Question: Thank you for meeting with us today, Mr President. You have agreed to give interviews to four different television companies. Is this because your country has to improve its international image? Or is it because you see signs of Russophobia in the West?
Vladimir Putin: I see that not everyone in the West has understood that the Soviet Union has disappeared from the political map of the world and that a new country has emerged with new humanist and ideological principles at the foundation of its existence. That is what I see. I see that some still base their positions on an outdated view of the world, but I think that the situation is changing quite fast.
Concerning Russia’s image, of course we can no doubt use some special means to improve our image by promoting information on the real situation in the Russian Federation. But sooner or later everything will fall into place in any event, because life itself will show just how fundamentally Russia has changed and how its role in the modern world is changing.
Question: So, if I understand you correctly, we just need a bit of patience. But looking at the Arcelor affair, Russia was presented once again as a closed country where might is right. What is your reaction to Arcelor’s decision to choose Mittal rather than Severstal? Do you have any concerns regarding this issue?
Vladimir Putin: This is above all the shareholders’ affair.
Response: But there was a lot of talk precisely about Russia’s image with regard to the shareholders’ decision.
Vladimir Putin: Severstal, the company that planned a merger with Arcelor, is a 100-percent privately owned company, not a state-owned enterprise. The state does not own a single share in Severstal. This is a quite transparent and fast-growing company that has a very good partnership with Arcelor. The merger proposal came above all from Arcelor itself, as far as I know. But I think that just as our western partners are greater specialists in the media field when it comes to professionally getting across the information they have an interest in promoting, so in the business field too they are better at defending their own interests. But this very company, Severstal, acquired a controlling stake last year in a fairly large Italian company. So no, I do not think that image is the issue here, but rather it is a case of business interests. As for whether Arcelor has made the right decision or not, the shareholders will get the answer in a few years time, I think.
The same goes for today’s event, namely, my decision to give interviews to several western television companies. I am doing this not in order to change Russia’s image, but in order to inform your viewers and listeners about the issues we intend to discuss in St Petersburg and to answer any other questions you may have.
Question: Everything in Russia is changing so fast. Today we see the dismantling of yet another symbol of the old Russia, the Rossia Hotel that is visible from the Kremlin. What feelings do you have, watching this hotel’s demolition over the days?
Vladimir Putin: The only thought in my mind is that whatever comes in its place be better. This hotel was built in the early seventies, or at the end of the seventies, I don’t remember exactly. It was seen as an interesting and attractive building at that time and was an illustration of what the Soviet Union was capable of in those years. To a certain extent it was even a symbol of the changing Soviet Union. Today it is outdated and its demolition is no cause for any particular regret. The main question is one of economic expediency and how to improve the architectural environment in Moscow, and of ensuring economic and social development throughout all of Russia. This is what we are working towards.
Question: In the West you are often portrayed as a powerful leader. Would you say that you are the most powerful person in Russia?
Vladimir Putin: What I can say is that in accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the President, who is the head of state, does have great powers, but also great responsibilities. In this sense, I think that there is a balance between the President’s powers and responsibilities. This is not the easiest job in the world, but for me, as a citizen of Russia, it is an immense honour, of course. My family lived from generation to generation in a village some 100 kilometres from Moscow for more than 300 years and went the whole time to one and the same church, and so my spiritual ties with this land, with my homeland, are very strong in my heart and my soul, and as I say, I truly do see it as a great honour to be the head of the Russian state.
Question: But you govern a country spanning 11 time zones. You have different climate conditions and a common border with some of the most unstable countries – Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea. How should such a country be governed, like a European country, for example, or like the United States?
Vladimir Putin: Russia needs to be governed using the means and methods best suited to its conditions and not in the same way as some European countries or as the United States. Russia is a unique country and not only in terms of its territory, which, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union is still the largest in the world, but also because it is home to more than 120 ethnic groups and many different religions.
Question: Perhaps this requires a stronger hand at the top, in order to get all these different people to live together?
Vladimir Putin: As I said, I think that the powers and responsibilities of the President are balanced. We need our state and society to be organised in such a way that the regional authorities feel intimately bound to the country’s common national interests, while at the same time having sufficient powers to resolve their local problems and objectives. There are, however, some basic principles that we must certainly adhere to and that we are ensuring.
First, we are working hard now on creating a genuine multiparty system. We have made a conscious decision to have a parliament formed by political parties. I think that this should increase the role of political parties both at regional and national level. This sends a simple signal to the public, namely, that if you want to be involved in politics, do so through a political party.
Second, we are redistributing powers between the federal, regional and municipal authorities. Some powers, and the financing to go with them, are being devolved to regional and municipal level. We have doubled the number of municipalities in the country from 12,000 to 24,000 and have transferred sources of financing at the same time so that municipal authorities can address their local problems. In this respect we are following the same road that European countries have taken.
Question: But there are also other powerful people in your country – the oligarchs. One of them is now in prison for tax crimes. Do you think that with time it will be possible to amnesty Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
Vladimir Putin: I think it is everyone’s duty to abide by the law regardless of their position in society or how much money they have. Even those who have amassed billion-dollar fortunes in the space of just five or six years have to observe the law. The state is not a nanny. The state is above all an instrument of enforcement to ensure equal conditions for all citizens, equal chances to develop and achieve success. The clan that you mentioned, the so-called oligarchs, is, as we understand it, a group of people who used the economic and legal transition period that our country went through to bypass the interests of our country and the majority of its citizens in order to amass huge fortunes through illegal means. If this can be proven by a court of law, then they must bear responsibility for their actions. Yes, the law does make provision for reducing sentences and conducting amnesties and so on, but these provisions must be used within the framework of the legislation currently in force and this requires certain conditions being met.
Question: Russia is often criticised over freedom of the press and also because television is under state control. Do you not think that your country needs greater freedom, in television, for example, in order to breathe more freely?
Vladimir Putin: I have spoken many times on the subject of freedom of the press and have answered all these questions, but I can repeat some figures now and outline our position on this issue.
The first point I want to make, and I already spoke about this with some of your colleagues, is that if we go back 100 years and look through the newspapers, we see what arguments the colonial powers of that time advanced to justify their expansion into Africa and Asia. They cited arguments such as playing a civilising role, the particular role of the white man, the need to civilise ‘primitive peoples’. We all know what consequences this had. If we replace the term ‘civilising role’ with ‘democratisation’, then we can transpose practically word for word what the newspapers were writing 100 years ago to today’s world and the arguments we hear from some of our colleagues on issues such as democratisation and the need to ensure democratic freedoms. But the world is very diverse. There are, of course, basic values without which no modern state or society can exist if it wants to develop effectively, and we are well aware of this. But there are also differences that, if ignored, can lead countries along the road to collapse and disintegration. This is also a lesson that we learned during the first half of the 1990s.
Question: Do you think there is a Russian model of democracy that differs from, say, the European or American model?
Vladimir Putin: I think that direct democracy is the clearest embodiment of the principles of democracy. In your country the president is elected through direct secret ballot and in our country the same is true. But in the United States, as we know, the president is elected through a system of electoral colleges. I personally think that direct democracy is a more democratic process. Regional leaders in some European countries are directly appointed. In our country the regional legislative assemblies take part in this process, and in some countries they do not. The institute of the monarchy survives today in some European countries, and though in most of these countries the monarch has a mostly representative function, this is not the case everywhere. In some cases the monarch also has certain powers of substance. But we do not say that monarchy is such a relic of the past that these countries cannot be considered democratic. So let’s get away from the stereotyped thinking of the Cold War era, stop putting labels on each other and simply cooperate instead, help each other develop and improve our political systems. If we do this with good intention, as friends and genuine partners, then we will certainly see the benefits.
Coming back to freedom of the press, without a free press and without civil society we will not be able to fight such problems as corruption, for example. We understand this very well. But if a free press is interpreted as being the chance for the oligarchs you mentioned to buy up all the media outlets and then use them to advance their own corporate and group interests, above all their own financial interests, I do not think that is a free press. It is also not a good thing when the state starts to dominate in the media. But I draw your attention to the fact that we have a constantly growing number of electronic media – more than 3,500 today. Cable TV is developing rapidly and we are going over to digital technology, especially at regional level. The state could not control all these media outlets even if it wanted to. That is not to mention the print media – more than 40,000 publications in Russia today. And more than half of these publications – I don’t remember exactly how many — are owned by foreign capital.
So, regarding this constant return to the issue of democracy in Russia, I can only see it in one light and I will be quite frank and open with you. Russia went through very serious economic upheaval in the early and mid-1990s. The economy was in a state of semi-collapse and the social system had broken down entirely. The state was unable to address all of these social problems without recourse to huge financial resources from abroad, and this put Russia in a weak position that made it possible to use a wide range of instruments to influence Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. Today these instruments have been lost but some of our partners still have the desire to influence our foreign and domestic policy. They need to put aside these desires so that we can start building a normal and equal partnership. Using democratisation of Russia as an instrument to pursue one’s own foreign policy aims with respect to our country is unacceptable.
Question: Russia was long criticised over Chechnya and the situation in the republic. Now we know that Shamil Basayev has been killed. You have said that the military operations in Chechnya are now over. The outcome of these operations is 300,000 dead, including around 80,000 Chechen civilians. Was this military operation justified? What responsibility does Russia bear for it? Was it possible to carry out an operation of this kind without violating the rights and interests of citizens? Was it necessary, for example, to bomb Grozny in order to fight the terrorists?
Vladimir Putin: Unfortunately, any conflict involving heavy arms causes deaths, including among the civilian population. I want to remind you that Russia gave Chechnya what amounted practically to independence in 1995, but what did we end up with as a result? Overnight this republic was taken over by extremist groups from all around the world. Overnight. Not only did the people who came to power there spare little thought for the interests of their citizens, they gave their interests no thought at all, pursuing instead their goal to create a fundamentalist state reaching from the Caspian to the Black Sea. This certainly has nothing to do whatsoever with the interests of the Chechen people. This circumstance, and the attempts to introduce extremist currents of Islam from abroad, turned against the people who tried to pursue these goals, because the majority of Chechen citizens realised that without Russia they would have no guarantee of real independence. This was exactly the way things turned out. It was for precisely this reason that the first President of Chechnya, Akhmat Kadyrov, who was later killed by terrorists, came to me. He came to me with these very ideas.
When we decided to hold a referendum on a constitution for Chechnya, a constitution that states expressly that Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation, many had doubts as to the wisdom of this step and as to how the Chechens would vote. But I remind you that more than 80 percent voted to maintain Chechnya within the Russian Federation. This is a question of principle for me. It was settled in the most democratic way possible and in the presence of those who had the greatest interest in seeing it resolved in democratic fashion. As you know, observers from the League of Arab Nations and from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference were present during the referendum on the constitution and during the presidential election. They were present at almost all the polling stations and they have no doubts that the voting was conducted in the most democratic fashion.
Yes, there are victims, of course. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable. But it was not us who began the war in 1999. Back then, international terrorist groups launched an attack on Dagestan, also a Muslim republic, from Chechen territory, and the Muslims of Dagestan, together with a large part of the Chechen population, fought back against these terrorists, and only later did our regular armed forces come to their aid. Only later. We had no choice but to take this action. I think that any country would rise to the defence of its territorial integrity, because in this case we were not just trying to stamp out a hotbed of terrorism in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya in particular. For us it was clear that if we allowed the creation of a fundamentalist state from the Caspian to the Black Sea, this would spill over into other parts of Russia where Muslims are a large part of the population. This was a question of the survival of the Russian Federation itself, of our statehood, and I think that all of our actions were justified.
Question: There are some things that people in the West don’t understand. You are very popular in Russia after six years in power. You wear your watch on your right hand and all the oligarchs have also started wearing their watches on their right hand. Your name is used for all kinds of products. Why don’t you make use of this situation and ask the parliament to amend the Constitution?
Vladimir Putin: Because the President of Russia is the guarantor of the Constitution. It is the President’s direct responsibility to guarantee its stability, and I think that this stability is precisely one of our greatest achievements of recent years. We cannot have a stable situation in the country if we destabilise the Constitution.
Finally, and most importantly, I already said that I consider myself a Russian right to the core, to the very marrow. And if you love your country, you need to understand that the destiny of such a vast state cannot be bound to the destiny of just one man, even one like me, and I like myself too. This is why I will do everything I can to ensure that everyone in the Russian Federation, starting with the head of state, respects the laws of this country.
Response: Mr President, thank you for this interview.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.