Excerpts from transcript of meeting with public in Crimea and Sevastopol
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.
I am very happy to see all of you.
I would like to congratulate you on today’s event– this is really a landmark for the entire country and especially for Sevastopol and Crimea.
A major event took place six years ago: the signing of the treaty on the reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia. This was a fair and, as time has shown, long-expected event both for Crimeans and for the entire country.
At that time, people made an informed choice and it was so striking that any attempt to question it resulted in bewilderment and then a grin. I think those who question it realise the absurdity of such attempts.
But we will not talk about this now. We will talk about us – what we are doing, how we are doing it and what life is like. We will talk about development prospects.
I just had the pleasure of congratulating and awarding the builders of the Crimean Bridge. I think this is one of the brightest events, a landmark that ‘visualises’ the reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with the rest of Russia.
In addition to ‘visualising’, it has created good conditions for the steady and sound development of Crimea and Sevastopol: conditions for the supply of goods and building materials, for shipping products made in Crimea, the growth of tourism, and thus, for progress in the construction industry and all related areas such as recreation and so on and so forth.
Before this, we tackled energy supply issues. Despite attempts to make things more difficult – at some point these difficulties were probably felt by the people who live here… But as expected, these attempts were primarily crushed by the sentiments of the people, their desire to work and be with Russia regardless of any external difficulty. This is what happened. Everything has been restored: energy, gas and power supplies and now infrastructure development in the form of the Crimean Bridge.
I know that much is still to be done. Let us talk about it.
On amendments to the Constitution
Vladimir Putin: Speaking of the Constitution in general, I would like to repeat this once again, it was passed in 1993 and its fundamental pillars remain unchanged. We are not changing the Constitution but simply adding some new provisions. Its first, second and ninth chapters, which are the Constitution’s foundation and reflect the main rights of Russian citizens, will not change.
Nevertheless, life goes on, and our society is changing technologically and politically; it has become more mature and more demanding. All that is understandable. Technologies are changing, the state’s capabilities are expanding, and now we can and must unveil the social orientation of our state, its social focus, and formalise some aspects linked with guarantees of our citizens’ social rights. And if we can, then we must do it, and we need to enshrine it in the Fundamental Law.
I believe that there is need for it. Although you used to be part of another state, I know that the people of Sevastopol and Crimea closely followed developments in Russia and felt part of Russia in their hearts.
But the Constitution was passed in 1993, at a time when armed clashes took place in Moscow. There is no need to conceal this, everyone knows it. The parliament was under fire, people got killed in Moscow, and efforts were made to seize the Ostankino television tower and television centre. The Constitution was passed in extremely difficult conditions of an acute domestic political struggle.
We now live in a different world and an essentially different country. That is why these additional provisions are required. I hope that people will come to polling stations on April 22 and that they will support these changes.
Yesterday, I met with the Chairperson of the Central Election Commission and said that the law allowed us to put off this referendum and to hold it at a later date in case of problems with the coronavirus infection.
The law sets no restrictions for us in this connection. It goes without saying that we will always prioritise the life and health of citizens. Therefore, we will hold the nationwide vote if the epidemiological situation permits, or we will delay it slightly in case of a negative scenario.
The unity of Russia’s history
Vladimir Putin: I have already given my opinion on this topic and, probably, will not say anything new. Nevertheless, the question is very important. If we want to have a future, we must know our past and the past should not divide us, despite the differences in approaches to what is going on now, the differences in opinions on how the country should be developing, which ways to choose. We can achieve a result only by joining efforts. If we are divided… You know, this is like a finger and a fist – folklore already has all the answers.
That is why, knowing about the past and understanding where such events may lead… The October Revolution is undoubtedly a major event in world history and that should be our attitude towards it. It was a prelude to an immense tragedy in our country, a huge tragedy that resulted in the deaths of millions of people, rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless, they had to flee the country and so forth.
Of course, we need to overcome this. And there are some symbols. One of such symbols of unity, I think, is the one you have mentioned. However, we must overcome division in our soul and in the heart. I will say it again, despite the differences in approaches and opinions on how and what should be done for our future, that tragedy of the past should unite us in the idea that we simply cannot and must not repeat anything like that. Because the losses were tremendous, unbelievable losses. You know, some people make calculations looking retrospectively, what would have happened if there had been no division, no Civil War. They want to know how fast Russia would have developed in 1914. Russia’s economic growth was faster than the global average and the fastest in 1914. So, if such a trend had remained, although politics knows no “if”, of course, but one can say for sure that the power of the Russian state would have been simply enormous, simply enormous. I will not formulate my final opinion about it now.
That is why, if we want to have a truly great future, we need to overcome all these divisions of the past and move forward together.
On the credibility of official information on the coronavirus
Vladimir Putin: There is objective information, and you must not believe planted information or fakes. Some do this without noticing, while others do it on purpose in order to breed mistrust towards the federal, regional and municipal authorities’ actions and to raise panic.
There is a catch: government agencies cannot know everything because sometimes people do not turn to them. They do not know they are ill, and the latency period when there are no symptoms is long. However, everything the Healthcare Ministry says in Moscow and other cities is objective information that government agencies have. This will continue: updates will be timely and as full and trustworthy as possible.
Although the picture in Russia is much better than in other countries, thank God – as you know, there is an epidemic in several European countries with thousands of infected people and hundreds of deaths, mostly senior people or people who have other chronic or serious diseases that suppress the immune system – but here in Russia the Healthcare Ministry and corresponding local institutions have the situation under control. That much is obvious today.
Yesterday I said and I would like to repeat that I demand that the Government and regional authorities prepare measures to prevent an epidemic and introduce them when necessary. Regions can see better if it is necessary to introduce online teaching at schools and other educational institutions.
We have agreed to establish a State Council working group headed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. This group will closely monitor relevant local bodies via the regions’ heads in addition to the monitoring done by the Healthcare Ministry, and will work in parallel via the regions’ heads and take action depending on the results.
I repeat, thank God, everything is mostly under control here. I hope that this situation will continue. We will expand these efforts because there are very many contacts. As you probably know from media coverage, although the situation in Asia is now stabilising, although China has done a very good and efficient job, the situation is not so good in some other Asian countries. The situation in Europe is very bad, and many Russian citizens travel everywhere. It is hard to say anything here. Some people made plans, paid for their travel and tickets in advance. Some people planned to go on holiday now or not at all. Some simply underestimated the situation and did not know that certain countries would close their borders. Indeed, these people are facing a difficult situation. Naturally, we will do our best to help them, we will evacuate them, help them leave these countries and come back. We will work with them.
Yesterday I said that we must join hands and help each other, no matter what, and I want to repeat this once again. We must display maximum discipline. We cannot risk our health and life, as well as the health and life of other people. Therefore, this well-known Russian carefree approach is absolutely unacceptable here. We need to brush it aside and display maximum responsibility and discipline, and government agencies must show that they are competent.
I am counting on our appropriate research agencies that employ highly skilled specialists. Suffice it to recall the Ebola virus case, when our vaccine proved the most effective worldwide. Indeed, it made a real contribution to fighting the Ebola fever in Africa. All specialists, including those from the World Health Organisation, confirm this.
Therefore, we have every reason to hope that our colleagues will work in a highly efficient manner, and the sooner, the better. This also concerns medications for preventing the disease and treating it when it has already flared up. I will not identify the timeframe, but I have been informed about it. I hope that everything will be accomplished according to these deadlines.
It would be better to disregard malicious information and to follow official reports. They have just told me that another fake story was planted yesterday; to be honest, I did not even notice it. We need to follow authentic official reports.
On development problems of the State Historical and Archaeological Museum-Preserve Tauric Chersonese.
Vladimir Putin: I have already expressed my views on this. Chersonese is the birthplace of both our faith and the Russian people. Not only the Russian people but also Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples too. This is exactly why this place is sacred for us to a certain extent. After Vladimir was christened here, he then christened his troops, and the Conversion of Rus’ got underway. As our outstanding historians write, it was based on a combination of factors: the power of the prince, a single market, and a common language joined by the same faith. This united isolated Slavic group resided closely together on that territory and so this is how the Russian people came into being. Before the 13th century, Ukrainians – the people who consider themselves Ukrainian and are Ukrainian, those who lived in both theMoscow Tsardom and the Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian Commonwealth or Poland, all faithful Orthodox people, were called Russian. There was no difference in the language even at that time. Only beginning in the late 13th century, and then the 14th and 15th centuries, there appeared linguistic differences as a result of Polonisation. This is a historical digression.
But the source of our spirituality, our spiritual unity is, of course, the place that is now called Chersonese. Therefore, it is necessary to pay special attention to it. I will definitely speak with the Ministry of Culture and the Finance Ministry. Do not even have any doubts about this: we will not give up on this, we will work on it.
Question: “How much funding is required?” “A lot.” Reply: “This is not enough.” It is necessary to count everything properly because after all, this is public money, and any spare funds need to be taken good care of. But have no doubt, we will work on it. We will definitely do this.
Director of the State Museum-Preserve Tauric Chersonese Yelena Morozova: Thank you so much.
Vladimir Putin: This applies to both the khora [agricultural area around ancient Chersonese, which occupied 380 hectares], and, of course, bank stabilisation.
How much has the sea eroded so far?
Yelena Morozova: About 150–200 metres in different places. Part of Chersonese is underwater.
Vladimir Putin: During what period? A thousand years?
Yelena Morozova: Of course, this took place over a fairly long period of time. But in January the sea washed away the coast within literally just a metre and a half of the nearest monument. So we need to speed up our efforts.
Vladimir Putin: All right then. We will definitely deal with this.
Chairman of the Crimean Belarus National and Cultural Autonomy Roman Chegrinets: Crimean Belarusians are the fourth largest ethnic group in Crimea. The largest ethnic group is Russians, of course, the second largest is Ukrainians, the third largest is Crimean Tatars, and we, Belarusians, are the fourth largest ethnic group.
In 2014, tens of thousands of Crimean Belarusians took part in the referendum and in all the related events. They joined volunteer units and sat on commissions. They were euphoric about Crimea’s return from Ukrainian occupation back home, to Russia. We would like to pass this euphoria on to the land of our ancestors.
Years went by. We saw our colleagues from other ethnic communities invite their friends and colleagues. Bundestag deputies, members of the French and Italian parliaments and many other people visited Crimea. Regrettably, the official representatives from the closest fraternal country that we love dearly, Belarus, a country that is our partner in the Union State, never visited us. Of course, one could see them in Crimea, but the only place they visited was Crimean beaches, where they lay in the sun in their shorts.
Vladimir Putin: That is not bad at all. Let them come to spend their holidays here.
Roman Chegrinets: Yes, possibly. But we would very much like to see them as members of official delegations.
The second part concerns something that is discussed by the whole country – amendments to the Constitution. One of the most important amendments for me as a Crimean, and possibly for many others, if not for all Crimean people, is an absolute ban on the alienation of our territories. We are giving a standing ovation to this amendment. It is an absolutely correct and long overdue formula.
There is one thing that comes to mind. In September 2019, I represented my country and my republic at the OSCE meeting that discussed the problems of national minorities. I spoke there about what is really happening in Crimea, that the time of Ukrainian occupation was over, that Crimea was suppressed during the Ukrainian period of its history, when its resources were drained away. Everything has changed now, I said, and this is when the Ukrainian delegation got up and left the room.
More time passed, and I can see now that our Western colleagues, who are not our friends at all, say that this ban on the alienation of territories will close the border, provoke a spy mania and other totally absurd things. How should we respond to this, and should we respond at all?
Vladimir Putin: Nothing will close; there has not been nor will there be any spying. Unfortunately, we are seeing this, spy mania, in certain partner countries, which start expelling entire teams of our diplomats, rather than singly, without explanation. As a rule, our responses are proportional. But this holds no promise for or contribution to the development of international relations. Hopefully, this will not assume a mass scale.
As for opening or closing, Russia is an open country. A lot of foreigners have jobs here and, incidentally, this is the case everywhere – in big companies and offices of every kind. We maintain very close and reliable cultural contacts as well as very broad scientific and educational ties. After all, the amendment – we mentioned it – which is being introduced to the Constitution, refers only to top officials. And, I think, this is clear to every citizen: if someone aspires to be President of the Russian Federation, Prime Minister, or minister, then, let me reiterate, all his or her aspirations and strivings should be linked with the Russian people and other peoples of the Russian Federation and with our state. He or she can have no interests elsewhere.
Today’s world, including Russian law, allows an individual to own real estate abroad, to have bank accounts abroad in foreign banks – for goodness’ sake, all is good and well. But if a person aspires to be a country ruler or influence the Russian state’s policies, on which the fates of millions of Russians depend, then, of course, this is his or her personal choice: either you have bank accounts and real estate abroad, or you serve the state. Those who want to serve the state must make a conscious choice. This has nothing to do with spying or closing the country – no relation whatsoever. It is just a bluff. Further, this is nothing more than an attempt to influence the domestic political processes in the Russian Federation itself, something we have never accepted and will never accept.
As for the first part, please do not put the President of Belarus in a difficult position. He wants to have neighbourly relations with Ukraine; I think, this is the point, rather than the economic expediency or the lack of it for shippers. Belarus has this right, it is a sovereign and independent state, despite the fact that we are building a Union State, which is not a single state; it includes two different entities of international law.
Belarus is an independent, sovereign state and has the right to conduct the sort of foreign policy that it deems expedient and useful for itself. For this reason, please do not put him in a difficult position. Although I understand that for you as an ethnic Belarusian it is important to maintain close contact and have the technical ability to preserve ties with your historical homeland, to have the opportunity, in terms of infrastructure, to travel at your convenience, and so on. But, I think, the time will come when these problems will be solved as well. We, for our part, are doing our best for the people residing in Crimea to feel no restrictions and feel free to travel in Russia and further afield. I think all these things will also eventually settle into their proper places.
Member of the regional headquarters of the National People’s Front Maxim Mishin: The city of Sevastopol is so steeped in history, that is, the history of different generations, that no matter where you dig you will see this history. Today, while working on Bolshaya Morskaya Street we made an amazing discovery: we found soldiers, one of whom had the Order of the Red Banner. We have already identified him; he was the commander of a T-34 tank. We rediscovered the 7th bastion in the Chersonese Cape area, to your right, and it is very well preserved.
There are still many fortifications in Sevastopol today that are linked in one way or another with the heroic defence of Sevastopol and many other things. Regrettably, yesterday we lost the last liberator of Sapun-Gora, Ivan Patuk, a legendary figure in Sevastopol, an intelligence professional. We were sorry to hear this.
We have some interesting examples of restoring these facilities, for instance, the 35th coastal battery where a private investor is in charge, the Konstantinov batteries where support is provided by the Russian Geographical Society, a tunnel in Balaklava that was restored with support from the Defence Ministry, and the restored Green Belt of Glory in St Petersburg. We are eager to take an inventory of these facilities because we know that not all of them have been taken into account or have open access. Vandalism is putting them at risk. Those that are within city limits are affected by high-density development. We are interested in preserving these landmarks and in giving future generations an opportunity to connect with our history.
Unfortunately, veterans are leaving us, but these unique landmarks remain. It would be great if the Government of the Russian Federation would do everything it could to let future generations connect with this history.
Vladimir Putin: At this point, I will not talk about the funding that is allocated for these purposes. These are absolutely noble, valid purposes. We must retain for centuries everything that was done by previous generations because they did what they had to and they are gone. We and our children and grandchildren need to preserve this memory. This is why this is extremely important. I would like to thank you for this as well.
As for specific sites, please talk to the governor about them. Let him determine if he needs help from the federal centre and we will try to provide it, all the more so since we are motivated by this, unlike some neighbouring countries. We treat our history with respect and will continue to do so.
One speaker here described what happened with Crimea and Sevastopol in the past. This is clear from financial documents. Crimea was a donor as part of Ukraine although it was in need itself. I know this very well because previous leaders told me straight out, yes, we understood that Crimea required assistance and support but the situation in other parts of the country was even worse; this is why money was taken from Crimea and redistributed. As a result of this redistribution, the entire infrastructure from the mid-1980s was left as it was, in a dilapidated state. This is only a fact.
As for this aspect, the preservation of our historical memory, Crimea is undoubtedly a unique place. Everything, including the interest of the Russian state was focused on it for centuries. This is why Crimea was defended in a special way. This must certainly be supported, and we will do this.