Reader: Hello, who is speaking?
Vladimir Putin: Putin.
Reader: Mr Putin, I am a native Muscovite. Do you consider yourself to be worthy of being the President of Russia, having been recommended by Yeltsin, who has destroyed the Soviet Union and whom the people don’t trust?
Vladimir Putin: If the people vote for me, I am; if they don’t, I am not.
Reader: And what is your personal opinion?
Vladimir Putin: My personal opinion will be based on the opinion of the voters who will go to the polls on March 26 and have their say. I think you would agree with me that a person is judged not by what he says, but by what he does.
Now, regarding the destruction of the Soviet Union. Let me remind you of a saying which has gained some currency: he who does not regret the destruction of the Soviet Union has no heart, and he who wants to see it recreated in its former shape has no brain . As you see, our efforts have lately been aimed at recreating a union state, but on a new basis. If the people approve of what we are doing towards that end, they will vote accordingly.
Reader: Thank you very much.
Reader: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. I am Ayaz Khasanov from Kazan. Today Russia has treaties with many of its regions. Tatarstan is the pioneer of that movement. Is there a chance that the treaty between Russia and Tatarstan will be revised?
Vladimir Putin: For a multi-national state like ours federation is the best way to preserve it intact. The parameters of the treaties the federal Government has signed with Tatarstan and many other regions of the Federation give us grounds to hope that our country will be stable over a long period.
By the way, I am in constant touch with the leadership of your republic. I am in touch with President Shaimiyev. He himself is an ardent supporter of a stronger Russian Federation and, on the other hand, there is no doubt that he is above all a patriot of Tatarstan.
Nobody is going to infringe upon the interests of the constituent members of the Federation. On the contrary, we will improve these relations so that the people of Tatarstan and other national republics feel that they have every opportunity for national development while being part of the Russian Federation.
Reader: And another little question. You have said that all the presidential candidates will have equal opportunities. Meanwhile the TV channels and the printed media devote most of their space to Putin. Other candidates, if they are mentioned at all, get somewhat negative coverage. Do you call that equal opportunity?
Vladimir Putin: Speaking about me personally, I have not been registered as a candidate for President, and I have not yet launched my election campaign. How much airtime has been given me as a candidate and how much to other presidential candidates is a question that will become relevant only after I launch my campaign.
As for the attention the media pay to the presidency as an institution which I currently represent, I can’t do anything about it: you can’t forbid the press to cover the activities of the top governing bodies.
Reader: Thank you for your frank answer.
Reader: My name is Yelena. I wish you victory in the elections. We need a president like you – competent, modern and energetic.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Reader: I think you understand that the destiny and state of the Russian people, who account for more than 80% of the country’s population, determine the fate and the future of the whole country. Last year the Ministry for Nationalities Affairs had a Russian Department, but it was dissolved after reorganisation.
Vladimir Putin: It’s the first time I have heard about it.
Reader: As the head of the Government and the state don’t you think that body should be restored and the national problems of Russians should be attended to?
Vladimir Putin: I am ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t know that the Department of the Russian People had been dissolved. This is odd. There are more Russians in Russia, in percentage terms, than there are Frenchmen in France. And of course, “the Russian question”, like the position of other peoples and nationalities, should be within the purview of the Government and state administration structures. That is my position. And thank you, Yelena, for the additional information.
Reader: This is Pavel on the line. I am from Krivoi Rog. I am interested in the fate of the Communists in Russia. Their ideology resulted in the deaths of millions of people and the demolition of temples and churches. And the trappings of their ideology are sinister: a banner the colour of blood, and they have set up a cemetery in Red Square…. What do you think about all this and the fate of the Communists? I think their ideology is very dangerous.
Vladimir Putin: Pavel, as regards the danger of ideology, I am by and large with you. At the same time I would like you to note that more than 6 million people vote for the Communists. And it happens without much support from publicity or media coverage, especially in the electronic media. And yet for some reason people vote for them. And while you and I understand the danger, we should analyse things and decide how we should behave.
If we simply persecute people for their views and convictions, nothing good will result. I think our behaviour should be highly civilised, we should not break the law.
Reader: And what do you think about the developments in the Duma where Unity has joined forces with the Communists?
Vladimir Putin: I’ll explain my position. I think that rather than fighting Communists we should try to win over the people who vote for them. And we should do it not by words, but by deeds. People should see for themselves that the ideals you and I are promoting – and these are the ideals of democracy and a market economy – yield practical results and improve people’s lives, make them easier and wealthier and more secure. This is the main idea.
As for the fate of the Communist Party, I think several options are open. If they change their ideology, that dangerous part you have just mentioned, and if they change their programme… By the way, they have dropped many things from their programme, but many things are still in there: confiscation, nationalisation and so on. But we have been there before: there was a time when they confiscated and nationalised everything, including chickens. Later they thought better of it and introduced the New Economic Policy. There is a danger that all this may be repeated. And this is not a hollow threat.
Well, if they realise that, and gradually abandon the radical elements in their programme and ideology, then they will not only preserve but expand their social base and evolve into a European-style social-democratic party.
In another scenario, if they persist with their ideological dogma, they will gradually lose their social base or will end up being an organisation with a high-sounding name, but without broad popular support. These are the possible scenarios.
Reader: Thank you and I wish you success.
Reader: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Alexander. I can’t believe that I am talking with a President.
Vladimir Putin: And rightly so, because you are talking with an Acting President.
Reader: But I hope you will be elected.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Reader: But I am not entirely happy with your handling of Chechnya. And my question is: how will you go about fighting crime?
Vladimir Putin: How come? On the one hand, you disagree with my actions in Chechnya and at the same time you call me to fight crime. It doesn’t quite add up. I think all these things are interconnected, because Chechnya is one of the main enclaves from which crime spreads throughout the Russian Federation. Unless we put an end to the criminal community there we will have no chance of tackling crime throughout the Russian Federation. That is my answer, I don’t know if you are satisfied or not…
Reader: Thank you.
Reader: This is Alexander speaking from Moscow. Let me first say that I support your campaign to restore order in Chechnya. And my question is about the reform of the Armed Forces. Does the Government have a concrete programme on this matter? Our army should be more combat-capable.
Vladimir Putin: That is a sore question, Alexander, and a question that is very important for the destiny of the country, and I don’t mind using high-flown words. It is important for the economy, for security and for public morale. What we call the “military component” has grown weaker and everything has come tumbling down. Everything should be in harmony: the economy, the social sphere, the military and the law enforcement forces…. Of course, this is one of the main challenges we must confront immediately. Are you a serviceman?
Reader: I am an officer in reserve.
Vladimir Putin: You put your finger on the problem. To an outsider there seems to be nothing wrong: we have an army of 1.2 million and all the problems can be easily solved. But it turns out that the structure of the army, its status and expenditure – all this calls for a different approach. You know that a new concept for restructuring the Armed Forces has been adopted, and one of the vehicles for these transformations is strengthening the so-called general-purpose forces.
Reader: When will we have a professional army?
Vladimir Putin: We will introduce the professional principle gradually, taking into account the Government’s economic potential. There are some units which I think should be manned only by professionals. The special forces, for example.
Reader: This is Natalya Nevzorova speaking. Why is there so much talk about the disappearance of the journalist Babitsky and nothing is heard about General Shpigun, who was kidnapped last year?
Vladimir Putin: As for Babitsky, one of my aides told me today that a TV channel has run a video in which Babitsky says that he is all right. So, in that sense he has not disappeared.
The field commanders who are holding him have already released five of our servicemen in exchange for him. By the way, the military told me that initially nothing was said about his movements because the group that had offered to exchange him had set the condition: they would release two more officers after Babitsky is delivered to their camp in the mountains. I think that is why our military have proceeded so carefully.
Reader: So he kind of sacrificed himself….
Vladimir Putin: No, he did not sacrifice himself. It was his voluntary decision. He went to the people whose interests he actually defended. And they offered to exchange him for soldiers. There are still many things to be cleared up.
As for Shpigun, I agree with you. And it is not only about him. There are more than 250 hostages there, both our citizens and foreigners.
Reader: Good afternoon. I lost all my family in Grozny. Only my son survived. When the first war started I sent him to some relatives in Moscow because I was afraid that he would be drafted… He was arrested in September last year. And now he is in the Matrosskaya Tishina jail. I am asking you to help my son so that he could regain faith in life and in truth. He is mature enough for that now.
Vladimir Putin: Do you have some whereabouts?
Reader: Yes. Telephone number….
Vladimir Putin: OK, we will pass it on to the people concerned. As a mother, are you sure of your son? Are you sure there was nothing wrong there?
Reader: I am sure that if he is released now…. He suffers a great deal, he says: “Mother, this is God’s punishment.” He went to jail in order to become a real man.
Reader: My name is Lidia Ganzha. Sorry for taking your time. I am a soldier’s mother. My son was in a training unit and he has been missing for the last three months. Is there any outfit that can help me find my son?
Vladimir Putin: Give us all his data.
Reader: Mikhail Ganzha. Born on July 15, 1980 in Moscow. He was drafted on May 26, 1999 by the Timiryazevsky District Draft Board. I have been to the draft comission….
Vladimir Putin: Where did he serve?
Reader: The town of Ostrovsk, Pskov Region, military unit No…. I think it would be a great idea to have a hot line to help mothers find their sons.
Vladimir Putin: I will make all the inquiries about your son and we will let you know.
Reader: But you understand that very many mothers suffer in the same way.
Vladimir Putin: I agree. As far as I know, the Defence Ministry had such a hot line. I will make a point of discussing it with Igor Sergeyev.
Reader: May God keep you healthy.
Reader: This is Olga Ms Romanovskaya from the city of Zhukovsky in the Moscow Region. A great misfortune has hit us. A flying crew of the research institute sent to Angola has been captured by UNITA militants. To this day neither the institute, nor the relatives have any information although they have tried every official government office. We appealed to you at the time when you were the head of the Federal Security Service. There are five other crews in addition to our crew. That’s 20 Russian pilots. When will they be released?
Vladimir Putin: Ms Romanovskaya, we are also worried about the fate of our citizens who have found themselves in such dire conditions. And the Foreign Ministry continues working to secure their release.
But there is something else I would like to tell you. Unfortunately, it is a widespread phenomenon when our citizens or Russians living in other republics who hold Russian citizenship work not for the Government but for private firms and companies and, unfortunately, they often break the laws of the host countries. In this way they compromise themselves and Russia. So, such problems are not easy to solve. But it does not mean that we should leave them in the lurch. Of course, we will try to do more to secure their release. We have not forgotten them, I assure you, Ms Romanovskaya.
Reader: Thank you very much.
Reader: Andrei Dmitriyenko from Moscow. It is about Berezovsky. Has there been any progress in the investigation of his activities? Will a stop be put to it?
Vladimir Putin: I am not investigating his activities or anyone else’s. Criminal cases have been opened by the Prosecutor-General’s Office. These cases are following their due course. I don’t think we should interfere in the work of the investigation services.
Reader: Don’t you think there may be deliberate procrastination?
Vladimir Putin: What makes you think so? Why do you have such fears? Everyone is equal before the law. And no one, including Boris Berezovsky, can expect to be treated in a special way.
I can tell you something: the people we have come to be called oligarchs, and I know many of them, often say one and the same thing: we are interested in having common rules of the game. Why is it that one person pays his taxes and another can evade them? The Government should treat everyone equally, it should create a level playing field.
Reader: Does the resignation of Kolesnikov as First Deputy Internal Affairs Minister have any connection with these rumours?
Vladimir Putin: No connection. It is an internal decision of the Ministry. I could have stepped in, but when the Minister and Mr Kolesnikov himself decided that he would quit his job at the Internal Affairs Ministry, I don’t think I have the right to meddle in this process. People working in a team must be compatible psychologically. I don’t think I should impose decisions on personnel matters if they have nothing to do with principles of politics.
Reader: It is Georgy from Moscow. The debate on the land issue has been underway for a year. The time has come to put an end to it by taking the issue to the people. Land is the legacy of the whole nation, and let the people decide what to do with it. To save money, the referendum could be held at the same time as the presidential elections.
Vladimir Putin: Land has always been a key issue in Russia. Obviously, some decision has to be taken. The land situation cannot be an obstacle to the development of market relations. But we cannot have people, especially rural folk, getting a suspicion that the reforms would deprive them of the main means of production, the source of their livelihood. So, the issue cannot be solved in secrecy.
In civilised countries where they have free purchase and sale of land, there is a huge body of regulation on the matter. And in this country this mechanism should be elaborated in detail and set down in black and white. A referendum on the issue is possible. But technically we won’t be able to prepare it by election time. But it’s an interesting idea anyway.
Reader: Good afternoon. I am Galina Zadorina. We have read in Komsomolskaya Pravda that 342 million roubles of federal money will be allocated to finance the spring planting season in Chechnya.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, that option is being considered.
Reader: And in the area east of the Urals, the birthplace of Terenty Maltsev where grain crops alone occupy 100,000 hectares, we have been told that we won’t get a single kopek from the federal budget. Who will provide bread for the nation then?
Vladimir Putin: Ms Zadorina, as for Chechnya, you understand that it is a special case. Unless the Government provides immediate support, we will have to feed the whole republic; and it would cost not 300 million but perhaps billions. It makes more sense for us to allocate the money now to enable the people to feed themselves. That’s one thing.
And secondly, it is our duty to support the Chechen people today. Those who say that we are fighting Chechens are wrong. We are fighting militants and terrorists whose prime victims are the Chechen people. They are our citizens, and it is our duty to take care of them.
Thirdly, I think it is wrong to simply disburse money out of the federal budget for some industry, as was formerly the case. This used to be the practice, but it is not very effective. I would agree with you that we must find ways for the government to help the development of agriculture.
Reader: I am Olga Rubits from Voronezh. My husband is a military man. And my first question is how do you assess your physical fitness?
Vladimir Putin: I am not a military man, Ms Rubits. I am a civilian in reserve. But I think my physical condition is satisfactory.
Reader: And how about your shooting?
Vladimir Putin: I am not a bad shot; in fact, I am a pretty good shot.
Reader: Then tell me when will payment of salaries to servicemen stop being delayed?
Vladimir Putin: The situation has improved in the last six months. Or perhaps you don’t agree with me?
Reader: The situation improved only before the year began, before the elections. The arrears on food ration compensation were paid, but payments have stopped again.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, compensation for food rations has been a problem. But there is no connection between the Duma elections and payments to servicemen. We pay the current salaries, but paying the arrears is a bit more of a problem. But the arrears will be gradually paid off too. Only please don’t link it to the upcoming presidential elections….
Reader: This is Lidia Titova from Moscow. I hear that you frequently go to church. Is it connected perhaps with some personal experiences and misfortunes?
Vladimir Putin: When I was several months old, my mother and a woman who lived in the same communal flat took me to a church and baptised me secretly from my father who was a member of the Communist Party. That was my first visit to a church of which, as you may guess, I have dim memories.
Later, when I worked in St Petersburg I went on a trip to Jerusalem at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. My mother gave me the little cross with which I was baptised to be sanctified on the Holy Sepulchre. I fulfilled her request. And I must say that the holy places made a great impression on me. Later we revisited the place as tourists with the whole family.
Reader: Can it be said that your soul is hankering for the church?
Vladimir Putin: I am giving you a perfectly frank account of how it happened. And you can draw your own conclusions.
Reader: The conclusion that suggests itself is: if a person goes to a church voluntarily, it means his soul is calling him.
Vladimir Putin: I simply wanted my children to be introduced to all this. I’ve been an occasional church-goer ever since.