Question: Next week, Mr President, you will come to Israel on a visit, and I would like to know the goals of your visit.
President Vladimir Putin: Russia and Israel have special relations, I believe. The Soviet Union was one of the founders of the state of Israel, when as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in the post-war period, it actively supported the creation of the state of Israel. Later, during the cold war, everyone knows how relations between the countries developed, and these relations were not to the benefit of Israel or the Soviet Union, in my opinion.
Israel has – I won’t try to give precise figures, you probably know this better than I do – but I think that 25% of its population is Russian-speaking. And in this sense, Israel is almost a Russian-speaking country. I have had the opportunity to see this for myself, when I visited your country. And what was mostly striking for me, and made quite a strong emotional impression on me, was that the Russian-speaking population of Israel, at least it seemed so to me, try in their vast majority to maintain their Russian culture and Russian language. This creates a special charm in relations between our countries and is a good basis for developing intergovernmental ties. We are watching very closely how the situation is developing in the region and in the country itself; we have enormous respect for the achievements of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
I have already said that when I visited Israel, I had a chance to travel around the country. I even spent the night at a kibbutz, and was able to feel how people live there, how they think and what worries them. I was particularly impressed by monuments to victims of the Holocaust. And this memory of the victims of the Second World War also unites us.
Finally, we have received the Israeli Prime Minister here several times. And I believe that a return visit is a sign of respect for Israel, for the Israeli people, and the desire to continue our dialogue directed towards the development of intergovernmental ties in all areas: in the economy, in politics, in international security and in the humanitarian sphere.
Question: Mr President, you just talked about the Israeli Prime Minister, about your warm relations. He also constantly talks about his warm relations with you. But the recent rocket deal with Syria, as they say, has thrown a shadow on your relations. Do you think that this will have an effect on relations with Israel?
Mr Putin: I don’t think so. I really do have great respect for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the President of your country. I have similar respect for the people of Israel, and I have just some personal contacts among them. There are people whom I knew and who were friends of mine, who now live in Israel.
As for the position of the Israeli leadership on the so-called “rocket deal” which you mentioned, I am very glad that you asked this question, because it provides the opportunity to explain our position to the Israeli public. And I hope that most people will understand our motives, and I think may even support us.
First of all I would like to say that Mr Ariel Sharon has often asked me about the presence of so-called “katusha” rockets in Lebanon. I have never been able to understand him: what is he talking about, what “katushas”? “Katushas” are first generation rocket systems which we used in the Second World War. And perhaps there are rocket systems in Lebanon: they may have produced them themselves, or bought them in third-world countries or Eastern European countries – we do not know anything about this.
He then asked me about possible deliveries of serious rocket equipment, including to Syria, which really could cause concern in Israel and reach the territory of Israel from dislocation points in Syria. We refused this deal because we do not want to violate any balance, however fragile it may be, that exists in the region.
As for the deal that was signed with Syria and will be realised, this concerns close-range anti-rocket systems. These systems can attack air targets in visible range. Furthermore, these systems are set on vehicles, and they cannot be unnoticeably handed over to terrorist organisations.
Furthermore, our military have the right to control and inspect them in places they are stored and stationed.
Of course, this makes it more difficult to make low-altitude flights over the residence of the President of Syria, but I am not sure that these flights are the correct decision, if we all, including Israel, want in the interests of its people, to create a favourable situation to continue the peace process.
In saying this, I would like to stress that we behave very responsibly and openly, and do not disturb the balance in the region. I would like to stress this once more. And we do not create threats for countries in the region. I would ask you not to mix up one concept with another, and use the equipment that I mentioned to scare the Israeli public into thinking that Russia is delivering systems that could reach its territory and do any harm to the people of Israel and to the state of Israel itself.
Question: And what are these rockets called?
Mr Putin: Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov will inform you of this in more detail.
Question: Now I can feel safe. Syrian rockets do not present any danger to me.
Now that we are talking about concerns, I cannot help but mention the fact that Russia helps Iran in creating its nuclear potential. How can you be certain, Mr President, that Iran – a fundamentalist regime – is not misusing this technology?
Mr Putin: First of all I would like to say that Russia does not just help Iran to strengthen its nuclear potential. We work exclusively in the sphere of peaceful atomic power, in the economic energy sphere.
We conduct our work under the full control of international organisations, above all under the full control of MAGATE. To be certain that our partners are not using our cooperation for military goals, we secured appropriate amendments to be made in our agreements. According to these amendments, Russia has received the right to have back from Iran the nuclear fuel that has been processed at the nuclear power station in Bushehr.
And I can say that our position on the problem of nuclear non-proliferation is quite consistent and strict: we are categorically against the spread of nuclear weapons across the planet and are categorically against any nuclear weapons programmes of Iran.
We do not believe that Iran should feel that it is being infringed upon in its use of the modern achievements of science and technology. Iran is our neighbour, it is a big country, and to infringe upon on a country like Iran is counterproductive, and could lead to quite complicated and serious consequences. A country like Iran and the Iranian people must not be humiliated. But at the same time, we must be certain that their nuclear programmes are not directed towards creating nuclear weapons, and we will continue to insist that the Iranian side abandons the idea of creating systems of uranium enrichment, creating nuclear cycle technologies while ensuring their interests in the sphere of science and the economy.
Question: How do you comment, Mr President, on the rumours that your relations with President George Bush, which were very close, have now cooled off?
Mr Putin: I prefer not to respond to rumours, but I cannot refuse to give you an answer to the question.
Russia and the United States have a large number of mutual interests and joint work. And this lies at the base of my personal, very warm relations with the President of the United States. The President and I have learned to fight for our interests and stand up for our point of view. But we have learnt to do this in forms that do not harm our personal relations.
We are expecting the President of the United States in Moscow on 9 May at the ceremony dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and we are certain that this will be another step towards strengthening our personal relations and relations between the United States and the Russian Federation.
Question: State secretary Condoleezza Rice, who just completed a visit to your country, also talked about relations between the Russian Federation and the United States. Before her visit she made two statements. In one of them, she called on you not to stand for President in 2008, and in the second she harshly criticised Russia from the point of view of its democratic development.
Mr Putin: I do not look at the statements which our partners make for the press. I rely on the information that arises during our personal discussions. These issues were not raised in these discussions, but here I do not see anything special if we had discussed these problems as well.
As for 2008, we have a Constitution, and we will not be guided by the attitude of our partners to issues of this kind, even greatly respected partners, but by the current legislation in Russia.
And as for elections in the United States, if she wants to stand for President, we will be glad. I think she will be a good President.
Now for the issue of democracy. We also have things to criticise concerning democratic institutions, including in the United States. We behave with reserve, but I think that there are indeed many democratic institutions here in a state of formation and development, and a well-disposed view from the outside can be useful. But if this thesis is used exclusively as a tool to realise a country’s own foreign policy plans, as a tool to influence another country with the aim of achieving one’s own national interests, then of course we will ignore this.
Question: I would like to talk about the summit that was held at the U.S. President’s ranch in Texas between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush. There was disagreement there concerning the expansion of Israeli settlements. What is your attitude to this issue?
Mr Putin: You asked me just now about my relations with President George Bush, and I said that a similarity of views and interests on many issues lie at the base of these relations.
We have a very close position on the Iranian nuclear programme, and we have a very close position on Middle East regulation. I know that the President of the United States has often expressed his support for implementing the “road map”, and I also adhere to this point of view.
Reply: I see that you have the same foreign policies as President George Bush, but not the same internal policies.
Mr Putin: I do not have the same policies as President George Bush in the foreign sphere. For example, we had different views of the situation in Iraq. We have other differences, but we look for points of contact, and our personal relations help us to find common acceptable decisions. We conduct major joint work in the war on terror and believe that the United States is an ally for us in this sphere, not just a partner.
As for our internal policies, we cannot have a common position on internal policies in Russia, because internal policies in Russia are our affair. Just as the internal policies of the United States are an internal matter of the United States. But I want to stress once more: we are interested in our partners’ opinion if it is objective and well-disposed, and does not serve as a tool for achieving their own national interests, which in fact is also quite explicable and obvious. But I would like to make it clear that this is obvious to us too, and our attitude to this will be appropriate.
Reply: We like how Russian sounds. It is very familiar for Israelis. It is like music.
Mr Putin: Thank you. I must say that I was surprised that some melodies, some songs that are considered to be national Israeli songs in Israel are in fact Russian national songs.
Question: Do you see Russia as a country that is regaining its former position as a superpower?
Mr Putin: This is not the best position, because it contains certain drawbacks. I would like Russia above all to be a prosperous country, for its citizens to feel that the country is prosperous from their own pockets, from their material situation as far as social well-being is concerned, and for them to feel safe. To achieve this, of course, it is necessary to accordingly maintain and develop the Armed Forces, and then Russia’s place and role will be important, and it will take its place naturally.
And furthermore, it is the largest country in the world by size. We have our own interests and representation in the Asian part of the world and the European part, in the north and in the south. This is enough for us.
Question: Many people in Israel express concern about the anti-semitism that exists in Russia.
Mr Putin: Anti-semitism is a complex ethnic and historical phenomenon. And it is not a Russian invention. I think that in some countries that are traditionally considered Israel’s strategic partners, unfortunately, the phenomenon of anti-semitism is quite noticeable. And in a number of countries in the post-Soviet area, as strange as this may seem to you, Jews and Russians are considered to be the same. And unfortunately, we must deal with all this mess.
We are categorically opposed to any manifestations of xenophobia or nationalism. I don’t think that in Russia today anti-semitism can decide anything or present any threat, although this needs to be treated with much caution. It is necessary to react to any manifestations of this kind to protect the interests of national minorities, in this case the Jewish people, but no less importantly, to maintain Russian statehood itself: Russia was created and exists as a multinational and multi-religious state. And for us, combating anti-semitism, just like combating any nationalism or chauvinism, is the basis of our internal policy.
Question: But then how do you regard the inciting letter signed by many artists, even Duma deputies, calling for Judaism to be removed from the political and legal system?
Mr Putin: They did not call for Judaism to be removed from the political system. No, there were different appeals with references to certain sources of Judaism.
I can tell you that Judaism, along with Islam and the Orthodox Church, are classified as traditional Russian religions, are classified by law as traditional Russian religions, and thus are protected by law.
As for the letter you mentioned, I have essentially already answered it. I would like to say that it is always necessary to react to such manifestations adequately, very carefully and timely, but according to the doctor’s principle of doing no harm. If you followed the events in public life in Russia after this letter, then you could not help but noticing what society’s reaction to this was.
Question: As you have already said, Mr President, on 9 May there will be a major celebration – the anniversary of Victory over Nazi Germany. There are 20,000 veterans living in Israel. What is the historical lesson that should be learned from this?
Mr Putin: First of all I would like to say that I had the opportunity ten years ago, probably, when I was in Israel, to meet with Israeli veterans of the Second World War. And this was a very emotional meeting. For me it was to a certain extent also another discovery of Israel, just like visiting memorial sites connected with the Holocaust. I think that this, as I have already said, is also something that unites Israel and Russia.
The Jewish people suffered the tragedy of the Holocaust, while about 30 million of our people were also killed during the Great Patriotic War. And this is why I am not surprised that when we see manifestations of sympathy for Nazis, turning SS troops into heroes and so on, including in the post-Soviet area, then among the first to openly oppose this, and consistently and in harsh forms, are Jewish organisations. And the main conclusion from the tragedy of the Second World War should be that we do not have the right to ignore or close our eyes to manifestations of fanaticism, nationalism, and extreme views in politics and religion. A policy of appeasement ultimately ends tragically. Extremism needs to be fought where and when it arises, where it tries to achieve its goals – and this is the most important conclusion.
Question: In a letter by American congressman Lantos and in newspapers there have been accusations that Russia is conducting a campaign or persecution of oligarchs, especially Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Mr Putin: I do not dabble in the epistolary arts.
As for attitudes to the problem as a whole, I can say that many decisions that were taken at the beginning and the middle of the 1990s during the process of privatisation are considered by the vast majority of Russian society to be very questionable, to put it mildly. And of course, people who over five to six years made a personal fortune of 5, 6, or 7 billion dollars are capable of spending a few million on defending their interests.
You know, when I was in Israel I met with some immigrants there who came to live permanently in Israel and have been living there for many years now, 20 or 15 years. And I saw how people work and the difficulties they face. Doctors with a private medical practice fight every day not to lose clients. Agricultural workers in Israel work for small salaries. Ministers give their money to a kibbutz and also receive quite modest salaries. I am certain that ordinary citizens in any country, including in your country, will of course ask: “How is it possible in a normal economy, observing the law, to earn $6–7 billion in personal fortune legally?”
But the fact that people develop the economy of their own country, do business and accumulate a fortune – there is nothing bad in this. It is important that this is all in the framework of the current legislation. And where it is violated by economic actors, the state must react.
Let us take well-known scandals, such as the Enron scandal in the United States, and a series of others. Some people involved in these scandals face 20 or more years in prison. We don’t write letters there. It is necessary to go to court, to consult with lawyers and defend one’s interests in court. And until the court finds a person guilty, in accordance with our legislation, just like the legislation of any other civilised country, he is considered innocent.
But there is another moral aspect to this case. When, for example, major sums are blocked, as happened several months ago with the group that you mentioned, $5 billion were blocked in Switzerland, one of the close shareholders of this company and the colleague of the person that you mentioned, said quite directly and openly in the media: “Let them be confiscated. That isn’t our last five billion. The money is in a safe place.” When people make statements like these, then we cannot call behaviour like this anything else but amoral. We will act according to the law, according to Russian law.
Question: Do you think it is possible that these rich people, or oligarchs, as you call them, will try to overthrow you?
Mr Putin: I think that those who break the law, who want to return Russia to the past – they probably would like it.
But what I do not doubt at all is that policies directed on the one hand to supporting Russian business and to support, as we say, the captains of Russian business, acting within the framework of legislation, and on the other hand, the equal position of everyone before the law – these policies are greeted and will be greeted, I do not doubt for a second, with support from the vast majority of citizens of the Russian Federation.
Question: Next week there will be a game between the TSSKA and Makabi (Tel-Aviv) basketball teams. Will you go to the game or watch it on television? Or are you only interested in judo?
Mr Putin: Basketball is an interesting game, and Makabi is a strong team. I don’t know whether I will be able to watch this game, but if I can, then of course I will watch it on television.
Reply: Thank you very much for this interview. We eagerly await you in Israel.
Mr Putin: Thank you very much for your interest in this visit and for your questions.
I very much hope that during this interview we were able to provide important explanations to issues which could interest the Israeli public.
I am looking forward to visiting to your country, which made a very strong impression on me. The first time, I was there on an official invitation, but when I saw it for the first time I wanted to come back for a second time with my family. And I must say that I have the warmest memories of my encounters with Israel. I hope that this visit will not just be pleasant, but also very beneficial.
Thank you very much.