Question: Mr President, thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me. You will soon visit Malaysia. This will be a historic occasion for us, as this will be the first visit made by a Russian leader. What are you expectations of the forthcoming contacts?
Vladimir Putin: Indeed, this is the first visit. I agreed to this with the Prime Minister a long time ago.
This will come as no surprise to you, when I say that over the last 20 years, Malaysia has made a colossal leap forward in terms of its development, precisely in the last 20 years under the leadership of the current Prime Minister Mr Mahathir. We have never had any problems with our relations with Malaysia. The relations have always been friendly and business-like.
Malaysia will soon chair the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Last year our trade turnover grew by 34%. We are actively cooperating with various international organisations, including APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum – ed.), as well as the UN. We have good prospects for cooperation in a series of branches, including promising ones such as the high-tech field.
Accordingly, it can be said that we have many similar interests in both the political and economic spheres. I am counting on the fact that we can move forward in these areas and take another step towards expanding and improving our interaction.
Question: Where would you like to see progress in Russo-Malaysian interaction? Are there any specific areas of cooperation that you would like to highlight?
Vladimir Putin: I have already said that, above all, cooperation should be improved in the high-tech areas as well as in the aerospace sphere. You know that we have a series of good deals in sight, and the current matter not only concerns military hardware and warplanes, but possibly civil aviation as well. At any rate, we would like to take the first steps in cooperating in the area of helicopter technology. We have issues to discuss with regard to joint space exploration. We are currently studying the possibility of a Malaysian astronaut’s flight. We also have something to talk about with regard to joint work in the energy sphere and the equipment that is used in this area. And there are other fields of mutual interest, especially with regard to the fact that Malaysia is now a leading electronics producer, including household appliances. Of course we should also think about how to create the conditions for reciprocal investment in the Malaysian and Russian economies.
Question: The Malaysian Prime Minister proposed during his visit to Russia last year that Russian companies could essentially use Malaysia as a base for advancing into ASEAN member countries. Are there any specific fields in which you would advise Russian companies to take advantage of these proposals?
Vladimir Putin: I would now only point to the main spheres that could be of mutual interest to both Russia and Malaysia. It is in precisely these areas that we hope Malaysia will become a certain bridge for developing our business activity in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, we are planning, if successful, of course, not only to talk about these subjects, but if our plans are implemented, to create the necessary technical prerequisites. I would even say organisational-technical prerequisites. I mean the creation of the necessary infrastructure to service our hardware for the business community and so on.
Question: What do you like about Malaysia today and its leadership?
Vladimir Putin: The openness of its positions and the consistency with which it pursues its national interests. In my view, the Malaysian leadership strictly adheres to the principles of international law and wants to take the interests of its partners into account. I believe that is an essential basis for the positive development of relations not only bilaterally with all countries with which Malaysia maintains contacts, but also for the formation of a new world order in the 21st century.
Question: The level of Malaysian investment in Russia is currently extraordinarily low. The volume of bilateral trade is not very great, either. What must the two countries’ private sectors do to boost these figures?
Vladimir Putin: First, infrastructure for business interaction must be created. We should help information to become available about reciprocal opportunities and demands. We must create a system of state support to advance our interests and capital. We shall try to talk about this with the Prime Minister.
Question: Today the investment situation in the Russian Federation has greatly improved and Russian finances are again returning to Russia. Therefore, I would like to ask you this question, Mr President. What advice could you give to foreign investors in Russia, including Malaysian ones?
Vladimir Putin: Above all, you need to know the Russian market and Russian legislation very well. That is the most important thing. I think that this is enough, in principle.
On my part, I can only stress that investment conditions in Russia have really improved. In comparison with last year, investment into authorised capital has increased by 11%. We are augmenting legislation guaranteeing the rights of investors and property owners, are making the transfer to international accountancy and auditing standards, and are constantly easing the tax burden. The Russian Government and leadership will continue to pursue this policy.
Question: Mr President, Russia is participating in the APEC process. What does your country stand to gain from such forums?
Vladimir Putin: Russia, as is well known, is geographically located in both Europe and Asia, so we, of course, have interests in both parts of the world. We attentively follow the developments in Asia and in Europe and realise the fact that our national interests to a great extent lie here, in precisely this region of the world.
Both international experts and specialists from our country have produced very good forecasts for the economic development of Asian countries. We know the demands of this region, and can work with a great many countries, including Malaysia, very effectively.
Question: Do you think that Russia is a European or an Asian country, given the fact that your country is located on both continents?
Vladimir Putin: I believe that at the foundation of any country’s development, at the foundation of its existence, above all, lies its culture, the traditions of the people who live on the land and who formed the base of the culture.
Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith state. Indeed, it came to be in this form over a thousand years ago. It is my deep conviction that Russia is a unique place on our planet, where many cultures and many religions not only co-exist, but live in a recognised balance, augment each other and successfully develop together. I think that we must leave the past behind, and I hope that this has already happened, that we have already left behind the categorisation of people into first and second rate classes, into black and white, Muslims and Christians. We, first and foremost, are people. And we should learn to respect one another and respect the interests of each other.
Christians are in the majority in Russia, but we have about 20 million Muslims and these are not emigrants who have come from other states. They are Russians, people who view Russia as their homeland. And in this sense, without stretching the point or exaggerating it, one can say that Russia is a part of the Islamic world.
Therefore, in answer to your question I would say that Russia is a country that looks to the future, above all, and tries to take advantage of its accumulated wealth. Whatever the roots that fed it, be they Asian or European, we are trying to use everything to further the country’s development.
Question: How important for Russia is membership in the EU, NATO and the WTO?
Vladimir Putin: We believe that the only universal international organisation that can solve global issues is the United Nations. The world is changing and the UN, of course, must change with it, if it wants to remain effective. We need to bear in mind that disbanding this organisation would be an unforgivable mistake, as humanity does not have another, and I repeat, universal organisation of this type. Russia is not aiming to become a full-fledged member of either NATO or the European Union. We believe that we should develop relations in the security sphere with NATO and other organisations. We are doing this. And, in my view, this is a positive process.
As far as the European Union is concerned, naturally when remembering that more than 50% of Russia’s trade turnover will be with EU countries after its enlargement, then we have very serious and essential interests. Our task today is not so much to become a full-fledged member of this organisation, but at the minimum, we have two key tasks. The first is to eliminate the obstacles in the way of capital, information and business movement, i.e. to create normal interaction without any dividing lines in the economic sphere. And the second task is to eliminate any dividing lines between people.
Russia aims to participate in international economic organisations and we are doing so consistently. This aim can be fully applied to the World Trade Organisation, but we shall arrive at the decision of this situation very carefully, so as to minimise any unfortunate economic consequences. We shall be aiming to join the WTO on standard conditions.
Question: What are the main challenges that confront Russia today, both domestically and abroad? And what domestic and foreign ambitions do you have for Russia?
Vladimir Putin: I believe that two fundamental tasks stand before us in the short-term historical perspective: to ensure the necessary rates of Russia’s economic growth and on this basis improve the standard of living for the population, solving questions linked with security, etc.
And the second problem, which touches upon the first, but nevertheless should be considered as a separate issue, is the demographic situation.
Question: You once said, Mr President, in an interview that you want to return Russia to its former place. And I quote, “so that Russia again becomes a strong, developed and prosperous country.” How are you going to achieve this goal?
Vladimir Putin: When we speak about a prosperous country, then, above all, we need to speak about the citizens of that state. A country cannot be called prosperous when a significant number of its citizens have to struggle against poverty. Therefore, to have the right to be called prosperous, I repeat, the people’s standards of living have to be raised. But to achieve this aim by means of dividing up the accumulated wealth is hardly possible. We have already seen this, and it did not end well for us. Therefore, to solve this task, we need to effectively answer those challenges that I just listed. The main one is to ensure economic growth rates. There are several related tasks here.
The first is social and political stability in society and the state. This means correct economic policy, above all, in the taxation sphere. This means the development of the judicial system and guaranteeing security, the creation of good conditions for investment and the development of promising areas of the economy.
Question: What role do you believe Russia should play in the Middle East peace process, the fight against international terrorism and, in particular, the matter of preventing a clash of civilisations?
Vladimir Putin: I generally believe that this “clash of civilisations” slogan is very dangerous. I also said at the start of our conversation that we are first and foremost people, and only then representatives of different religions and creeds, different skin colours and so forth. If we look at each other, then we shall see that there is far more that unites us rather than divides us. Therefore when planning and implementing our domestic and foreign policies, we must comprehend, above all, these human values.
Of course, there are people who do not want to understand this, who try to use any excuse, including religious ones, to achieve their goals, primarily political ones. And, of course, these people need to be counteracted with special means, pooling the efforts of every state. It has to be acknowledged that we cannot do this effectively if we do not understand the roots of the most dangerous issue of our time – terrorism. What conditions breed terrorism? They are poverty, inequality among different sections of society and different states, continuing conflicts where the warring sides cannot agree, cannot find mutually acceptable compromises and cannot completely take each other’s interests into account.
Therefore, manifestations of terrorism need to be fought, as do the terrorist and terrorist organisations. I know, incidentally, that the Malaysian leadership attaches very great significance to this. If we do not want to simply pick the fruit from the tree of terrorism, then we should get to the roots and I have only just spoken about these roots.
Question: Mr President, Russia was against the war in Iraq. I would like to ask: what role will Russia play in the future to make sure that uni-lateral actions do not become standard?
Vladimir Putin: If uni-lateral actions are confirmed as the norm in international life, then, in the final analysis, this will lead to chaos and disaster. We are firmly in favour of enhancing international institutions for settling crises and supporting international law. We are satisfied with the fact that we are presently developing dialogue with our partners, including the United States. We succeeded in securing the last UN resolution on Iraq and it was adopted unanimously. We suggest that the role and significance of the UN in settling the situation in Iraq should be raised to an even higher level. We see this as the only means for a successful resolution in Iraq.
We have a good example of joint work in a similar situation. I mean the political process and role of the UN in Afghanistan.
Question: As a superpower, Russia was a counterweight to the US. In today’s uni-polar world, how do you see Russia’s role in constraining American domination?
Vladimir Putin: I think that any country cannot ignore its partners’ interests if it wants to be successful. We and the United States have many coinciding interests. Russia and the United States are the world’s largest nuclear powers today; and I should say that in the sense of assisting global security, both Russia and the United States have a highly significant role.
We and the United States signed the relevant agreements on cutting strategic offensive potentials, agreed on equalising the number of strategic offensive weapons (1,700–2,200 warheads), and we are satisfied with how our relations with the United States are developing in this most important sphere for both states. Relations within the anti-terrorist coalition are developing positively. We are cooperating well enough in the economic sphere. However, on many issues our dialogue is developing with some difficulty and we have different approaches to solving some problems. But, as a rule, we are able to find mutually acceptable solutions together.
An exception is Iraq. I hope that this problem will recede further and further into the past; but taking into account the experience of Iraq, we must understand and draw the relevant conclusions: we must enhance our interaction in spite of whatever difficulties there may be and find acceptable solutions. My recent meetings with the US President confirm that both Russia and the United States are aiming to pursue precisely this policy.
Question: When speaking about relations between Russia and the United States, are there any areas which you would like to improve, or where you would like to introduce changes?
Vladimir Putin: We would like to improve every area. We have a quite a good trade turnover, but if we could double or triple it then it would be even better.
For decades we saw each other as major enemies and, of course, this affects the state of our society and America’s society, as well as a few aspects of our interaction today. This Cold War legacy should disappear once and for all. I think that this is very important, and is, of course, achievable. I am certain that it will disappear quickly enough, because there are a few fundamental things that unite Russia and the United States. These, above all, are the threats of the modern world. I believe the main threats to be the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. The task of forming a just world order, including in the economic sphere also unites Russia and the United States.
I think that the rich countries, no less than the poor ones, are interested in seeing fair and democratic economic relations in the international stage because this is the only way towards stability, and the rich countries are no less interested in this than the poor ones.
In sum, one could say that the United States and Russia have a lot, I repeat, of mutual interests on the global scale. We understand this and I hope that at my forthcoming meeting with President Bush at Camp David we shall have the opportunity to talk about this in more detail.
Question: Mr President, there is currently more and more talk about Russia fighting once again for its former place and that it is trying to compete with the United States, especially in key areas and such key regions as Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Do you think this is a fair idea, and how do you assess Russia’s economic development?
Vladimir Putin: Today competition in the world is no less than it was 10, 15, 20 or 100 years ago. The main emphasis of this competition today is in the economic sphere. Everything else, including military might and political influence, is a derivative. Therefore, as I said at the start, one of the main tasks for Russia is ensuring economic growth rates.
Huge changes have taken place in Russia over the last ten years and, as has often been the case with us, many problems have unfortunately been solved at the expense of the people. This cannot be called a just solution. I hope that this is already a thing of the past. The country’s economy is currently developing at a very decent rate. Last year, the growth rate was 4.3%, while the average for the last three years has been about 6% per annum. For the first five months of this year, the rate reached 7.2%. Moreover, the real incomes of the population have increased by 14%.
Russia has a series of natural advantages. The first of these is the country’s highly educated population, the nation’s high level of culture and, of course, the large amount of natural resources. All these can be used far more effectively than they have been. We hope that GDP will be doubled within ten years. And, at any rate, we shall do everything to achieve this task. The matter at hand is not primitive competition and a fight for influence that should express itself or give rise to some kind of confrontation. We are talking about peaceful competition. I repeat: with account for interests. We have such interests in various regions of the world: in Asia, Europe and other regions and we, of course, will defend them. But we shall do this by civilised means and, I repeat, on the basis of the current norms and principles of international law.
Question: Much has changed in the lives of ordinary Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but how have these changes affected the way business is done and the government’s management of the country?
Vladimir Putin: In different ways. At the first stage, indeed, a great deal, unfortunately, was decided at the expense of the population. For example, the population lost all its savings, however small, that it had accumulated over the previous decades. The closure of surplus plants, primarily in the military sector, of course, led to firms being closed or re-oriented. This also negatively affected the population’s standard of living.
The difficult processes were linked with the collapse of the production ties and cooperative ties that had formed within the single country and within the Soviet economy. But gradually the laws of the market began to fight more and more for their place in the Russian economy. Today, one can say that these processes have taken on an irreversible nature. I can say with every confidence that Russia has become a market economy country and it is no coincidence that this market economy status has been confirmed by our main partners, including the European Union.
The matter at hand now concerns how to improve the market economy in Russia and to eliminate everything that impedes our forward movement. The state must get out of the economy in places where its presence is unwarranted and reduce unnecessary interference. On this basis, I hope, we shall manage not only to solve the problem of corruption, but develop small and medium business far more effectively.
Question:One negative factor in developing the market economy has been the population’s low employment rate and the lack of jobs. How are you going to solve this problem in Russia, gradually or in one go?
Vladimir Putin: There is no such problem in Russia today. In comparison with other countries, we have a very low level of unemployment. Moreover, the number of unemployed is falling. In a market economy there will always be a part of the able-bodied population without work. The issue is how to react to this in time to create the appropriate system not only to support those who are temporarily out of work, but mainly how to re-orient their possibilities and retrain them. But, nevertheless, the most important thing is to increase the number of jobs. So far we are solving this problem satisfactorily. This does not mean that we do not see that this problem could arise, and the Government is considering this circumstance in the appropriate way.
Question: Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is an important member of the G8. How will Russia act to make sure that that attention is given to the interests of developing countries?
Vladimir Putin: You have probably noticed that issues of interaction between developed countries and the so-called Third World are appearing more and more on G8 agendas. I am not talking about the United Nations and am not ready to quote any percentages, but the problems of developing countries do occupy a huge place there.
I have already said that if the world wants to be stable, then, of course, the basic problems that threaten stability need to be solved and the gap between poor and rich countries has to be bridged. And I should tell you that Russia is not alone in understanding this. I assure you that all my colleagues with whom I have very kind and business-like contact and virtually everyone I talk to shares this point of view. Russia will also act in this direction. We have to act very firmly and consistently.
I can give you an example. Russia leads the world with regard to its own GDP in terms of writing off debts of the poorest countries. In terms of the absolute debt write-offs figures for weakly developing countries, the world’s poorest countries, then we are fourth in the world, I think, or maybe third, after Japan and France. Over the last five years, we have written off more than $30 billion. We believe that programmes have to be developed that will help to improve healthcare and the education in countries with insufficiently developed economies, and we shall take part in these programmes. I would like to tell you that these programmes will not achieve their aims if the poorest countries themselves do not make efforts designed to change the situation. These changes, above all, in my view, should happen, strangely enough, in the political sphere. We know this from our own experience. As long as there is no political stability, no stability in society nor in the state, and while there is no targeted enhancement of state structures nor measures to fight corruption, democracy fails to develop and the aid programmes will be ineffective.
Question: Mr President, which difficulties will you face in the coming years, which challenges will you have to deal with and how are you intending to fight them?
Vladimir Putin: I repeat what I have said. Two main tasks: guaranteeing economic growth rates and demographic problems.
Question: Mr President, you have often said that you are not a politician in the accepted sense of the word. How has this helped you in your work, and has your experience when you worked overseas for the KGB helped you?
Vladimir Putin: As far as my work as a professional politician is concerned, in terms of percentages this part of my life and career really does not take up much space. We have the understanding of “a career diplomat”, i.e. a person who studied and worked all the time in the diplomatic sphere and climbed up the career ladder. This term could also be applied to political activity. There are also so-called career politicians who spend their entire lives involved in this sphere. And in this sense, I do not see myself as a politician or indeed a career politician. I should say that I think there are more plusses than minuses not being a politician or career politician. The biggest plus is that people who have not done this all their lives from morning till night have not lost touch with reality. They have a better understanding of the concerns of ordinary people from their own country and this is very important.
As for the minuses, they also exist, such as a lack of professional experience. But my personal experience, when I worked abroad for five years, and working in the intelligence service has been useful on the whole, as I was mainly working with people. Moreover, working with people with a wide range of positions, faiths and nationalities. And there was work with information: receiving information, analysing it, and picking out the key elements of this information. That was useful work.
Question: And finally, a personal question. How do you relax? What do you like doing? How much time do you manage to spend with your family, since you have such a busy schedule? Are you able to spend the weekends with your family?
Vladimir Putin: It is currently 11:00 pm our time. After we finish, I hope that my family will still be up and that I’ll have a chance to speak to them. This is roughly the way it happens every day.
And as for relaxation, well, I try to workout. I love music. Sometimes I go to the theatre and I try to read regularly. I love historical literature.
Question: And do you have time to meet with friends, your old school friends?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I regularly meet with them, but not as often as I might like.
Question: Thank you very much, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you for your interest. I wish all the very best to your readers and viewers.