Tamara Karyakina: Tamara Karyakina, Employment Service. Mr Putin, welcome from the Tver Region.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Tamara Karyakina: We are next door to Moscow, in fact, we say that “Tver is the gateway to Moscow.” And our young people have long found their way through that gateway. Meanwhile the population in the region is ageing. Our demographics are such that we are a region of old age pensioners. So we are in a better position to appreciate how important and timely the measures to raise pensions are, and how important every improvement in health care for the aged is. Time is pressing, of course.
And this brings me to my question: how do you personally assess the human potential of the generation that is leaving the scene, the older generation, compared with the potential of the present generation? Don’t you think that the present generation doesn’t have the same “guts”?
Vladimir Putin: First, regarding the preservation of rural communities and small towns. I don’t think we can solve the problem by just raising pensions and benefits. We should develop agricultural production, the social infrastructure in rural areas, which is what we discussed at one of our “away” meetings. We have to raise rural incomes. That is a separate topic, which I think has been getting a fair amount of attention recently. We will keep it under review in the future as well.
As for comparing the generations, I think it is a philosophical question: some think the former generation was better and others think it was worse. In my opinion, change happens very slowly. Man has changed little over a thousand years. Living conditions change. In the new conditions people behave in a different way, the older generations could not behave in that way because they lived under totally different circumstances. But I am absolutely convinced that the main thing that we do have is the national character. I am convinced that in that sense the young generation is no inferior to the older one.
But to prove it we have to do everything to enable the older generation to live comfortably in our country. So we will continue our efforts to improve the pension system and to create conditions that raise the living standards of the people who gave their country the best years of their lives and did everything to put it back on its feet after various periods in its complicated history. I see this as a priority for all the levels of government, including the President.
Lidia Vasilyeva: I am Lidia Vasilyeva from Astrakhan, I head up the sturgeon farm.
We fish farmers are particularly worried about the plight of our industry. The headquarters of the industry has undergone four reorganisations in ten years. The heads of our committee have been replaced ten times. We expected that under your presidency order would be brought to the committee. Yet during this period we have had a succession of four committee chairs. The people appointed to manage the industry are non-professionals, they don’t know the industry and they manage it ineptly. We fish farmers are on the brink of despair.
We are particularly worried about the latest development. The question has been raised about privatising fisheries research centres, about giving into private hands functions that should properly be performed by the state. I think that would finish off the fisheries industry.
I do not hear much in your speeches about the fisheries industry. We would like you to pay attention to this industry, especially at such a difficult time. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you for your question.
Naturally, the fisheries industry is of concern above all to those who work in it, which accounts for the reaction in the audience. But I would like to draw the attention of all those present to the fact that it is a very serious issue. It has nationwide implications because a lot of money is involved and the results make a difference to the realities of our lives, to the lives of ordinary citizens. If the results are not there, that is very noticeable.
Lidia has put the right question. It is one of the problems that has still to be addressed. It is true that there is too much hiring and firing, and that the Government has failed to regulate the issues in principle, as it should have done from the outset. I hope that the latest decision connected with the distribution of quotas and so on will improve the situation and give the regions a bigger say on these issues. It is a case that cannot be approached in a scholastic manner with dry formulas. We should look at the reality on the ground, at the life of the people whose livelihood depends on the functioning of the industry. As for privatisation of research centres, I must tell you frankly that I have not yet heard about it. I will check up on it.
But I think you know that the so-called research catch quotas have long turned into commercial quotas. And if science consists in the people doing it lining their pockets, then we do not need such government institutions. But if they engage in real research, that is another matter. In any case, the Government must put this department in order. I absolutely agree with you there.
A.Aksenova: Vladimir and Suzdal. You have visited our cities many times.
Vladimir Putin: Hello, I remember.
A.Aksenova: Could you say a few words about your views on the problems of culture. There are many problems.
Vladimir Putin: Culture is like air: it is the basis of our life, it is what the whole edifice of our state rests on. As I have said many times, we are a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational state, we have a unique cultural wealth. I can hardly name another country that has such cultural riches as ours. So, the first thing we must do is to preserve everything we have, to preserve that wealth, the linguistic and cultural legacy, and of course to multiply it. All the processes in this sphere must be handled with great care. There are some profit-making spheres, and there of course market relations should be promoted. But as a rule, the cultural sphere calls for particular attention and support on the part of the state. The government budget will allocate increasing sums to address these tasks.
Colonel Belyayev, Airborne Troops: In your speech you spoke about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What is your personal attitude to this? And do you think that a similar state can be created? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: It is my deep conviction that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a national tragedy on a massive scale.
I think the ordinary citizens of the former Soviet Union and the citizens in the post-Soviet space, the CIS countries, have gained nothing from it. On the contrary, people have been faced with a host of problems.
As for cultural originality, the issues of language and history, and this is what your colleague was just asking about, these issues could have been addressed on a new basis within a single state, but things turned out otherwise. Today we have what we have.
Incidentally, at that period, too, opinions varied, including among the leaders of the Union republics. For example, Nursultan Nazarbayev was categorically opposed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and he said so openly proposing various formulas for preserving the state within the common borders. But, I repeat, all that is in the past. Today we should look at the situation in which we live. One cannot keep looking back and fretting about it: we should look forward.
The state in which we are today also has some benefits. I think such a dissociation benefited mainly the so-called elites and the nationalist-minded people in these republics. But it is something that has happened, it has been accepted by the peoples of these countries, by the international community and by the Russian Federation. These are independent, fully-fledged states and one must treat them with respect. Now, respect means recognising their legitimate interests. And that is where I see some benefits for us. The benefits are that Russia should cease to be a “milking cow” for all and sundry. And while complying with our obligation to treat all our partners equally and considering their interests, we have the right to expect them to reciprocate and to take into account our interests and to build a new relationship on that basis. Can we do this effectively or not? I am simply convinced that we can. We have everything it takes: we have what other regions of the world where integration processes are proceeding apace do not have. In fact, these processes are going on all over the world. We have Europe next door and we see what is happening there, but the same is happening in Latin America, in Asia, everywhere. Unlike the other regions of the world, the post-Soviet countries have obvious advantages: we have a shared language for communication, the Russian language, which everybody speaks. We have similar mentalities, we have a common history and interpenetrating economies, production and personal ties simply at the genetic level; we have a lot of mixed marriages and so on. It is an excellent basis for building a new integration, which would undoubtedly benefit both Russia and our CIS partners. Our partners are aware of the importance of this process. I hope we will implement these plans.
V. Kalashnikov, Tyumen Region: Four years will not be enough for you to accomplish everything you have planned.
Vladimir Putin: We will do it if you help us.
V. Kalashnikov: It is necessary to extend the presidential term to seven years. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: I have already answered such questions and I would like to reaffirm my position. Of course such suggestions are prompted by a wish to see stability, but such stability can develop into stagnation. You can always find arguments to endlessly extend the tenure of this or that boss. Of course, five years might have been OK, it is a more rounded figure. But seven years is a bit too much.
If today the Russian head of state performs all his duties, he should work at the limit of his capacity, considering the huge amount of problems that have piled up. If one works under such strain for seven years, one can go crazy, you see? And there is another side to this problem. I have thought about it myself, and I understand that this would be seeking stability by undermining the Fundamental Law of the state, the Constitution. As soon as we start amending the Constitution, that already would lead to instability. Once we start doing that, there will be no stopping it. So it is better not to touch the Fundamental Law of the state and work within the framework that the people who developed the law envisaged. Four years is not a long time, but neither is it a short time. If a person puts in two four-year periods, working normally, people will appreciate it. That would add up to eight years. And the task of any leader – especially of such a rank – is to offer society the person he considers to be well-equipped to fill his job. If people agree with that, they will support him. And that would be a continuation of what is being done today. But even if that other person is a worthy and experienced person, he is still a different person, he brings new people, fresh ideas and fresh approaches to the problems that face the country. And that is always a plus.
A. MAGOMETOV, RECTOR OF THE NORTH OSSETIAN STATE UNIVERSITY, HEAD OF THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS: You have visited our university and you liked it. God willing, you will visit us again.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
A.Magometov: I have a question that worries many rectors, it’s about the branches of central higher education institutions and other provincial branches.
There are small towns in the North Caucasus which have as many as 25–50 branches of the central higher education institutions. We are not afraid of competition. We have a very high admission score, and a normal competitive situation. But the trouble is that these branches hinder us in our work, they poach our professors, so that a university professor, for example, has no time left for educational work, no time left for research or indeed for a normal family life.
Can something be changed about the laws or can the Ministry be given some discretion on this issue? For example, the board of rectors – and I am chairman of the board of rectors – makes its case to the board that there is no need for such and such a branch, because several other branches offer training in the same speciality. And yet after a while a new shingle is put up: the branch of such and such central higher education institution. Thank you.
Question From The Audience: Did you try to raise the salaries?
Vladimir Putin: As regards raising salaries and competition in this labour market, it is a question that is relevant to the problem in hand. But on the whole, I have spoken about it in my speech: all sorts of education institutions, large and small, are mushrooming: the quality of training is inferior. This is the point you have made. Having branches may be justified in some places, but not in others. And, as I said, the majority of graduates don’t work in the field in which they have specialised, and it is unclear what these people do after graduation.
That sphere calls for special attention on the part of the government, but it should not take the form of a tightening of the screws. However, some sort of order must be restored here. I recently had a meeting with the members of the Presidential Council on Science at an academic institute, and the topic was raised there. Some ideas have been put forward as to how to develop the education system in general. In principle it is a problem of the development of the education system. I agree with you that the Government should pay more attention to it. In general, the geography of job placement, the number of higher education institutions and the number of people being trained in various specialities must be known to the Government. I absolutely agree with you there.
A.Klebeshev, Rector of the Kaliningrad State University: I would like to ask a question that does not have to do with education.
Of all Russia’s citizens, the people of Kaliningrad are perhaps most keenly aware that the solution of internal problems is often closely linked with foreign policy, including, as we see, the positions of the most advanced Western powers. Which brings me to my question. Do you think that our present-day allies or partners – America, Britain and France – are helping us to move along the path you have mentioned or hindering us? I have the impression that many mistrust us and do not want to help us.
Vladimir Putin: Why should anyone help us? Are we invalids or something?
I have already spoken about this: of course there are forces in the world that still live according to the stereotypes of the Cold War. I must say that I am aware of that and you probably also have the same impression; it is not by chance that you have asked this question, I am aware of it in my practical work. There are indeed powerful forces that simply cannot get out of the “freezer” and still perceive us as geopolitical adversaries. But one has to admit, you know the saying about “seeing a speck in the other’s eye and not seeing a beam in one’s own”. We also have all sorts of people and political forces, some of them extremist forces, and they have been expressing ideas at a high public level, including on international problems. So I wouldn’t tar everyone with the same brush: we are different people and we have different approaches. We must look for allies in civilised countries. We must melt the ice of mistrust that has of course formed over the 80 years in which the Soviet Union confronted the rest of the world. We must have patience. We must proceed carefully without allowing those who want us to quarrel with the rest of the world – and there are people who are trying to do it – without allowing them to provoke us to certain actions. But the healthy forces in the world and in the developed countries, in Europe, North America and the United States, for the most part are our partners. We will seek to work with these political forces in these countries. Our aim is to make Russia a fully-fledged and equal member of the international community.
We have taken many steps in that direction, but of course we should be careful to pursue our own interests in following that road. This is not to say that we should give everything away and turn our pockets inside out. We will proceed consistently and steadfastly, but very carefully. I am sure that such a restrained position will eventually be positive and we will achieve our goals.
Dmitry Kozak: More questions?
K. Achmiz, the President’S Campaign Representative, the Republic of Adygeya: We liked the economic part of your platform very much. Russia is a federative state. Some regions are net donors and some regions are net recipients of state subsidies. What is the outlook for inter-budgetary relations as you see it? Will the subsidised regions continue to be subsidised during your next presidential term?
Vladimir Putin: The relations between the budgets of different levels should be targeted to encourage subsidised regions to develop their own economies. The next few years will tell how successful we will be. But our position is that as long as these regions need the support of the federal centre, such support must be forthcoming. And I’ll tell you what: I have raised this topic many times during the past years with our colleagues and the heads of Russian regions. The so-called donor regions keep saying: why do we have to pay and splash out money all the time? There must be a golden mean. Of course taking money away from donors without creating incentives for the development of regions is a poor recipe. But we must also admit that the so-called donor regions have accumulated their wealth or production assets at the expense of the whole country, including the citizens who live in those regions that now need support. So there is only one method of redistributing these resources, and that is through the federal budget.
In recent years we have discovered that the rights and duties of different levels of government – municipal, regional and federal – have not been properly regulated. The municipalities have been saddled with many responsibilities without being provided with the necessary money. A huge package of laws, some of which have been passed by the Duma, and some are still being finalised (other laws need to be passed to confirm the financial powers of different levels of government), is aimed at making the municipalities, regions and the federal centre self-sufficient. That is one of the key issues we must address in the near future.
Dmitry Kozak: More questions, colleagues? Two final questions. Unfortunately, time flies.
Svetlana Khorkina, Two-Times Olympic Gymnastics Champion: Good morning. What do you think the Russian Olympic team should do to win the largest number of medals at the forthcoming Olympic Games in Athens?
Vladimir Putin: You should win as you know how to. I have watched the latest events and I saw your brilliant performances. I would like to congratulate you on these brilliant performances and I hope that our other athletes will display their character and prove their worth. And the Sports Committee and the Government and myself, if necessary, are ready to do everything to ensure the training of our squad. We wish you success.
Question: What is your vision of the national idea, the national mission of Russia in the 21st century?
Vladimir Putin: I have already commented on that. You can gather and discuss the topic endlessly. I am deeply convinced that we face a very serious challenge. Various countries and regions are developing very rapidly. If we keep harping on our thousand-year history and bragging about our wealth of natural resources and about how smart we are and rest on these laurels, we will go to seed. We must be competitive in everything. A person must be competitive, a city, a village, an industry and the whole country. This is our main national idea today.
N.Korolchenko: I am a rural teacher, a school principal in the Moscow Region. You have visited our school and we could all see the main thing: you are very fond of children and you are raising two daughters. When can we create conditions in our country so that our families are not afraid to have three or four children? This is, as I see it, the future of our country.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. The natural shrinking of the population is one of our problems. There are many factors behind it: the echoes of the Second World War still have a negative impact; and then there are the echoes of the early 1990s. Every person, country, region and city has their “planning horizon”. The planning horizon extends as a person feels that the situation is becoming more or less stable. He can plan for a more or less distant future, and make calculations for oneself and one’s family. It is not the only, but a very important factor. Of course we cannot proceed as they do in some other countries. For example, some countries (I will not mention them) have a very high birth rate. This is thought to be due to the absence of a pension system, and having many children is a way to ensure a decent old age for oneself. These countries historically had no pension system. But we cannot revert to such a state. We will never do it. We are a different kind of society and a different kind of country, and we must look for other, more modern ways of boosting the birth rate. But I must tell you that the main one is political and economic stability and sound economic decisions on the part of the state.
It was not by chance that I said that there needs to be a frank dialogue between society and the government, because decisions have to be taken if we are to be effective and competitive. We must understand and tell the people honestly that this or that thing is inefficient and therefore we have to get rid of it; this or that should be replaced because we want to achieve this and that.
We should depart from the stereotypes with which we lived under the planned system. On the face of it, they still sound fine, but in reality they are absolutely ineffective in the modern economy and in the modern world. This needs to be understood and explained to people, the right decision must be taken and we must have the will to carry it through. Then people will feel that uncertainty is behind them, that even if life is still hard, it is clear why and it is clear when and how it will end. If there is a clear-cut forecast and if we have such progressive development as we have enjoyed during the last four years (let us agree that GDP and economic growth have been significant during this time), if that happens – and we need a little more – I am sure that the birth rate trends will be positive.
Let us have some more questions.
S. Zaitsev, Mpo Mashinostroyeniye, Director of the Integrated Spacecraft Directorate: Today the security of Russia greatly depends on its nuclear shield. We all know how much effort, knowledge and skill have gone into creating it. Today the world is in turmoil and regional conflicts are flaring up.
Are you doing enough to make sure that nobody should ever dare to attack us?
Vladimir Putin: The issue of our security is one of the key issues. I must tell you that of course it concerns us, but, odd though it may seem, it also concerns others.
During the times of the Soviet Union the very factor of the Soviet Union – its power, especially its nuclear power – was a serious stabilising element. It was an element of balance of forces in the world. Today the situation has changed dramatically. But there is still a certain balance in the military-strategic sphere, and it is still there because the Russian Federation has a well-developed and powerful nuclear deterrent.
I am absolutely convinced that we should on no account behave in a way that makes others in the world afraid of us. That is why our actions inside the country and in the world arena must be understandable and predictable. As I said answering the previous questions we must become part of the modern world, part of the civilised world which would perceive our military muscle as an element of security on the planet. But it also means that we must support that might and we will do so by all means available.
We have a plan for the development of the armed forces for the coming decade. Every year the decisions taken as part of these ten-year plans are seriously tested when the main parameters of the budget, the current budget and the budget for next year are determined. But these issues have been and will remain at the focus of attention for the country’s political leadership.
Proof of this is the exercises involving the nuclear forces and other armed services of the Russian Federation that are to be held shortly. Such exercises have not been held for a long time due to a lack of finances and lack of preparedness for such large-scale military undertakings. We will hold them soon and we will continue to hold them, thereby developing all the armed services, including the nuclear deterrent.
Dmitry Kozak: Two final questions. There is such a thing as the President’s schedule, it is very tight.
Leonid Roshal: If you still have time, could you stay with us a little longer, because I think it is a very interesting conversation. As I have said many times: I personally enjoy such conversations, when we look each other in the eye.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much. Me too.
Leonid Roshal: I understand that today’s meeting attracts special attention, people have been waiting for it. It is in fact the first such address. It would be wrong for us to say nothing about the Russian health service. I would like to know your vision for the Russian health care system. Everybody knows that it has hit rock bottom: only 30% of our doctors work in rural areas, which is well known; everybody knows that clinics have only 50% of the doctors they need; we are not only terribly short of personnel, but we are short of funding for rural development and for areas of the Russian health service. When we conduct opinion surveys people complain above all about the delivery of health services.
Doctors continue to work, some of them drift into commercial entities, but the backbone of the profession is still there. And I would like to ask you another question. What is your opinion about putting teachers and doctors in the category of civil servants?
Vladimir Putin: It is one of the key questions, I have touched upon it, but only in a very general way. I think that the health system created during Soviet times – and I have followed closely the discussions in which you took part and I agree with you there – was one of the best in the world. And we should do everything to preserve certain key elements of that system, meaning that it is accessible to all citizens. It is an accessible system. And if you remember that nearly 30 million people in this country still live below the poverty line, many people won’t be able to afford to pay their medical bills for a long time yet. So the state must do everything to preserve the key elements of the old system.
At the same time, as I said, if we have the market then the system cannot function as it did in the past. For everything to function as it did before, the country would have to be brought back. But that is impossible. So we should adjust the system of health care and the system of education in line with the market, where it does not dovetail with the market, which is pretty much everywhere. Various options are possible: private practice organised in a certain way and so on and so forth. We should develop the system of paid-for services, but do it very carefully. And at this stage of course, we should increase direct budget financing of health care. Having said that, I would like our medical institutions to get funds not simply because they exist in nature, in the cities and rural areas, but because they offer quality services. That I think is an answer to the problem.
As for teachers, we have just passed a decision that came into force on January 1, elevating several issues in this sphere to government level, to the level of the region in terms of salaries and provision of schools. That is the first step. We will see how it works and we will draw conclusions for further decisions.
Dmitry Kozak: One more question, colleagues.
Vladimir Putin: Use the microphone please.
Question: During the last four years a system has been put in place in the country that makes it possible to address issues in the agricultural sector that have not been addressed for decades. In my region agriculture got a thousand combine harvesters under a federal leasing scheme, renewing the fleet by a quarter.
My question is: will financial support of agriculture increase in proportion to the growing wealth of our state? Number one.
Number two. What do you think about developing a package of laws that enable the state to regulate prices and to make interventions if threats arise, for example with bread prices? This whole package of legislation has been scrapped and the state has been put out of the picture. Should this topic be revisited and should such a package of laws be created?
Vladimir Putin: Right off, I think such a package is necessary. The state can use market mechanisms to prevent economically unjustified speculative growth of prices. It can do so by market methods, not necessarily by restrictive measures. It can make market interventions, we should create corresponding commodity exchanges and so on. All this can be done, the Government is aware of it. It is taking a bit too long to make the decision, but I hope it will come through.
Secondly, as regards supporting various sectors of the economy. On the whole it is not right to support one sector at the expense of another. But one has to bear in mind that nearly 40 million people live in rural areas, these people do not only work but live in the countryside. By the way, all the countries in the world pay particular attention to the countryside. Let us look at the development plans in the European Union. They address three main areas: infrastructure, agriculture and science. We are watching closely what is happening in the world. In my opinion they are overdoing it a bit in some areas.
We support our agriculture. This support takes the form of tax benefits, and the development of leasing, which you have mentioned, and that budget item will be preserved and increased. We will try to support the development of domestic production of agricultural machinery. And of course the Government should pursue a more flexible and sensitive policy in terms of allowing farm produce from other countries into the internal market. These instruments should help our producers without allowing prices for staple foods to grow.
Question: All the people of Pskov send you their regards. We remember your visit and we always look forward to seeing you again.
There was a question about medicine. I must say that four years ago, when Mr Putin was in the Pskov Region, he visited our regional children’s hospital and he helped us a great deal. The second stage of the hospital is to be commissioned in early March, and we invite you to attend the opening of the second unit.
But that is not my main point. In your speech you paid attention to small towns, and I represent a small territory, not in terms of area or the number of people, although that too is a problem worth discussing. We are also a small territory in terms of our economic contribution to the overall Russian economy. It so happened that the Pskov Region has no gas, no oil, no coal, no big factories built under the Soviet government – nothing. But we are making a big contribution to the cultural field. The Pskov Region is proud, like some other territories, to have marked its 1,100th anniversary last year.
This brings me to my question. Do you think that Russia and its economy are mature enough to pay special attention to these small territories, not towns, but regions? Early steps have been made in terms of electricity rates. We feel it, and that’s great, but it is not enough. Seven years ago we were in the 96th place in the economic rankings, today we are in the 64th place. But it will be more and more difficult for us to progress further relying only on our resources. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: What exactly do you mean when you say that “it will be more difficult to move further”?
Question: (off mike) If federal budget assistance to all the regions is at the same level….
Vladimir Putin: I understand you. Let me tell you that even today we don’t have the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Replying to my colleague from Adygeya, I said that the Finance Ministry and the Russian Government have developed a system for partial redistribution of resources from donors to subsidised regions to support their development. That is already being done. The question is not to overdo it because constant injections from the federal budget into subsidised territories deprive them of incentives for development. For such an incentive to be there it is necessary to provide certain framework conditions for the functioning of the economy. The differences between different parts of our country are great. You have mentioned Pskov. A colleague was raising his hand here saying that you have hijacked his question, he comes from “the North” and I am sure he wanted to ask a question about “the North”. Seventy percent of our territories are classified as northern or remote territories, and they too claim special attention. And think of the Far East. Go to the Far East and listen to the people there. Many of them think they should be paid just for living there.
You know, we should build up a consensus that the Far East, Siberia, the remote territories and the centre of the country and the Non-Black-Soil Area – all this is a single country, which must live according to uniform laws, but those laws should allow the economy to develop effectively. Of course we should encourage the local authorities to adjust economic regimes to effective development of their regions. I have spoken about the principles on which economic work should be based, they will be fairly liberal, but at the same time there will be targeted support, which is what you have mentioned. But we should proceed carefully so as not to kill the incentive for internal development.
Thank you very much for your support and for your joint work. I wish you success because it will be our common success. Thank you very much. All the best to you.