President Vladimir Putin: Good evening, shall we begin?
Question: If you will allow, I will start. Miguel Bas – EFE Agency.
Mr President, we are very interested, of course, to know what Spain means for you personally? When did you first hear about our country? What influence have Spanish culture and Spanish literature had on you? Does the fact that your wife is directly connected to the Spanish language have an influence? Your daughters know your second language; do you think they will also learn your wife’s second language?
Vladimir Putin: We in Russia begin learning about Spain right from childhood, right from school, because the great Spanish artists, writers and explorers are all an important part of our school programme. Furthermore, Spain is one of the classic countries of European history. It was a dazzling power in its time, a great state and one of the leaders of the world. Like the vast majority of my compatriots, I first learned about Spain as a school child.
As for my wife’s influence, of course this plays a part. When you see someone who lives with you, at your side, and is studying the history, culture and language of another country and doing it all with such obvious pleasure, this is inevitably transmitted to those around and it creates a positive psychological atmosphere. Some of the specific bits of knowledge she shares with me at times also add to my overall knowledge about Spain.
In general, I am very glad to have the chance to once again go to your country. I went there for the first time in the mid-1990s when I was still working in St Petersburg. I have been there several times as a tourist and also on business.
I can’t say that I know Spain very well, but this visit isn’t my first step.
Question: Continuing this subject, some people say that Spain and Russia have a lot in common. Both countries are on the edges of Europe and people see similarities in their literature and even music. Do you think this is the case? What similarities do you see between our peoples?
Vladimir Putin: Given that I am involved in state affairs, what I would notice above all is that Spain and Russia have a number of similarities in their development paths. Both countries, unfortunately, faced the fratricide of civil war – we a bit earlier, you a bit later. We both know what civil war is and what a painful impact it has on a nation’s fate and on the fate of individuals and families. Both your country and mine lived for a considerable period of time in conditions of a totalitarian state and society. This also obviously has an impact on how the Russians and the Spanish see themselves and the world around them.
Also, there is the fact that Spain was in its time the leading power of Europe and this imperial broadness of horizon – in the positive sense, I mean, in the sense of seeing yourself as part of a much wider world – is also something shared by our country’s citizens. All of these elements are reflected in literature, in culture, and they are all things that unite us.
Question: Mr President, during your last visit to Spain you said that our two countries had yet to develop more intensive economic contacts. I imagine this issue will be on the agenda for your talks with the Spanish government during your visit to Madrid. Do you think that Russia could have an interest in developing cooperation with Spain in areas such as developing and modernising its transport system, vessels for sea and river fishing and also in terms of exchange of agricultural experience?
Also, is there any chance that Spain could in the not too distant future become a trading partner on Russia’s energy market? Could Gazprom, for example, act as a distributor in Spain?
Vladimir Putin: It is with regret that I must note that not much has changed over these last years in our trade and economic ties. There has been growth but not of the level we would like to see, not of the level we had expected. Total accumulated investment is a few hundred million dollars, and this is a miniscule figure both for Spain and for Russia. I must say that our trade with Spain’s neighbours is much greater in volume and the investment process is much more active. This situation does not match our potential. I very much hope that this visit will give a real boost to developing our relations. I am sure that we can do this.
Regarding specific areas of cooperation, there are many of them. You mentioned the transport sector and I know that talks have long since begun on building high-speed trains and other possible joint projects. I would like to see all these projects take concrete form as metal, work, loans put to work and so forth.
We plan to sign eight documents during this visit, including three inter-bank agreements. I very much hope that this will all be to the benefit of specific cooperation projects, because these documents cover agreements on the energy sector, our work together in space and several other areas such as law enforcement matters, for example, the fight against terrorism and drugs trafficking. This also creates good conditions for our cooperation, including in the economy, because it helps to strengthen confidence and also makes our work more stable and transparent.
I believe we have all the possibilities we need for our relations to develop at a faster pace.
Question: Mr President, the admission of a new member to the G8 requires a consensus decision on the part of all the members of the group. If the Spanish government were to say to Russia that it would like to join this organisation, would Russia support this initiative?
Vladimir Putin: Russia itself only became a member of the G8 not so long ago and it would not be very proper of us to start proposing new members. But of course, Spain is a country with every right to seek full-fledged participation in any international organisation, including the G8.
But at the same time, I would like to say that Spain already has the chance to directly influence the G8’s decisions through the European Union. The European Union is represented as an organisation at all the G8’s work, and this gives Spain every possibility for having a direct influence on the preparation of decisions and on the final results of the G8’s work.
Question: Mr President, turning to the international agenda, I would like to know what international issues you plan to discuss during your visit to Madrid? In particular, will you discuss the ‘caricature war’?
In this respect I have another question: As far as we know, you support the idea of an alliance of civilisations put forward by the Spanish government. But now we have this scandal over these caricatures, which have unleashed such a wave of reaction. Do you think that it is actually possible in practice to realise this idea of an alliance between civilisations?
Vladimir Putin: We are familiar with the Spanish government’s initiatives and they have our complete support. We are working together with our Spanish colleagues on certain documents at the United Nations. We support all initiatives working in this direction and we are grateful for the Spanish support for the UN initiatives in this area.
Regarding the ‘caricature war’ that you mentioned, we regret every manifestation of religious confrontation taking place in the world at the moment. It is my view that this kind of provocation in this area is absolutely unacceptable. Before publishing, doing or drawing something, we should first think a hundred times about the consequences.
We condemn any manifestations of this kind, on all sides. I have already said publicly that we condemn these kinds of caricatures because they drive a wedge between religions, insult the feelings of believers and are provocative.
We do not hesitate to condemn other kinds of materials, child pornography, for example, and we do not see any violation of freedom of speech in this respect. If a state cannot prevent something from happening, it should at least apologise for not being able to do so. Still, extremist manifestations are very dangerous from any quarters and we very much hope that Muslim religious leaders and the leaders of the Muslim world will be able to bring this situation under control.
Question: Mr President, during your first visit to Spain you spoke positively about the Spanish regional autonomy system because it balances regional and central power and could serve as an example for Russia. How do you think you could apply the Spanish formula to Russia, given the enormous differences between the centre and the outlying regions?
Still on this subject, I also wanted to know, do you think that Catalonia’s attempt to adopt a new regional constitution and new national status that would give it the right to self-determination as a nation, could upset the regional balance?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I want to say straight out that I will not get involved in any discussion of Spain’s internal political matters. What Catalonia does and how the Spanish authorities react to this is entirely the internal political affair of Spain, the affair of the Spanish people.
Rather than use the concrete example you gave me, I would like to give a general outline of my vision of building federal relations, without using specific regions or even countries as examples.
It is my firm conviction that in this world where change and globalisation is happening at a rapid pace, competition between companies, states and sectors has become far more intensive. In such conditions it is large entities that are most effective. But at the same time, the globalisation process gives people, especially members of small ethnic groups, the feeling that they could be dissolved in this great ocean. Every country therefore has to try to find the formula that will give smaller ethnic groups and peoples the assurance that they will always be able to preserve their cultural and national identity and develop freely.
But at the same time, this formula should not undermine the ties that make this or that state entity or state strong and competitive.
We in Russia are in the process of searching for this formula for creating and maintaining our federation and for the principles on which it will function. I think that we have now put our fingers on them and are moving in the right direction.
Spain and Russia also have something in common in this area. You have provinces. What do you call a group of provinces?
Response: An autonomy.
Vladimir Putin: An autonomy, a group of autonomies. This is a bit like our federal districts. Of course, no two countries have exactly the same system in this respect. Each country has to find its own solution based on the direct will of its people.
Question: Mr President, you held a big press conference a few days ago where you gave detailed answers to many different questions. I would like to ask a question that was not raised on that occasion but that interests the public and the media nevertheless.
Some people here say that what is happening to [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky is revenge. I would not like to think this. Nevertheless, putting someone in an isolation cell just because he had a document detailing his rights: is this routine behaviour or is this an exceptional case? Did the prison authorities have particular orders in this regard or were they advised to take this line of behaviour?
Vladimir Putin: To be honest, I don’t actually know what you are talking about. What I know is that there was a court decision, that the court passed a guilty verdict and that Khodorkovsky was convicted and sent to prison.
Question: His lawyer said that he was put in an isolation cell because the Justice Ministry documents did not state what his rights are, and that is not to mention the fact the he was sent to Chita, which is a long way from home.
Vladimir Putin: Prison is not a rest home. Prisoners are sent where it is deemed necessary to send them. People who have been convicted by the courts do not get to choose where they will carry out their sentence. It is the Justice Ministry that makes this decision.
To be honest, this is the first that I have heard of Mr Khodorkovsky being put in an isolation cell. As for whether this could be some kind of revenge… I don’t understand who could want this, and for what reason? If he broke a rule, then the prison authorities would have reacted in accordance, but I don’t actually know anything about this.
Question: Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about it, his lawyers wrote about it. I read about it in your press.
Vladimir Putin: It’s good that our press is writing about all these things, but the fact of the matter is that I simply do not get time to read everything. Now that you have brought this matter to my attention, however, I will certainly ask the Justice Ministry what is going on here, where he has been sent and for what?
But the prison system, the prison colony, this is not the corporation where he was the one in charge and the one who gave the orders. Now he has to obey the rules of the establishment where he has been sent.
Question: One question that is of concern to me: do you see a need to draw up a clear and transparent set of rules so that civil servants do not make use of their positions to enrich themselves, and also draw up rules to prevent them from using their relatives and their relatives’ positions to get rich. In the West, for example, it would be strange; it would be seen as an indirect form of bribery, if a young man ended up being one of the directors of a bank simply because he is the son of a government minister or high-placed civil servant. How important do you think it is to establish clear and transparent rules for the civil service?
Vladimir Putin: I think that humanity has been looking for a solution to this problem ever since the first state emerged. From the moment the first state emerged as such, the people who found themselves at the summit of power had the temptation to use their position to acquire some additional benefits, and ever since then humanity has been combating this ugly phenomenon.
This is a problem not just in Russia. I am sure that Spain and any other European country, and indeed any other country in the world, encounters this problem. Unfortunately, humanity has yet to come up with an effective means of fighting this phenomenon, but this does not mean, of course, that we should simply resign ourselves to the situation. On the contrary, we must make every effort to set limits on civil servants’ power, place their authority within a legal framework, make their work as transparent and public as possible and at the same time ensure the rights of their families. Their families are also people after all, and they have the right to pursue their careers and build their lives. The best antidote to this problem that you outlined is the openness and transparency of the civil service.
Question: Spain and Russia have good relations. There is one unresolved question however, and that is the issue of taxes within the framework of the convention on cultural centres. This issue is causing difficulties for the Cervantes Institute in Moscow. Do you think this problem could be resolved during your visit to Spain?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I do think so, but I am not sure that this problem falls within the framework of the convention that you mentioned. The Cervantes Institute is registered in Moscow as a non-profit organisation but it was offering fee-paying Spanish language courses.
We have an agreement on avoiding double taxation, but some taxes, VAT, I think, still have to be paid. The institute did not pay these taxes and that is all there was to the problem.
I don’t think that we should look at purely administrative problems of this kind in a political light. There are, fortunately, no political problems between Spain and Russia, and I hope that none will arise. This issue will be settled. As far as I know, our specialists have been to Spain, spoke with their Spanish colleagues and have reached complete mutual understanding. They will find a solution.
Our Spanish colleagues acquired this building and they must carry out all the proper paperwork associated with this purchase. At the moment they still enjoy certain benefits in this respect, but I would recommend them to move fast because, in accordance with the current law, these benefits could end in 2006.
Our tax authorities are perfectly well-intentioned and are ready to provide them with whatever help and assistance may be necessary.
Question: Mr President, Russia is presiding the G8 this year, and next year Spain will be presiding the OSCE. Do you think that your visit to Spain could facilitate political improvements and help speed up the process of settling the long-running interethnic conflicts in Trans-Dniester, Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Vladimir Putin: The OSCE was founded as an organisation for security in Europe and not just for settling conflicts in the post-Soviet area.
I think that Spanish society too, as was already mentioned today, also finds itself confronting certain concerns and problems of a regional nature. With a varying degree of acuteness, such problems are visible practically across the entire European continent. To limit the OSCE to simply monitoring the post Soviet area would be the wrong direction to take, in my view. This is not what the organisation was created for.
This does not mean, of course, that we will not work with the OSCE in this area. We will of course work with the OSCE on the understanding that all the participants in this process and in this joint work have equal and non-discriminatory access to the decision-making process.
In my view it is extremely important, with regard to organising the OSCE’s work, that the states themselves take the decisions. The OSCE officials should not replace the organisation’s member states in this respect. The overriding principle should be that all states have proper and equal representation in the work of the OSCE and its administrative structures.
Question: Mr President, do you not think that the reinforcement of the vertical of power and the state lead, in some cases, to increased opportunities for corruption?
Vladimir Putin: The reinforcement of the state?
Question: The reinforcement of the state and the vertical of power.
Vladimir Putin: That depends on what you mean by reinforcing the state. I could turn your question around and assert that a weakened state creates increased opportunities for corruption. What does a weak state mean? It means that the state is unable to enforce the laws that are passed and is unable to pass needed legislation through legitimate means. Take the situation we had in the mid-1990s, for example. At that time oligarchic groups had supplanted the state, ensured their presence in parliament and pushed through laws that were not for the general benefit of society but were in the interests of individual financial-industrial groups. They also influenced the enforcement of these laws through their representatives in the bodies of power. All of this was probably not in the general interests of society.
When we talk about strengthening the state, it is not strengthening the state’s repressive functions that I have in mind. What I am talking about is reinforcing the state’s ability to pass the laws that society and people need and to implement these laws in practice. If we take this to mean reinforcement of the state, then this kind of reinforcement will not lead to increased corruption but on the contrary will help suppress corruption.
Question: Mr President, we have a unique situation today in that, for the first time in many years, Russia is the only possible negotiator in at least two of the most pressing international problems. I am referring to the Middle East and the situation in Iran. This places an immense responsibility on Russia, given the complexity of the players involved in these negotiating processes. How do you rate Russia’s chances of success? How difficult is the role Russia is to play in both cases?
Vladimir Putin: I think this is a provocative question. That’s a joke, of course, but every joke contains a grain of truth. It is not the first time that I have heard, whether from the press or from my colleagues, that only Russia can act as negotiator now. Next, if it all falls through they would always be able to just say that Russia wasn’t up to the task. We are not responsible for the situation that exists today in the Middle East, but this does not mean that we will not work together with the other participants in this process. We understand our responsibility and are ready to do everything we can to try to break the deadlock everyone has ended up in at present. I think that there are exit routes from this complicated situation. We simply need to understand the reality of the situation and look for compromises.
All the participants in this process need to show their ability to reach agreements and to search for compromise solutions. I do not have a pessimistic view of these problems.
I admit that the situation really does seem at first glance to be at a dead end. An organisation that practically the entire West has long since declared a terrorist group has come to power by legitimate means in Palestine. This is a difficult situation for the participants in the peace process, but I am absolutely sure that there is a way out. Most important of all, and I already said this at my recent press conference, I think it would be a great mistake to cut off aid to the Palestinian people. When talking about the roots and causes of terrorism, after all, what do we generally name as the main causes? Social injustice, poverty and unemployment. So, if we end our aid to ordinary people living in the Palestinian territories would we doing anything to eradicate the causes of terrorism and crime? Of course we would not be.
I have certain ideas about what we can do and how we can go about it. I think that I will have the chance to talk about this during my visit to Spain.
Regarding Iran, we have been cooperating actively with the European ‘troika’ and with our U.S. colleagues. We think that the decision adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors is balanced. We will explain the meaning of these decisions to our Iranian partners. What this decision means is that the Iranian problem is not being referred to the [UN] Security Council. This is a circumstance of great significance and I would like to draw your attention to it.
The matter has not been referred to the Security Council. There will be a report on the Security Council’s joint work on the Iranian issue, but this is not the same thing as referring the matter to the Security Council. This is a big difference. I think that this decision gives us the opportunity to continue looking for ways to settle this issue.
Question: Following on from the previous question: you said recently that Russia does not want to be just another member of a ‘fat cats’’ club.
Vladimir Putin: I didn’t say that.
Question: Well, that is how it was transmitted, then.
Vladimir Putin: No, that was not how it was transmitted. I remember what I said and I remember how it was transmitted. I said that none of the G8 leaders wants this organisation to turn into a club of ‘fat cats’.
Question: Well, now we’ve got that sorted out then. In this respect, what is your view on the creation in Latin America of a so-called ‘anti-imperialist front’ set up by Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia? This is like a sort of opposite pole: the G8 brings together the wealthiest countries while the ‘front’ creates a sort of counterweight.
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I am against using any kind of military terminology. Second, you said this is a group bringing together the poorest countries?
Question: No, not the poorest countries. But they share an ideology…
Vladimir Putin: These are different things. On the one hand, you say, we have wealth and on the other ideology, but you’re either drawing a distinction between them on the basis of wealth or on the basis of ideology.
A union of the poor against the rich has never made anyone richer. Looking at the ideological aspect, I think that economically developed countries have an interest in helping the developing countries raise their economic levels to decent standards for their citizens. This is precisely one of the objectives of the G8 – to help the developing economies. The fight against poverty and disease are on the agenda every year in the G8’s work.
And it is very clear why this is the case: because the greatest challenges we face today have their roots precisely in poverty, social injustice, disease and low education levels. In my view therefore, the countries with developed economies have every interest in intensifying their contacts and work with the countries that need support.
But if some countries begin following ideological objectives aimed against someone else, this is also a signal we should take notice of. This is a signal that the economically developed countries should ask themselves if there is not something in their policies that arouses such a reaction in other countries. This is a reaction coming at state level, after all, and not at non-state level as is the case with the anti-globalisation movement, for example. There is something in the world that is arousing this acute reaction to what is going on in general. This is a signal that we should look at what is happening and look for ways to work together to find solutions to the problems we face, for not only do people in the poor countries want to see these problems resolved, but this is equally in the interests of the economically developed countries.
Question: Mr President, there is a film called ‘All you wanted to know but never had the chance to ask’. I would like to ask you about a certain scheme. Your oligarchs made quite extensive use of non-transparent schemes to do their deals. Mikhail Khodorkovsky did so, as did Roman Abramovich. But why is the state using non-transparent schemes? Why, for example, use Baikalfinancegroup to buy Yuganskneftegaz? And why use this scheme with Rosukrenergo to supply gas to Ukraine? Why are these schemes necessary?
Vladimir Putin: I will tell you why…
Question: Sometimes it seems that they are used so as to avoid taxes. Even the Northern Gas Pipeline has its legal address in Switzerland if I am not mistaken.
Vladimir Putin: Regarding Baikalfinancegroup, the situation is quite simple. This was not an administrative or repressive issue, but a legal issue. The future owners had to think about how they were going to work and how they would perhaps have to respond to lawsuits in the court, if such ever arose. When Baikalfinancegroup acquired the corresponding stake it became the owner and everything that took place subsequently took place on the secondary market.
This meant that claims against those who had acquired these assets were reduced to practically nil. Does that answer the first question?
Now let’s turn to Rosukrenergo. This is a joint Russian-Ukrainian company in which the Russian partner – Gazprom – holds a 50 percent stake. As for who owns the other 50 percent, I don’t know anymore than you do.
Question: How can that be?
Vladimir Putin: Because that is the Ukrainian half.
Question: [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yushchenko said that there’s not a single Ukrainian there.
Vladimir Putin: Well, you ask Viktor Yushchenko. Gazprom has a fifty-percent stake and the Ukrainian side has a fifty-percent stake. I said to Viktor Yushchenko, “we would welcome it if your 50 percent is held directly by Naftogaz Ukraina”. But this was not our decision. This was the Ukrainian side’s decision. Who the names are behind the 50-percent stake held by Raiffeisenbank, I don’t know anymore than you do, and Gazprom does not know either, believe me. That is the Ukrainian half of the company and you would have to ask them.
I said to Viktor Yushchenko, “Give Naftogaz Ukraina direct participation. If you don’t want to, let’s set up another company”. But they did not want to. It was they who proposed that Rosukrenergo supply gas to Ukraine instead of Gazprom. We agreed. The main thing for us was the price formula.
You know what I am talking about? Practically the entire European press has been writing about how Russia unexpectedly tripled or quadrupled gas prices for Ukraine. First, we have been talking about this for 15 years now. In March last year when I met Viktor Yushchenko for talks in Kiev he practically proposed himself that we switch over to market relations in the energy sector, and I said, “Good, I agree”. After that they did not turn up for any corporate level talks with us. They simply avoided all meetings. Even when Gazprom’s representatives went to Kiev for talks they all disappeared, some to Brussels and some elsewhere, and there was no one to hold talks with. They dragged the process out, deliberately, I am sure, until November and then began raising a storm when they saw that winter was just around the corner.
But ultimately, what is it that we tried to obtain from our Ukrainian partners, and to be fair, what they have agreed to? This isn’t just a simple several-fold price rise. The main thing is that we have finally agreed to calculate prices according to the same formula that we use with all our European consumers. This is a very simple formula. You take the average price for the last year plus 0.5, multiplied by the average price of gasoline. You add 0.5 multiplied by the average price for heating fuel from the last year. The prices for gasoline and heating fuel are pegged to the market price for oil that is set through trade on the oil exchange. That’s all there is to it. From the moment we agree to calculate prices in this way Russia has no possibility of manipulating the price. If the world oil prices fall, the gas price also falls, and if prices go up, they go up, but we have no influence on these fluctuations. Do you see what the issue is all about? We have been calculating prices this way for all European countries for the last decade and no one disagrees.
What are the consequences of the previous system of energy relations that were in place with Ukraine? For a start, $50 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas was equivalent to absolute dumping on the European metals, petrochemicals and fertiliser markets, not to speak of other sectors. Absolute dumping. This is the minimum cost of labour and energy resources. The price of gas accounts for 90 percent of the cost of fertiliser, for example. That is the first point to note.
Second, and most important for Europe, we signed a single contract with Ukraine each year that set out the conditions for our gas supplies to Ukraine and also the transit of our gas to Europe. This meant that the transit of gas to Europe depended every year on non-market and non-transparent agreements with Ukraine. This was where the problem lay for Europe. It is only now that we have been able to put in place conditions that will ensure stable and reliable gas supplies to western European consumers. This is to the credit of the Ukrainian authorities, of course. They realised that this step would mean a higher gas price for their country, but that it would also for once and for all resolve the problems that previously existed. There was a lot that was not transparent under the old system, connected to the fact that we supplied gas at non-market prices. Furthermore, we used gas to pay the Ukrainians for transit services and we gave them gas for the operation of the gas pumping stations. It was impossible to really work out who was buying what volume and who was re-exporting what volume and at what price. Rosukrenergo with its non-transparent Ukrainian 50-percent stake is nothing compared to the various manipulations that were going on in the gas sector over these last 15 years.
Question: Mr President, debate is underway in Spain at the moment about whether or not to negotiate with Spanish terrorists once they lay down their arms. Do you think that it is right to hold talks with extremists who have laid down their arms? Some people here draw parallels between this terrorism and the situation in Chechnya. What is your view in this regard?
Vladimir Putin: No civilised nation can allow itself the luxury of negotiating with terrorists because negotiations with terrorists only weaken the state and strengthen the terrorists. But if this or that group has laid down its arms and firmly declared that it renounces all forms of armed struggle against the authorities and the state, then they deserve to be considered as worthy of negotiating with. But we have to be clear in each specific case as to what kind of dialogue we will enter and with whom.
We do not engage in dialogue with those who have the blood of Russian citizens on their hands, but we are ready to give and we do give any opposition representatives, including representatives of the armed opposition in the Republic of Chechnya – whoever is not involved in murder and direct criminal activity – the chance to take part in political life. Former rebels today account for around half of the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Chechnya’s personnel. I would have to check on the exact figure, but they account for a large percentage of ministry staff.
If we decide to engage in dialogue this means we need to carry out an amnesty and we need the public to take this decision through its representatives in parliament so that any such decisions are made up front and publicly and there can be no claims against the country’s leadership further down the road. This must be a decision taken by the people themselves and cemented in the law on amnesty. And then, of course, the dialogue process must begin. The moment that people renounce extremist forms of struggle and become involved in the political process, start taking part in political activity, this represents an immensely positively step.
Question: Mr President, quoting words you said in an interview with the Dutch media, you said: “I realise full well that 2008 will be a serious and difficult test for Russia”. Why do you think this way?
Vladimir Putin: Because Russian statehood is still in the process of development. It is not yet completely stable and we are all aware of this. We still do not have a multiparty system in the European sense of the word. We have one stable political party – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – and we have a political force, United Russia, that is still emerging but is already stable. United Russia is seen as the ruling party now but it has still not completed the process of forming its ideological foundation and energetic ideological processes are still underway in its internal life. This party has yet to stand firmly on its feet, clearly formulate its priorities and not be afraid of communicating its platform to the public if it wants to be seen as a centre-right political force. It has to talk about this and give a clear definition of what a centre-right platform means in the context of modern Russia. Of course, given this general situation, the parliamentary election at the end of 2007 and the presidential election that will follow in 2008 are a big test for the young Russian democracy and statehood.
To take the example of western Europe, look at how rough the change of power was in Spain or in Germany. The formation of a new political force, the New Left, under Lafontaine together with the PDS, was enough to upset the whole political deal in Germany. The country could easily have found itself in a political gridlock. It could have been a total stalemate situation. Only the high degree of political culture and the willingness of the former Chancellor and the current Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to find a compromise made it possible to avoid this situation. And that is in Germany where tried and tested mechanisms for interaction between the main political forces are already in place. We, unfortunately, have nothing of the sort here yet. This will of course be a serious test for Russia. I am ready to repeat the words I said then.
Question: Mr President, you have a very big majority in the State Duma. If you were to propose now ratifying Protocol Six on abolishing the death penalty the Duma would sign it without hesitation. Are you going to do this before your mandate ends, and if yes, then when?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, my influence on the Duma, though considerable, is nonetheless very exaggerated because, as you know, the Duma deputies have their own opinions and they face elections at the end of 2007 and have to take public opinion, the opinion of their voters, into account. Furthermore, the unanimity of opinion between myself and the deputies, or at least a large part of the deputies, is not the result of using administrative levers, but is the result of constant contact and our ongoing work together. I simply do not raise issues that I know would meet with a negative reaction and be rejected.
Question: They were opposed to the START-2 Treaty…
Vladimir Putin: To what?
Question: Strategic arms.
Vladimir Putin: That was not the case; it only looked that way from the outside.
I can reveal a state secret and tell you in fact what happened then. They were against the ratification of this treaty, but after meeting with myself and with some of our experts, the majority of the deputies realised that our U.S. partners would not ratify this treaty. It would not come into force, but Russia would take a little step in advance in our relations with our partners and show our willingness to meet them halfway. As was expected, the whole thing soon ceased all existence. Your observations and my few explanations now lift the curtain on what actually went on behind the scenes in this particular case.
I have already spoken publicly in the past regarding my views on the death penalty. Any punishment pursues two aims at least: retribution and reform. There is no element of reform in the death penalty, only retribution. It is not even clear against whom the retribution takes place, for the person physically eliminated by the state immediately ceases to feel anything at all. Society feels something, however, for it has taken on the right to deprive someone of their life. Legal practice shows that judicial errors often take place in this respect. Not only in Russia, but in many other countries too.
I do not want to go into the criminological subtleties of this issue right now, but you know that many countries that do not hesitate to call themselves civilised nations and strongholds of democracy still use the death penalty. This includes the United States and Japan, for example.
If you want to hold a dialogue on this point with Russia, we are ready to talk about it, but unlike some countries, we do not actually carry out the death penalty. I will, of course, take some initiatives regarding this issue, but I will do so carefully, in accordance with the mood in society. And I must also take into account the Duma deputies’ views, of course.
Question: Mr President, could you say a few words on how you see prospects for developing Russia’s political structure in coordination with the public? You said yourself that the multiparty system is still in the process of formation here and that there is really only one party at the present. But the parliamentary elections are based entirely on these seemingly nonexistent parties, as it were.
Vladimir Putin: This is why we are making changes to the system so that at regional level half the deputies will be elected in single-seat districts and half from the party lists. The aim is to increase the significance of parties as political organisations and increase the amount of political work done through parties. I hope that this will help transform public movements into real and stable political organisations.
Question: But at the moment, for example, everyone has been shocked by the case of hazing in the Armed Forces, and the result was that the Public Council reacted a lot more quickly and effectively to this case. This is already evidence that the party organisations, the party-based parliament, are not responsible.
Vladimir Putin: I don’t agree. Any country finds itself facing serious problems. I am not just talking about hazing.
The media simply showcased the Public Council’s particular reaction to this terrible case. The Public Council has only just begun its work, but the political parties also reacted. The Communist Party, the LDPR, United Russia – they all reacted to this case.
I don’t think that we can define the degree of maturity of this or that party based on its reaction to this dreadful crime. This is a far bigger issue, is it not? What is a party? I have already spoken about this. Above all, it is an ideological foundation, a set of views on economic and social development and on the development of democracy in our country. These are the basic ideological and political values that should be clearly formulated in the party’s charter and communicated to the public. Once this has been done we can begin to talk of a stable foundation. This foundation will then serve to attract people who share these views and are ready to defend these positions, and then we can talk of a stable organisation.
But the reaction to this or that event, even as serious an event as the case you mentioned, is nonetheless far from being a universal measure for the maturity of this or that political organisation.
Question: Mr President, retuning to bilateral relations, looking at the period from 2000–2004, bilateral relations between our countries were quite active and there were various visits, meetings and other events. The last two years have been quieter, however, and I was wondering, is this to do with the change of government in Spain? And also, have you maintained friendly relations with Jose Maria Aznar since he stepped down?
Vladimir Putin: I had very good relations with Mr Aznar. I consider him a strong politician, someone who knows what he wants and understands very well what means he will use to achieve this or that aim. I like him. I have met with him since he left power. He has come to Moscow and we have met.
I must say that I also have good working and personal relations with the current Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero. He sees this as very normal. I think that this is the way things should be. I don’t think there has been a lull in our relations. To be honest, I do not have this impression. No doubt, there is always a certain re-examination of the situation whenever there is a change of government. I do not think the number of meetings and visits has fallen. Mr Zapatero and I have met in Moscow, in European capitals, in Paris and other places. I like what he proposes on the international stage. He is someone who is able to clearly formulate his position and does so openly. I admire this. He is a reliable and good partner, both at bilateral level and in terms of our cooperation with the European Union – we sense the support of the Spanish government in the development of our relations with the European Union.
Question: The debate over whether or not to bury Vladimir Lenin’s body has flared up again. What is your view on this issue?
Vladimir Putin: Is there really nothing else left that you’ve brought up Lenin?
Let’s draw a few historical parallels again. In the mid-1990s when I went to Spain, I visited, among other places, the place where Franco is buried. You can look at this in different ways and these are very different issues. I am against drawing parallels in general between fascism and communism. Each ideology has its own idea of justice and it own problems. We know that Franco is quite a controversial figure in world history and in the history of your country, and there is still much debate on his role. Nonetheless, he is buried in a pantheon with honour.
I think that just as the Spanish people suffered much from civil war in their time, the Russian people suffered just as much, if not more, from internal strife and civil confrontation in this country. Today we must not increase division but contribute to unity and reconciliation with each step that we take.
I will therefore strive to take decisions that have the support of the overwhelming majority of our citizens and that, I want to repeat once more, will contribute to the unity and reconciliation of our nation and not to its division.
Thank you very much.