Question: First of all, I would like to thank you for receiving us today. This is a great privilege and we value it very much.
I would like to begin with the big piece of news that we just heard regarding the death of Shamil Basayev, Russia’s most wanted terrorist, the man responsible for Beslan, for Dubrovka and many other crimes committed in Russia against the Russian people. What were your thoughts when you received this news?
President Vladimir Putin: I thought that this was just retribution for someone like this terrorist. As I have said, this man has the blood of our children in Beslan and of many other victims on his hands. I think that there are people who deserve this kind of retribution. We will fight terrorism using exclusively legal methods and basing ourselves on the laws of our country. We think that Russia, like any other country in the world, has the right to defend itself against terrorist aggression from outside and to protect its territorial integrity, and we will take all legitimate measures to defend our interests.
Question: What were your thoughts at the moment you were told that he had been killed?
Vladimir Putin: I thought that this was too little for him, simply to be killed. I think that no matter what religion he professes, he will get what he deserves in the next world for the crimes that he has committed.
Question: Now for a question about the G8 and the upcoming summit in St Petersburg. You are presiding over this summit. You are the host. You will be holding your first meeting with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. What are the key issues at the moment, as you see them, on the bilateral agenda for Russia and Canada?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to recall first of all that at the start of the 1990s, then Prime Minister and leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, Brian Mulrooney, took the first steps towards building new relations between Canada and the new Russia. We have not forgotten this. Over these years we have come a long way, have taken our relations to a new level and, I think, have achieved a great deal. I note that at the moment the level of political cooperation and trust we have achieved is still ahead, unfortunately, of our economic achievements. But there are several things that unite us. This is not just the fact that we are both countries with vast territories. It is also mutual economic interests, including with respect to the main item that we will be discussing at the summit – energy security. I know that our energy companies are currently in talks and that we could combine our efforts to coordinate our action and make a worthy contribution to resolving energy problems in the world. This concerns projects in the area of liquefied natural gas and supplies to the North-American continent. This also concerns work on the markets of third countries.
No less important is that we unite our efforts in the fight against infectious diseases. We know that infectious diseases are responsible for a third of all deaths in the world. I think that Canada is also doing a great deal to resolve problems in the area of education. Canada, like Russia, is a multiethnic country. You have a bilingual culture that is a good example for emulation in many countries, including in the Russian Federation. Of course, we cannot adopt your bilingual culture wholesale, because there are more than 120 different peoples and ethnic groups living in Russia. They are all very strongly rooted in their historic territories. There are, of course, huge differences. But there are many common elements that make us close partners. Aside from anything else, we are also neighbours on the Arctic Ocean.
Question: Yes, this is all true. As preparations for the summit continue, there has been a lot of criticism from Russia’s G8 partners, especially from the United States, regarding backsliding on democracy. Overall, criticism concerns lack of freedom of the press, changes to the electoral law and the law on NGOs. To quote some statistics and ideas that I heard at Freedom House, they say that two years ago Russia still had freedom and today it does not. The organisation Human Rights Watch said in 1995 that Russia would creep towards authoritarianism in 2005, and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said that, “in many areas of civil society the government is unfairly and improperly restricting people’s rights”. You have said that you do not believe this to be the case and have explained it very well. But what interests me is where do you think this criticism is coming from? Why has Russia become a whipping boy? In English we say that there’s no smoke without fire, and I’m sure that Russian has a similar saying.
Vladimir Putin: First of all, we need to say things frankly and as they are. Russia is in a state of political and economic transition. We went from the tsarist regime straight into communism and only at the beginning of the 1990s made a decisive step towards developing democratic institutions. I say now, as I’ve said before, that we made this choice independently, and not under pressure from anyone. We made this choice for ourselves because the practice of recent decades in the world has shown that democratic organisation of society is the only way forward. It is an essential condition for effective development. And if we want to be an effective country, and this is what we want, then we must adhere to these rules, and this is what we shall do.
As for whether this criticism is justified or not, when we hear this kind of criticism from interested partners who really do want to see Russia grow stronger and become more effective, then we can see where it is coming from and we will, of course, listen attentively and respond to it, and respond sincerely, what’s more. But I do want to point out that the processes underway in our country differ little from those underway in other countries.
If you take the changes to the procedures for electing regional leaders, for example, the heads of regions are elected through a voting procedure in the regional parliaments. In many other countries that are considered entirely democratic not even this procedure exists and the regional heads are simply appointed directly. In some European countries and in India, for example, the world’s biggest democracy, they are simply appointed by the government.
Question: Can I interrupt you for a second? I understand very well everything you’re saying, but that is the form, and I am talking about what actually happens in practice. The Russian Union of Journalists said, for example, that not a single negative report has been made about you in the last three years. Nothing bad has been said about you on the three national TV channels. That is the reality.
The structure might be fine, but the reality is a different situation.
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think this is the case. If you look at and analyse more closely what is going on in the media, you will see that there is constant criticism of myself and of other people involved in politics or management at a high level. I do not think that this criticism, whether at home or abroad, is always objective in character, but we accept this situation and consider it normal.
But I would like to come back to your question about why this is happening. The early 1990s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a very difficult time for our economy. Our social system broke down entirely. You were living here and you saw all of this. In reality, our country was balancing on the edge of preserving its statehood. This was a huge country, after all, hard to govern, lurching from one crisis to another, and it was easy to manipulate it and influence its domestic and foreign policy. And suddenly in the space of just five or six years everything has changed quite radically, but some of our partners have not lost their desire to manage and dictate the situation within Russia and to influence our foreign policy. And so they have begun feverishly looking round for these levers through which to exert influence, but little opportunity remains today for influencing Russia.
This, I think, explains the ongoing criticism over democracy, freedom of the press and so on. These issues are being used as an instrument to intervene in our domestic and foreign policy in order to have an influence on it.
But I think these are attempts to resolve today’s problems using yesterday’s means. This is an approach based on the old Cold War-era foreign policy vision of Russia being if not an enemy than at least an opponent. But if certain of our partners were able to carry out an in-depth analysis of the processes underway in the world today and look ahead not just to the next presidential elections in four years time but 15 or 25 years down the road, they would take a different attitude towards Russia. Then we would not see this campaign that we are currently witnessing.
As for the issue of freedom of the press and related problems, you said yourself where this is mostly coming from, and I am sure that many in your country would agree with me that only those who themselves have a spotless human rights record have the right to point the finger at others.
Question: And the partners who do not want to see a free and independent Russia, who are they?
Vladimir Putin: I did not say that they do not want to see a free and independent Russia. I said that they would like to have an influence on our domestic and foreign policy and are creating the instruments of this influence. That is all. And you named them yourself.
Vladimir Putin: You said yourself that criticism is coming mostly from the United States. You have answered your own question.
Question: You no doubt know that now, as we meet here in your residence, a summit presenting itself as an alternative to the G8 summit, ‘A Different Russia’, is taking place. The Kremlin said that it would not like foreigners to attend this alternative summit and would view this as an unfriendly gesture. But five countries, including Canada, have sent their representatives to this summit, including the Canadian ambassador. Do you take this as a slap in the face?
Vladimir Putin: I am not sure just what kind of alternative summit this is. I have heard that some of our political opponents within the country want to use it as a platform for advancing their own views on the situation in the country. This is all looking, of course, to the State Duma election at the end of 2007. If officials from other countries support this kind of initiative, this means that they are simply trying to have a bit of influence on the internal political deal in Russia. This is their right and I wish them luck.
Question: Coming to another issue, we have a new government in Canada that is seen as being closer to the United States than the previous government. You have not met yet with our new prime minister, but have you sensed any signals that indicate that this relation is becoming stronger and could, in turn, have an impact on relations between Canada and Russia?
Vladimir Putin: No, I have sensed nothing of this kind so far. I know the mood in Canada itself and I know that Canada feels it is the neighbour of a powerful and large partner, one of the clear leaders in world politics. I do not want to say anything I shouldn’t in this respect, but I know the concerns in Canadian business and political circles. Canada is carrying out its own fight to feel independent in all respects and in the full sense of the word. I think this is right because, while monopolists might like monopolies, they are not good for the situation overall and ultimately not good even for the monopolists themselves. This is why we support a multi-polar world and not a mono-polar world, not a situation in which one side dictates its conditions to the other players on the international stage. I hope that our point of view will eventually win out. But we will fight to advance this view in international affairs not by using the means and methods of the Cold War era, but through open and friendly dialogue with all of our partners, including Canada and the United States. This is one of the reasons why we get together, including for the summit in St Petersburg.
Question: North Korea and Iran will undoubtedly come up on the agenda at the summit. These are two hot spots on the international stage at the moment and are the subject of differences among the G8 partners. You have expressed your opposition to imposing sanctions on these countries, saying that you do not want to back them into a corner. Russia continues to build the nuclear reactor at Bushehr and to sell Iran missiles. Why not stop this? What would have to happen for you to say that the time has come to impose more severe sanctions and more serious punishment on countries that violate international laws?
Vladimir Putin: Unlike in past years, we all share the same goals. Like our G8 partners, including Canada, the United States and the European countries, we want a safer world, we want to prevent new threats from emerging and we want to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery in the world. This goes for the Iranian nuclear programme and the North Korean missile programme. The question is only about what means we use to achieve these goals. We see that our partners are sometimes mistaken, to say the least. They were looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example, but where are they? Has the economic, social and political situation improved there? Has the counterterrorist situation improved there? This is a big question. And where is the exit now? It’s hard to say what the next step should be, but pulling out is also not an option. This is an illustration of the kind of impasse we can arrive at.
I hope that together, and I want to stress this, together, including with the forces in the international coalition in Iraq and the Iraqi people, we will find a way out of this situation. But I do not think that finding a solution has become any easier than when we were trying to put pressure on Saddam Hussein.
The same goes for North Korea and Iran. Regarding nuclear technology the matter concerns not only Iran, after all. The matter also concerns other countries that are on the threshold of developing nuclear technology. One of the items on the agenda for the G8 summit is energy security. But the development of nuclear energy is one of the ways of overcoming energy crises. How can we close off access to present and future nuclear technology to all countries that are not in the nuclear club, especially for peaceful purposes? We cannot do this. Iran will not be the only country wanting to develop this technology, other countries will want to do it too, and we cannot cut them all off from it.
We need to create conditions that will give these countries access to modern technology, including nuclear technology, while at the same time addressing concerns over proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russia has proposed a solution. We proposed creating a network of international centres to enrich uranium and process spent nuclear fuel. This, and other issues, will also be on the agenda at the G8 summit.
We do not support letting anyone and everyone acquire nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery. What we want is for everyone to work together, including in the G8, to reach coordinated decisions. This is our objective. How these decisions take form in the Security Council, say, (as sanctions or as a statement) is another matter. But if we start imposing sanctions right now, without even waiting for Iran’s response to the proposal that was made regarding its nuclear programme, we will simply undermine this positive process that had just begun to emerge. Why should we do this? This problem has been going on for several years now and what will change if we wait another three weeks? I don’t think that anything will change.
So we should not take any hasty steps in this regard. I think that these are the kinds of issues where haste is detrimental.
Question: What about the missiles?
Vladimir Putin: The same goes for the missiles. We have expressed our concern over the tests conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Speaking in a strictly legal sense, from the point of view of international law, North Korea has the right to develop missile technology because it is not party to the international agreements in this area. But one party’s rights should not infringe on the rights of others, at least as concerns the free movement of shipping, for example. Our North Korean partners did not warn anyone, after all, that they were going to carry out these tests. They did not say where the warheads or other parts of the missiles being tested might land, and this could have had serious consequences.
Question: So they almost reached your borders, is that right?
Vladimir Putin: There’s no need to overdo the situation. Our national monitoring systems did not detect the fall of any pieces of missile, any missile debris, in our territorial waters or in our economic zone. But this is all going on close to our borders and it is of concern to us. This will, of course, be a subject for discussion in St Petersburg.
Question: The country you were born in, the Soviet Union, carried out a long and bloody war in Afghanistan, a war that it did not win in the end. Canada is now heading a coalition with other allies and we have more than 2,000 soldiers there. Do you think that the Canadians are making the same mistake that the Soviet Union made in its time? And do you think that there is something we could learn from Russia’s experience in Afghanistan?
Vladimir Putin: These are very difficult questions you are asking me. Yes, the Soviet Union was present in Afghanistan and sent its armed forces there, and now an international coalition of armed forces is present in the country. The strange thing is that in one case and the other the battle is against almost one and the same opponent. These forces are not identical, but the situation is very similar. I do not think that our western partners took the decision to send troops to Afghanistan lightly. Unfortunately, it had become clear to us all that the territory of this country was being used against the will of its people as a platform from which to conduct international terrorist activity, to train terrorists and prepare terrorist acts.
As with the Iranian and North Korean issues, the big difference between today’s situation and the situation in the 1980s is that we and our partners share the same aims. In this case the aim is to fight terrorism and strengthen the legitimate government in Kabul. Our position right from the start has been that we can achieve these aims only if we establish constructive cooperation between ourselves within the UN Security Council and help the constructive forces in Afghanistan consolidate their position. We supported the parliamentary and presidential elections there and we are helping with the development of the armed forces of Afghanistan today. We have provided millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan by sending military supplies for its army. We made a considerable contribution to preventing the Taliban from taking over the whole of Afghan territory before the international operation began on Afghan territory, and we will continue to work together with our partners in this area.
But what is very important is that if everything were now as it was at the end of the 1980s, we would have far greater problems. At that time, when the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan, the West was busy raising numerous Bin Ladens, sparing no time or money in its efforts. But today the situation is entirely different. Not only do we not support the forces resisting the international coalition in Afghanistan, but we are trying to make our constructive contribution to the positive development of the situation in that country and we will continue to work in solidarity in this way.
I would like to note that for the first time in our history we have not only authorised transport aircraft to fly across our territory but have also authorised the passage of NATO railway transport taking part in the operations in Afghanistan, including for military transit.
Question: Would you like to say a few words in English to our Canadian viewers before we end?
Vladimir Putin: I think it would not be right for me to say a few words in English to the viewers in Canada because then I would also have to say a few words in French as well, and I doubt that I can do this at a decent level. So I will just thank you for the attention you are giving the G8 and the situation in the Russian Federation itself.
And I wish our friends in Canada all the very best.
Response: Thank you very much.