Question: I have heard about mortgages. Will there be special loan programmes for young university graduates and scientists?
Vladimir Putin: We have a federal programme for housing for young families, but it is a weak programme. In the country at large about 300,000 young graduates are on the waiting list to receive government housing, but last year only a little over 12 billion roubles was allocated out of the federal and regional budgets for that purpose. It may not be very informative, but it is much more than in the previous years, though way too short of what is needed to solve the problem. I understand that.
I think the problem should be tackled in two ways. First, by raising the salaries of university staff. That is the simplest and most straightforward and effective way. We have just discussed this topic with the heads of higher education institutions in Krasnoyarsk, and we recalled that there was a time when young graduates stayed on to teach at their universities even though their salaries were not all that high. But they had something to look forward to because in Soviet times the salaries of an associate or full professor were much higher than the national average. A young person who joined the university teaching staff was aware of the prospects and was prepared to wait a bit, but there is no point in waiting today because the salaries are low.
The situation must be changed. This year we raised the bonuses for academic degrees and academic positions, but the salaries have to be much higher before people feel there is a future in an academic career. Number one.
Number two. The mortgages you mentioned must be more accessible. I think they will be accessible if the first problem I mentioned is solved: if a young scientist is assured that his income will grow over time. Likewise we should improve legislation in this sphere to increase the scale of mortgage operations.
And finally. Young graduates must be targeted by government support under the current programme and under additional programmes. We are thinking about it now, and the Government is preparing its proposals. I think we will put them into practice.
Question: With our outdated equipment we are at a disadvantage compared with the higher education institutions in the capital. How is money distributed if it does not reach us? Are there any plans on financing and boosting the prestige of a professor?
Vladimir Putin: We have plans, and I have already given you a rough idea of them. I can elaborate a bit.
As regards the equipment used by higher education institutions, the answer is to create centres for common use. No individual higher education institutions can afford to buy costly domestic or foreign equipment for modern research. No budget, including the federal budget, can sustain such a load. True, this is a sector that is not expected to bring large profits, but to be effective it is necessary to create centres which would make this equipment accessible to all. This is what the Academy of Sciences in Moscow does, and this is what your research centre does. So far that is not enough, although the executives of the research centres have told me that the operation is making good headway.
But another aspect is equipment for the training of future specialists. Of course that should be an item in the budget and we will increase that item as the budget potential increases. We are replenishing that fund gradually to make it more effective.
As for support of individual graduates, you will have heard about the decision that will be implemented shortly to issue grants to young graduates and scientists. True, we are talking mainly, at this point, about those who work in the defence sphere, and it is only the first step. We are talking about 400 grants, but we plan to increase the number of grant recipients to several thousand. It will be 20,000 roubles a month at the initial stage, not a bad addition to a salary.
Yet even that is not the main thing. You know what the main thing is? The main thing is for effective market mechanisms to kick in, so that a person like Bill Gates could make millions and billions. How? We should protect intellectual property and not be shy to pay the author. Then it will be effective. Suppose you invented something. The state should not just take it for free, but after deducing the cost of your use of the equipment, your free education and so on, leave the greater share to the author. That would be a great incentive. It would be even more than the incentive for a professor in the Soviet Union who earned 500 roubles a month. You understand that it will be much more of an incentive.
We are actively working on this to bring the intellectual property and copyright legislation up to modern market standards.
Question: I pay tuition. It is not a large sum, but it increases year after year because of inflation. I would like to know if the Government is going to provide educational loans for students and their families?
Vladimir Putin: A good question, and it is linked with many other problems.
First, an educational loan is a very useful and necessary thing. And it is in keeping with the ideas currently being worked out by the Government. The Government is thinking along these very lines: to issue educational loans and send money to the institutions, including universities, which will employ graduates.
I have said it many times and I would like to repeat it: the state must pay and direct its resources only to the institutions where people come to work, and not just because a budget financed institution exists. That holds for education and, for example, the health service. Educational loans are a very good and useful idea. We are working on that. Today, we discussed with the heads of universities the Bologna Process so that our diplomas are recognised in Europe. That would greatly expand the opportunities for graduates of our universities to be employed in this country and elsewhere in Europe.
Good experts are being lured away from Russia. We have to make up our minds whether to try to prevent them from leaving or, on the contrary, create conditions for young people to be able to work where they want. I am in favour of the second option. First, people will do it on their own free will. We must be a free country, we must work towards this, and we must enable people to work where they want. That way, they will come back to us sooner.
Secondly, it should be supported with money. Let me explain. Some sound ideas were voiced at a recent meeting of the Council on Science and High Technologies, which I chaired in Moscow. If a person has acquired education at the expense of the Government and then goes abroad, let the firm that hires him compensate the money that we have spent to educate that person. The money must return to the Russian educational system. That will give us additional wherewithal to support our scientific schools, universities and education as a sector of the economy.
And if you have taken out an educational loan, then of course you have to pay it back; either you, or the company that hires you. This is an absolutely normal market mechanism. We are looking into this issue, and I think we will come up with a solution.
Question: A question about the Bologna Process. Bachelor and Master’s degrees are being introduced and after the fourth year when they receive their diplomas many people, including myself, would like to work in the field in which they have majored. But the employers stare at the Bachelor’s diplomas and do not quite know what to make of them. They equate them to diplomas issued to graduates of a secondary technical school. Is that issue being addressed?
Vladimir Putin: It is under consideration. I agree that not everything nicely fits in this sphere yet. We should merge our educational system with that of Western Europe without compromising the high standards that existed in the Soviet Union and still exist in Russia in its top universities.
As for the hierarchy of degrees, some of the rectors who took part in the meeting today have suggested that some degrees should be conferred by the secondary technical schools and some by the higher educational institutions. I agree with you that the system is in need of fine-tuning. It is a challenge.
Question: My question is about the future professional army. I hope that it will materialise and would like to hear your prediction as to when our army will be 100% professional.
Vladimir Putin: I think everything has been written down. I think we will by and large have solved the problem by the end of 2007 when we will be able to reduce the term of service for conscripts to one year. Our army will mainly consist of professionals. But it will not be fully professional because for such continental countries as Russia with huge territories, it is still impossible to finance an all-professional army, including the units that do not have combat duty. We won’t be able to solve this problem with budget money alone. That would be a very expensive army. But the problem will be solved by the end of 2007 with respect to the units where the servicemen are exposed to a high degree of risk or need to be very highly trained. That problem will be solved.
Question: I know a man who is disabled. He is quite young and I think there are many such people in the country. He has a small pension and he is unable to work.
Vladimir Putin: Has he always been disabled?
Question: No, he broke his back when he was 24. He would like to work, but he cannot afford a computer, for example. Are there any programmes for supporting such people?
Vladimir Putin: We have several million disabled people. It is a major social problem, I agree with you. And the pensions of course are not yet big enough. I recently met with some Afghan war veterans. And they face even greater problems. They were injured in combat, and young people are not as well provided for as World War II veterans. And yet they too were injured defending their country. Anyway, they were fulfilling their duty under oath.
As for people who sustained injuries in daily life, their plight is even worse. We constantly raise pensions, though it is still not enough. Efforts must be made to enable these people to acquire further education. We have such plans. I cannot claim that they will make a dramatic difference today or tomorrow, but we are aware of the problem and we will work on it.
The main thing is to create conditions in which people are able to work. That is the fundamental issue. They should feel like full-fledged members of society.
Question: How do you assess the standard of higher education in our country, both in the humanities and technical fields?
Vladimir Putin: I have already said that I assess it very highly. We had a very good base to build on. It was created in the sectors where the planned Soviet economy invested huge amounts of money. By the way, that was an advantage of the planned economy. On the whole of course it was wasteful and inefficient, which eventually brought about a collapse of the economy, but in a planned economy the state can concentrate resources in key areas. A lot was invested in science, education and public health. In general, the basic systems were put in place in the Soviet years, which were the foundation of the great country. Education undoubtedly is among such basic values.
Question: I would like to know your personal opinion about the importation of nuclear waste into our country. Are there more pluses or minuses?
Vladimir Putin: You know, if it is done strictly according to the rules and if we concentrate on the waste that we ourselves provide (that is, if we take the spent nuclear fuel that we had supplied abroad) and if the money is used to address environmental problems, of which our country has plenty, including nuclear contamination, that is a justified and correct move. If the rules are not complied with, then problems may arise. For now I do not see any problems.
But I absolutely agree with the environmentalists that I meet with when they say there should be greater public control over the importation of spent nuclear fuel and the way the proceeds are spent. That is absolutely right.
Question: People from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are flowing into this country. Can that inflow be stopped or stemmed?
Vladimir Putin: A very serious question. It is not a question of Koreans, but of our country’s demographics and the problem of migration.
If you look at UN predictions, by 2050 not a single European country will belong to the group of the most populous countries; not a single European country. And Russia is struggling to stay in the group of the 10 or 20 largest countries of the world, it is 10 million away from dropping out of that group.
All the post-industrial countries try to tackle their demographic problems not only by increasing the birth rate. They try to do it, but they all fail, because the falling birth rate is not due to deteriorating living conditions or incomes, but because of a change in values and priorities in post-industrial society. There are no economic incentives to have a large family. All the demographic problems – and we have a lot of such problems, not to speak of the gaps that are echoes of World War II – can be solved through an influx of immigrants. True, in well-administered countries the process is balanced, well-grounded and controlled by the government. These countries get labour resources in needed amounts and of needed quality, and they flow into the regions where they are needed.
I like recalling the Canadian experience in this area. They have done well. Their process is well organised at the government level. Every embassy has a representative of the migration service who has a quota for selecting immigrants for the country: of a certain age, meeting health requirements and ready to go to certain regions. As the former Canadian Prime Minister told me, they constantly fall short of the quotas. They would be prepared to take more, but they can’t find enough people wishing to go to Canada, people of the right kind.
We must put in place a similar system. Then there will not be too many representatives of some ethnic groups from certain countries in certain Russian regions. Russia has yet to grapple with this problem, but it is a very important problem and it must be approached the way I have just said.
Question: I am a second-year student in the forestry department. My name is Andrei Redkin and my parents are pensioners. They are growing older and are often sick. Their pensions are too small to buy all the medicines they need. I would like to know whether pensioners will be able to buy discounted drugs in pharmacies.
Vladimir Putin: Not the kind of question you would expect from a student audience. But I understand because my parents also lived to old ages and they were not in the best of health.
But the situation now is somewhat unusual. The government provides discounted medicines, and the list of such medicines is constantly growing. But pharmaceutical companies promote costly drugs in the market getting doctors to recommend their drugs to consumers. It is a tricky and unusual situation we have never faced before because we haven’t lived in a market economy. Obviously, this is poor consolation for elderly people who need help. The only way out is to civilise the pharmaceuticals market. This is a big challenge because there is a lot of dodgy money in that market. In the opinion of some experts, the sector yields more profits than even drug trafficking. What is needed is concerted efforts by the state and of course the support of the people who seek aid. It will depend to a great extent on the success of the plans to reform the public health system that the Government is working out. The plans will be aimed at supporting the institutions that provide quality services to the population rather than just financing medical institutions in cities or regions indiscriminately. We will finance the institutions that attract customers.
Secondly, we should bring dodgy money out and legalise it. We should expand the system of services rendered for a fee for those who can afford to pay, but at the same time we must support those who need support. I would like to stress that we must preserve the public health system created in the Soviet Union, modernise it in line with the modern market conditions, but not get rid of it. We have a lot of people with low incomes and we cannot afford to destroy the system of government support for the needy.
Question: How do you assess the policy of the previous heads of our state? Perhaps you would have done certain things differently? Are you in contact with them? Do you seek their advice?
Vladimir Putin: I had different experience at different periods of time. I don’t know, perhaps Leningrad is very special in that way. At school we were brought up in the patriotic environment, so everybody was thinking in terms of joining some government service: to be in the navy or the air force. I had such dreams too. Eventually I chose law. As for the job of president, I never thought I would become president. When Boris Yeltsin offered me the job, it came as a surprise. In fact my first instinct was to refuse. I said that it was a very hard position and I was not sure I was ready for it. But as you see, I have become accustomed to the load.
As for assessing the activities of previous heads of state, I don’t think I have the right to give them an all-round assessment. Perhaps I would have done some things differently. But I think if they looked at the country from the vantage point of today and if they looked at the results of their activities, they would have done some things differently. But I don’t know how I myself would have acted in those conditions. And I am not sure that my actions would have been absolutely correct, well-grounded and balanced. So I think it would be a mistake to complain and confuse the matter. We should look at what there is and look forward to the future, analyse the past, draw conclusions and try to avoid making similar mistakes. Of course there have always been and will be mistakes. But I think we have every chance to accomplish a noticeable and serious leap forward in the country’s development. We should not miss that chance.
Question: My question is about the exchange rate of the dollar against the rouble. And in what currency should we keep our savings?
Vladimir Putin: As for the rate of the dollar, even Mr Greenspan, the head of the US Federal Reserve System, cannot tell you. However, some analysts who study this problem believe that the US Administration, the economics unit of the Administration, behave in a selfish way and deliberately keep the dollar down, and there are grounds for thinking that it may still plunge further. Some experts say it may go down by 10–15%. But our national currency has been steadily growing stronger in recent years. We see that. We will do everything to further strengthen it. We will seek to make the rouble fully convertible. So, on the strength of what I have said, and considering the high interest rate on deposits, I think it is best to keep your savings in rouble deposits with banks.
Question: I have a question about intellectual property and copyright. You said a programme was in the works to support intellectual property and copyright…
Vladimir Putin: Government experts are working to improve intellectual property legislation to make it more market-oriented and to protect the rights of inventors, the rights of those who should be the real owners of these inventions.
Question: Many reforms have been taking place in forestry. And they say on the news programmes and elsewhere that private ownership of forest land will be allowed. What do you think about it? Even Peter the Great took steps to protect forests against human threats. But now we see forests are being destroyed, but they are a major resource in Russia.
Vladimir Putin: You know, in some countries forests are privately owned, but the owner of the forest does not have the right to cut a single tree without the government’s permission. He is responsible for protecting the forest and has to comply with numerous rules for sustaining and protecting it.
Voice: And do you think that our people will comply with these rules?
Vladimir Putin: We are not talking about people who pick mushrooms in the forests. We are talking about how the owner treats his property and what restrictions there are on his use and management of that property.
Our standard of administration is pretty low. So the question is whether there will be control over the owner on the part of the Government or he will be allowed to do whatever he likes.
But I would like to draw your attention to the following. If he is allowed to do whatever he likes he will soon lose his property. Imagine that you have become the owner of a tract of land of a hundred or a thousand hectares. You want to engage in logging. In that case you would not export round timber to China. You would probably say: “Why should I do it? I would rather take out a loan, set up a saw mill or sell paper. I will go to the governor or the government and say: ‘If you guarantee a credit, I will build a pulp and paper plant.’” In other words, you will derive the maximum profit from the property that has fallen into your hands. But if you cut it all down in 20 years, what will be left for your children? You will probably think twice before cutting the trees. You will consider where to cut the trees and where to plant trees and what will be the cost of planting and recreating the forest.
There are other ways of rational use of natural resources. For example, long-term lease and all sorts of concessions. We must think about it.
Question: I am interested in what you think about US actions in Iraq. Do they pose a threat to our country?
Vladimir Putin: My attitude is well known. We thought, and I still think that launching military operations in Iraq was a mistake. There was no need for it. And the course of events proves my view. Casualties are mounting and terrorists are overrunning Iraq. Previously it had a cruel dictatorial regime, but there were no international terrorists because the regime destroyed them. Now international terrorists are making the country their haven and the population their hostages. It is a very dangerous process. The longer it lasts the more dangerous it becomes. Our interests there are not threatened. There is a threat of a different kind: the threat of the system of international relations and international law being undermined. But we notice some positive signals, namely, that all the parties involved in the process are becoming aware of that danger. We see that our partners, including our American partners, are increasingly inclined to restore the role of the United Nations in dealing with the Iraqi crisis. We are clearly aware of it and we will work in a cooperative manner with all those who are interested in solving the problem.