Question: Mr President, thank you for finding the time to give us this interview on the eve of your state visit to the Netherlands. I would also like to thank you for this opportunity on behalf of my colleague from the newspaper NRC Handelsblad. We are very much looking forward to your visit to our country.
I was once present during the visit by a Dutch government minister to Russia. One of your senior state officials – this was many years ago – spent a long time looking on the globe for the Netherlands and with great difficulty finally found our tiny country. In this respect, my question is: what expectations do you have of your visit to the Netherlands – a country so much smaller than your own? What binds our two countries?
President Vladimir Putin: You rightly noted that relations between our countries go back a very long time. Our relations began in 1697, when Peter the Great spent time in the Netherlands during his journey around Europe. But although, as you say, the Netherlands is a small country, it is a significant trade and economic partner for Russia.
I just met with the Foreign Minister of a very large country, one of the world’s biggest countries – India. Unfortunately, however, bilateral trade between Russia and India has not even reached the $5-billion mark as yet, while our trade with the Netherlands came to $16.6 billion last year. Over the first seven months of this year our bilateral trade has reached a figure of almost $15 billion. Not only then do we have a fine history of bilateral relations, but we also have many promising and interesting joint projects to work on today.
Russia is one of the biggest export markets for Dutch goods, especially for Dutch agricultural products. We are working actively together in the area of investment. Some 800 companies with Dutch capital are working in Russia today and the level of cooperation between our countries is growing all the time.
I think that in many respects we also share common views on the processes at work in the world today with regard to the global threats we face and the global challenges before us on the international stage. All of this indicates a high level of cooperation between our countries.
I hope to have the opportunity to discuss all these different issues with your country’s leadership and be able to give a new impulse to cooperation between our countries.
Question: Throughout history we in the Netherlands have always tried to create an atmosphere of tolerance. To take some examples from our recent history, you have heard, no doubt, of the very tolerant attitude we have towards euthanasia, marijuana and prostitution, all of which have been legalised in our country. What is your view on issues such as these? Perhaps Russia is also planning to take some steps in this direction?
Vladimir Putin: We most certainly respect the choice your country’s leadership and your elected representatives have made. Practice over recent years shows, however, that liberalising even soft drugs does not reduce consumption of hard drugs.
All issues in the areas you mentioned need to be resolved through modern means and approaches based on the traditions and the cultural particularities of this or that people. It is said that wise people learn from the mistakes of others, while fools learn from their own mistakes. I think, though, that we all learn only from our own mistakes. I am not suggesting for an instant that everything you are doing is a mistake, not at all. What I want to say is that it does give us a very good opportunity to look at your experience and make the decisions suitable for our situation.
Question: You are one of the most influential people on the planet. Sometimes though, Russia seems too big to be manageable. How do you deal with this? What roads do you see for future development?
Vladimir Putin: Effective management of a country does not depend on and is not directly related to its size. Of course, a country’s size and the complexity of its component parts do have an impact on the forms of management that evolve. But all of history, and the present day, offer examples that show that large countries can be effectively managed. In a country as big as Russia there is always a need to find the golden mean between uniting the country and providing the autonomy and freedom necessary for all of its individual component parts and all its citizens to fully realise their inner potential.
Question: Do you often wake at night with the thought that Russia could disintegrate?
Vladimir Putin: I never wake with such a thought. I do not even consider the possibility.
Question: In October, events took place in Nalchik that showed that terrorists are spreading their action beyond Chechnya and into the whole of the North Caucasus. Does this mean that Russia is losing the fight against the terrorists? How do you assess the effectiveness of your law enforcement agencies’ work in Nalchik?
Vladimir Putin: This is not the first time terrorists have made incursions into other parts of the Caucasus and other regions of the country. Russia was one of the first countries to be confronted with terrorism, and the reasons for this are clear. The Soviet Union fell apart, the state was in an extremely weakened position and the population had to face the collapse of the economy and the social protection system. Elements of this break up of the Soviet Union made their way onto Russian territory. This all made possible the terrible situation we have been facing for the last 15 years. But no terrorists can defeat the people that in their time vanquished Nazism, above all because the Russian people and the other peoples of Russia have an extremely strong feeling of self-preservation.
But several things are needed to be able to fight terrorism effectively. We need to strengthen the state and the legal system, achieve economic growth and create a middle class, strengthen the law enforcement agencies and develop more effective international cooperation.
Regarding how effectively the law enforcement agencies worked in Nalchik, preliminary reports say that the group of bandits that attacked Nalchik counted around 150 people, of which 93 were eliminated and 40 arrested. The terrorists managed to take three groups of people hostage at three different locations. Our law enforcement agencies’ special forces carried out three operations to free the hostages. All the hostages were freed, there were no lives lost among the special-forces officers and all the terrorists were eliminated.
As you can see, the terrorists have ever less opportunity to act effectively in Chechnya itself and so they are trying to expand their activities into other regions of the Caucasus, but they will not succeed in this objective for we will not let them.
Question: Speaking of Chechnya, could you say, for example, why your troops have still not found Basayev?
Vladimir Putin: And why has Bin Laden still not been found? Because people such as these hide like rats, send their followers to go and take the risks, while they themselves prefer to stay holed up somewhere.
Question: But people say that Basayev, on one leg, is able to move around in the Caucasus, which is a region with a very heavy military presence.
Vladimir Putin: I just gave you the example of Bin Laden. Aside from the criminal you mentioned, there are many other leaders. Many of them have been liquidated, many have come over to the side of their own people and the federal forces, and many of them are today becoming involved in working in the bodies of power and the local administration of Chechnya itself. We have held several amnesties in Chechnya.
Ultimately, it is not individual figures who are important, but the effectiveness of our own action in motivating our own strength and fuelling our determination, including that of the people of Chechnya, and it is this that, I am sure, will enable us to finally free ourselves of this scourge.
Question: Looking at the operations to liberate hostages that took place before Nalchik, we see real dramas, what, from the Dutch point of view, were unsuccessful attempts when many hostages lost their lives. Why is not possible to carry out such operations using less drastic means?
Vladimir Putin: Because the conditions the terrorists put us in do not allow it. These are people unwilling to accept any compromise. We also need to improve the work of our special forces in this area. I stress once again, though, that we must not under any circumstances create conditions that would allow terrorists to spread their activities in the world. Any media attention, any ambiguous interpretation of their motives and the results of their activities, amounts to nothing so much as political and administrative support for terrorist activity
Question: The history of conflicts between Russia and the Chechens and other peoples living in the mountains of the North Caucasus goes back around 200 years. Has the thought never occurred that maybe it would be better to end this ‘unhappy marriage’ and let these peoples take their destiny in their own hands and live as they would like?
Vladimir Putin: The history of complicated relations between the various parts of Ireland and the other parts of Great Britain goes back more than 400 years, but no one has had the idea of letting the country fall apart.
We have had many different conflicts in our country. Conflict between the different ethnic groups went on for centuries, but in the end a country was formed and all its different parts stabilise its existence. I remind you, for example, that our country had a period in its history called the Time of Troubles, and during that time, one part of the country, namely what today is Tatarstan, saw the people form the Russian army that went on to liberate occupied Moscow. I would rather think about what unites us than about what causes problems, though we do, of course, also have to resolve the problems we face.
Response: But if you look at Yugoslavia, for example, a ‘divorce’ of this kind took place there and today the places that once formed a single country are now separate states – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and so on.
Vladimir Putin: This is what happened to the Soviet Union, only it all took place in a far more civilised manner.
You know, there was no limit to the cruelty that took place during the civil conflicts and wars that accompanied the break up of Yugoslavia. Children were nailed to the fences of their own homes. I do not want Russia to ever have to go through this. And the results of the break up of Yugoslavia are still being debated today. The problem of Kosovo still has not been settled, for example.
Question: I wanted to ask a question about mass media freedom in Russia. The organisation Reporters without Frontiers put Russia in 138th place in its list of countries evaluated according to freedom of the press. The problems most commonly cited with regard to freedom of the press in Russia are the so-called ‘black hole’ when it comes to coverage of events in Chechnya, increased state control over the press and more. Could you comment on the conclusions of this organisation?
Vladimir Putin: It seems there is no getting away from the problems of Chechnya, the fight against terrorism and everything connected to the Caucasus. I will make my final comment on this point and then let us move on to another subject, the one you just raised, for example.
The tradition of appeasing any aggressors and extremists following the principle of ‘make agreement with anyone at any price, if only they will leave us alone’ has become firmly rooted in European political thought. This is a dangerous way of thinking that in practice leads to great tragedies. It is enough to remember Chamberlain and Daladier who signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 and announced on their return home that they had brought with them ‘peace in our time’. But the Second World War broke out only a year later. In this respect, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was no better, but it was a necessary measure after the western countries accepted a deal with Nazi Germany.
I think this is a very dangerous trend and we have to realise that this kind of practice leads to problems in all of our countries. No sops to terrorists, not even giving them political asylum, can buy them off, and the recent tragic and serious events in a number of European countries are the clearest confirmation of this.
Now, regarding the media, we are aware, of course, of these evaluations and I think that we need to listen to such criticism. We have many problems, especially at regional level, and I am aware of this. I think that freedom of the press is one of the basic conditions for developing democracy in the country. Without freedom of the press we will not be able to root out corruption or build a free society. The most important task for us is to ensure the media’s economic independence so that it will serve the interests of all of society rather those of the economic groups or oligarchs.
Today in Russia there are 47,000 registered periodical media publications and around 3,000 radio and television companies. It would be impossible to control them all even if we wanted to, and we have no such desire anyway. That is not to mention the Internet, which is developing absolutely freely, without any control from outside at all, and has an ever-growing number of users.
Regarding economic support for the media, we make substantial tax breaks available. The VAT rate – and VAT is the main tax – stands at 18 percent in general, but it is 10 percent for media outlets.
We are ready to listen to criticism and we will work, including in this area, which is one of the main pillars of developing democracy in our society.
You know, we are in the process of forming the Public Council, and within this council we will set up a structure that will examine what we can do to support and encourage independent media outlets.
Question: Just to ask another brief question, do you not think you could do a little more to improve the situation with freedom of the press in Russia?
Vladimir Putin: I said that we are working on this.
Question: As you know, two organisations, NATO and the European Union, have been increasing their membership of late and have moved eastwards in particular. In this respect, I would like to ask, do you think that Russia could ever in the future join one or both of these organisations, and if yes, then what conditions would be necessary for this to happen?
Vladimir Putin: We are actively developing our relations with both organisations, with NATO and all the more so with the European Union. Regarding NATO, this organisation is undergoing internal changes of its own, as far as we understand it. We would need to be clear about what kind of organisation we would be joining, if this issue were on the agenda, and what tasks we would be seeking to resolve within the organisation in question.
Concerning our ability to ensure our security, our defence capability, Russia has historically always been an independent country and has always been able to ensure its defence capability through its own means. Of course, we want to and will build partnership relations with all countries and all groupings, including NATO. I think that over recent years our dialogue with NATO has been developing very well.
We have developed several areas of cooperation with NATO. These include the fight against terrorism and common efforts to prevent various emergency situations. Now we are beginning joint anti-terrorist work in the Mediterranean using our Navy. NATO has certain arms standards that do not always correspond to what our defence industry traditionally manufactures, but in this area too we are making progress and adapting some things to NATO standards as it more convenient for us in this way to work on foreign arms markets. We do not see NATO as a hostile organisation and we are developing our cooperation with it.
As for the European Union, as you know, we have agreed with our EU colleagues on creating four common spaces – a common economic space, common internal and external security spaces and a common culture and education space. This, of course, is something that will bring us closer to the European Union, but we have to be clear about when and at what stage we take this or that step, and what is in our interests and what is not.
Question: But in principle, could Russia at some point join NATO or the European Union? Without naming any concrete timetable.
Vladimir Putin: You know that part of our territory, a large part, is in Asia, but the people there are European in culture and mentality. More than 80 percent of our population is made up of Orthodox Christians, people raised on the traditional values of European culture.
Humanity has drawn the borders of Europe in different places at different times in history. There was a time when the ancient Greeks placed the border of Europe considerably farther east than the Ural Mountains. Today, given that, as I said, Russia has this European population living an a territory stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean, essentially, this means that Europe stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
As a rule, we all live in the present and seldom think of the future, and today’s political system in our countries generally looks only from one election to the next. But if we take into account all that I have just said, what this means is that in Russia Europe has a reliable, significant and very promising partner. Europe and Russia can and should complement each other. As for the forms this integration will take, this will depend on what future generations want.
Question: I realise that you are a politician, but nonetheless, could the day ever come when Russia would knock on Brussels’ door and ask for membership? How would this happen?
Vladimir Putin: If you invite us, we would consider it. Thank you very much. I am glad to hear this question and I think it is, indeed, a right question to ask. I would be happy if such an invitation were made.
Response: But you can always ask Brussels of your own initiative.
Vladimir Putin: I was taught from childhood not to ask for anything and not to regret anything.
Question: But from what you say we can conclude that you do have an interest in potentially becoming a member of the EU?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, but I must also point out that not all European countries are members of the EU. Norway, for example, which is a wealthy and self-sufficient country, is not in the EU, and I understand the Norwegian choice, just as I also understand some of the eastern European countries that want to join the EU at all cost, hoping that this will improve their economic situations and raise the living standards of their peoples, to a considerable extent through aid from the old EU members, it must be said. It would be impossible for Russia to join the EU on such principles for the objective reasons of the size of our territory, population and so on.
But the integration process is continuing and the plans we are developing with our esteemed colleagues in Brussels are very concrete in nature. We should first resolve the tasks we have on our agenda today.
Let us first work towards making Europe a continent without borders. We always talk about human rights in the abstract, but let us take concrete steps towards at least giving people the possibility of travelling freely to each other’s countries. Let us set realistic objectives and work on achieving them. This is something we are able to do.
Question: I would like to ask a question about the economy. As you know, China is becoming a one of the world’s economic leaders today. Everything there is going well and the economy is growing. In Russia, however, the economy is based above all on natural resources, principally on oil. How do you explain this situation?
Vladimir Putin: This is not the case and does not correspond to reality. We have undergone very rapid economic growth over the last five years and have had a growth rate of around 7 percent a year. Of course, the economic situation on world markets has helped us a lot in this respect, but the economic structure in our country always differed from that of other countries, including China.
We intend to diversify our economy. We have achieved considerable growth of late in the processing sectors. In this respect we are very interested in your positive experience, your very good experience of creating economic diversification funds and funds for developing the high-technology sectors through the profits generated by the oil and gas sector.
Our specialists are studying the problems that you have encountered in the past – even one often-cited economic ailment bears the name ‘the Dutch disease’. Following your example, we have created a stabilisation fund – I think it had a different name in your country – but the purpose is the same – to accumulate funds generated by the energy sector in order to maintain high macroeconomic indicators and concentrate resources for resolving the issues of economic diversification and social improvement.
Question: The Khodorkovsky case made a lot of waves in the world, including in Europe. As a state official, do you think that something could have been done differently in this case, and do you not think that this affair has somewhat undermined investors’ confidence in the Russian market? Is there not the risk that investors will now think there are problems in Russia and will be reluctant, perhaps, to invest their money in the Russian economy?
Vladimir Putin: If you were able to make a personal fortune of several billion dollars over the space of 5–6 years, I can assure you that would also make waves defending your interests in Europe and the world.
But getting to the heart of the matter, what we are talking about is a court decision. The court delivered a guilty verdict. There is nothing good about this, it is all very sad from a certain point of view. But if the law is broken, the state has to respond according to the legislation in force. This is not an element of destabilisation – on the contrary it is an element of stability and the state’s strength. People who act behind the state’s back do damage to the interests of their own fellow citizens, and to those of the foreign partners and investors who want to or are already working in our economy. Through their actions, people such as this create the environment that gives rise to the corruption we talk so often about. Of course, this is not the only cause of corruption, but it is a significant cause.
As for the undermining of investor confidence, I must say that Russia’s rating is growing all the time and indeed, only the day before yesterday one of the world’s leading ratings agencies announced yet again that it was raising the Russian Federation’s rating. The Russian stock exchange has reached record levels since it began operation and has grown by 45 percent since the beginning of this year alone. Another example – if we take total Dutch investment, 80 percent of Dutch investment is direct investment in our economy, so the rumours that investors have lost confidence in the Russian economy are highly exaggerated.
Question: You noted that the Russian economy has been growing over recent years, but it seems to me that Russian citizens are not very happy with their share in this growth. Many Russians live below the poverty line. What steps do you intend taking in this respect?
Vladimir Putin: I think that the citizens of any country have the right not to be happy with the action taken by their governments. The results of the vote on the European Constitution showed that people in European countries are often unhappy with what their leaders are doing. But you are right in that Russian citizens have a lot more reason to be critical of what the federal, regional and local authorities are doing. I would just like to remind you that in 2000, the inflation rate in our country was running at 36 percent. Today we have brought it down to 10–11 percent. This is still high, but at least it is not 36–40 percent. In 1999–2000, we still had a situation where wages and even pensions were not paid for months or in some cases even years on end. Today there are still some cases of wages not being paid on time, but this is no longer a general problem.
People’s real incomes are growing at a rate of around 10–12 percent a year. Unemployment is decreasing steadily. Even this year we have managed to reduce unemployment substantially.
But I think that we should be doing a lot more to improve the social system. This is why I announced just recently, as you probably know, a series of proposals for several national projects in the areas of education, healthcare, housing construction and support for the rural areas, for agriculture and everyone living in the countryside. These projects are now possible thanks to the macroeconomic stability and the general political and economic stability we have achieved, the payment of a large part of our foreign debt and the concentration of resources in areas that we have set as priorities. But this is just the first step towards resolving the genuinely large-scale tasks in the areas I have just named. Next year, for the first time, the budget will allocate unprecedented resources for tackling these priority tasks.
As I said, these are just the first steps in this direction and they should be accompanied by corresponding reforms in different areas aimed at improving the quality of service for people and raising their prosperity.
Question: We read some rumours that you grew up in a family of very modest means and even knew poverty to some extent. How close are these rumours to the truth?
Vladimir Putin: These are not rumours. My father was a worker at one of Leningrad’s industrial enterprises and my mother was also a worker. We lived in a communal apartment. I don’t know if this concept even exists in The Netherlands. It is an apartment shared by several families. We had one room of just over 20 square metres and with virtually no conveniences. But this was not what mattered the most. What was most important was that I always felt the love, attention and care of my parents and the people who surrounded me, and so I do not recall this time as a difficult time and do not have bad memories of it. We had the basic minimum and really, people do not need such a lot to be happy.
Question: You spoke about your past, and now, perhaps, you could answer a question about your future. You said that in 2008 you will step down from the post of President. Do you already have any plans for the future? Will you remain active in political life or will you go into some other area of activity?
Vladimir Putin: Every normal person has plans for the future. It is hard to imagine someone who has no plans at all. But it is not such a good omen to talk about the future. The future depends on how we live and what we do in the present. We build our future ourselves, through our present action.
Question: You are very popular in the ratings in Russia at the moment and you are one of the stabilising factors for the situation in the country. Can you imagine a situation in which you would decide to remain in office for a third term?
Vladimir Putin: You are suggesting that destabilisation could take place in the country?
Response: Perhaps. It is a situation that cannot totally be ruled out.
Vladimir Putin: I realise that 2008 will be an important test for Russia, and not an easy one.
At the same time, the Constitution of the Russian Federation states that the President, the head of state, is elected for four years through direct secret ballot and cannot stay in office for more than two consecutive terms.
I am not indifferent of course to the question of who will take in their hands the destiny of the country I have devoted my life to serving. But if each successive head of state were to change the Constitution to suit them, we would soon find ourselves without a state at all. I think that Russia’s different political forces are sufficiently mature to realise their responsibility to the people of the Russian Federation. In any case, the person who receives the votes of the majority of Russian citizens will become the President of the country.
At the same time, I would like to note that, according to the Constitution, the presidential powers are conferred on the new President after the inauguration takes place, and until this time, the incumbent head of state carries full responsibility for the situation in the country. In the name of the interests of the people of the Russian Federation, I will not allow any destabilisation in the country.
Question: One last question – how would you like to go down in history?
Vladimir Putin: The less you think about your place in history, the more chance you have of earning the place you desire, if this is something worth craving for at all. Most important is simply to work honestly, to hoe your little bit of land every day, like Saint Francisk, and fortune will smile on you.
Thank you for the interview.