Question: Mr President, what does the day of 9 May 1945 mean for you?
President Vladimir Putin: It is a memory of the victims that Russia suffered in the Second World War, victims of our people and the peoples of all Europe, including the people of Germany. This is the first aspect, and I think it is the most important one.
Secondly, it is still a celebration of the Victory over Nazism, and an occasion for all of us to think about what we must do to ensure that nothing of this kind ever happens again in the world, in Europe.
And finally, it is also a very serious occasion for us all to think about what we must at last do to turn over this difficult page of European history relating to the Second World War, and build relations in Europe and in the world in such a way that we can move from the period of reconciliation, which I think has been developing quite effectively throughout the post-war years in Europe, to positive and effective cooperation for the good of all countries on the European continent.
Question: Mr President, I would like to clarify why several nations neighbouring Russia, former republics of the Soviet Union, believe that there is a part of this history which must be re-examined.
Mr Putin: I think that here we must realise that our present and future are based on the realities which the peoples of Europe faced during the Second World War.
If you are interested in relations with our close neighbours, they have their own problems and complexes. It is clear that the Red Army liberated Europe from Nazism, including the German people. But we know how post-war relations developed in Europe. They were based on the post-war decisions of the allies, including the Yalta agreements. In fact, the allies divided up spheres of influence – this needs to be said quite bluntly.
As for how the Soviet Union established its policies with its close neighbours and its allies, there is nothing surprising here. It established them in its own image, and this was a well-known system, a system which was, unfortunately for our people, not built on democratic principles. But these were the realities of those times, just as colonial policies were the realities of quite a large number of European countries. And the colonial system also collapsed only in the 1960s and 1970s. So all these things are manifestations, in my opinion, of the development of European civilisation, and these, I repeat, were the realities of these times. Thank God, we have moved away from these realities in the interests of the Russian people and in the interests of all peoples on the European continent.
Our country made its choice at the beginning of the 1990s, and in fact this helped the countries of Eastern Europe to feel free and return to their normal state. The Soviet Union did everything to destroy the Berlin wall. It is on this democratic basis that we intend to build equal relations with all our partners, all over Europe and the world.
But to give you some details, I will allow myself to attract your attention to what I will say about the Baltic States.
It is the Baltic States which are particularly sensitive to the outcome of the Second World War. I will remind you how they gained their independence. Essentially, the basis for the independence of the Baltic States was laid by the agreement between Russia and Germany in February 1918. Yes, in 1918. This was the so-called annexationist Brest peace treaty, as we call it in our country. And later, in 1939, Russia and Germany decided differently. Essentially, Germany agreed that this part of Europe would return to the Soviet Union. These were Russian-Germany agreements in the first and the second case.
Essentially, the Baltic States were an exchange token in major world politics. And this is of course a tragedy for these peoples – this must be said openly.
During the war, and after the war, a huge number of people faced serious problems. After the war there was a resettlement of entire peoples, and this was also a tragedy.
Remembering this, we must not allow for anything like this to happen in the modern world, in modern Europe.
Understanding the feelings of the people in Baltic States, I still cannot agree with the situation when today people of other ethnic origin, the Russian-speaking population who found themselves there not by their own free will, but as fate has willed, do not have the full rights given to all people living on the European continent, so they feel like second-class citizens, so that the 450,000 Russian-speaking citizens living in Latvia have quasi-documents with “non-citizen” written in the nationality section, while in other documents they write “alien”. How can this co-exist with modern standards of humanitarian law?
Reply: But perhaps first there should be an apology to them?
Mr Putin: I understand the logic of what you said, and it would be fairly logical only if these people had been at any time citizens of the Russian Federation. They were never citizens of our country, the Russian Federation. They are treated in this way according to the ethnic principle, not on political or civil grounds. They were not citizens of modern Russia, they were citizens of a common nation, the Soviet Union. This is the first point.
Secondly, concerning the attitude of our country to these agreements on the Baltic States in 1939. In 1989 the supreme representative body of the Soviet Union condemned them. It wrote quite plainly: “We condemn these agreements between Stalin and Hitler, and believe that this is a personal decision by Stalin which contradicts the interests of the Soviet people.” This has all been done, it is simply necessary to face the truth and cease speculation.
But we want to build relations with all our neighbours, with all countries of the world, including with our close neighbours, on principles of respect for their rights for self-determination and respect of their national interests. Independent of the current political situation in certain countries we will still do this.
Question: Mr President, we do not dispute what you say… We have the impression that you are missing the chance to start a new policy with Baltic States. It would be a chance for them. Everything that you are saying, everything you accuse them of, discrimination… You could open the road for them to solve these problems. Why can’t big Russia make a big gesture to these small Baltic peoples?
Mr Putin: We offered them to come here, we offered all of them to sign an agreement on the border. We are prepared for any cooperation on any issue. I think that going from internal political considerations, some forces are trying to speculate on these problems to solve their current internal political tasks. Honestly, I do not see anything else here, because the only thing that we hear is that our country must acknowledge the illegitimacy of these decisions and condemn them. I want to repeat once more: we have already done this. Do we have to do this every day, every year? This is simply pointless! Those who want to hear it have heard it. Besides everything else, I want to stress once more, this concerns those, say, 450,000 who live in Latvia – they never were our citizens. This means that they are discriminated against on ethnic basis, because they speak Russian. This is absolutely unacceptable for modern relations in Europe and for modern humanitarian law. This is what is under discussion.
As for us, we believe that all nations of the world must be equal regardless of their size and importance. If we keep saying that our neighbours are very small and we are very big, what does this mean: some advantages, or do we bear an additional burden? If we all want to be equal, then we must equally fulfil commonly acceptable world norms, European norms and standards. We do not want anything else, including in relation to ethnic minorities.
As for building international relations, I simply do not see any problems here. We don’t have any restrictions. We do not introduce any sanctions. We do not discriminate our partnership in any way. Of course, we have some politicians who constantly call on the Russian leadership to introduce sanctions and put pressure on our partners exactly because, as we believe, they violate human rights, but we do not do this. Isn’t this a gesture of good will?
Let us make on this basis a few generalisations, generalisations for Europe as a whole. In South Macedonia, where 20% of the population is Albanian, the Council of Europe passed a decision with the help of the OSCE that they would have the right to be proportionally represented in bodies of power and administration, including in the police. And this is fair. In Riga 60% of the population is Russian: let us then apply this rule to all of Europe. Or do some people have eyes shaped differently, or the wrong hair colour – what is the problem? Why is this norm used in one part of Europe, but other people living in another part of Europe do not have the right to this?
Question: Let us look at Russia briefly once more. There have been dark aspects to Russian history – persecution of people and peoples. Recently there has been the impression that these dark pages are not always uncovered. What can you say about this?
Mr Putin: It’s absolute rubbish. It is absolutely impossible to return Russia to former times. No one wants to do this or is going to do it.
Reply: But this is not the issue…
Mr Putin: When we are talking about the development of democracy, the democratic process in Russia, we must understand what fundamental changes have taken place over the last 10–15 years. Essentially, we never had a normal parliament, a multi-party system, and there were no municipal groups, and no real regional level of administration. All this was covered by just one thing – the monopoly of the communist party on power. The picture has changed completely.
At the same time, during the break-up of the Soviet Union and the building of a new system, you know what were the difficulties and problems that Russia faced in the economic and social sphere, and in the stability of the state itself. The market economy and democracy should not be associated with poverty and anarchy for the people, and the market economy should not be associated with the absolute power of oligarchs who rob millions of people.
The state must support business, it must develop mass media, and create their own economic base of development for them, and build a multi-party system and a civil society. All this is being done, and we will continue to do this. To achieve this, incidentally, we have passed several laws, including developing the municipal level of administration. Of course, some people may not like this, some people have got used to stealing billions over the past ten years, and to use the media and civil institutes for their group interests. But they must understand that ultimately, if this situation had continued in Russia, and development along the oligarchic path had continued, this would have led to a collapse which would have buried them as well.
Question: In your address to the Federal Assembly you talked about the break-up of the Soviet Union as a major geopolitical catastrophe. This surprises us, because the break-up of the Soviet Union brought freedom to its peoples, and gave them chance for liberation. And this process took place without violence, without bloodshed.
Mr Putin: Germany reunites, and the Soviet Union breaks up, and this surprises you. That’s strange.
I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the problem. Liberation from dictatorship should not necessarily be accompanied by the collapse of the state.
As for the tragedy that I talked about, it is obvious. Imagine that one morning people woke up and discovered that from now on they did not live in a common nation, but outside the borders of the Russian Federation, although they always identified themselves as a part of the Russian people. And there are not five, ten or even a thousand of these people, and not just a million. There are 25 million of them. Just think about this figure! This is the obvious tragedy, which was accompanied with the severance of family and economic ties, with the loss of all the money people had saved in the bank accounts their entire lives, along with other difficult consequences. Is this not a tragedy for individual people? Of course it’s a tragedy!
People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.
Question: For us the collapse of the Soviet Union is also the collapse of a values system. Where is Russia today in the new world, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. What is its place?
Mr Putin: Undoubtedly, there is enormous importance in this and the previous questions. The changes at the beginning of the 1990s did liberate the country from the monopolistic power of one political force. Essentially, this is the first step to freedom, to democracy. And of course, this gives us the chance to build relations as a normal civilised European nation with all our neighbours in Europe and the world. And the most important outcome of these changes is the change to the internal quality of Russian society.
Question: But what are relations like now with the former “brothers” and “sisters” in the USSR? In your last speech you mentioned civilised relations with Asian countries. How are you building relations with former Soviet republics?
Mr Putin: Russia was essentially the initiator – in case people do not know, I can talk about this, although perhaps someone in our country may not like this, these historical assessments – but essentially, Russia was one of the main initiators of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Because the former Soviet republics receiving independence was something that Russia wanted itself. Initially this was the case, at the beginning of the 1990s. And to say or to hint that Russia wishes to regain the greatness of a superpower is simply nonsense, and does not match the historical truth of recent times, or today’s realities.
But there are obvious things that we can and must make use of for the economic and social development of our countries. We know what is happening in the world at the moment. We live in conditions of globalisation. All the international media talks about this almost every day. These processes are taking place on the American continent, in Asia, in Africa and in Europe. You don’t need to be told this: Germany is one the engines of European integration.
And we have clear, natural advantages in the post-Soviet sphere, which can be used in civilised fashion to reduce infrastructural expenses to help economic growth and, I repeat, solve social problems
It is sufficient to say that for example, Russian is spoken by almost 100% of the population of the entire post-Soviet area – almost 100%. We have an enormous amount of mutual economic ties, and very deep cooperation between almost all economies in republics in the former Soviet Union. We have a single energy system and a transport infrastructure. These are all natural advantages left over to us from the past. It would be simply stupid not to use them, I think. But of course, this needs to be done at a modern level, on the level of respecting sovereignty, acknowledging lawful rights and each others’ interests at an absolutely modern, restored basis. And of course, Russia has many opportunities here to influence these processes, and this is what I meant when I talked about our role in the post-Soviet area in my Address.
Question: Mr President, let us return once more to political realities. Concerning the former Soviet republics, you constantly talk about respecting sovereignty, but you have personally intervened in the internal affairs of many former republics, for example in Ukraine during the election campaign.
Mr Putin: Firstly, we did not do anything that could be called direct intervention in the republic’s affairs. Name at least one case when I campaigned for one of the candidates. That did not happen.
Yes, we intensified contacts with the ruling authorities, above all on their initiative. But we could not refuse them this intensification. Put yourself in my place for just a second, how could this have been possible? This is the first point.
Secondly, we cannot work with the opposition in the post-Soviet area just because of the circumstances that you hinted upon earlier. As soon as we start working with the opposition behind the backs of the ruling authorities, we will immediately be accused of imperial ambitions. This will happen instantly.
But this is not the most important thing. The most important thing, what concerns me, is that the use of illegal methods in the political struggle in the post-Soviet area is in my opinion absolutely unacceptable, because this will plunge enormous territories into a state of confusion and destabilisation.
We had relations with Ukraine… The first president of Ukraine, was he less nationalistic than the current leadership? I think he was even more so. Our relations with the current leadership of Ukraine – I am not exaggerating – may be no worse as the relations with the former leadership which was headed by Leonid Kuchma. Not worse at all. We knew this in advance.
We are only concerned with destabilisation in the post-Soviet area. This cannot be allowed, because nations in the post-Soviet area are still quite fragile, with state structures that have not been sufficiently formed. A situation can occur which will make all of Europe shudder. Look what happened in Kyrgyzstan.
You asked me about Ukraine. But why didn’t you ask me about Georgia? We had the same attitude to the situation and the events in Georgia, although Mr Eduard Shevardnadze could not have been suspected of any sympathies towards Russia. On the contrary, the West actively supported him for 10 years. Furthermore, he was portrayed as a model of democracy in the post-Soviet sphere, and Europeans also portrayed him as such. If he had to be overthrown with a revolution, one may ask: “Who did you support?” And if this needed to be overthrown with a revolution, the question arises: “Why did you support him?”
I would like to repeat: our most important concern is to keep the post-Soviet area in a normal state, not to destabilise it, to teach all citizens of our countries to observe the law. Democracy cannot develop apart from democratically accepted laws.
Question: Who is destabilising the situation then?
Mr Putin: I have already said that state structures and legal systems of the countries are very young, they are easy to destroy. The internal situation is quite complex, and the economic situation is difficult. So extraparliamentary methods of struggle must not be encouraged. Those who pay money are the ones who give support.
I would like to say once more: no one should be encouraged in extra-parliamentary methods of struggle. Look at the reports by the main world new agencies and analyse them, look at the programmes of the main world channels, and everything will become clear.
You know what I would like to say and direct your attention to: we must not have disagreements between Russia and say the rest of Europe on these issues. We have common interests and we need to understand the realities going on there, and based on them, to develop common approaches, joint actions towards all countries, including in the post-Soviet area.
Question: In Ukraine you acted in opposition to the West. One side supported one set of political forces, and the other side supported the opposite. Who is intervening in the political situation then? Who do you accuse of intervening in internal affairs?
Mr Putin: First, it is not an accusation, it is a rebuke. Above all, those who created this information picture. We did not do it, it was not in Russia that it was first reported: those people are pro-Russian, the others are pro-Western. This was done by Western media – not us. We did not talk about this division.
As for support, this involved information, political and financial support. There are quite a lot of foundations, various quasi-humanitarian organisations, which pay money. Ask BND, they will tell you who pays.
But I want to stress once more: we do not aspire to divide up any spheres of influence here. I want to pass on to your viewers and listeners our concern that in the post-Soviet area, like in any other civilised countries, parliamentary political methods need to be encouraged, not extra-parliamentary and illegal. This is extremely important.
Question: Not only good relations with the Federal Chancellor are developing, but above all economic relations between Russia and Germany. Germany is a major investor and trade and economic partner. The volume of investment has never been so high. But there are also problems which you mentioned in your address to the Federal Assembly. I mean the improvement of the investment climate, bureaucracy and corruption.
Mr Putin: You mentioned my relations with the Chancellor. We really do have very friendly, comradely relations. But I do not think that Gerhard will be offended if I say the following.
Relations between our nations are not developing because the Chancellor and I have good relations, but we have good relations because relations between our peoples are developing in the most positive way. And in European history generally, we always see periods of cooperation, flourishing, improvements when these two great European peoples – Russian and German – work together and develop their good-neighbourly relations. Indeed, our trade turnover has now reached record figures, according to German estimates it is more than 31 billion Euros.
One of the real problems that we face is to improve investment cooperation, and on our part this means improving the investment climate. Of course, there are also negative sides for the investment climate, these are corruption, which I talked about in the annual Address to the Federal Assembly, and the dominance of bureaucracy.
As for bureaucracy, you also have plenty of it in Europe. Go to Brussels and talk to them there. They will tell you what European bureaucracy is. But being serious, for us this is to a large degree the legacy of the planned economy, when officials decided everything for everyone.
Officials, who have this historical experience, want to keep these privileges for themselves. So we must of course do considerable work to strengthen institutions of the market economy, to develop a free press and civil society, which can also effectively control this enormous state official machine. But we must not place the media, or institutions of civil society back to control of the oligarchs – we have already gone through this.
We have gone through this period, when on one of the national television channels there was an armed security force of specific people, of a specific economic group, which gave money to all the employees of national television in envelopes.
Imagine if armed men came to ARD or ZDF, some of them with automatic weapons, and stayed there round the clock, and that you received your salary in envelopes, unofficially, from them. This involves big money, thousands and tens of thousands of dollars for the top journalists.
Question: Does that not happen any more?
Mr Putin: We have not been able to do away with this completely. But I repeat once more: to stop this – or perhaps it will be impossible to stop it – but to effectively combat bureaucracy and corruption, we must of course create, I repeat, institutes of civil society, and think about ensuring a free press, strengthen bodies of law and order and improve legislation. For investors benefit, of course, we will strengthen institutions of property and the legal system.
Incidentally, the norm of profit for investors from European countries here is actually very high. Even higher than in Asian countries. And so far none of the investors has complained.
But we want to build relations with our potential partners – with present and future partners – in such a way as not to harm the economy of Western Europe, not to reduce the number of workplaces there, and not to violate social standards. And we are capable of doing this.
Question: There is another problem which does not benefit Russian-German relations: the war in Chechnya. The criticism heard in Germany from society is met with lack of understanding in Russia. Why does this happen? Is it so hard for you to accept criticism?
Mr Putin: I do not see any problems here and do not think that this is difficult for us. We only have one concern – for coverage of the events that take place to be objective. I very much hope that what I will say now will be seen and heard by your viewers.
In 1996, we almost completely provided independence to Chechnya. Forces of international terrorism accumulated there, and in 1999 there was aggression towards the neighbouring republic of Dagestan. What did problems of Chechen independence have to do with this? The people who attacked Dagestan had completely different aims – to build an Islamic state, a fundamental state from the Caspian to the Black Sea – a caliphate. This is what we are fighting against. Is it in Europe’s interests for a fundamental state to arise on its territory? By fighting against this, we are solving a common European problem.
When military operations are going on, people always suffer. This is always a tragedy. And of course, in the conditions of this conflict, I cannot rule out the fact that we face the problem of human rights violations. Look what happens in other regions of the world. And we react to this. We have hundreds of criminal cases against Russian soldiers who believe to have broken the law. We have created in the Chechen Republic a full, normally functioning legal system, prosecutor’s office and Interior Ministry of the Chechen Republic. We held a referendum to pass the Constitution, where the Chechens voted for this Constitution, confirming their intention to remain part of the Russian Federation – 85% voted. We helped the people of Chechnya to vote for their President. We are currently working on an agreement to divide powers between the Chechen Republic and the federal centre. And we will help the people of the republic to hold parliamentary elections this year.
If anyone thinks that we must do something more here, then formulate this in normal language that we can understand, and we will consider this. And if they are sensible proposals, we will realise them.
Some time ago the Federal Chancellor proposed more active participation of the Federal Republic and European structures in helping with social rehabilitation and several economic issues. We are in favour of this, we agree.
Question: I am trying to express this in normal language. You said that hundreds of cases had been opened in Chechnya against people who committed violence in Chechnya. You are talking about the referendum when the majority expressed their support for Chechnya remaining part of the Russian Federation. And I don’t think that many people condemn this.
Mr Putin: Over 50 people have been sentenced – they have been given guilty sentences. You hear that Americans shot their ally in Iraq, and they are not guilty, but we sentenced over 50 people to various terms of imprisonment. Do you want to tell me that this is not enough? How many should there be, do you know? Only the prosecutor’s office and court of the Chechen Republic know this.
Reply: We are saying that there is a legal decision, that there are violations of human rights and that they continue to be violated. People are simply afraid for their lives in the Chechen Republic and feel differently about the government which was formed there and is currently functioning.
Mr Putin: You know, firstly, international terrorists continue to cross into the Russian Federation through the virtually unguarded border with Georgia and a number of other countries of Transcaucasia. Money and weapons are received – this all continues to happen. In the conditions of mass unemployment, people are prepared to deliver mines. I assure you, neither you nor we have a magic pill which we could swallow today to make everything good tomorrow – peace, order and chocolate. This requires patience, time, serious economic and financial resources, and good will in creating institutions, normal institutions of state administration in the Chechen Republic itself. This is what we are doing. And as I have already said, we will help the Chechens to vote for a parliament. We have declared an amnesty three times already. The social and economic spheres need to be developed, and workplaces created. We will do all of this.
Question: If I can ask you a personal question: how did you family experience the war, and what is the experience of your family in the war years?
Mr Putin: Of course, on both my father’s and mother’s side there were many losses in the family. Almost half their brothers and sisters were killed. My parents saw one of their children die in the Leningrad blockade. My father only survived because he was wounded on the front. And despite this, in our family there was never… No hatred remained in our hearts towards the German people themselves.
My mother remembered the times of the First World War. Her father fought on the fronts of the First World War. He told her a story – there was a trench war: when he saw that a soldier opposite was targeting him, he fired first and injured him. Then he saw that he was lying there, and crawled up to him, took out his medical package, tied up his wounds and crawled back to his trench. They were fighting in that area with the Austrian army, the man was an Austrian. But before he started to move back, the Austrian embraced him and kissed him. And my parents, my mother above all, always said that ordinary people were forced to submit to their rulers. But it is the ordinary citizens of any country who are always the first victims.
So of course, in our family, 9 May was always a holiday, but it was a holiday founded not on hate but on respect and memory of the dead. Of course, there was pride that our people were able to endure this ordeal and triumph. There was always joy that they themselves were able to live through it and survive. And somehow this was always a holiday connected with hope for the future.