guided by in his activities, I don't consider it's by the opinion of other people, but rather by his own conscience.