Question: Your educational background and the nature of your current job rule out indifference to Russian history. In what epoch-making event in our country’s past would you have liked to take part? There have been many coups and other interesting events.
Vladimir Putin: I would not have liked to take part in any coups. But in general I think life has always been more interesting in the periods of the country’s upsurge, prosperity and glory. There have been many periods of greatness in Russian history. And I would have liked to live in such times.
But speaking about transitional periods that are closest to us and whose results we feel to this day, I would name the February 1917 Revolution.
Question: Have you grown disenchanted with your work by any chance?
Vladimir Putin: No, I haven’t. It is very interesting work. It involves a lot of responsibility. An earlier questioner spoke about crucial moments in the life of our country, and we are living through one such moment. So, everything we do is extremely important for today and for the future of Russia. In that sense a lot hinges on the quality of what we should accomplish today. It is interesting work.
Question: You experience long periods of strain, the kind of stress that none of those present have probably ever experienced. Where do you draw your energy from? How do you recharge your batteries?
Vladimir Putin: From the awareness that the results of my work make a difference. I also do sports, as many people will probably know.
Question: What are your literary tastes? What books have had the biggest influence on you?
Vladimir Putin: I love reading about history. Russian classics. When I was a child at school I gulped down the novels by Dumas. As for modern literature, I read a little bit of our literature and something from West European literature. But I think our personalities are molded above all by our environment. Books are, of course, important. But the environment in which you live – your family and friends – is even more important.
Question: Chances are that many people don’t want to tell the President the truth or the whole truth. How do you cope with this kind of information blockade and from where do you get the true information?
Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t say there was an information blockade, I think the problem lies elsewhere. We are inundated with information. The question is to tell true information from false. My advantage is that I have very many sources of information. When you compare the information from one source to that from another you see that if the information tallies then chances are it is true.
Question: Do you treat your high position as a test or a gift of fate?
Vladimir Putin: As a test, of course. In spite of all the stresses and all the minuses that come with being a public personality, I have a very powerful compensation: the results of my work that I see.
Question: Are you pleased with your team, the people who surround you?
Vladimir Putin: I am not even pleased with myself, let alone my team. But I am pleased with you, with those who surround me now. Overall, though, I am not too pleased.
Question: Are you in contact with your former classmates?
Vladimir Putin: Rather infrequently these days, but regularly.
Voice: Do you have more friends now?
Vladimir Putin: I think I have fewer friends. My best friends are my school and university mates and colleagues with whom I have worked together. We have a long-standing friendship. I was friends with these people before I became a big boss and I am still friends with them. I hope these relations will endure.
Question: It has become fashionable to send children abroad, for example, to Germany or France. Why do you think that is? Will your children study abroad?
Vladimir Putin: There are several reasons for that I think. The first is that in the mid-1990s life in Russia was rather difficult and expensive, and not very comfortable. So people who could afford it wanted to place their children in a more favourable atmosphere.
Second, and very important, is the recognition of education certificates. It may not be all that important for us yet, but as we become integrated in the world community it will take on added importance.
A person must be free. You have written about your country and your home. Your thoughts were highly patriotic. That is right. I can only welcome it. I share your attitude. But a modern person must be free. He has the right to choose where to live and work. If a person chooses to work and live abroad, he does not become a traitor as he would have been considered in the past. Nowadays you work in some place, then come back and so on. But in order to feel that kind of freedom you need to have the opportunity, including the documents about your higher education. In Europe, as you know, there is the so-called Bologna process, that is, the process (the decision was taken in Bologna) of mutual recognition of education documents. We are making the first steps to bring Russia into the Bologna process. We already have mutual agreements on the recognition of post-graduate academic degrees with France. That is good. So, if you are a post-graduate student you are on the right track.
As for my children, they must choose themselves. They don’t want to study abroad. They study at a school, however, where the teaching is in German. But I can’t tell you where they will study. They still need time to decide. They still have a year and a half to study at school.
Question: When will the Russian provinces cease to be “the backwater”?
Vladimir Putin: You know, Russia has its backwater, America has its backwater and France has its backwater. A province is a province. But in economically developed countries with a developed infrastructure the living standards by and large are comparable to the standards in big cities. This is not the case in our country because under the former administrative command system, with a shortage of resources, priority was given to big cities or communities where state interests were concentrated, mainly defence-related. But in a society with a strong market economy those differences should gradually disappear. Of course it takes time. And nobody can tell you how much time. It would depend on the rate of economic development in Russia. The infrastructure will develop. As for the spiritual legacy, I am sure that the backwater is in many ways superior to the metropolises. There everything is more honest, more open and more transparent, and the relations among people there are often genuine and not ephemeral and prompted by concern about career and money. If our provinces manage to preserve all that as the infrastructure and living standards improve, I think life there will be changing for the better. I hope it will happen in the lifetime of your generation.
Question: Do you think that the future of the economy belongs to small business? What does the Government do to support and develop small business?
Vladimir Putin: Small and medium businesses are a very important component of any economy. They are the main tax payers in economically developed countries. And there are many of them. Everyone pays a little, but the total volume is large. Economic stability depends on how well small and medium business is developed. But in many ways, especially in the high technology sphere, these enterprises spring up and develop on the basis of large firms in which huge amounts of money have been invested. So, it is hard to say what is more important and what is secondary.
But small and medium business is of course very important and very necessary. The Government is trying to do something in that sphere. So far without much success. I ask myself, why? What are the obstacles? The first and biggest obstacle in the way of small and medium business is red tape and corruption. Why is it so? Is there something wrong with the laws we have passed? Is something else missing? The laws that are passed seem to be correct, but they either take too much time to implement or once they begin to be applied they somehow become ineffective.
But I think I know the answer to this question: the institution of democracy is not developed enough in our country. That is the key element. When our political parties and non-governmental organisations come into their own, the state will naturally withdraw from the sphere of economic regulation wherever its presence is more of a hindrance than help. Unfortunately, you cannot achieve this overnight. But I think we are on the right track.
Question: As a child and a young man could you imagine that you would some day become President?
Vladimir Putin: I couldn’t imagine it not only in my childhood and youth, but even later when I came to Moscow. In fact, after working in Moscow for a year and a half or so I was about to leave the civil service and become a lawyer perhaps.
Voice: And who did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
Vladimir Putin: As a child I wanted to be an airman or an intelligence man.
Question: Can you say in what way our generation differs from yours?
Vladimir Putin: It is hard to say, but it seems to me that every new generation is better than the previous one. People and the human race are developing and are becoming better and better from decade to decade, from century to century and from millennium to millennium. There is more and more information available, the horizons are broader, there are more opportunities and life is becoming more interesting. As the environment changes, people change with the environment. And of course they become better.
Question: How do you see the guiding national idea for Russia?
Vladimir Putin: I have already commented on that. What is the main thing at present? Economic development, ensuring its high rate of growth. We have spoken about the provinces and about education. All these problems have a chance of being solved only if there is a high rate of economic growth. Our growth rate seems to be high enough, an average 6% for three years in a row. That compares quite well with the highly developed countries. For example, Germany’s is at 1.2% and America’s 2%. But that is not the right benchmark for us. Their economies are much larger and 1.5–2% is much more than our 6%. If things go on this way the gap between us and the leading countries will widen and not narrow. And we need to narrow the gap and gradually approach their level. This is the key thing today.
We have a very complex demographic problem. And that is another challenge for our country in the future. We need to know what to do: we are a country with a vast territory and a comparatively small population. What is the way out? How to live in these conditions? What sort of army and economy and infrastructure should we have? And the main thing is to ensure a high rate of economic growth. The future of the country hinges on that. Our country must be competitive in all spheres.
Question: I study and I work part-time at a regional broadcasting company. I have heard that the form of ownership of state broadcasting companies will change. Can the state afford to lose such an important lever of controlling public opinion?
Vladimir Putin: We were just talking about small business, and why it is not expanding as fast as we would like to. I said that a high level of corruption and red tape was the main obstacles. And why can’t we get rid of bureaucrats? Because they are everywhere. And why are they everywhere? Because society and non-governmental organisations are not yet able to assume the functions which the state has assumed and is reluctant or unable to give them up. And that is what the development of democracy is all about. One of the elements of democracy is free exchange of information. The state has the right to be present in the information field and it is obliged to be present, but that does not mean it should monopolise everything.
Voice: We are not talking about monopolisation, but why relinquish control over the media?
Vladimir Putin: If new media appear, they must work. Nobody says that the state has to divest itself of everything. But the user of information must know that the official view comes from the official media outlets and that there are also private, non-governmental media outlets. Under the law they have the right to say what they think they must say. If the local authorities manage to get across their views through the private media, there is nothing wrong with that. What is the main concern of the government bodies? To get official information across to the population. They can do it either through their information channels or through private ones. But in the former case everybody knows that whatever is being said is the official point of view. And in the latter case private companies inform their audience that a certain viewpoint on a certain issue is the official view. It’s like in the case of genetically modified food: there is an argument between the European countries and the countries of North America where a lot of such food is produced as to whether the US and Canada can sell genetically modified products in such quantities to Europe. Ultimately they came to the conclusion: let them sell, but not to break the WTO rules, the consumer of the product must know what he is buying. So it has been decided to place a mark on all the products whether they contain some GM foods or not. It is up to the buyer to choose. The same can be applied to information, just like to any other product.
Question: How do you account for the brain drain from our country and what specifically is being done to slow it down or stop it?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, if brains leave the country, at least you can say that there are brains to begin with. And that already is good news. Secondly, it means that they are good quality brains because otherwise there wouldn’t have been any drain. That is also good news. It shows the high standard of training. Third. If we want to see our economy integrated into the world economy we should welcome free movement of people, capital, labour and so on. The capital and skills will inevitably flow where they find better conditions for their application. This is the law of the market.
We have two options. First, to impose administrative restrictions on such movement and then we will again be withdrawing into our own shell. The name for it is isolation. Then we will not be integrated in the world economy. And that means we would create conditions for a further lag for our country.
The other option is to create at home the conditions in terms of information, capital and manpower that would concentrate all these key factors of modern production in our country. That is much more difficult than passing administrative bans on freedom of movement. It requires a favourable climate, adequate salaries, living conditions etc. That is difficult, but unless we do it we will be losing out. I think we must follow the second path. It remains to be seen how quickly we will manage to do it.
Question: You have already mentioned the demographic problem for our country. What kind of assistance will be rendered to young families?
Vladimir Putin: Support of young families and motherhood is very important. Look, even the countries which regard it as a priority and allocate massive resources still cannot solve the demographic problem. The more money such countries as France and Sweden allocate the worse the demographic situation, the older the age when women decide to have a child. It’s the so-called “deferred child” problem. I think they give birth to the first child at 28–29. It means that the chances of a second and a third child being born are diminished.
The better the pension system the lower the birth rate. It is odd, but it is a fact. Population experts have their explanation for that phenomenon. In China they have no pension system, they do not pay pensions to anyone. So it causes people to think how they will live in old age, who will support them and how. I think this is just one incentive for having large families. Just like in Germany and in Russia they had large families, ten and more, in the 19th and early 20th century. Land was plentiful, it needed to be tilled and working hands were needed. The economic conditions encouraged people to have large families. In the modern post-industrial society much has changed: there are other incentives and other interests. To be successful you need to have a good education and then further education. It is only then that a person feels free and ready to assume responsibility for a family and children. And that only happens after the age of 25. That is true of the Western countries.
We can hardly answer all these questions today, they are too complicated. But one thing is clear: in any case we must pay attention to the family, to childhood and young families, especially by providing them with housing. The key thing here is to develop the mortgage system. We have made some early timid steps in this direction. Not a large amount of money, but the mechanism must be gradually put on track. It will operate effectively not through the Government’s efforts to introduce the mortgage system, but due to improved macroeconomics in Russia. It will happen when interest rates on loans are small and the average incomes are decent so that the banks are not afraid to issue mortgage loans. That process is well underway in some regions. It will gradually develop all over the country.
Question: Is there anything the President would very much like to do but can’t?
Vladimir Putin: What can’t the President do? The President cannot go beyond the Constitution of the Russian Federation. But sometimes the temptation to do so is great.
Question: Don’t you think that the President is too much in the limelight? I would hate to use the word “personality cult”, but still…
Vladimir Putin: You know that today in our country it is, to use the trendy word, a popular brand which can be used to make money. So, everybody is doing it with varying degrees of success, some in a suave way and some more crudely. It depends on the overall level of political culture in the country. Time is needed for everything to click into its proper place, as in developed democracies.
Question: I am interested not only in the outflow of brains, but also of oil. It is the wealth that belongs to all people. How can people earn dividends from the sale of oil?
Vladimir Putin: I have said so before, and I can repeat it. We have a lopsided economy. In many ways we live off the energy sector. We must develop the processing industries and pay more attention to the “new” economy based on the latest technologies. We have to adjust our legislation and our government apparatus accordingly. We have to carry out an administrative reform, change the laws, mainly in the sphere of taxation in order to stimulate these sectors of the economy. As for hydrocarbons, the task is to have a fair redistribution of incomes that is based on rent. The government has made some early steps in that direction, but the reform will continue.
Question: What were the good features and the bad features of the Soviet Union when it existed? What can we borrow from its experience?
Vladimir Putin: When the Soviet Union existed I was its patriot. That was the only country we had. My job did not allow me to combat the drawbacks, although there were many things that I did not like. I think it is a great advantage of Russia that it had at all times people who thought about the country’s future. Sakharov was one such person.
What have we managed to retain and take as valuable experience into the future? Everything that has been accumulated over the thousand-year history of Russia. This is our cultural heritage, very rich, profound and highly regarded throughout the world, the Russian culture. That is the basis of our life.
Many other things in the economy and in the political life of the country had to be changed. I think that in spite of all the colossal costs that the country had incurred we have managed to reach a stage when we can hope to be able to meet the global challenges facing Russia: to become a modern civilised country and develop as a civilised country granting its citizens the civil freedoms and achieving a decent living standard. If you think back to the early 1990s, it was hard to imagine how a stock exchange could work in a planned economy. How could it have appeared? I didn’t believe it was possible because there were no specialists in the field. It seemed to be a fantasy. And the fact that ten years on we have all this – free elections, freedom of information and political parties – signifies an incredible change and, of course, it is a positive change.
Question: I am worried about the customs barriers for the inhabitants of border areas. Poland has lifted the visa-free regime, and there is talk about introducing visas with Ukraine. How can it be ensured that Russia does not fence itself off from the CIS countries, not to speak about Europe?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the CIS the main problem is economic. We have no common economic laws, no common customs policy, no common foreign policies in the CIS. That is the main reason that prompts the countries to introduce restrictions on certain goods. Of course, that need not limit the movement of people. A lot of time and effort is going into solving that problem. As for the European countries, that is the Schengen visa zone, but we have for the first time set the task of ensuring visa-free travel for Russian citizens to Europe and for Europeans to Russia. Not all the EU countries agree. But the decision has been approved and adopted under pressure from the main European countries: Germany, France and Italy. That is the correct approach because it is simply unrealistic to separate 145 million Russians from the other part of the continent. If there is no free movement of people from one part of Europe to another that is written down on paper, it will still happen, but it will take a distorted form and people will suffer. We agree on that with our European colleagues and we have agreed with European Commission President Romano Prodi to set up an informal working group and gradually work on the terms that would ensure visa-free travel.
Russia too has to do a lot of work. For example, the issue of passports has not been completed. If our citizens travel to Europe they will have to produce Russian passports. They must have one. Besides, we must strengthen our border, especially in the south, together with our partners. That is another important problem. And there are some legal issues. We have to sign a treaty with the European countries on sending back illegal immigrants. We don’t have such a treaty, though we recently signed it with Lithuania. We must regulate the border issues with our immediate neighbours and with some republics of the former Soviet Union. These are our common problems, but we have to cover a large part of the way ourselves. The main thing is to have a clear goal and have an idea of the stages of joint work.
Question: What do you think about allowing the country’s President to serve three and more terms in a row?
Vladimir Putin: When a person stays in power too long, even if he is a very good person, his incentives are blunted, he doesn’t have “a fire in his belly”, like at the start of the journey. Secondly, he comes to be surrounded by all sorts of groups, which are known as the camarilla. It is a great hindrance to the leader himself and to the goals for the sake of which he came to power. So I think two terms in office is enough. It is hard to say whether two four-year terms are enough. It is a matter of taste. One can have two five-year terms, but not more. I don’t think it is a relevant matter for Russia today because we must respect the country’s Constitution. We should not allow it to be changed to suit the tastes of the people who happen to be in power at the moment. One must handle the Constitution carefully. I am categorically against amending it.
Question: What do you think about the reform of the Russian Army, especially along the lines advocated by the Union of Right Forces and other parties? What is your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: I think the reform of the Armed Forces is badly needed because our country has changed: our territory is smaller, our production capacity and population have diminished. In terms of territory though we are still the largest country in the world, but our population is not big enough. The Army must be modern in terms of organisation and weapons. All these elements plus the development of all the assets, the military methods and tactics – all these are objective reasons that force us not only to think about reform but proceed without delaying it by a single day. As for the Union of Right Forces, that party has done a great deal to prepare the concept of the reform of the Armed Forces. The Union of Right Forces has some disagreements with the General Staff. These disagreements sometimes turn nasty, but on the whole, it does not scare me. Everybody who wants to see that problem solved shares the same goal: to make our Army leaner and cheaper for the state to maintain, but also more effective and combat-capable, with servicemen who will feel that the state cares for them as they perform the tasks the Armed Forces should perform. Another challenge is to resolve the possible local conflicts. These missions must be performed by well-trained professionals who know what they are doing and what to expect and do it consciously. I am talking about permanent combat readiness units. In fact, everything started with the formation of such units. If you ask me, some mistakes have been made and I would like to see the process move forward faster, but it is moving in the right direction and it will continue. I don’t think that we will be able to dispense with Army conscription altogether, considering the state of our economy. To be honest, our economy couldn’t cope with that, but we will scale down conscription and we will cut the term of service for conscripts.
Question: As the President of the country and its citizens, what do you think about the disposal of nuclear waste?
Vladimir Putin: I think environmental problems are regarded as priorities in this country. We discussed that topic at the Presidium of the State Council. During the Cold War the Soviet Union stockpiled mountains of weapons, which are not used and cannot be used in the future. These weapons pose a serious environmental threat to the population in the country as a whole and especially to the regions where they are located. They must be liquidated: both the chemical weapons and the nuclear weapons, including nuclear submarines which have long been discarded by the Navy. All that must be disposed of and that calls for highly professional work and technology. There must be no secrecy and no information should be withheld. People in every region must know what is happening and where, and the public must control these processes.
Question: A follow-up on the theme of nuclear disarmament. If the use of nuclear weapons poses a danger to the whole country perhaps it is time to call a halt to the arms race?
Vladimir Putin: That does not depend on us alone. A balance of forces is needed in order to preserve a predictable and stable situation in the world. The balance has been upset anyway after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Russia remains one of the biggest nuclear powers along with the US. We have now a rough parity in terms of nuclear warheads and means of delivery. On the whole it is one of the few elements that enables us to say that Russia is a great power, at least a great nuclear power. And that circumstance makes us full members of very many foreign clubs. But that is absolutely not enough in the modern world. In the modern world a great country is great due to the size and growth rate of its economy. So, it is an important, though not the only element. You are right that we have stockpiled more weapons than we need. It does not matter how many times over we can destroy each other. Once is enough, and we have accumulated so many weapons that even after reducing them to 1,700–2,200 warheads, as we have agreed with our American partners under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, we can wage war on all fronts and destroy any enemy many times over. What is it for? In the opinion of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff we should concentrate our resources on modern weapons, above all space intelligence. We will direct our resources there reducing excess nuclear weapons which anyway become outdated and need to be renewed. We will follow that road, but in a very circumspect manner, without detriment to the combat ability of the Armed Forces.
Question: What do you think about the political and economic situation in the North Caucasus, especially in the hot spots?
Vladimir Putin: I think the economic situation there is appalling, worse than in other regions of the Russian Federation. Unemployment is high, and all the other problems stem from that. I think the economy and the situation in the labour market are key factors. So the main task we must solve there is to restore the economy and increase employment. And that is why small and medium-sized business is so important for the North Caucasus where there has always been a tradition of family businesses. We must help the local authorities and the municipal authorities to develop that sector. As for the “hot spots”, especially in Chechnya, the roots go far back in history, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union the disintegration processes could not but affect the Russian Federation itself. You can say whatever you like and criticize whoever you like, though this meeting does not provide the best format for that, but in any case the situation of 1999 could have been prevented when a large-scale attack was launched from Chechnya on Dagestan and we faced the threat of losing the whole North Caucasus and seeing these processes spread to other regions of the Russian Federation, especially the Volga area. But thanks to the stand taken by the people of Dagestan, thanks to the peoples of the Caucasus, that scenario was cut short. I don’t think that was accidental. At the time the people made their choice. And now the Chechen people have made that choice.
Question: When were you proud of your country and when were you ashamed of it?
Vladimir Putin: I think that we always have a right to be proud of our country, and to be ashamed of one’s country is like being ashamed of one’s own mother. My parents were ordinary people, and my mother did not even have a secondary education. I love her very much. I have never been ashamed of my parents because I knew that they had done everything they could for me, even more. I could see it. I had no doubt about it. And the attitude to one’s country should be the same. If there is something you don’t like you have to correct it. It does not depend on the country, but on us. Don’t blame the mirror if you don’t like your reflection. Remember that saying? So if we are to be ashamed we should be ashamed of ourselves.