Question: Mr President, in a few days time the heads of state and government of the G8 countries will be gathering in your home town, St Petersburg, for their annual summit. What do you hope to achieve during these three days of meetings? What is the most important point?
President Vladimir Putin: I hope that we will achieve the goals that are the reason for us gathering in St Petersburg in the first place. We will be not just discussing the most sensitive issues on the international agenda today – international energy security, the fight against infectious diseases, and progress in education – but we will bring our positions on these key issues closer together. I think this is immensely important and something that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population is waiting for. We will, of course, also give time to serious international issues such as the situation with the Iranian nuclear programme. I am sure we will also raise the issue of missile technology in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We will give our attention to the Middle East, Iraq, and also bilateral relations between the G8 members.
Question: This is a big event for Russia, for a stronger young Russia. It is also a big event for you and will probably become part of your legacy to the world. Mr Putin, your critics often ask whether Russia should host this summit and receive these guests. They say that Russia does not represent the ideals of the G8 family of countries. What is your response to this?
Vladimir Putin: For a start, I am pleased that we have our critics because it would be worse if everyone voted unanimously, like at Communist Party congresses during the Soviet era. The fact that we hear both criticism and positive comments helps us to form a better idea of what we are doing and how it is perceived.
I think that Russia is a natural member of the G8 for a number of reasons. The first is that it is hard to imagine how we can find effective solutions to the greatest problems facing the world economy and world security today without including Russia. I want to point out that in proven reserves alone the Russian Federation has four times more oil and gas than all the other G8 countries together. How can we tackle the problems of energy security if we do not take Russia’s views into account and involve it in finding common solutions? How can we talk about ensuring global security and address the issues of non-proliferation and disarmament if we do not include Russia, which is one of the biggest nuclear powers? And how can we resolve the problem of poverty in the world without Russia, taking into account its vast territory and natural opportunities for interaction with Asia and with the developing world in general?
I think that all of these reasons make Russia a natural participant in the G8. That’s not to mention that over recent years Russia has displayed sustainable economic growth and – another of our significant achievements, as I see it – has demonstrated financial stability and economic development. I understand that not everyone may like this and I affirm their right to have their point of view and I think that such criticism, if it really contains sensible arguments that we should pay attention to, creates an additional reference point for us.
Question: You are talking about energy, oil and arms, but the criticism levelled against Russia concerns not these areas so much as democratic institutions, which many think are moving backwards rather than forwards in Russia. There is particular concern about the media. Of the three national channels, one is state-owned, one is half-owned by the state and the third is owned by a corporation closely linked to the state. Many people say that this is not a real democracy and does not represent the ideals of the G8. What is your response to these concerns about democratic values in Russia?
Vladimir Putin: I would first ask these people how they understand the concept of democracy. This is a philosophical question, after all, and there is no one clear answer to it. In your country, what is democracy in the direct sense of the term? Democracy is the rule of the people. But what does the rule of the people mean in the modern world, in a huge, multiethnic and multi-religious state? In older days in some parts of the world, in the city states of ancient Greece, for example, or in the Republic of Novgorod (there used to be such a state on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation) the people would gather in the city square and vote directly. This was direct democracy in the most direct sense of the word. But what is democracy in a modern state with a population of millions? In your country, the United States, the president is elected not through direct secret ballot but through a system of electoral colleges. Here in Russia, the president is elected through direct secret ballot by the entire population of the Russian Federation. So whose system is more democratic when it comes to deciding this crucial issue of power, yours or ours? This is a question to which our critics cannot give a direct answer.
What do we hear regarding the media? Yes, the very existence of a democratic society is impossible without freedom of the press, and the basic principles of democracy should, without question, be guaranteed everywhere. But we never even had a free press. First we had the tsarist regime, then we had communism, and beginning in the 1990s, we entered a new era in our lives. But creating full-fledged, functioning institutions, creating a middle class and a multiparty system — the foundation on which these institutions are based – is not something that can be achieved overnight. We said loud and clear, however, above all to ourselves, that this is the road we will follow.
Concerning media freedom, you named three national channels, but do you realise how rapidly digital television is developing here, cable television and local and regional television in general? We have more than 3,500 television and radio companies here in Russia and state participation in them is decreasing with every passing year. As for print media, there are more than 40,000 publications and we could not control them all even if we wanted to.
Question: I understand these figures and I’ve heard them before, but the complaints mostly regard the three national channels because people want to get honest information from the news and they do not get it on these three channels because they are too closely linked to the authorities. You said that the Russian people have made their choice. I must say that your popularity rating is somewhere between 72 and 73 percent, and that is a very high rating. Do you think that the Russian people are not as concerned by issues of democracy as people in other parts of the world?
Vladimir Putin: I do not think that is the case. I simply think that in other parts of the world the instruments for influencing public opinion have become a lot more sophisticated and state influence through TV channels is less perceptible for the public than is perhaps the case here in Russia. Just recently one of the major newspapers in the USA published information on the monitoring of bank transactions in dollars all around the world. And what was the response we heard from some of the leading officials in the (U.S.) Administration? I recall it because I was greatly surprised to read it. They said: “These media outlets did not follow our recommendations”. In other words, someone felt it possible to make such recommendations. So I do not think we should go pointing the finger here. We do have problems and we are aware of them, but other countries also have problems of their own. The developed democracies are far more effective in their ability to manipulate public opinion than we are. People here perceive many things very directly, see them as very real, and this living fabric of passing events is not always felt by the western public.
As for the figures that I just mentioned, yes, I realise that you have probably heard them before, but I do not want them to become just a sort of background buzz. They represent the reality of our life today. You mentioned the three national channels, and yes, there is state participation in them. One of them is entirely state-owned, one of them is a joint-stock company with a sizeable share of state capital, and the third is a corporate channel, owned by Gazprom, a company in which the state holds a controlling stake. But we know that in other countries, in western Europe, for example, there are TV channels that are formally considered independent but in which the main shareholder is a large corporation in which the state, in turn, holds a controlling stake. And so what, that’s not the issue, after all. The issue is that we are carrying out very serious political changes aimed at creating the democratic foundation for our society. This includes strengthening the multiparty system, increasing the size and quality of local self-government and transferring a considerable number of powers from federal and regional level to the municipalities. We adopted a law recently that increased the number of municipalities from 12,000 to 24,000. And we did not just increase the number but also transferred to these municipal authorities powers and financing sources. This is all part of our work to gradually lay the democratic foundations of our society. So, as Mark Twain said in respect to his own life, the rumours of the death of our democracy are highly exaggerated.
Response: Tomorrow we will be broadcasting from St Petersburg and preparing our programme. We will be awaiting the summit participants’ arrival in St Petersburg.
Vladimir Putin: If you will allow, I would like to say a final few words on this issue of democracy. We all remember what arguments some western countries used to justify their colonial expansion into Africa and Asia. If you look back at the newspapers of those years you will see that was said then hardly differs from what is being said now in relation to the Russian Federation. You just need to replace the civilising role and civilisation with democratisation and democracy, and it all becomes clear. We are ready to work together with all our partners on equal terms and we are attentive to well-meant criticism. We have every reason to listen to what others have to say because we are only in the process of building a modern society. But we categorically oppose the use of all levers, including arguments on the need for us to democratise our society, in order to intervene in our internal affairs. This is something we consider absolutely unacceptable.
Question: You speak about well-meant criticism. Our Vice President, Dick Cheney, speaking recently about civil society and religious society, said that Russia limits people’s rights and that the Russian Government’s acts are counterproductive and could have an impact on Russia’s relations with other countries. “We cannot tolerate a situation where oil and gas become instruments of blackmail”, he said. It’s perhaps not the subject that is so important here as the firm tone used by the Administration. What are relations like today between Russia, the European Union and the United States?
Vladimir Putin: I think that these kinds of comments from your Vice President amount to the same thing as an unfortunate shot while out hunting. It’s more or less one and the same thing. I think that these concerns over potential energy blackmail and so on do not look sincere and therefore are not convincing.
Question: But then why would he say such things? Why make such statements?
Vladimir Putin: If you let me finish, I will make my point of view clear on this issue. If you look at what the President of the United States said, and I read his words just before coming here to this room, he said that the United States is not worried by any possible energy blackmail or supply disruptions and that everything is already sorted out there. So, what we are talking about then are the European countries. Back in the mid-70s, when the Soviet Union began building the gas pipeline system to western Europe so as to supply our natural gas to consumers there, the U.S. leadership tried to dissuade the Europeans from taking part in these projects and said that problems could arise. But what we see is that for the last 40 years, the Soviet Union and today’s Russia have fulfilled all their obligations day after day without any disruptions. These fears proved ill-founded and it would be not a bad thing for our colleagues and partners, including in the United States, to remember this.
As for the position taken by certain of our friends in the United States, let’s be honest and frank about what is behind it. It is motivated not by fears of possible disruption to energy supplies or some kind of dependence on Russia. This dependence goes both ways, in any case, because the supplier is as dependent on the consumer as the consumer is on the supplier. We are mutually dependent. Incidentally, this mutual dependence is an element of stability. But it seems to me that this position is motivated by political considerations, by a desire to support certain political forces in eastern Europe and promote one’s own political interests, with Russia expected to pay the price for the promotion of these interests. I do not think this is a balanced position. Moreover, what worries me in this respect is that this approach is based on the foreign policy philosophy of the twentieth century in which our partners’ basic premise was the need to keep Russia in check, viewing our country as a political opponent at the very least if not an enemy. But this is a relic of Cold-War thinking and it is a mistake because it indicates that the people who think this way do not realise and understand the geopolitical changes taking place in the world today and are not looking at how the situation will develop 15, 20 or 25 years down the road.
As for Russia’s position, we fully support the President of the United States when he says that fundamental changes have taken place in the relations between our countries and that Russia and the United States are no longer enemies. These really are fundamental changes in our thinking and we do not just welcome these words from the U.S. President; we think the same way. We have changed radically. The Soviet Union is no more. But it seems that our partners have yet to make such far-reaching changes to their own thinking.
Question: I would like to come back to several questions that worry the United States. North Korea is a country that acts beyond the boundaries of international law and behaves in a hostile manner towards the USA. They have nuclear weapons and at some point will be able to deliver these weapons to other parts of the world. Mr Putin, why do you not support more serious sanctions against North Korea? Why do you appear to be supporting North Korea?
Vladimir Putin: You always seem to think that we supporting the countries you don’t like. This is not the case. We opposed the military operation in Iraq, for example, but not because we supported Saddam Hussein. This was absolutely not the case. If you recall, I said at that time that a military operation would be a mistake. I am aware of the U.S. leadership’s position. My partner and friend – and I really do see the President of the United States as a friend – has a different point of view on this issue. But I think that I was nonetheless right. We took this position not because we supported Saddam, but because we thought that the problems should be resolved through other means. And maybe now we would not have the serious consequences we face today. We thought that we should act through peaceful means, by putting pressure on Iraq, by changing the situation from within. If we had done this we would perhaps not have the breeding ground for terrorism that we have today. But I don’t want to go rubbing salt into anyone’s wounds here.
The same goes for North Korea. We think that we need to take decisions that will help to defuse the situation and not drive ourselves into an impasse from which we can’t find an exit together. This is the difference between the way we went about resolving problems in the twentieth century and in today’s world. Back then, during the Cold War, we always acted in such a way as to cause each other harm at any price, but today we share common goals and the differences between us regard only how to go about resolving this or that problem.
Question: You trust Kim Jong Il if he develops the means of delivering nuclear weapons? Are you sure that he will not destabilise this region and other parts of the world?
Vladimir Putin: That is a question you cannot ask someone at my level. I trust only myself. How can I trust or not trust someone else? We base our action on objective information, on our interests and on the positions of our partners. This is objective and serious work. As for the issue of trust, a young man trusts his future bride or doesn’t trust her, and if they decide to get married it’s for them to work out this issue of trust. But what we are talking about are relations on a completely different level, a completely different kind of relation. I think that we need to develop a system of guarantees that can ensure security in the world and I think that we can achieve this. We should not deliberately provoke the North Koreans into breaking off talks. We are engaged in dialogue with the North Koreans, after all, through the negotiations conducted by the six countries, and then – all of a sudden, we do certain things that provoke them through our actions into making a response of not the best kind.
On the North Korean issue, what I can say is that Russia will work towards developing common approaches, in whatever form they take, be it in the form of a statement by the Security Council or in the form of some other decision, and this is our objective: to reach a common approach both for the North Korean issue and with regard to the Iranian nuclear programme.
Question: You mentioned a number of sensitive issues. Recently, five Russian diplomats were abducted and killed in Iraq. You said that the people responsible for this act must be found and eliminated. One parliamentary deputy said that it is those who occupied Iraq who are responsible for the murder of the Russian diplomats and that this crime is on their conscience. I suspect that this was an allusion to the USA. Do you agree with this statement?
Vladimir Putin: You know, whether it be in the U.S. Congress and Senate or in our State Duma and the upper house of our parliament, there are people with all sorts of different political views and with widely differing views on developments in this or that part of the world. Of course, the abduction and murder of our diplomats is a great tragedy.
Question: Do you blame the United States?
Vladimir Putin: If the United States and their allies took on responsibility for Iraq when they decided to send their armed forces into that country, then of course they also bear responsibility for public safety and all the more so for the safety of the diplomatic corps. Of course a portion of the blame does lie with the multinational force that is there to ensure order and people’s safety. And a portion of the blame lies with the current Iraqi authorities. We have recognised the Iraqi government and this means that we also recognise their responsibility for ensuring that people feel safe there, the people who are officially on Iraqi territory and benefit from the special rights accorded to diplomats, in any case.
Question: Two final questions: Do you think that life for average Iraqi citizens has become better than it was under Saddam Hussein?
Vladimir Putin: I think that there are greater prospects now for making life better, but from the security point of view the situation has worsened and a real threat that the state will collapse has emerged. People are talking about this more and more often now. If this does happen it will be a major event with far-reaching and perhaps negative consequences for the region as a whole.
In terms of the economic and welfare situation things have not improved. I say once again that there is hope for the future now and we all want to see these hopes realised. We will work together with all of our partners in this direction, above all with the Iraqi government and with the United States.
Question: I would like to finish on a brighter note. This photo… You have no doubt been asked about it already and you have already spoken about this boy who you met in the Kremlin grounds and who you wanted to cuddle a little, like a kitten. But there’s so much talk about this now and the whole world has seen this photo.
Vladimir Putin: I didn’t expect such a reaction. I can only repeat what I have already said. It was simply that this little boy really caught my eye because he was a cute little kid, independent, with a sense of his own dignity, and at the same time in need of protection, like all children, searching for a bit of special warmth and attention. It was just an emotional gesture on my part and really no more than that.
Response: I wish you every success at the G8 summit.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.