The forum has brought together journalists, bloggers, State Duma deputies, heads of corresponding ministries and agencies and representatives of federal media outlets to discuss pressing issues in national and international media development.
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Excerpts from transcript of Truth and Justice Media Forum of Independent Local and Regional Media
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends.
I would like to welcome you all. It is truly a pleasure that such events are becoming traditional. Apart from welcoming you, I also want to thank you for what you are doing in your regions.
Last time we said it was only natural that people who work in their regions and write about them know best what is going on there and see all the drawbacks and problems. The quality of our life, of the lives of millions of our citizens depends on your timely, talented, open and truthful reaction to what is going on. Those who are involved in administration, education, healthcare and utilities have to react to things, whether they like it or not. This is a real instrument for improving life in this country and the right way of building a truly democratic state in Russia.
I will not go into detail, will not make lengthy speeches. I believe that in the course of a live, absolutely open discussion we will cover all the issues that interest and concern us. Nevertheless, I would like to extend my congratulations: the hosts said there was a contest and the winners are here today.
Congratulations to you. I wish you success.
Natalya Nesterenko: Mr President, I am Natalya Nesterenko of the Novaya Gazeta Regiona paper in Krasnodar Territory.
Here is what I would like to ask: the other day we watched the TV film The President. The film’s creators reminded us of the work you and your team have done in 15 years. Of course, our lives have changed radically. The thing is that the film looked as if you were summing up. This is what people do at the end of something. You are not leaving us, are you? I would like to ask what achievements you would like to report in the film The President, Part II? When do you think it would be shown on TV, when will they start working on it, in how many years?
Vladimir Putin: I do not think such films should come out too often, one can get overpraised. I knew this film was being made, of course. I was not involved in it. I gave the interview that is featured in it at the very last stage.
However, I didn’t agree to have the film made and released to brag about what has been done. I wanted to show how far the country has come in the past years. Where we started 15 years ago and where we stand now. It is very important for all of us – both ordinary heople and those among the authorities – to understand these trends and use them to make plans for the future.
It is not for me to say what is good or bad about the film. I believe some things could have been presented differently. The film should have focussed on the ordinary man.
We say we have retained our unity and territorial integrity. I also tried to say several times that we should be grateful to those guys, our servicemen, who conducted those combat operations in North Caucasus. There should have been more about them. Do you see my point? They shielded the nation with their bodies. It wasn’t just some local conflict.
The thing is that that conflict could have led to a Yugoslav scenario in Russia. This was highly probable. Given the conditions in which they fought international terrorism and took on that heavy burden, it was very difficult to achieve a positive outcome, but they did it.
The same goes for the economy, because this shock therapy that the people had to endure had an impact on this country and its people. I believe we lost almost a million people every year, the demographics were absolutely catastrophic. Our local healthcare workers managed so much – we did make certain efforts and started helping: we launched a demographic programme and a programme to support healthcare at the primary level. However, it was all done from scratch by regular people, and the film should have told more about them.
Overall, I believe it reflects all the main stages in this nation’s life. As I have said, we managed to not only retain our territorial integrity, but also to restore and strengthen the state’s constitutional basis, restore and strengthen our armed forces and the law enforcement system. The most important thing is that our economy has changed, it has become stronger, regardless of how much we criticise it now – which is absolutely right and we will continue doing it. I mean that it is only through a real comprehension of what we have today that we can map our further steps along the way of economic development.
This country’s nominal GDP has grown 15-fold; this is only nominal, but it is nevertheless 15 times higher, nominal pensions and salaries have gone up 24- and 20-fold, respectively. However, even in real terms the people’s incomes have grown manifold. This is what really matters.
Based on our economic welfare, our economic development we can make all our other plans – to strengthen our defence capability and improve demographics. Our primary task today is to enhance our economic sovereignty and make our economy highly productive and focussed on high technology. If we manage to do this, and I am certain that we will, we will ensure the country’s development in all other areas.
Vladimir Putin: (Responding to a question from a journalist concerned about the fate of a unique dairy plant that produces the Vologda Butter brand. The plant, with a research and study base, has been put up for privatisation) It is a strange question, because ‘privatisation’ does not mean ‘destruction’, while you are asking me to save the facility.
Remark: Butter makers want it to remain in public ownership.
Vladimir Putin: All right, I promise that I will talk about it with my colleagues. Actually, this is not a matter of private versus public property. It is about the way production is organised and what terms the potential future shareholders are offered, if we are speaking of turning it into a joint stock company.
Remark: No, it is a joint stock company now.
Vladimir Putin: With 100 percent public ownership?
Remark: Yes, with public capital.
Vladimir Putin: And now they want to sell part of it?
Remark: All of it.
Vladimir Putin: All of it? This should not be simply about selling it, but selling on specific terms. The second part of the matter is to meet the terms put forth in the sale of the controlling stock or all of it. This is what matters, this comes first. Second is that public companies are not always efficient.
Remark: This one is.
Vladimir Putin: Right. We often come across situations when our public companies or joint stock ones, but in public ownership (unfortunately, this happens) are run in the interests of the administration rather than the consumer.
I am not saying that this is what we are dealing with here. Frankly speaking, I do not know enough about this company’s operation. I promise to look into it and will instruct my colleagues in the Government and corresponding regional bodies to look into it and then we will decide. However, the very fact of a sale of part or 100 percent of the state’s stock should not lead to the destruction of a company or harm it in any way.
Our approach is the opposite. We proceed from the notion that for companies that are not defence facilities (though this also applies to the defence industry, I will get to that) private investment should be an advantage rather than a problem. However, if you have any concerns, as I said, I promise we will look into this.
Private investment is one of the general directions of developing the entire economy. You see, this should be one of the items that should be on the agenda for the development of the Russian economy – both domestic and foreign investment. We need to create an open economy, and as opposed to our partners, we welcome all possible investors – both local and foreign ones – to invest in the Russian economy.
As for the defence industry, as you may know defence facilities operate on the basis of a state order, they are fully loaded and create jobs to meet the state funding. We have a significant state defence order, 20 trillion, plus the refurbishment of these facilities worth another 3 trillion rubles. However, at some point the state defence order will be implemented, we will complete the refurbishment of the army and navy to a certain extent – 30 percent of the latest equipment has already been provided to the troops, and up to 70 percent will be made available by 2020. Then what? What will happen to the facilities? Will they have to cut production and fire employees or not? Therefore, even in this sensitive for the state sector of defence we proceed from the idea that already today we must make sure the facilities turn out a certain share of civilian goods. So we see no harm in attracting private investment even in this type of production, not to mention butter.
Therefore, there should be no ban on privatisation and no embezzlement of public property, which should not be sold cheap. On the other hand, there was this Nobel Prize winner of Russian descent, Wassily Leontief, who used to say that given the situation Russia was in, even if you give it all away for a ruble a piece, everything will eventually end up in the right hands. True, he was a Nobel Prize winner and had certain authority, but I believe Russia’s experience – and experience is the main criterion for establishing the truth, as another outstanding scholar said – shows that this is not always true.
In any case, we do not intend to give things away for peanuts so that later someone can make a profit. There should be a fair valuation, a deal on terms that suit the state and conditions that should be met by the future owner. We will look into this, all right?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Answering a question on whether adjustments will be made to executive orders signed by the President on his inauguration day, May 7, 2012.)
As for the executive orders, we certainly cannot pretend that nothing is happening and that the situation we are living in remains the same as it was in May 2012. We fully understand that we have certain problems, there are certain complications, and this requires certain adjustments. But everything laid out in the executive orders are long-term, strategic matters. These goals must still be achieved – some a little earlier and some a little later, but it must all be done. And that is why I suggest that my colleagues refrain from relaxing and alluding to any difficulties, but instead, implement the tasks set forth in the May executive orders.
I repeat, we cannot act like we absolutely don’t see, hear or understand what is going on; we must proceed from the reality, but nevertheless strive to implement everything set forth in the executive orders.
As for what is happening in Russia overall, I met yesterday with the heads of regional legislative assemblies – I don’t know if it was in the news.
We had a simple discussion concerning these so-called crisis developments. I wouldn’t even call it a crisis – we have certain developments and complications. I will repeat the key points to members of the regional press.
First of all, and this is also related to the May executive orders, we were moving ahead with salary increases in some social sectors – and this was the right thing to do. This inevitably resulted in increases in the real production sectors as well. We had this situation in the past, too, when we relied on oil and gas revenues – the salaries outpaced productivity. And one way or another, I have already said this several times recently, the national currency rate would still need to be adjusted, there’s no way around it, because this is a systemic matter, a systemic disruption. I had hoped that our productivity would grow, but unfortunately, we were not able to achieve this. But it needs to be done.
The second issue is that energy prices – the prices for our main export products – fell. And indeed, as you know, oil prices dropped down from $100 to $50. As a result, out of $500 billion ($497 billion, to be exact) in foreign currency coming into our nation – not to the Russian budget, but into the economy – before the oil prices fell, we came up $160 billion short. We got $160 billion less, and our companies and banks had to repay $130 billion worth of loans, with $60 billion more this year. And somebody was probably counting on the fact that the nation was missing $160 billion, and also had to repay $130 plus $60 billion. Overall, there was a certain level of alarm. We paid off all we owed, $130 billion. Not us, not the government – the companies. And the bulk of the $60 billion for this year has also been repaid already. The peak of the payments is over.
So, the price dropped from $100 to $50, but it cannot drop from $50 to zero. You understand what I am saying? There are certain things that we need to live with, and we need the economy to adapt. And there are certain advantages to this. But it is absolutely clear to experts that we have gotten through the worst of this burden. This does not mean that now, everything will go back up. We may still feel what was happening at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. Sometime over the course of this year, we will feel it and it will influence certain indicators. But overall, it is already clear that there is no collapse, nor will there be one. And that is what’s most important.
Incidentally, this is also reflected in the national currency exchange rate – not even the fact that oil prices fluctuate somewhat, going up and down a little. What’s most important is that it is clear to everyone – the basic foundations of the Russian economy have become stronger and stability cannot be totally destroyed. This is a fundamentally important thing. And going back to the first question, this is what we have achieved in recent years. These are extremely important things.
I hope that we will be able to not only stabilise the situation but further develop it and strive to implement the May executive orders I was asked about.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Answering a question concerning pressure on independent media from regional authorities.) This is a serious question, one of the key ones. For this, we need for the media themselves to be truly independent and for nobody to have any doubts about it.
We must ensure that nobody even tries to use the media to achieve their business goals or any other interests that have nothing to do with the interests of the society or the region where a particular media outlet is present. The fact that an independent person, a decent, honest man who openly speaks about a problem, confronts resistance and pressure – you know, this happened and happens everywhere, in Russia and abroad. This concerns not only journalists, but also decent and honest officers in the law enforcement and investigative agencies, the judiciary system and so on. This is a societal problem.
People in our society are very sensitive to everything that we call justice. When – let’s take your case as an example – journalists help people deal with a particular problem, bringing to light certain “artistry” by bureaucrats and managers from absolutely all areas of our lives, this is certainly an important function. But you know what, while the Russian Popular Front will thank you, the people you pinch are unlikely to do so. They will always resist. This is a personal choice of every person – whether or not he or she is ready to engage in this kind of fight.
But what do we have to do to make it easier for decent people working in your sector? First of all, we need to enroot the corresponding moral and ethical principles in our society. We need to strengthen the legislative framework for independent media to operate. We certainly need to create informal instruments like the Russian Popular Front. It is no accident that I asked colleagues to create the centre for legal aid (which they did), so that it provides guidance and assistance, so that forums like this and meetings are organised on a regular basis.
After all, the Russian Popular Front is a nationwide organisation that currently works in nearly all of Russia’s regions and has direct access to the Cabinet and the President. And this is an instrument for directly supporting the independent press. I hope we will continue to use it more actively. But we certainly need legislative measures. Let’s think over how to do this together.
And I will conclude with the same idea I started with. We ultimately need for the media themselves not to give any reason to doubt the accuracy or objectivity of the materials they present. I don’t know if you notice this or not, and I don’t know how the things are locally, but unfortunately, our federal media are already putting into practice a kind of communication with various major business organisations and various departments, when the media are paid not for presenting objective information about a particular department, but rather, for not writing anything at all. They buy them off. Given a difficult economic situation, this may be one of the ways to support the press, but it is absolutely unworthy and is harmful for the media themselves, as well as society overall.
We must constantly work with you in dealing with the many facets of this problem; we must constantly analyse everything that is happening in this area and organise our work accordingly. For my part, I assure you that I will do everything I can to support you.
Vladimir Putin: (Responding to a question on protecting forests) First of all, let me say that you are engaged in much-needed and very important work, and I fully agree with your concerns. I agree that there are problems, serious problems that will have even more serious consequences for our country and its future generations if we do not make a proper effort to regulate this area as we should.
When the Forest Code was drafted, the basic premise was that the forestry sector is an economic sector and should bring in revenue for those involved in the sector and for the budgets at the different levels, and that we should ensure all conditions needed for forests’ regeneration.
I travel a lot around the country by air, in planes and helicopters, and when the weather is good I can see what is going on. I am not convinced that forest regeneration is taking place as we had planned from the start. There are huge swathes of land where the forests have obviously been chopped down and it is absolutely clear that no one there is doing anything to regenerate the forests in these places.
I do not just think but am certain that we should join forces with you and the other environmental groups and people concerned about this problem and working on the issue so as to make adjustments where needed to the Forest Code, perhaps, or to bylaws, in order to make sure that this sector takes a more humane approach towards nature and future generations.
Everything looks fine on paper, but we see that things are different in real life, and so there is certainly a need to regulate and adjust here. I fully agree with you that if we do not do this, the results in the future could be quite disastrous. It is also not a good thing that we have immense forest reserves overall, but forests are being destroyed in regions where it is easiest to access them, above all in European Russia and the Far East, close to the Chinese border. This also needs to be the object of further study.
The State Duma is currently examining some amendments to the Forest Code. You are right that this requires our very close and thorough attention. I agree with you that the Russian Popular Front gives us a platform that should be used for getting this work underway at the expert level and raising broader awareness around the country.
Vladimir Putin: Listening to you just now, I thought, who would have the audacity to say that we do not have a free press? So long as we have people like yourselves I think that we can rest assured that no matter what the problems and obstacles in the way, there are people who serve their fellow citizens honestly, carry out their duties and make a big contribution to making our country stronger. If we did not have such people, it would be easy to build up a protest mood that could end up bursting forth in more extreme and uncontrollable forms.
You are working to make sure that the problems that we encounter everywhere throughout our country are addressed and resolved in civilised fashion. I can say only that we will work together. Thank you very much. I hope that we will continue this kind of work together.
Let me say thank you very much too to the heads of the Russian Popular Front and to our moderators today.