Question: Comrade Supreme Commander-in-Chief! Recently there has been a lot of information in the media about a possible increase in the length of military service. What can you say about this?
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: I can say that this depends on me, and that no increase is planned.
Short answer for a short question.
Question: Comrade Supreme Commander-in-Chief! When you reduced the period of obligatory military service there was a significant increase in the number of citizens who were conscripted. Will this not lead to an additional abolishment of exemptions, such as those for students?
Dmitry Medvedev: In fact we deliberately chose the current system. It was a conscious choice and informed, to some extent, by previous experience.
I have just answered a question about the length of service.
Regarding exemptions, this is always a delicate question. The current number of exemptions is, in fact, minimal and adequate. And we have no special plans in this respect.
Those students who benefit from exemptions will keep them. At the same time, we are not going to inflate the number of possible exemptions, something that would prevent our Armed Forces from being fully and properly staffed. So what is currently in place is necessary and sufficient.
Question: Dmitry Anatolyevich, I live in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. People in my region are often faced with the problem of the cost of flights to the centre of Russia. The price of tickets is very high and people have no opportunity to travel to the centre of Russia. I am interested in whether there are any plans to reduce the cost of travel?
Dmitry Medvedev: This is something we have been working on for quite a long time. During my visit to the Far East I promised people living there to take a decision on this matter. It is very good that you have posed this question. I would like to inform you all that the decision has in fact been agreed upon and accepted. Accordingly, certain categories of residents of the Far East will be able to benefit from a special system of prices for flights. What does this mean? The point is that citizens aged 12 to 23, young people, school children and students are entitled to such tickets, as well as people over 60, that is retired. And these tickets will be available during the period from May to September, ie. they can be used during holidays and vacations. This represents about a 50 percent discount in relation to the normal ticket price. This is a decent discount, especially bearing in mind the fact that tickets for residents of the Far East are indeed very expensive.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons for this that have repeatedly been mentioned; I am not going to enumerate them now. Of course we need a modern fleet of aircraft and a more developed system of air carriers. But this is not the main problem; rather the problem is the price. And this kind of subsidy will be applied. I think it will help quite a significant number of young people and pensioners who may find it very difficult to pay for themselves to travel to the centre of our country.
There are three particularly popular destinations: the capital, a stopover point and a holiday destination: they are Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi. We will be subsidizing the cost of the ticket to these three places. And both our young and senior citizens will be able to take advantage of such tickets.
This long-awaited piece of news and I hope that in the near future we will begin work on actually implementing this decision.
Question: After finishing my studies I would like to sign a contract. Will I receive benefits with regards to higher education?
Dmitry Medvedev: Benefits exist. We plan to maintain benefits for admission to university. And I think that given how education is currently developing in Russia, this kind of additional incentive for those who complete service, military service, to pursue higher education will be maintained.
I am referring admission to universities as well as to preparatory courses for universities. In any event, this system was used when I was a student, and I studied together with a lot of guys who had completed preparatory courses given by universities and institutions, and we are now returning to this practice. This will, perhaps, better prepare those who are dismissed from the Armed Forces to do well at their studies, and to enter a university to pursue higher education. So we are going to work on this.
Question: Comrade Supreme Commander-in-Chief! Recently we witnessed significant changes in the situation in the Armed Forces, such as improvements in the combat training for troops, and financing of the military. Russia is now feeling the impact of the global financial crisis. How will this affect the operational status of the units and the material situation of those serving in the military?
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course no one is happy about the crisis. Naturally, it is a problem both for our economy and our budget. Right now we are trying to limit its impact on our economy, our budget and, of course, on the Armed Forces, on military training, and the acquisition of new specialised technology.
At this time there have been spending cuts involving major budget items. Naturally, this has been done in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. In these matters we proceeded very carefully, because you can cut fat but not muscle. And it is very important to maintain those things that are currently the most important or most critical, one might say. What do I mean by this? On the one hand, there is the acquisition of new weapons, the continuation of the procurement of new equipment and the implementation of the state armament programme for basic items, because without the new weaponry there is no point in having Armed Forces. We now have new simulators, which make everything look quite different. New technology is being used all around. That is the first thing.
Second is of course resolving social problems, I mean, first of all, meeting our obligations concerning salaries, particularly for those activities for which we've now provided an increased allowance, a fairly substantial increase.
As you know, we are now implementing a transition to a state of permanent readiness for our combat units. This is something new for us, a definitive model for the Armed Forces, a new look for the Armed Forces. And military personnel in units that transfer to this permanently combat-ready regime are already paid under a different system of material incentives.
Subsequently, all of our Armed Forces will be financed in this way and this type of payment will be made to all soldiers who, by the time the reform is completed, will serve in permanent combat readiness units. Therefore, these costs – and they are significant costs: tens of billions of roubles a year – we can in no way either cut or reduce, and the same is true of the military allowance indexation and other payments that are made to servicemen in accordance with legislation.
Another issue on which we have no right to make cuts or reduce funding is housing, because this is a long-awaited, complex programme, which was unfortunately in preparation for a long time when the material possibilities did not exist, but now has become quite active.
In recent years we have managed to make a fairly significant leap forward in this area. As far as I remember, in a single Siberian district this year and last we built 1,517 apartments and another 200 apartments for the servicemen of the Siberian Military District in other places. Of course we cannot stop such programmes.
We have the task of providing servicemen with housing for permanent residence, something which must be solved by 2010, and housing for business purposes and office accommodation, which must be solved by 2012. And there are the well-known mortgage and savings programmes.
In general, all these programmes which, in fact, are a part of the benefits package of each individual soldier cannot stop – they will be funded in full.
There are therefore critical issues on which we are not and will not reduce funding. This is, on the one hand, the new image of the Armed Forces, in light of their current modernisation. On the other hand this includes various social tasks, payments, housing and everything that is connected with social benefits. These aspects should be funded. The rest can, of course, be corrected. Let's hope that this crisis subsides after a while and we are able to return to normal budgeting, because we are now forced to limit spending.
This is the situation. I am speaking honestly.