Question: Mr Putin, the sudden resignation of Mr Yeltsin has prompted many questions in this country and abroad. Perhaps we could try to answer at least some of them today.
Vladimir Putin: Let’s try.
Question: When did Boris Yeltsin first mention his resignation?
Vladimir Putin: It was about ten days before the New Year. I came to him with a routine report on economic problems and on the situation in the North Caucasus; and when I started talking, I noticed that Mr Yeltsin was thinking about something else. I continued my report as planned. But he interrupted me and said: “You know, I have been thinking lately about the way the situation is shaping up in the country and I have decided to step down.”
Question: What were his arguments? What made him think he had to do it?
Vladimir Putin: It’s hard for me to say. You have to ask Mr Yeltsin about it. I can only repeat what he told me and what I replied. Perhaps he had some other reasons, but if so I don’t know. As you can guess, after the President’s surprise remark, my reaction was very guarded, and he sensed it. To be quite frank, I tried to sidestep the issue. I said that even if he was not working as actively as before, his presence on the country’s political scene meant a lot to me, to the Government and to the nation because it assured a certain balance. It is called the presidential factor, a man who commands authority in the world. You remember his speeches in Istanbul and Beijing; in fact it was openly admitted that on that occasion he threw his authority behind the Government and changed the whole picture. He made it more stable.
I reminded him of that. I said it was an important factor that we needed. I thought we had dropped the subject. But after a pause Mr Yeltsin returned to the subject and said: “I need your answer now.” I said: “You know, Mr Yeltsin, it’s a very important question; I have to think about it.” He said: “You have had enough time to think already, answer now.”
Question: And did you answer?
Vladimir Putin: As you see, I did.
Question: But did the President’s offer come as a big surprise to you?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, it came as a surprise to me.
Question: Do you think he consulted with anyone before making his decision?
Vladimir Putin: He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask him. It was a surprise decision for me. And I sincerely believed and I still think that we could continue to deal with some problems together using the Yeltsin factor because he was a man who had authority in the world. To use the current phrase, he is a political heavyweight.
But he decided otherwise. I think much of the reason is that he wanted the presidential campaign to proceed the way he wanted and he was clearly laying the groundwork, helping me, so to speak. Let’s face it, he is giving me a head start in this presidential campaign. He is doing it deliberately, although he admitted that it might not be so good for me. Perhaps some people would bear me a grudge. He told me that. “And in general it is not very good for me to resign before my term expires. But I thought about it and I made this firm decision. I’ll do it no matter what.” And he did it.
Question: Do you think Mr Yeltsin already had a plan for how it should take place or did he consult you?
Vladimir Putin: No. He had no plan. He consulted with me. He asked me how I thought it should best be arranged. How to do it best? On what day? At what time? And of course, part of the reason is that we are a very large country. So time was a factor. I made very general suggestions. All the rest was his own plan, although he had these thoughts from the beginning. We discussed it in general terms, no more.
Question: And who proposed the date of December 31?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t know. He wanted it to be this year. The only other thing is that we met again, I think, on December 27 or 26. And the question arose of the trip to Bethlehem. I said that I thought Mr Yeltsin had to go himself. He hesitated. He said: “No, it wouldn’t be proper. It’s unclear in what capacity I would go there.” I asked him to do it. I said that in my opinion, it would be a very good sign for the country and for the world. You know, it’s like in a family. We should treat our parents the way we want our children to treat us. That’s popular wisdom. I think we should demonstrate a very kind and humane attitude to the President, the first Russian President. I thought it would be proper if he represented Russia during that trip. I asked him about it. And he agreed.
Question: On December 31, the whole nation for the first time watched the ceremony of the transfer of presidential powers, and many were intrigued. Nobody could hear what Mr Yeltsin told you when you were parting, just before you got into your cars. But one could see that it was an emotionally important moment for both of you. If it is not a secret, what did he tell you?
Vladimir Putin: It was generally a day charged with emotions, but Mr Yeltsin showed real courage. Frankly, I had not expected that he would be able to pull himself together so well. It was indeed a very trying moment for him. And for all of us too. After all, he had been at the pinnacle of power here in Moscow for ten years. Giving up power of his own accord was no ordinary decision.
You know when a person simply retires… I remember my father retiring. He was a very ordinary man, he had worked as a foreman at a factory all his life. But for him retirement was a tragedy. He ended up working until he was 76. He could not bear to change his pace of life and to part with the people with whom he had worked. But imagine the way a person feels when he does not just retire, but parts with everything he has been connected with over the years.
It was a hard day for him and for all of us. But he behaved in a very courageous manner. And the parting words – and at that point I nearly succumbed myself – that was on the porch when he came out, looked sadly at the windows and said he was sorry to part with all this because so much had connected him to these walls, these premises and these buildings and the people working there.
And his parting words were – I don’t know, but I think it would be proper if I tell you now. There is nothing wrong about that. They were high-sounding words, but they were said in a very kind and human way. He said simply: “Take care of Russia.”
Question: Mr Yeltsin will now choose some activity for himself. Perhaps a Fund of the First President will be set up or something like that, as is the custom in other countries. Did he tell you his plans? What is he going to do?
Vladimir Putin: That’s another serious and delicate topic. He spoke about it with some sadness and even anxiety because I felt that he had no idea what a former President could do in Russia. He has no clear idea. I don’t know, perhaps he won’t like what I am saying, but he was at a loss and he was seeking my advice. He was thinking aloud. He said: “I know the time has come, but I don’t know what to do personally.” He is aware that it will be difficult and it will be a wrenching experience psychologically. I would very much like Mr Yeltsin to find an occupation worthy of the first President of Russia and to have an interesting and full life.
I think perhaps some legal entity needs to be set up. A fund or some kind of institution, I don’t know. Some kind of social activity. I am sure that we will be able to use the authority of Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s interests for a long time.
Question: On the evening of the same day, December 31, after the formal handover of power, you found yourself in Chechnya. And you were in Chechnya, together with your wife, and you even rang in the New Year there. How did it all come about? Was it done on impulse? Or did you have the trip planned in advance in your capacity as Prime Minister?
Vladimir Putin: The trip had been planned in advance. The idea occurred to me about three weeks ahead of the New Year. I wanted to be where the destiny of Russia was to a large extent being decided. In the place where life is the hardest. These are not high-sounding words. I really wanted to be there.
I thought it would be a symbolic step on my part. I wanted the people – the servicemen who are doing a tough job there and the local citizens of the Chechen Republic – to understand that the Government was standing by them, that it was our priority; and I wanted people to know that we would not withdraw, so that they should not be afraid that the bandits would return. All these factors played a part.
I repeat, the decision was taken three weeks ago. But after Mr Yeltsin decided to resign and appointed me Acting President, the situation changed of course. I don’t mind telling you that people were trying to talk me out of it. They said that while previously it might have been all right and necessary, now I shouldn’t do it for a number of reasons. Partly for reasons of security, and not only my own personal safety. That’s one thing.
And secondly, it shouldn’t be done, they said, because it would again prompt speculation that you regard the military operation in Chechnya as the top priority, whereas you should be thinking about the economy. Your political opponents would take advantage of it, I was told. And they gave many other arguments.
And you know, I decided not to change anything because I am absolutely convinced that we won’t solve any problems – economic or social – while the state is in disarray.
So, I think there is nothing strange about the fact that we still attach such importance to the fight against terrorism. We must complete the job. That is why I went there. As for the fact that my wife “tagged along”, pardon the expression, I couldn’t do anything about it. We had always ushered in the New Year together and we couldn’t break the tradition. She said she wanted to be with me over the New Year. That was all. I suggested that she might stay at the FSB sanatorium in Makhachkala, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
Question: And you had to ring in the New Year on board a helicopter.
Vladimir Putin: It just happened that way. We planned to attend a New Year party at a military unit in Gudermes. The weather was fine when we left the Makhachkala airport, but as we approached Gudermes, the weather turned nasty; and because of the bad weather and the thick fog the pilot decided to turn back, even though we urged him to try to land. I understand that he did try. We circled over the place. And then he said no, it’s impossible. And it is the commander who has the final say on board an aircraft. So we rang in the New Year on board the helicopter. Then we landed and got into our cars, and we dropped by the FSB sanatorium where soldiers fighting in Chechnya and mothers with their sons had gathered. We wished them a Happy New Year. We had some actors with us: Misha Boyarsky, Alexander Rozenbaum, Galkin and Yevdokimov. I would like the names of these actors to be known. They went simply because they wanted to lift the spirits of our guys fighting in Chechnya. They did not charge any fees, I have to stress. They performed their numbers. Then we drank a glass of champagne, got into our cars and headed for Chechnya.
Question: Mr Yeltsin declared that you would be his successor some time ago. But it is not perhaps easy to settle into a new role. How do you feel in these new circumstances?
Vladimir Putin: You know, there is so much work to do that little has changed emotionally. Having said that, I am not used to working in the kind of environment I have at the Kremlin. In St Pete you can only see such things in the Hermitage. The atmosphere here is palatial. You don’t find it at the White House either. I think this is right for a state. The splendour does not belong to the President or any particular individual. It belongs to the country, to the state. And it’s good that Russia has such a place.
You see, this has never been my ambition. There are people called “professional politicians” who have been sitting here for decades, they have career growth in their blood. I never set myself such goals. It just happened that way. So, to me it came as something of a surprise, all that has been happening. I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time when problems arose and needed to be solved. I wasn’t thinking about how it would impact my career. I simply knew the problems had to be solved. I looked for the best ways to solve them. Sometimes it worked, in fact, it worked more often than not.
During the conversation, when I told all this to Mr Yeltsin, he said something that I think makes a difference. He said: “You know, one of the reasons for my decision is something that I consider to be very important: people trust you.” And in my opinion that is more important than moving from one office to another. Or even from one building to another, no matter how beautiful. Even if it is the Kremlin. That is really the heart of the matter.
Anchor: Thank you for your frank answers and I wish you success.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Happy New Year!