Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am at your service. And I am ready to take your questions.
Question: You have had a meeting with Italian businessmen. Have you managed to persuade them to invest money in the Russian economy and what is the message you will convey to the representatives of the two major Italian concerns, ENI and FIAT?
Vladimir Putin: You know, it was not my aim to persuade Italian entrepreneurs to invest in the Russian economy because they have long been investing in the Russian economy. It was a substantive and committed discussion of people doing a common job. I simply thought it my duty, since I am in Italy, to meet with the captains of Italian business, to tell them about the state of my country’s economy today, about the transformations that are taking place in the country in the political and economic spheres and to explain the immediate steps we are going to take, to hear what their concerns are in order to address the problems that worry our partners. It was not a protocol meeting, it was a working meeting, a business conversation.
We noted the need to improve the financial system. A member of our delegation, the governor of Vnesheconombank of Russia, told us that just two hours earlier he had signed an agreement with his partners on a $1.5 billion credit line. Let me stress, a credit line without sovereign guarantees, that is, without the guarantees of the Russian Government.
We discussed the development of small and medium enterprises and of infrastructure.
As regards ENI and FIAT, they are our long-time partners. ENI is a major partner of Russia, it accounts for 30% of our total trade with Italy. The main partner of ENI, the company Gazprom, delivered more than $20 billion worth of gas to Italy in the past few years. Just recently Gazprom and ENI, jointly with Italian partners, took a big step towards a project called “The Blue Stream” to supply gas to Turkey. The total cost of the deal is $2 billion. ENI is working with partners in Russia to modernise the gas industry, and that’s another $1.6 billion or so. ENI is working with other partners, for example, with LUKoil. And there are good prospects for developing the Caspian oil. The total amount is over $1.9 billion. Italian and Russian partners have good prospects for working in third countries. They can be assured of the Government’s support.
We would welcome progress on the project which was announced during the visit to Italy by the first President of the Russian Federation in February 1998. That’s a project to organise the manufacture of FIAT cars in Nizhny Novgorod. The total volume of investments has been cut somewhat, but it is an absolutely realistic project. I was recently in Nizhny Novgorod for the signing of a key agreement on the issue between FIAT and the GAZ firm, our main car maker. Several car models are to be produced. I am sure there will be demand for them in Russia.
Question: Could you tell us about your meeting yesterday with the Pontiff, and specifically, how much truth is there in the talk about a possible Pope’s visit to Russia?
Vladimir Putin: The Pope is not only the head of the State of Vatican, he is also the head of the Roman Catholic Church. We are aware that the Roman Catholic Church is conducting negotiations and to some extent debate with the Russian Orthodox Church on a number of issues. We try not to interfere into that discussion. We know that it is a positive discussion and we would like the issues being discussed to be eventually settled and resolved.
There are many confessions in the united Europe, including Christian confessions. They include Protestants, the Anglican Church and many others. I think that the Catholic Church will put its relations with the Russian Orthodox Church in order too. I hope all these discussions will be finalised to general satisfaction.
Pope John Paul II is an intelligent man, he understands everything. The problem of a visit to Russia was not discussed. One thing we would hate to do is to cause any damage to the discussion going on between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church which is, in my opinion, moving in the right, positive direction. And the talk itself was very productive and thoroughgoing. And I would like again to thank the Pope in your presence.
Question: During your joint press conference with US President Clinton on Sunday you said that the Russian Government intends to push through the Duma a tax reform to improve the overall investment climate, to attract major companies to the Russian market, in particular, in the oil sphere. Could I ask you what are you going to do if the Duma blocks or tries to stop the process of reform in that sphere?
Vladimir Putin: I have to tell you that I have discussed this issue not only with President Clinton but it was also touched upon at the meeting with Italian businessmen. But I must assure you that the success of our plans and the new bills pending before the Duma is in the interests not so much of our partners, for example, in North America, Europe or Italy where we are meeting today, but in the interests of the Russian economy. What are we going to do if the country’s Parliament finds our proposal not to be sound enough and balanced enough? We will try to convince the deputies and build our case. If our arguments fail to convince them, we will look for compromises.
But I must tell you that from the way the parliamentary debate on the new Tax Code and some other laws in this sphere is unfolding, these laws have a good chance of being passed. They are likely to be passed because there is a firm conviction in society and among the deputies that we should “debureaucratise” the economy and give it more freedom, provide resources for the development of industry, the real sector of the economy, as we call it. If the laws you mentioned are passed, the total tax burden will be reduced by 2% of the GDP beginning from next year. That is a massive reduction. Our GDP will be a little over 6 trillion rubles on average. This means that we will leave 130–136 billion rubles to the economy. Besides, we will reduce the number of taxes and, very importantly, change the taxation system. We will take yet another step which has repeatedly been discussed at meetings with the business community such as the one which has just ended here in Milan.