Marek Halter: Everyone in the West today is interested in two things: Chechnya and your personality. You were saying that as a young man you wanted to be a secret agent, an intelligence agent. Is that true?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, my ambition was to be an intelligence agent.
Halter: And you worked in the intelligence for 16 years. What sort of time was it for you: interesting or not very?
Putin: First, in the Soviet times work in foreign intelligence was considered to be prestigious and elitist.
Halter: And you never felt disappointed?
Putin: No, never. There was an element of surprise rather, especially when I came to East Germany. At home, the processes of perestroika and reappraisal of many tenets of the communist ideology had begun. And coming there was like going 20 years back in time.
Halter: Do you have time to do any reading?
Putin: I recently read Nabokov. I enjoy reading Russian classics, especially Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I am fond of Hemingway. I used to really love Saint-Exupery. I memorised “The Little Prince” by heart.
Halter: And Alexandre Dumas?
Putin: I used to be completely wrapped up in Dumas. At one point I thought I had gone mad (laughs). In fact, when I finished reading all the novels I felt a kind of void, I felt drained. I was at a loss what to take up next because nothing seemed interesting to me after reading these books.
Halter: That is true. He visited Russia several times and he wrote about Russia. He was fond of Russia. It was he who said that a person who sits here in the Kremlin, after spending several months here, can no longer see how ordinary people live in Russia. He put it something like this: “Here is a president or a tsar sitting in the Kremlin. What does he see from his window? Nothing.”
Putin: I think he is absolutely right. And it applies not only to the people in the Kremlin but to all those who occupy government posts, because the biggest scourge (personally and professionally) of holding a high government post is a high degree of isolation. The degree of responsibility is so high that it is possible to get stuck with just reading papers and dealing with one’s assistants.
Halter: How will you go about ending the war in Chechnya?
Putin: We have already ended it. There is no war.
Halter: But people still die in Chechnya.
Putin: I can’t challenge that, but it is not a war.
Halter: What is it then?
Putin: It is a counterterrorist operation, to be precise, a special operation. I might agree that at the initial stage of the conflict it could be described as a war because there were large-scale hostilities.
Halter: Yes, yes…
Putin: However, I must tell you that if it were not for the attack on Dagestan last summer, nothing would have happened because Russia was absolutely unprepared and, most importantly, it did not want to fight or to see any bloodshed. Russia had resigned, as it were, to the disgrace it had experienced over the past three years. And Russia did experience the disgrace and lived through years of shame because, first, it had left its people to shift for themselves. In fact, what we have seen in Chechnya in recent years was a genocide of the Russian people, the ethnic Russian population. Unfortunately, nobody reacted to this. Nobody reacted even to the incursions into the Russian territory that were staged throughout these years. The authorities did not react to numerous kidnappings. You know that the number of kidnapped people in Chechnya runs to about 2,000. The interests of the extremists had nothing in common with the interests of the Chechen people. Chechens began abducting Chechens, something that had never happened in Chechen history before.
Marek Halter: I remember my good friend Yitzhak Rabin, whose death was a great loss to me. He often told me that he would never talk to Arafat, and yet they had a meeting at my place.
Putin: I would like to remind you that the Chechen people have been used, their quest for independence has been used. So, when you ask me what to do about the Chechens I will tell you that we will talk with the Chechens.
Halter: Mr Putin, which Chechens do you have in mind?
Putin: You know that Mufti Kadyrov has been appointed the head of the Chechen Administration. He fought against Russia in the first Chechen war. He fought on the side of the first President of Chechnya, Dudayev. Let me be frank with you, the decision to put him in charge of the republic did not come easily to me. And the appointment met with a mixed reaction in Russia. I had to draw on my personal political resources. I made the decision because I had a reserve of good will among the Russian population.
Halter: You have said that in addition to the Mufti there are other Chechen leaders who are ready to have dialogue with Moscow. Who are they?
Putin: You may have heard that three field commands have declared that they and their men are laying down arms and are calling on all the others to follow suit. We are ready for peaceful dialogue. We are not driving people into a corner. We have offered a way out even for those who fought arms in hand. As a matter of fact, I initiated the law on amnesty.
Halter: How do you see the political future of Chechnya? Will it be an autonomy which will eventually gain independence or are we talking only about autonomy?
Putin: Before 1996 Russia did not legally recognise the independence of Chechnya, but de facto Chechnya was absolutely independent. You know that. They elected their own president and passed their own Constitution, all our troops had left, police units, law courts and the prosecutor’s office had been dismantled, everything. But a free Chechnya became a bridgehead for attacks on Russia, something we could not tolerate. So today we can say that Chechnya has been and will remain a constituent part of the Russian Federation, a subject of the Russian Federation, but it would be a gross error to quash the aspirations of some Chechen people for autonomy. Humanity today has worked out an array of forms of autonomy within a single state.
Halter: An ideological void is filled by religion: people cannot live without faith and hope.
Putin: But religion is also an ideology.
Halter: True, but formerly there were non-religious ideologies, which of course were in themselves religions, but they were religions without God. Man was God. But today there is God. I have discussed it with the Pope.
Vladimir Putin: I also had a meeting with him recently.
Halter: In the Pope’s opinion, there is a danger that the Christians who dominate the world will be swept away by Muslims extremists. Today Christianity, which is integrated into a democratic system, is separated from the state.
Putin: I know, I have discussed it with the Pope, and he told me what Islamic extremists did to the representatives of the Holy See in Algeria, very much the same as what extremists did to ethnic Russians in Chechnya.
Halter: To listen to you, Russia is an outpost in the way of expansion of Muslim extremism. I am referring not only to Chechnya but also to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Putin: I am glad you think that Russian soldiers are on the forward line of the fight against Islamic extremism. That is true. Unfortunately, few people realise that. Today we are witnessing the creation of an extremist international along the so-called arc of instability stretching from the Philippines to Kosovo. That is very dangerous, especially for Europe, because it has a large Muslim population. People who use Islam as a religion to cover up their terrorist goals are compromising Islam. But Islam is a religion of peaceful and decent people. Where is the problem? You know that one extremist organisation, headed by Osama bin Laden, the number one terrorist in the world, I think it is called the International Islamic Front, has as its goal to create an Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic United States, to include several countries and some former Soviet republics in Central Asia which you have mentioned and parts of the modern territory of the Russian Federation. Such are their fascist plans. I describe them as fascists because they call for a united front against Jews and “Crusaders”, as they call people like you and me. It is truly a terrorist international. In that sense Russia is on the frontline in the fight against international terrorism. When the chips are down, Europe should be grateful to us and it should bow to us in recognition of our fight against international terrorism, which we have been conducting, unfortunately, single-handedly so far.
Halter: What do you propose as a means of fighting religious extremism?
Putin: There is only one way: to enhance the prosperity of the Muslim population or Muslim countries generally and to introduce universal human values. All the rest would be built on these two components. In principle, the religious extremism with which we were confronted in the North Caucasus, for example, is based on quasi-communist ideas about redistributing wealth and fighting for a better and more fair future. When a person is poor it is easy to drum the idea of universal equality into his head, which, as I have just said, is what religious extremists are doing. So, we should use the methods and means I have mentioned.
Halter: You have a chance to be the president of a wonderful country and a wonderful people which has never seen democracy, has never known freedom. But the people expect something from you. What programmes do you have to offer them? Do you have a programme to fight corruption and redistribute wealth?
Putin: You have answered the question by putting it. There are two main areas of our work: the fight against poverty and corruption. All the actions of the President and the Government should be geared to these goals. If we are to defeat corruption we must be able to develop democratic institutions of civil society. I mean the free press, freedom of religion, stable political movements and parties. It also includes the principle of separation of power and a well developed and effective court system. When I speak about a strong state I mean a state that is functioning effectively. To be sure, it should be accompanied by a strengthening of the institutions of market economy. And what you have mentioned – taking wealth from the rich and giving it to the poor – is the most dreadful thing that can be done. We must do the opposite – to strengthen the institution of property and give every owner – small or large – a sense of absolute confidence that he will be able not only to keep his property, but increase it and use it and dispose of it in the Russian Federation.
Halter: I remember you once said that every Russian has love of centralised power in his genes. Isn’t that true? I would like to ask you whether our Russian friends also have love of democracy in their genes?
Putin: I never said that, but I think that centralised power and democracy do not contradict each other.
Halter: How can you prove your point about the lack of a contradiction?
Putin: Let us take any country, for example, France. France is a centralised state, isn’t it? Indeed, unlike Russia, France is not a federated but a unitary state. It is more centralised than Russia. But can one deny that France is a democratic state? You have rightly said that Russia has lived first under tsarism and then under communism. Naturally, it takes time to introduce all these democratic institutions. And they meet with understanding and support in Russian society. Most Russian citizens cherish their democratic institutions. I am sure they have struck root on Russian soil and will develop.
Halter: Have you invited the Pope to come to Moscow?
Putin: If the Pope comes to Russia and does not meet with the Patriarch, that would cause a scandal. We don’t need a visit with a scandal. It won’t contribute to bringing our positions closer. The Pope is a wise man. He understands this very well.
Halter: What do you think about the French who write about you?
Putin: Whether or not I am pleased with what the French write about me is beside the point. What interests me much more is what they think about me because what they write is not always the same as what they think, especially the general population.