Question: My first question concerns the situation in Iraq. As we know, the events in that country are becoming increasingly dramatic, especially in light of what has happened over the past few days. I would like to ask about your opinion on what is actually happening there. Is the United States really getting “bogged down” in Iraq, and will it become a kind of second Vietnam for them? Or is it the same thing that happened when Russia was in Afghanistan?
And I would also like to ask if Russia is examining the possibility of taking part in regulating the situation in Iraq by sending troops there, which could provide assistance to the international forces?
Vladimir Putin: Before I speak on this topic, I would like to offer our condolences to the American people over the losses in Iraq. It is always a tragedy when people die.
As for the events that are taking place there, we predicted this scenario, this turn of events. But I would not compare it with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan for many reasons; I do not want to go into details now. But to stop the situation from developing according to this scenario, we must achieve the most important thing – to unify the efforts of the international community in establishing order in Iraq. This is the first point.
And secondly, on this basis it is necessary to create conditions for swift transfer of all political power in the country to the Iraqi people themselves. Russia is not interested in dragging out this process and situation in Iraq. On the contrary, we are interested in seeing this problem solved, and quickly. This is why we supported the last Resolution of the UN Security Council on Iraq.
Our position is that this is a step in the right direction, but it is not yet sufficient. To achieve final unity of the international community on regulating Iraq, it is necessary to take further steps so that the United Nations has more capabilities of directly regulating the political situation there. And so far, until this happens, many countries will see certain limitations for themselves in active participation in the restoration of Iraq.
We have a good example, the example in Afghanistan, when we took a certain path of political regulation together up to the point in which the situation in Afghanistan is now. We fully allow that the same path could have been taken in Iraq. We are ready for this work, and open to it. We understand that it is necessary to act carefully, because a power vacuum must not be created in Iraq. But we must also not drag out the situation, because dragging it out, dragging out the process of transferring all power to the Iraqi people will preserve internal resistance. It will gain its own life, begin to act according to its own internal laws, and gain an inertia, which will be very difficult to fight.
The war on international terrorism will only be effective when the international community truly unites its efforts.
Question: And as for sending a contingent of Russian forces there, what can you say about this?
Vladimir Putin: So far, we have not even examined this possibility. There are no conditions for it yet.
Russia takes part in various peace-making operations of the UN, and there is nothing new in this for us. In the case of Iraq, I have already said that the last resolution is a step in the right direction, but this is not yet enough for us even to contemplate sending troops or taking any such actions of a similar nature.
Today we are ready for economic cooperation with Iraq. We are ready to provide our specialists, who worked in Iraq for years, who are treated very well in Iraq, who are seen as friends in Iraq. We know Iraqi economy from the inside, we know the equipment that was supplied in Soviet times. This, of course, is not the latest equipment, but it is enough to return Iraq to life. We have been discussing this with our partners. Quite recently, a meeting was held between our representatives in Iraq and our American partners, and we are in contact with our Iraqi partners. We hope that this process will move forward.
And also, as you know, we were categorically against resolving the Iraqi problem by military means, we were against military operations there. It would be inconsistent and foolish on our part to say now that we are ready to send our troops there. But we want this problem to be solved, and solved as quickly and effectively as possible, in the interests of the Iraqi people, and we will act together with all the members of the international community.
Question: I would like to ask a question about Europe, especially in connection with your upcoming visit to Italy, where the Russia-European Union summit will also be held.
As we know, now the creation of a common European economic space is under discussion, and it would be interesting for us to know whether Russia intends to limit itself only to this area of interaction with the European Union, or whether it is also interested in political unification, and participating in political integration?
And another question: what would you say if you were asked at the summit whether Russia was prepared to move to trading energy resources with Europe in the European currency? And also, talking of the economic space, can a decision be expected on simplifying the visa procedure?
Vladimir Putin: For us, Europe is a major trade and economic partner, and our natural, most important partner, including in the political sphere. Russia is not located on the American continent, after all, but in Europe. Of course, a large part of our territory is located in Asia, but Russia is still above all a country with a European culture. We are interested in developing relations with our partners in the United States, and on the American continent as a whole, and in Asia, but, of course, above all with Europe.
We are indeed working a great deal now on the main principles of a single economic space. At the suggestion of several of our partners, we are making the first steps towards simplifying visa procedures. For example, on the initiative of our German colleagues we are discussing the simplification of visa regimes, at the first stage for certain categories of citizens: young people, businessmen and politicians.
We have also held discussions on the possibility of similar steps in the visa sphere with our Italian colleagues. For us, it is important for Russia to join the Bologna process and the creation of a single educational space. It should be made clear that we also understand the difficulties that we and our European partners encounter during this work. A great deal depends, of course, on us. Russia should correspond to certain standards. We only need to have the will to solve these problems, we need to work together, outline our common goals and move towards them.
As for trading energy resources in Euros, theoretically this is of course possible. But as you know, oil is sold mainly through the stock market, and everything there is bought and sold in US dollars. So this does not only depend on us.
As far as gas is concerned, this is a topic of discussion for managing bodies – Gazprom and their partners. I do not see anything impossible here. Taking into account that currency floats, it is always a question of economic benefit.
As for political integration, without starting a discussion with you, I would still ask the question: with whom is this political integration? Perhaps I am wrong, and then you can correct me, but it seems to me that the Russian position on many contemporary very important international issues is closer to individual countries of the European Union than the position of individual countries of the European Union among themselves. Today we are prepared for dialogue with all the countries of the European Union individually and with the European Union as a whole, but at the same time, of course, our position will be based on realities and our national interests.
Question: Mr President, I would like to ask you a question concerning internal events in Russia, but which have received international publicity. I am referring to the situation connected firstly with YUKOS, and also with the reshuffle that took place in the Russian Presidential Executive Office, above all in connection with the dismissal of Alexander Voloshin. In the West, concern has arisen that authoritarian aspects have appeared in Russian politics, which may also spell changes to the general political line. How would you comment on this situation?
Vladimir Putin: I see no grounds for thinking this way. If you look at what has happened in the United States over the last two years, you will see that criminal charges have been pressed against the heads of different companies, around 20 altogether. Twenty criminal cases were opened on Enron alone. Arrests were held directly in companies’ offices, handcuffs were used, and everything was shown on television. One of the people involved committed suicide. And for some reason, no one has any doubts about what goes on there.
I assure you, nothing extraordinary is happening here. The situation here is perhaps even more complex than in other countries with a stable market economy. The difference is that people with a fortune of this size have never been criminally charged, unlike in other countries.
Of course, I understand that ideas arise, or are stirred up by someone on purpose, that everything that is going on may lead to de-privatisation.
And indeed, the very process of privatisation can be criticised quite harshly, as there were many violations committed during the privatisation campaign. And so various forces constantly raise the issue that it would be expedient to re-examine the results of privatisation.
I should tell you that I am categorically against re-examining the results of privatisation, even if we take the position that these results are not ideal, because I profoundly believe that this will lead to serious negative consequences for the economy, and accordingly for the social sphere as a result.
This is why there will be no de-privatisation, and no re-examination of the results of privatisation, but everyone will have to learn to live according to the law, to observe the laws of the country. I have the impression that during privatisation, when national property, the national economy was divided into a certain number of parts, the people who did this agreed among themselves that they would live according to certain rules – certain concepts.
They all need to learn to live according to the law.
But as these tendencies do exist in society – to re-examine the results of privatisation, and administrative bodies, including the law-enforcement agencies, want to derive certain benefits for themselves from the process, this needs to be watched carefully, as we must not allow this negative development of events. I am sure that we will be able to prevent this.
As for personnel decisions, sooner or later this had to happen. The situation that we are discussing was a kind of catalyst to solve these problems. The former head of the Presidential Executive Office (he also worked under the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin) is a good administrator and a very decent person. But four years ago, I introduced him to the person who was supposed to replace him in this position. He knew this, and essentially prepared this person to replace himself. I know the people who were appointed well enough, they are people of liberal and democratic convictions, directed towards the development of democracy and the market economy in Russia. We have an entire plan to continue reforms next year and in the following years, and we will carry them out consistently.
As for the YUKOS affair, the charges that the prosecutor’s office has made against the company heads have to be proved by the prosecutor’s office publicly in court. And only after this will it be possible to talk of the guilt or innocence of the people against whom the charges have been pressed.
Question: Nevertheless, one gets the impression, also on the basis of what people in business circles are saying, that the charges made against the YUKOS company heads are charges for operations and matters that were quite usual for all Russian companies in the 1990s, and thus such charges could be made against all other companies, not just this one.
Vladimir Putin: Why is that? Are all of them charged with committing crimes during the acquisition of property, including murders? I don’t think so. Are all of them charged with avoiding tax payments in recent years? I don’t think so.
And finally, as you know, there is a very important component – economic and social. We want to build a socially oriented market economy of the same kind that exists in Europe. This means that we admit that private property and the market economy are much more effective than an administrative economy, a planned economy. This means that a private owner runs his or her own company more effectively,but the state creates an economically effective and socially sound tax system, and receives more resources in state revenues to solve social tasks. This means, first of all, that we should create this economically sound, effective and socially oriented tax system, and secondly, everyone should pay money, pay taxes and not avoid payment. Not long ago one of the people in the case came to the prosecutor’s office and said: “All right then, I didn’t used to pay, but I’ll pay now and we’ll forget about it.” It doesn’t work like that.
Question: He didn’t pay in the ‘90s?
Vladimir Putin: Not in the ‘90s, but now. A specific charge has been pressed against him. He says: “All right then, I agree, I’ll pay now then.” This sort of bargaining, of collusion, is unacceptable. Everyone should understand once and for all – the law has to be obeyed all the time, and not just when you are caught red-handed.
But I believe that as regards this matter, our discussion is not quite correct, because in our country, as in any other democratic nation, there is a presumption of innocence. A person can only be declared guilty by a court sentence. Until that moment he is considered innocent. What I just told you now is the opinion of the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Question: But what do you think, was the General Prosecutor’s Office perhaps overzealous in this case?
Vladimir Putin: If you won’t interrupt me, I will outline my point of view to the end.
So, this is the opinion of the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the suspects and their lawyers have their own opinion. And they believe themselves to be innocent. Only a court can deliver a final sentence. It would be completely incorrect for me, especially as the head of state, to express any point of view, as it may influence the court’s decision one way or another. Both ways are equally wrong.
As for the activity of the law-enforcement bodies, they act correctly until they go beyond the bounds of the law, but at the same time, of course, they should foresee the possible consequences of their steps for the political sphere, for the economic sphere. But, I repeat, it is impossible to make claims against them as long as they act within the bounds of the law. And it is incorrect to make these claims, as they have their obligations, it is their duty to react to violations of the law.
But I can say one thing for sure – we will strengthen the institute of property, we will develop a system to protect the interests and rights of owners and investors, and we will continue market reforms and go on strengthening democratic institutions – political parties, the electoral system and so on and so forth. All this taken together, combined with the real intention of the state to fight corruption and crime, I am certain, will eventually lead to the creation of a normal, favourable investment situation. Our partners will understand that they are dealing with a serious and reliable partner.
Question: I would like to ask my question as a representative of an open society, as we journalists consider ourselves supporters of an open society, because this question concerns the situation with democratic principles and freedoms, but above all it concerns the rumours that are sometimes heard in the journalistic community, for example, and perhaps you have heard them as well, that the press in your country is not completely free and faces certain restrictions, and is not completely independent from the authorities. How would you comment on this?
Vladimir Putin: That is a very interesting question. Would you like me to comment on rumours?
Question: If you have heard them, of course.
Vladimir Putin: Tell me, please, where, in what country is the press completely independent of everyone? Can you name a single such country on the planet?
We can easily move our discussion to the philosophical concept of freedom. Because of the lack of time, I will simply outline my point of view on this issue.
I think that for the media to be free, and this is a vital element of democratic society, it should be economically free.
It should not depend on rich people and business, which see the media solely as a means to look out for their group interests. In this sense, these conditions have not been fully created here yet. At any rate, not for everyone. Some have been able to find themselves in the current economic situation and become independent, effective economically and independent of everyone. And these are excellent, genuine first signs of an independent press in a future Russia.
Some are dependent on local, regional authorities, and some are dependent on federal authorities. Some depend on business communities, specific major firms and sponsors. But I can tell you for certain that for them all, the most important thing is guaranteed – freedom of speech. And this is an indisputable fact, it is something that we value today, and undoubtedly it is something that we will defend.
Question: Sergei Ivanov recently said that Russia would increase its nuclear potential if NATO did not change its aggressive doctrine.
How do you see the development of interaction with the United States, with the West in general in the security sphere?
And I would also like to ask you if Russia has also made changes in its military doctrine, which allows for the possibility of making preventive nuclear strikes?
Vladimir Putin: As for the improvement of quality and quantity figures for our nuclear deterrence forces, we will do this regardless of what NATO does. NATO is not relevant here. All nuclear powers improve their nuclear potential, and Russia will do the same. But our nuclear policies, unlike for example the policies of the Soviet Union, are not directed against anyone, they are only directed towards improving our security. Russia is in favour of strictly observing all regimes of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and rocket technology.
We adhere to these rules ourselves, and hope that others will act in the same way. As we are a major nuclear power, along with the United States, of course, we have a particular responsibility for this. And in this sense, the United States is a natural strategic partner for us. We have a plan of joint work, we have mutual understanding in this issue, we are in constant contact, including on the most sensitive subjects of the present day, such as the missile defence systems, for example. We feel that we can work together. We intend to work together, and are ready for this joint work.
As for possible use of force in international affairs, we believe that this is an extreme measure, we are opposed to the use of force in international affairs. Modern international law has established clear criteria for possible use of force. Force can be used solely by the decision of the UN Security Council.
Question: Preventative force?
Vladimir Putin: Any force. And modern Russia has never violated these fundamental principles of international law.
We intend to adhere to these rules in the future, and call on everyone to act in a similar way. But if the principle of preventive use of force is established in international practice, then Russia will have the right to act in a similar way to protect its national interests.
Question: Italy and Russia have had, and continue to have, excellent relations. These relations will probably develop further.
Therefore, I would like to know what you will talk about at the upcoming talks with the President of the Italian Republic and the Head of the Council of Ministers of Italy? And I would also like to know what you will say to Pope John Paul II, as the entire world is waiting for an answer to the question: will the Pope be able to visit Russia or not?
Vladimir Putin: Italy really is one of our privileged partners in Europe and the world. We do not have any problems that would cloud our bilateral relations. I want to stress this, not a single one. On the contrary, our relations are developing very intensively. On the political level, we are constantly in contact with the entire leadership of Italy. We consult each other on international problems, we often co-ordinate our positions, taking each other interests into account.
With the direct participation of Italy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an event took place which I consider truly historic – the creation of the “Group of 20” of Russia and NATO, which brings relations between Russia and NATO to a new level. I think that this is a good base for the development of new relations between Russia and the entire Western community as a whole, and to a large extent credit for this goes to Italy. Relations between Russia and NATO, incidentally, are developing very well.
The level of our trade and economic ties is quite high: after the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy is second in Europe in terms of trade relations with Russia: almost 10 billion Euros. Last year, trade growth was about 5%, and in the first six months of this year it was already 6.9%, I believe. On the initiative of the Italian Prime Minister, we are now involved in active dialogue on creating and expanding the participation of Italian small and middle-sized business in Russia. Already, six regions of the Russian Federation are actively holding talks on this issue, and are prepared to provide good conditions for Italian partners.
Cooperation in the financial sphere is also going well. Last year Russian and Italian banks signed an Agreement on joint investment activities reaching $1.5 billion. We are developing our relations well in the sphere of debt commitments. Italy has agreed for Russian debt commitments to be placed in joint projects.
We can see now that a number of Italian companies (essentially the seven leading Italian companies) are already working in Russia and are ready to expand their activity on manufacturing household appliances in Russia.
A traditional area of effective cooperation is energy. Italian Eni has been working effectively and reliably with Russian partners for a long time.
We consider cooperation in high technology areas to be very important. Here the ball is in our court, as they say. We should ratify an agreement on cooperation in space. We will work in this direction.
This is an incomplete list of the problems and issues which we intend to discuss with the Italian President and the Prime Minister. I am sure that the result will be positive, because these discussions have been prepared by the entire course of previous cooperation between the two countries.
Cooperation in the cultural sphere creates a very good atmosphere.
And of course, in connection with this, we would very much like to bring the positions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Holy See in Rome closer together. The religious situation in the western community, in Europe, is very diverse, and the relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church are not unique in any way. The relations between the Holy See and the Anglican Church are an example of this. I won’t go into details, but you understand what I’m talking about.
My personal position is that we all should contribute to the unification of the Christian world irrespective of the nuances that divide it into different churches and faiths. Today there are about 1.8 billion Christians in the world. They are the foundation of the European culture and European identity. I am sure that you know the demographic tendencies – they can’t be comforting to the Christian world.
I repeat, it seems to me that we should all assist the unification of the Christian world. So I see my task not in granting the Pope permission to come to Russia, but in assisting steps towards unification. Of course, this will only be possible if churches come to an agreement.
For Russia, this is also important because in my view it is actually an additional step for Russia’s integration in the international, Western community. But we want to be integrated into Western society without losing our own face, our own culture, our belief and our identity, which I have already talked about as applied to Europe as a whole. It is necessary to act very carefully in this respect, according to the medical principle of doing no harm.
The Pope is a very wise and intelligent person, we know each other, and we will have something to talk about.
Question: Mr President, one last question.
Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.
Question: I can’t finish this interview without asking you a question about Chechnya.
When you became President, you already talked about this topic, you began the process of political settlement. We are aware of this. You promised to do it and you did. Nevertheless, the problem of bandit formations remains there, in the republic. I would now like to ask you what you are going to promise at the beginning of your next presidential term.
Vladimir Putin: I think it is too early to talk about the next presidential term. Let us talk about Chechnya instead.
The tasks for the next term will be set by the President who is elected in March next year, and it will be the citizens of Russia who will elect the President of the Russian Federation in March next year.
As for Chechnya, I would like to say the following.
Let us remember what we began with – with the attack in summer 1999 by large international groups of terrorists on the neighbouring Republic of Dagestan with the goal of creating a new state from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. You might say that international terrorism burst out of the borders of Chechnya to realize the idea of radical forces to create a so-called caliphate.
As we understand, this had no direct relation to Chechnya, it simply proved that international terrorists had established themselves in Chechnya, had settled in there and made Chechnya their base.
Now we know that the Al-Qaeda also worked there during this time, which used the impoverished state of the people to recruit fighters to commit terrorist acts not just on the territory of the Russian Federation, but also used them in other regions of the world. People were sold openly at the market in Grozny. Over 2,500 people were sold in total.
It must be said that the Chechen people also knew full well that they were being used for purposes which had nothing in common with their interests. Of course, the situation developed dramatically. It could not have happened any other way, bearing in mind the long years that terrorists had ruled on the territory of the republic.
As you know, we held elections this year, and held a referendum on the Constitution of the Republic of Chechnya, which states in black and white that Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation.
I would remind you that almost 80% of all the voters registered in Chechnya voted in favour of this. As you and I understand, you cannot force a person to a polling station. And about as many people, even slightly more, I believe, I don’t remember the exact figures now, voted for the Constitution at the referendum. This only proves my thesis that the people of the republic felt deceived by the former so-called pseudo-leadership. We set the goal of helping Chechnya elect its President. And, of course, destructive forces, terrorists, tried to disrupt this process. There was only one way for bandits and terrorists to do this – by committing new crimes and terrorist acts to provoke our Armed Forces, to provoke the law-enforcement bodies to retaliatory action, from which the civilian population could have suffered. In this case the population would have turned away from this process and would not have come to the Presidential elections. It was with this goal that the bloody crime was committed in Moscow, when hostages were taken at the Dubrovka theatre centre.
As you know, we did not give in to these provocations, we did not make any pre-emptive strikes, did not fire rockets at public squares, did not commit mass retaliation attacks. On the contrary, we increasingly bring in law and order bodies against bandits and terrorists, bodies that have been created there and are working more and more effectively. There is now an Internal Ministry in Chechnya, a prosecutor’s office, a lawyers’ agency, a notaries’ agency, and all government and administrative bodies. I repeat, there are all bodies of authority in the republic. We are working with practically all political forces.
During preparations for the presidential elections, we also worked actively with deputies from a parliament that we did not acknowledge de jure, but which had been elected several years ago in Chechnya. And this parliament, which as I have said we did not acknowledge de jure, passed a decision in accordance with its procedures to impeach Mr Maskhadov.
As you know, elections were held for the President of the Republic of Chechnya. Now there is legitimate executive power there, which functions on the basis of the Constitution passed at the referendum.
We will assist all political forces to take part in the next stage of our work for the regulation in Chechnya – in parliamentary elections and preparing a treaty to be passed for dividing terms of reference between the federal centre and the Chechen Republic on the basis of wide autonomy for Chechnya. All political forces, including deputies of the former parliament, will have conditions created to participate in the political process, and they can also be elected to parliament, there are no restrictions here.
We thus hope to expand the base of political support for the process that is happening in the republic. Of course, we can judge the situation objectively and understand that we will continue to face many problems that we will have to solve. There will, of course, be people who will try to destabilise the situation. They exist on the territory of Chechnya, and they have also established themselves abroad, and receive major financing from there and will work for this money, we understand this full well. And we are ready for this, ready to face this challenge.
Therefore, I think, a great deal of work has been done over these past few years. I think that we have shown our will in the war on terror, and have shown good will in our readiness to work with all the political forces of Chechnya, apart from the terrorists, of course. And, despite all the difficulties, I still think that the prospects are good. We now need to continue the political process, to restore the economy and the social sphere. We feel the support of the Chechen people, and we will work together. But we will fight against bandits and criminals.
Thank you. Good-bye. (Spoken in Italian.)