A.Manilova, St Petersburg League of Journalists: Celebrations for the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg have started. How prepared is the city for the jubilee?
Vladimir Putin: Honestly, I find it hard to say because I haven’t yet seen what the city has done, but a lot of effort has gone into the preparations. At least that is true of those who wanted to help the city, to help provide adequate funding not only for the celebrations, but, let us face it, take advantage of this holiday to breathe new life to at least in part of the city’s historical heritage. That part has been quite successful. Over the past three years the city received more than 40 billion roubles in federal funding. Considering that the city’s own budget today is around 70 billion, it adds up to a hefty sum. And indeed they set out to renovate some of the symbolic places such as the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Sheremetyev Palace, in all more than 30 items of federal status. The Constantine Palace has been rebuilt from practically ruins. In general, it looks good. As you know, a new branch of the national library, which has long been under construction, finally opened in time for the 300th anniversary.
But if you actually live in the city (as I have done for most of my life) I think that this is not enough. Of course you don’t go to museums, the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage every day. People see what they deal with in their everyday life. And there are far more important things that improve the quality of life. We have talked with the city administration and some federal agencies have been instructed to implement major infrastructure projects. I say major because it is one of those rare cases when we managed to convince the State Duma and the federal bodies of power that St Petersburg deserves to be funded to the extent that it needs. It is no secret that all the regions need money and it is difficult to secure allocations when the federal budget is approved. But, I repeat, those who were engaged in it have managed to secure funding to the tune of more than 40 billion roubles to be distributed over three years.
I would name the start of building the Ring Road among the major infrastructure projects. The Eastern Semi-Ring, considering the increased funding, was to be completed by 2005. There are now grounds to expect that the Eastern Semi-Ring will be completed as early as 2004. Above and beyond the 40 billion roubles I have mentioned, $600 million will be made available under an agreement with an international financial institution to finance the building of a dam, which has been under construction, I think, for more than 20 years. The city needs that dam and I think one can expect it by 2008 or the middle of 2009 at the latest. The dam will link the Eastern and Western Semi-Rings. That will take heavy lorries out of the city traffic. As it is, the traffic flows from Scandinavia through the city centre destroying its historical part and causing serious damage to the environment.
Another completed project is the Ladoga Train Station. The Railways Ministry spent over 9 billion roubles on that project. It comprises the station proper and the approaching railway tracks. That too will take a lot of traffic out of the city, the traffic that currently heads towards the Moscow Train Station practically through the entire centre of the city. The Ladoga Station will handle the flow of traffic from the direction of Murmansk, from the Urals and Siberia.
The development of the metro and the restoration of the destroyed line is a very important issue. The project has taken a long time. The federal Government has met practically all its commitments. All the funding has been disbursed. The occasion gave a certain financial and administrative push. As far as I know, the foreign contractors whom the city administration has brought in have met with some technical problems. I think they were objective in character. As you know, a tunnel in one direction has been dug. The second tunnel will be completed during the next year, so there is light at the end of the tunnel there. One can expect that work will be completed in 12 or 18 months and then people will be able to use that line. Of course this is not enough and we would like to see more done, but the main thing is not to stop this work.
We have mentioned the Constantine Palace. It lay in ruins. It was crumbling. Only the walls had remained, even the roof had collapsed. And how did the idea arise? I must say honestly that I cannot claim the credit for it. It was about two years ago. I remember the time exactly because it is connected with the premiere of War and Peace at the Mariinsky Theatre. I was in St Petersburg and I was awaiting the British Prime Minister and his wife at the entrance to the theatre. I was approached by a man, who struck me as being rather young and who began talking to me about the problem of the Constantine Palace. He produced some kind of papers, historical evidence and photographs of the dilapidated building and argued that it was necessary to prevent its final demise, to revive it, etc. Frankly, when I went back to Moscow I put all this aside not knowing what to do about it because the cost was too high. The budget does not have that much money. And even if it had, it was hard to justify spending budget money on this because there are far more important problems needing solutions in the social sphere. Later, when it was decided to stage events in the city to mark the 300th anniversary and to hold a Russia-EU summit there, it was suggested that the palace could be restored to become a venue for major international events. We went to our big private companies which gave 99.9% of the money needed for the restoration, a total of $290–300 million. I repeat, everything has been financed by private Russian companies. The budget earmarked 5–10 million roubles and then only to enable the Government to monitor the progress of the work: how the contractor spends the money and so on. That is how the idea was put into practice and, by the way, I have never since seen the man who initiated it. I don’t know his name or his address. So, if he hears this, let him come forward and contact Valentina Matviyenko. They will have things to discuss…
A.Manilova, St Petersburg League of Journalists: People are wondering whether the Constantine Palace is a residence of the Russian President.
Vladimir Putin: By the way, there is not a single residence of the Russian President in St Petersburg. The Constantine Palace is not a residence.
It is a place where major international events are held and I think that Russia needs such a place. I think it would be a good idea to have such a venue in St Petersburg, especially since the complex is outside the historical centre and is unlikely to be much of a hindrance to people as they go about their daily business.
A. Gubankov, Russia-St Petersburg Broadcasting Company: We have mentioned the Constantine Palace and this will be the venue of the summit. In general, a lot of important people will come to St Petersburg, which has prompted a lot of talk among city residents who say that it will not be a democratic holiday, but that it will be mainly a holiday for guests. Can you comment on that?
Vladimir Putin: As far as I know the holiday will start on May 23. And the important people you are talking about will not have arrived yet. They arrive as guests of the city and the country for a day or a day and a half, and some will spend just a few hours. They will be in town in the evening of May 30 and on May 31. They will all have left by evening of May 31 or June 1. I have already mentioned that the festivities might have been treated as a local event, but then the funding I mentioned earlier could hardly have been obtained. I must say that the fact that the 300th anniversary is treated not only as an all-Russian, but at least as a European event has convinced the State Duma deputies and the heads of various ministries and agencies that the city needs money and resources to maintain its appearance, its infrastructure and so on. But that is not the main thing. The main thing is that it is truly a city of an all-Russian and all-European level, so I hope that the presence of VIPs for a day and a half and the celebrations of the 300th anniversary by the local people and those whom we are inviting for the occasion will not clash. At least I hope that they won’t clash.
A. Gubankov, Russia-St Petersburg Broadcasting Company: A follow-up to the topic raised here. Many people in St Petersburg have expressed this kind of fear: the celebrations will be over, they say, the President will go away, the festive banners will be removed from Nevsky Prospekt and that will mark the end of the large-scale work to revive St Petersburg. Can you dispel these doubts and fears?
Vladimir Putin: I think that the city has recently been somewhat neglected. It has been underfunded, in my opinion. I repeat, the 300th anniversary provides an occasion to remind the whole country and Europe of the importance of St Petersburg. Your colleague has just mentioned VIPs. Actually, it was not from us that the idea of having them here originated. Two years ago, in March 2001, I was invited to attend an EU summit in Stockholm, and during a meeting the Prime Minister of Luxembourg stood up and said he had a suggestion to make. “We all take a positive view of what is happening in Russia. In two years’ time St Petersburg, which has been regarded as Russia’s “window to Europe” since the times of Peter the Great, will mark its 300th anniversary. Let us all come to St Petersburg and display Europe’s flags as a token of solidarity and support for Russia.” Naturally, I welcomed the idea. I said that of course we would do everything to organise the event properly. In general, it was a scheduled event. The Russia-EU summit takes place every six months alternating between Moscow and some European capital, but because the event coincided with the 300th anniversary we have invited more of our colleagues than usual.
As for not leaving what has been started, I think that is one of the main challenges for the future. This is my view. Honestly, I have regarded the 300th anniversary exclusively as an occasion to draw the country’s attention to the problems of the city which belongs to all of Russia and all of Europe. As I have said, I am thinking mainly of the city’s cultural heritage. Therefore the city authorities, the city legislature and administration will bear much of the burden of these problems, but the major infrastructure projects that have been initiated and that cannot be completed without federal assistance, will be continued. A start has been made; the arrow has been shot and it cannot be stopped. In any case I very much hope that and I will do all that is necessary to keep things going. We will see these projects through: we will complete the metro, the Ring Road and the dam. And the other facilities too.
I.Pavlovsky, Rosbalt News Agency: Let us look at the European conference that will take place during the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg. An opinion poll conducted in 12 European countries in late April has produced some interesting figures. One in every three respondents has heard about the jubilee of St Petersburg and half of them believe that it is a European and not a local Russian occasion. That shows the reservoir of good will that Europeans have for St Petersburg. Do you think St Petersburg can capitalise on that for its further development? And if so, in what way?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I am not aware of these polls. I take the results of such polls with a grain of salt, but if that is indeed so I am glad to hear it. I don’t think it is required of us to use their reservoir of good will. We should simply go on living, and living well. We should develop the country and develop its regions, especially such places as St Petersburg.
I think St Petersburg is part of Greater Europe; just like all of Russia in fact. But especially St Petersburg, because it is a European city in Russia. It has always been an open city. That is very important. It has always been very democratic and it has always absorbed elements of European culture. And it has generously shared what it has with Europe. If we continue our cooperation with the European states in the same mode I think it will benefit all of us, both St Petersburg and our European partners.
I.Pavlovsky, Rosbalt News Agency: The figures are impressive and very flattering for Russia and St Petersburg. These figures came as a surprise for many analysts. They said it could not be true.
Vladimir Putin: There is nothing unusual about it. If you have followed events, the attitude towards Russia has been changing for the better recently. Russia is becoming more transparent, more understandable and more predictable. Although we often criticise ourselves – and rightly so because constructive criticism helps to make optimal decisions – on the whole our economy is doing well. People see this and draw their conclusions. I have said more than once that if Europe wants to be an independent power centre in the world in its own right, then the shortest and the surest way towards that goal is to have good relations with Russia. Many people in Europe share that point of view. In connection with this, the role of St Petersburg, in my opinion, is extremely important because it is indeed a bridge thanks to which people in Europe understand Russia better. This is because in terms of their mentality the people of St Petersburg, representing the Western part of Russia, are closer to Europe.
A. Gubankov, Russia-St Petersburg Broadcasting Company: This may be a difficult question for you to answer. When you come to St Petersburg it will be mainly for the international meeting. Will you feel that you are at home or that you are a guest attending a celebration?
Vladimir Putin: I will be attending a celebration at home. After all, this is not an ordinary event. On the one hand, it is a scheduled formal event, but on the other hand is it is a festive event. And I think the festive atmosphere and background will be felt. That is how it should be. But on the other hand, it is a pity that I won’t be able to meet with people informally, to visit the places which are particularly dear to me, to walk the streets and some of the embankments that I am fond of. But I hope to be able to do that some day.
A.Manilova, St Petersburg League of Journalists: We congratulate you on the jubilee. Many people in St Petersburg would like to do that. And we have this opportunity to congratulate you on behalf of all the people of St Petersburg. In a few days’ time you will come to St Petersburg, your native city, so in a way it will be a home-coming. But that will be after the city’s birthday. So I would like you to say something to the people of St Petersburg on its birthday.
Vladimir Putin: I truly love our city, my city. I think many people would agree with me that the city’s history reflects the history of the entire country. To be a citizen of Russia and a citizen of St Petersburg is a great honour, and at the same time a severe test.
The city was built against great odds. It was a nationwide effort and it dearly cost Russia. It took a lot of effort for the city to stand on its two feet. And it has always stoically defended itself. That gives me grounds for saying that it is an honour, but also a great test for all those who have linked their destiny with this city. It has been a magnificent and great city at all times even during the darkest periods of its history. And it has always been beautiful. I would like to wish the people a good life in this beautiful city.
Congratulations on the holiday!
A. Gubankov, Russia-St Petersburg Broadcasting Company: Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you all.