Question: Could you tell us about the Security Council’s decisions on the first issue, the Caspian region.
Vladimir Putin: I believe that it is crucial to establish a coordination team at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The team will include spokesmen not only from different ministries and departments but also from Russia’s largest energy and transportation companies. The issues we discussed during the meeting today concern security and our military presence. They have to do with promoting oil and gas projects Russia is interested in, and certain transportation projects.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been instructed to be more active in its consultations with our partners in Caspian countries. A decision has been made to establish the office of a presidential envoy, who will deal with the Caspian related problems we discussed at the Security Council session today. The rank of that official will be determined when we have a new Cabinet.
Question: Has a nomination been made?
Vladimir Putin: Not yet.
Question: There is a wide range of problems concerning the Caspian region, including oil production and transportation. Will the presidential envoy deal with all issues?
Vladimir Putin: He will supervise everything but, I repeat, the coordination council, which will include Russia’s leading companies, will be a consultative body at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Question: Are we going to drive out the Americans, too?
Vladimir Putin: We are not going to drive anyone out. We are going to cooperate with everyone. We will respect the legitimate interests of all those involved in the process, but we will not overlook our own interests.
QUESTION [about the situation in the Chechen Republic]…
Vladimir Putin: We have never refused to engage in political processes and political negotiations. I have said so on a number of occasions. Moreover, we are in contact with Maskhadov’s spokesmen, and have been in contact with them for a long time. I have said so repeatedly, and I can say it again. <…> What’s important for us here is not the negotiation process in itself but Russian security guarantees. What matters to us is to make sure no that one will ever be able to use Chechnya as a bridgehead to attack Russia, or to take advantage of the situation there, as was the case last summer.
Now, who can give us such guarantees? No one but ourselves. That is why our Armed Forces and law enforcement agencies will stay in Chechnya, while we continue to cooperate with everyone who is prepared to contribute to solving the problem. In that, we will rely primarily on the Chechen people, who are sick and tired of the militants and realise that they have been framed and are being used to achieve certain ends that have nothing to do with their interests.
Russia has openly stated its conditions to beginning political negotiations: immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held to this day in some mountain areas in Chechnya. There are more than two hundred hostages, according to our calculations and the estimates of our law enforcement agencies and special services.
[Another condition is that militants are handed over to us.] The names of those militants and terrorists are well known to us. Now, if Mr Maskhadov is willing to do all that but cannot, if he has developed a disease called political impotence, we are ready to help him. Let him come to the negotiating table and meet the conditions I have mentioned. If, however, he cannot hand over the militants and terrorists, let him join us as we track them down and catch them. Let him make the men who are victimising his people flee Chechnya or go behind bars.
About a month ago, one of the go-betweens – a man I generally respect – passed another proposal for our talks. We made our conditions very clear to him. We were told Maskhadov was willing to concede, to accept our conditions and come to the negotiating table. We said no – not before he put it down on paper – because we know what can happen only too well. We have seen a lot of meaningless talk, and it’s going on to this day. All those words have only one aim: to engage us in pointless negotiations and take advantage of the lull. By the way, there is going to be no lull at all. Our 42nd division is already settling down for permanent stationing there. It will stay there.
He put down his commitments on paper, the Security Council made its corrections, and passed it back to Maskhadov in writing. On the whole, the document listed, I repeat, what I have just described, our conditions for starting negotiations. And that was it – the negotiators vanished after that. We have not seen them or heard anything from them for a month now. It all stopped at that.
Everyone vanishes as soon as we come to practical steps. That’s how it is. No one will ever again engage in empty talk with them. That is something everyone must understand, and we must put an end to wishful thinking. <…>
As things stand, some people are just using him [Aslan Maskhadov] to settle certain tactical problems, but when the people who control him realise that he cannot manage even that, they will change their attitude to him, I’m afraid. As for our response to his hypothetical answer to our proposals – in writing, I stress – we will be ready in a month if he replies in a month, and we will be ready tomorrow if he replies tomorrow. I want to stress the main point now. We will not have anyone lead us by the nose and will not believe anyone if we see that we are dealing with empty talk.
There can be only one kind of guarantees – our armed forces will stay there forever. We will take political measures together with the Chechen people to bring the social and political situation back to normal. We will do it together, and we have every reason to expect that there are people we can join efforts with – apart from Maskhadov and the militants who support him.
Question: There is a certain contradiction in what you’ve said. On the one hand, you say Maskhadov is not a man who can make any decisions, and he is just being used. On the other hand, you say you are ready to begin negotiations with him. Some regional governors, like Mintimer Shaimiyev or Aman Tuleyev, would never take steps like that on their own unless they coordinate their position with the federal centre…
Vladimir Putin: Shaimiev and Tuleyev are in no way involved in this.
Question: But they have been advocating the start of peace negotiations with Maskhadov.
Vladimir Putin: First, I am afraid you haven’t been listening to what I’ve been saying. If you had, you would not have seen any contradiction at all. What I said is that if he really wants to hand over the bandits to us but cannot do so, we can offer him a way out. He can join us in fighting the militants for his own people’s sake. So there is no contradiction here whatsoever.
To be honest, we are assuming he cannot do anything. We have told him: if you cannot act, join us and fight the militants and terrorists together with us. Then, if he cannot do even that, and is not ready to do anything else, and empty talk is the only thing he is capable of, that is not the kind of negotiator we need. We’ll manage without him.
Question: Could you clarify one point, please. What is Maskhadov’s status as far as Russia is concerned? Do you regard him as a lawfully elected head of a constituent entity or a wanted criminal, with police on his track? What is he?
Vladimir Putin: To us he is a criminal. The amnesty applies to him, and if he wants to take advantage of it, let him, while the going is good. His election did not comply with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, but he was elected, nevertheless. That is what we proceed from. If he wants to use the chance offered him by the State Duma of the Russian Federation with the amnesty law, he can do so.
Question: Mr Putin, you have recently visited three countries – Ukraine, the UK and Belarus. What were the most important issues discussed during each of the visits?
Vladimir Putin: Each had a dominant idea. For Belarus, it was progress towards a Union State, certain military technological partnership issues, and coordination of economic policies; in Britain, it was European security and bilateral economic partnership; and in Ukraine, it was similar economic issues, energy, military technological partnership, and the Black Sea Fleet.
Progress has been made on some of those matters, at least at the level of agreement and the formulation of our objectives. That is very important, as I see it.
Question: Let us get back to Belarus. In an interview a few days ago, President Lukashenko referred to the stationing of a 300,000-strong military force. You have already clarified this to a certain extent. But still, what exactly is that force? What does “stationing” imply? Are the troops on the move?
Vladimir Putin: Certainly not. As a matter of fact, what is happening is the implementation of a treaty signed in 1997, if I am not mistaken. That was when the State Duma ratified the interstate agreement. What is the issue here? The Belarusian Armed Forces and a part of the Armed Forces deployed in western part of the Russian Federation will undertake coordinated action in particular situations. The Belarusian Armed Forces will be subordinate only to their defence minister, and the Russian to their own leadership.
If, for some reason, the Belarusian Armed Forces need support from the Russian military, they will have such support. The matter concerns coordinated action by the two countries’ armed forces in circumstances that we expect never to arise.