Akram Khazam: Mr President, allow me first to thank you for agreeing to this interview with us.
Your idea for Russia to participate in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has had an ambiguous reaction. Some have said that Mr Putin wants to distract attention from the events happening in Chechnya. Many have said that in fact the Russian President sincerely wants to work with Islamic countries. What is your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, it is our sincere wish to work with Arab countries. And not just work, but to restore cooperation, because during the Soviet period our country, and later Russia, had very warm, friendly and long-standing relations with the vast majority of Islamic countries in the world. We were the main allies for a large number of Muslim and Arab countries. I am certain that both the Islamic world and Russia are interested in restoring these relations. And not just restoring them, but developing a new situation in the world.
Furthermore, it is well known that 20 million Muslims live in Russia. This is even more than in the Muslim country where we are at the moment. Malaysia, I believe, has a population of 16 million people, of whom 14 million are Muslims, while we have 20 million. And unlike the Muslims who live, say, in Western Europe, our Muslims are Russian citizens. They have no other homeland. And in this sense, Russia, of course, is a part of the Muslim world. At any rate, our Muslims should not feel as if they are second-class people in the Muslim world. They have the right to direct contacts with the Muslim world through representative international organizations, one of which is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Here 57 Muslim countries are represented. This is the first point.
Secondly, Russia is a multi-religious country. It has always been this way, Russia has always occupied a special place between the West and the East, and was a connecting link between the West and the East. Today, in today’s complex world, Russia can fully perform this role.
There are also internal political considerations of another kind. We have 20 million Muslims, and 125 million non-Muslims. We are a mainly Christian, Orthodox country. And this section of Russia’s population should understand that the state respects the legal rights and interests of their fellow citizens who are Muslims. This is the path to a multi-religious world, to the respect of rights and interests of each other.
Russia has lived in this state for centuries. We have experience of cooperation of religions, peoples and nations. And this is positive experience. We intend to strengthen it further in the modern world, and to share our positive experience with other countries.
As for Chechnya, I should tell you that my task is not to distract attention from Chechnya, but on the contrary, to attract attention to what is going on there, and objectively inform the entire world, including the Muslim world, on the processes taking place in Chechnya. If you have mentioned this, I think we will talk on this subject again, if there is interest in it, and there probably is.
I can tell you some things right now. As you know, we acknowledged the independence of Chechnya de facto several years ago. We did not acknowledge it de jure, but we acknowledged it de facto. But the Chechen people did not gain any real independence. They found themselves occupied by forces which masked themselves with Islam, but in fact advocated completely different ideas foreign to Islam itself, because Islam is a peaceful religion. It, like any other world religion, advocates common human values, kindness, and love of one’s fellow human beings.
Furthermore, in the 1999, as you know, there was simply an attack from Chechnya on the neighbouring Republic of Dagestan, which is also Muslim. And the people of Dagestan reached for their weapons, calling on the central authorities of the country to render them assistance. I will never forget the footage, the moments when I personally saw this both on television and on location in Dagestan, because I went there and met with people there. All this forced us to take decisive measures on preventing terrorist acts.
Today we have fully moved to a political process. We held a referendum where over 80% of voters took part. People just don’t come to referendums if they don’t want to vote. You can’t force them to the polling booths. If people go there, it means there is a demand. And over 80% of those who came to the polling booths voted for the Constitution of Chechnya, which states clearly and precisely that the Chechen Republic is an integral part of the Russian Federation.
Now we have held presidential elections in the Chechen Republic, and the turnout was also over 80%. A lawful President has been elected. And we are not going to stop at that. We intend to provide assistance to Chechnya in electing a parliament. We are prepared to sign a treaty between federal government and the Chechen Republic on dividing powers, with wide autonomous rights for Chechnya. We are sure that moving consistently along this path, we will achieve a large-scale and long-term regulation process. And I want people to know about this. I repeat: I have no need to distract attention from Chechnya. I need to attract attention to what is going on then.
Question: Mr President, allow me to ask you about relations with Arab countries.
Vladimir Putin: As for Arab countries, I can say that we are grateful to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab Nations, which unlike certain other international organizations, sent their observers to the referendum on the Constitution of Chechnya and recently to the presidential elections in Chechnya. They sent them, and they worked at polling stations, worked thoroughly, studied the situation carefully, and made certain comments – and we thank them for those comments – but on the whole they concluded that the elections were held on a democratic basis.
These authoritative international organisations acknowledged the results of the elections, unlike certain of our colleagues from other international organisations who did not wish to be present, but used various demagogic slogans. Sometimes one gets the impression that some of these pseudo-analysts want to appear more Muslim than the Muslims themselves. In fact, in our view, this is nothing more than an attempt to use these problems, in this case in Russia, in the Caucasus, as a political tool to put pressure on Russia.
I am certain that no one is interested in this, neither Russia nor our partners in the East or West. And, of course, the Muslim world is not interested in this, because the Muslim world, its interests, in my view, lie in having a powerful, long-term, and fully predictable ally in the Russian Federation.
Question: As you have mentioned this issue, what did you think of the statement by the White House on the undemocratic nature of elections in Chechnya?
Vladimir Putin: I was critical of this. I think that if there is any doubt, then they should have gone there, had a look and determined whether there were any violations or not. I think that when people make statements of this kind, they try to distract attention from their own mistakes in building relations with the Muslim world. Here, I think, is an example of such an attempt. This is the first point.
And secondly, something I have already mentioned – it is an attempt to use this situation to pull Russia by this thread, to try to influence decisions on issues that are not in any way related with Chechnya, or relations between Russia and the Muslim world.
Question: Mr President, on the topic of relations between Russia and Arab countries. I have noticed that the traditional friends of the Soviet Union – Egypt, Syria, and Algeria – do not seem to have the same level of relations with Russia. At the same time, Emir Abdullah, who represents Saudi Arabia, came to Moscow, and is trying to deepen relations with Russia.
This is a paradox, i.e. those who should be together with Russia, or those who Russia should be with, have cold relations.
Vladimir Putin: I think that your information is inaccurate. If you saw how I talked today with my colleague, Algerian President Mr Bouteflika, you would have seen that we have very warm relations. They fully match the level of previous years.
But at the same time, you are right that in some areas a certain decline can be seen at first glance. I can only explain this by the fact that in previous years, these relations had an excessive ideological component. They were ideologised. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the communist system, this ideological basis of intergovernmental relations vanished, and there was some decline in intergovernmental relations. This is the first point.
Secondly, it needs to be said bluntly, Russia has gone through rather difficult years of internal political and economic development. It has suffered several crises, both political and economic ones. This, of course, prevented the country from taking an active part in international affairs.
I hope that we will gradually overcome these difficulties.
Question: If you don’t mind, let us turn to Iraq.
It has just been announced that Russia, Germany and France gave their agreement to the American resolution on Iraq. What brought about this agreement?
Vladimir Putin: We discussed this subject for a long time, and reached a final agreement three hours ago, with the three of us talking together. I was here, in Kuala Lumpur, and my colleagues in Europe, and we talked on the telephone and finally determined our position. It is based on our aspiration to unite the international community and direct its efforts towards a fast and effective solution of the problems in Iraq and minimizing the negative consequences for the Iraqi people, the negative consequences of the action that we have witnessed.
We received a draft of the resolution some time ago from our American partners, and formulated our common proposals on amendments, and over several days we worked quite tensely with the Americans on these amendments. I should say that we completed this agreement only last night.
In our view, the new resolution is a step forward in comparison with the two resolutions that were passed earlier. This resolution increases the role and significance of the United Nations in the matter of regulation. But it still does not create conditions for UN’s full participation. And so we believe – and I think my colleagues will agree with me on this – that so far conditions have not been created either for the participation of our military contingents, or for sending any financial or material resources for the restoration of Iraq. Political conditions should be created for this first.
But this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. And so we made the decision to support it, bearing in mind that our amendments to the resolution were accepted by the Americans. Above all, this concerns article 15, which stipulates the time that the military contingent will stay there. It states directly that the military contingent of international forces will be stationed on the territory of Iraq temporarily, until the formation and attestation of a lawful government of this country. And after this, the lawful government should appeal to the UN Security Council, if it considers it necessary, to ask for the extension of the term of this military international contingent. And the Security Council should then decide whether to extend it or not. This is number one.
And the second significant amendment, in our opinion, is the following. We expect that the UN, the UN General Secretary should be included in the work on organizing the political process of settlement not after the conference is held, but before it starts, because otherwise the coalition forces, which are currently staying on the territory of Iraq, would prepare this conference themselves. That is, the UN should be included in work now. This is number two.
And thirdly, the temporary administration in Iraq and the representative of the UN General Secretary in Iraq should together prepare and send information to the General Secretary on the current situation.
There are other less important points, but in general we believe that this gives us the grounds to support the resolution.
Question: Mr President, about the UN: Many believe that it is now just a formal, weak body. Do you have any proposals or ideas on reforming the UN to make it more effective, because under the US dictate, which now exists everywhere, it can be felt that the role of this organisation has weakened.
Vladimir Putin: You know, Akram, I would comment on your question as follows. Was the UN the organisation that solved all the difficult international problems? Was it like this before? If it was, then tell me why you still haven’t solved the Palestinian problem? And where are the numerous resolutions that were passed on the Israeli-Palestinian regulation and were left hanging in the air? They were also not fulfilled. Much of what was passed was not carried out. I only took the clearest example, the most sensitive for the Islamic world and for the Middle East. But there are also many other similar problems.
So, to say that it has suddenly weakened would not be very accurate, I believe. Yes, there are certain problems connected not with this organisation, but with the change in the situation in the world. The world used to be bi-polar, and everything was decided on the basis of the balance of two forces. And often, very often, in fact, this balance, despite all its positive influence on international politics, still brought issues to a dead end. I gave you one example – settlement in the Middle East.
So, I think it would be wrong to say that the UN has become particularly weakened today. I do not agree with this.
But I do agree that it could be made more effective.
Furthermore, recent events, particularly concerning Iraq, actually prove the opposite, in my opinion. They prove not what you said just now, and what many analysts are discussing – that the UN has weakened, and perhaps it is not needed. The situation in Iraq shows, on the contrary, that it is the only organisation where it is possible to discuss vital issues.
It seems to me that if all countries had agreed with the policies pursued by the United States in Iraq, and on the outside everything looked very good, like a full agreement of members of the UN Security Council – in this case the UN could be buried immediately. Then everyone would say: “Why do we need an organisation where no country can express its own opinion and does not have the courage or the opportunity to stand up for this opinion?”
It seems to me that the modern world is deprived of this ideological confrontation. It has become more complex, but also gives us more opportunities to find a positive solution. The world, in our profound conviction, cannot be uni-polar by definition, simply because it is very diverse, it is politically diverse, it is ethnically diverse, it is very diverse culturally. And, of course, it should be balanced and multi-polar. But this multi-polarity does not mean a confrontation.
Free from ideology and confrontation, the modern world allows us to hold dialogue with each other openly. As you know, we had diametrically opposite approaches with the United States on the Iraqi problem, and if you remember, we upheld quite a tough position. It was consistent and tough. I don’t think that it was very pleasant for our American partners, but it was consistent, predictable and completely honest, which incidentally allowed us to maintain very good personal relations with the US President and not to undermine intergovernmental ties. We did not deceive each other. From the very beginning, we said: our position will be as follows, and we believe that the approach you propose is wrong.
And this, I repeat, did not complicate intergovernmental ties. I believe that the UN General Secretary Kofi Annan played a very positive role. If he had immediately given up all the interests to a strong party, then people would have said: “Why do we need this organisation?” I think that as everyone is interested in preserving this mechanism, including those who perhaps disagree today with most of the Security Council members, this position would be ultimately a good thing for the entire international community.
This does not mean that the UN should exist in an inert state. The world has changed. And organisations which aspire to universality should change in accordance with the changing world. There are many different proposals related to this.
France has some good proposals which do not contradict Russian national interests. They involve expanding the number of permanent members of the Security Council, and some other changes. It is important that a certain procedure is observed in introducing changes to the UN, and that these changes take place on the basis of international law, on the basis of norms developed today by the United Nations. I am certain that we will reach decisions that are acceptable for everyone, which will increase the effectiveness of the United Nations in the future.
Question: Mr President, the Middle East, as you have said, is a very complex issue. Neither the UN nor the Security Council has been able to solve the region’s problems. Today, the United States Congress has taken a very harsh position towards Syria. The Israelis want to remove Arafat from Israel, and the Palestinians are blowing up peaceful citizens. This process really is very complex. Besides general words, do you have a practical plan on how to solve this conflict?
Vladimir Putin: We don’t have a magic pill that can be swallowed to solve all problems. It would not be serious to say that we had a secret plan which will solve everything tomorrow. A plan like that does not exist, of course. There is a situation which initially caused a conflict many years ago, and, of course, it is very difficult to emerge from it. Mankind has worked for decades on solving this problem and still cannot find a solution. And I don’t think that I can offer a solution to you right now over a cup of tea.
But I am sure that if we act in a spirit of solidarity, if we can consolidate the international community around solving this problem, if we strive towards a just solution – and a just solution means that although the people living in this region accept a compromise, they must also feel that their interests are being guaranteed, that they are respected, that their interests are taken into account – then we can create the conditions for coexistence of both states on this territory – for the existence and development of an independent Palestinian state (as you know, we have no problem with recognising an independent Palestinian state, we said this a long time ago) and Israel.
I must say that we have also been strengthening our relations with Israel over recent years because we have stopped politicising our former emigres who have left for Israel and for other countries. People can now come and go freely in our country, there are no restrictions on emigration, and everyone knows that people, not just from Russia, but also from other former Soviet republics, make up a very large percent of Israeli citizens. Of course, this creates a certain atmosphere.
We have also longstanding and traditional ties with Palestine and its people, and these have always been friendly ties. We think that we could use this valuable potential for trust on both sides, and we would like to make use of it.
As for sanctions and so on regarding all the other participants in this process, you know our position on the fight against terrorism. We are consistent and determined in our fight against this twentieth century scourge, but we are against having labels slapped onto this or that organisation or country. We think that each case must be looked at separately.
We think that if we want a long-term and real solution, then we should not be afraid of the difficulties and follow several tracks at once. We need to follow the Lebanese track, the Syrian track, and we need to take into account the interests of the countries and peoples who live there.
I don’t think it is right to take one problem out of the context, try to solve it and then, on the basis of this solution, acting as it were from a position of strength, force the next position and so on. We do not think this is very effective. We have been trying, essentially, to do this for decades already, and it hasn’t worked and still does not work today.
We need a change of tactics. We need to stop and think about why it has not worked, draw conclusions and look for new solutions together. We would like to achieve the same unity that we reached in putting together the Road Map. Of course, this is a compromise decision, and it is not ideal, but when working on the Road Map we did achieve a consolidation of the interests of all sides involved in this process. We will continue to make all possible efforts at this stage to make sure that the Road Map is implemented.
Question: Mr President, regarding Iran, many say that you are betraying Iran, despite the major contracts you have there, and that you are going along with the United States on pressuring Khatami’s regime and Iran over its nuclear programme.
Vladimir Putin: I met with President Khatami earlier today and we had a long discussion. I think it would be good if such a respected company as Al Jazeera asked him, “Do you feel pressure from Russia or not?” and he would tell you the answer.
As for our position, it is as follows. We think, and I think personally, that potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of the key problems of the twenty first century. It is one of the major challenges of the modern world. We are a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and we strictly observe its provisions. Iran has also signed this treaty. We assume that Iran does not have plans to acquire nuclear weapons. The Iranian President has said this to me on many occasions and repeated it today. If this is the case, then we do not see any obstacles to Iran’s signing an additional protocol with the IAEA, and we do not see any problems with having all the nuclear programmes in Iran being open. If they have no plans to create nuclear weapons, then what is the problem with opening up their programmes? It is something that should be done.
Second, in order to remove the concerns of those who do fear that Iran may potentially seek military nuclear weapons, we proposed to our Iranian partners that they sign a document to the effect that in the future all the Russia-supplied nuclear fuel used at Iranian nuclear power plants would be returned to Russia so that no one could have any fears that it might be irradiated and turned into weapons-grade nuclear material. As I understand it, our partners, including in Iran, have no problems with this and are ready to agree to it.
If this is the case and everything really does happen this way, then I see no grounds for restricting Iran’s access to modern technologies, including nuclear technology, for peaceful purposes. There is no reason for Iran to have fewer rights for some reason, and we don’t see any grounds for this. If all of this is done and the IAEA gets fully involved in inspecting the relevant programmes in Iran, then we will continue our cooperation with Iran, including in this sensitive area, under IAEA supervision.
As for our partners’ positions, I appreciate their concerns. I repeat that we ourselves are absolutely against proliferation of nuclear weapons, and we will do all in our power to ensure that every country observes the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the same rules should apply to everyone. There cannot be a selective approach. There cannot be a situation in which some countries and companies or representatives of some countries can cooperate with Iran, while those of other countries cannot. Russian companies are running up against restrictions and sanctions at every turn. For some reason I have not heard of such sanctions being imposed on West European or American companies. But we have information that these companies are also working with Iran, including in the nuclear sector, and this information is known to our West European and American partners.
I propose developing a common approach that would increase the degree of trust between us so as to stop using the proliferation issue as a means to pursue unfair competition in economic life.
Question: Mr President, looking at relations between Russia and the United States, at almost all the summits you talk about how you have strategic relations and are striving towards this. I heard Mr Bush promise to abolish the Jackson-Vannik amendment, help Russia join the WTO, make promises about Chechnya and so forth. But there is something I don’t understand here. On the one hand, you talk about strategic cooperation, but on the other hand, the Americans are not fulfilling their promises. Would you comment, please?
Vladimir Putin: You know, the actions taken by concrete people in concrete areas cannot discredit the overall idea. The idea is a good one, because I really do think that Russia and the United States can build a strategic partnership. I will explain why. There are issues on which the long-term and rational interests of our two countries coincide. You have already mentioned the first of these interests – the problem of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the twenty first century. This is an issue that every country and every person should feel concerned about today. It is a very serious issue. Russia and the United States are the biggest nuclear powers. Our economy might be smaller, but Russia’s nuclear potential is still comparable to that of the United States. But this is not all. It is also important that we have years of experience, the technology and the production potential, the technological chains and the specialists. Russia is a great nuclear power. No one disputes or doubts this. And the United States and Russia definitely have a shared interest in ensuring security on this planet.
Second, given that we are a great nuclear power, we have to work towards preserving strategic stability, that is, we, and the United States, have to choose the right policies with regard to our nuclear arms. This is also a very important aspect, and people don’t notice it only when it is chosen properly. The minute problems start in this area, all of humankind starts worrying about what will happen tomorrow, just like it already happened in recent history, suffice it to remember the Cuban missile crisis.
Terrorism, which we spoke about at the beginning, really is a disease, a grave disease afflicting the twenty first century. As I already said here at the conference, we are deeply convinced that terrorism does not have a religion or nationality. We are completely against sticking labels on Muslims, and only provocateurs could seek to equate Muslims with terrorism. In Russia we do not allow this. Despite all the difficulties we have had until recently in Chechnya, we have not allowed events to take this negative road. But there is a problem and it is a global problem. Here, we can work as full strategic partners with the United States.
We also face other threats, including drugs and trans-border crime. All of this gives grounds to think that Russia and the United States do share some far-reaching interests, and that we must pay attention to this and work to develop our cooperation in these areas. And that’s without mentioning the economy, which is of vital importance to any country. The United States is one of our main trading partners, and the volume of our trade is growing.
We have many areas for cooperation, from traditional sectors such as the energy sector to high technologies and space. As you know, China has launched a manned spacecraft and we are very happy for the People’s Republic of China. But we all know that in Russia and the United States these technologies have reached a much more advanced level. As you know, we are working together on the International Space Station and in other areas, too. In other words, we have many common interests, particularly in areas where apart from the United States we have almost no other partners. In this sense our policy aimed at building long-term relations with the United States is not tactical, but rather strategic.
Question: Mr President, coming back to nuclear weapons. You recently made a statement regarding the SS-19 missile, and then your Defence Minister said that Russia had the right to use and would use preventive strikes against countries that could pose a threat to Russia’s security.
Many people said that your tone was due to the failure of talks with President Bush at Camp David. That’s one thing. The second thing is, which countries could pose a threat to Russia?
Vladimir Putin: As far as our missiles go, our heavy SS-19 missiles, it’s no secret that Russia has these missiles. These are probably the most powerful missiles in the world. They are called heavy missiles because they can take a heavy payload into orbit, and that means they can be equipped with multiple warheads. These missiles will be able to penetrate any missile defences easily in the coming decade.
There is nothing new about the fact that we have these missiles. What is new is what we said, which is the following. Many experts assumed that over the next five to six years, these missiles would be taken off military duty as a result of ageing.
At a Defence Ministry meeting we discussed the fact that Russia has a considerable number of these missiles that have not spent even a single day on military duty. In this sense, they are still new, and as the missiles currently on duty are decommissioned, we can replace them with these new heavy missiles. This means that Russia will have these weapons not just for the coming three, four or five years, but for the next 15 to 20 years, maybe even 25 years, depending on their service lives. Over this period, we will begin developing new strategic weapons systems and will thus ensure that we maintain a functioning strategic nuclear deterrent force. We do not see this as an attack force. It is a nuclear deterrent force. Unfortunately, as long as the modern world has not abandoned such weapons, Russia is also obliged to maintain and develop them.
As for the idea of preventive strikes, here international law has absolute priority. Any use of force is permitted only if such a decision is made by the United Nations Security Council. But you are right, the Defence Minister really did talk about the possibility of preventive strikes. What he had in mind, and what I think, is that we are against such a policy, but if international practice continues to confirm the existence of this option as a policy, then Russia will reserve for itself the right to also act in this way.
Question: Mr President, you did not name the countries that could pose a threat to Russia.
Vladimir Putin: That is of no interest to us. What interests us is the theoretical possibility. Whoever makes a threat to us has to realise that the response will be appropriate.
Question: Now another question. In the West you have been accused personally of initiating a triangle made up of France, Germany and Russia, which is against the uni-polar world that Washington is trying to create. What is you response to these accusations?
Vladimir Putin: Accusations are something made by prosecutors in courtrooms. I hope that you and I are just having a conversation. I have not heard such accusations against me. Russia follows and will follow the policies that are in its national interests. We are opposed to blocs. We are not joining together in organisations or build friendships against anyone. We create friendships to support something, to defend particular positive interests, both ours, and those of the international community.
Our opinion on the overwhelming majority of questions, rather complex questions regarding Iraq coincided with those of France and Germany. We highly value this work together and will do all we can to develop it, and not only on Iraq or some other crisis situation, but also as regards our cooperation with the European Union – Germany and France are key members of the European Union. We will try to build up these relations with Germany and France on international issues in other parts of the world.
I must point out that Germany and France have this kind of trilateral format of relations not only with Russia. If you look at their relations, they meet regularly in a trilateral format with Poland, for example, and with some other countries. But this does not get the degree of attention that their work with Russia has received. But I can only say again that we are not working against someone but for common benefit.
As for the future architecture in international relations, as far as we understand, France and Germany share our views on the multi-polar world. This, of course, provides a serious foundation for our cooperation. We will continue to work together with our partners.
Question: Mr President, Russia has left communism behind but has not yet joined the capitalist system. Where is Russia heading now, what system is Russia building and is it possible to regain the status of a great power?
Vladimir Putin: Who can say what the capitalist system is?
We have just discussed cooperation between Russia, France and Germany, and we really do value this cooperation. What’s more, cooperation in this format shows how much the world has changed. Just a short time ago, it would have been difficult to imagine such change.
In your last question, you said that our partners, in the United States, for example, often don’t fulfil the commitments they’ve made. I did not forget that question. The Soviet Union has vanished from the political map. In the past, people often used the word Russia to refer to the whole of the Soviet Union. Now, though, Russia has changed radically, but the West has hardly changed at all. Inertia in thinking and in actions is very strong there, and many things that seem fine during negotiations often end up running into this hard-to-overcome inertia in practice. Everything gets caught up somewhere in the apparatus and goes nowhere. France and Germany are NATO members and as such have a special relationship with the Western world. For the moment, Russia is not yet accepted in this way. And I don’t think we should forget about this.
More time is needed before everything falls into place and many things will be seen in accordance with today’s realities rather than in the light of the atavisms of past years. Russia is developing a democratic, market economy. We will continue to follow this road. We have every reason to expect success given that we now have regular economic growth of six percent a year, and this is not bad. We are developing a multi-party political system and we have elections – presidential, parliamentary and local elections. We will continue to strengthen this system. We want Russia to be a free and democratic country with a developed market economy.
Question: Mr President, I have noted during our conversation that you are drinking tea. People in the East also love to drink tea. Is this a sign that you like the East?
Vladimir Putin: Two thirds of Russia’s territory is in Asia. More than 30 million of our people live in Asia. Russia is the part of the world where the traditions of East and West coexist, enriching each other and developing alongside each other. There are a lot of things that we consider normal but that are not part of life in the West. You used the Russian word for tea, “chai,” which is very close to the Chinese word.
Akhram Khazam: And the Arabic word, too.
Vladimir Putin: The Arabic word too? I did not know that. In any case, we have many Eastern traditions. Our dominant religion, Orthodoxy, is the eastern branch of Christianity. Russian Orthodox Church has coexisted alongside Islam for a thousand years – they have always been in contact with each other and have enriched each other. To be honest, I don’t know any other example of such cooperation between religions as we have in Russia. But for Russia this is nothing unusual.
Question: Mr Putin, this is your first time on our television channel, and I sincerely hope it is not the last. Do you have any particular message for the millions of people who are watching and will watch our channel?
Vladimir Putin: It will be Ramadan soon and I wish you all happiness and prosperity, my kindest wishes to every family.
Akhram Khazam: Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Akhram Khazam: I have many more questions, but our conversation lasts for already 50 minutes, and I feel I have to stop now.
Vladimir Putin: An interview is like renovating a flat. You can never finish it, so you just have to stop it. Thank you very much.