On the Presidency
Question: Mr President, before you took office you were known mainly to your family and your friends and colleagues. Now you are the President of one of the most powerful countries in the world at a time of historical change. During your inauguration, did you ask yourself the question: “Vladimir, how did it all happen?”
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that until recently I was known only to a small number of people close to me. After all, I worked as the Deputy Mayor of one of the biggest Russian cities, St. Petersburg, for five years. I repeat, it lasted for five years. It is a huge city of more than 5 million people, with a massive industry, and well-developed science and culture. And for a long time I worked at the President’s Executive Office here, in Moscow. So, it would not be true to say that I was totally unknown. But of course, what happened in the last year and a half happened very swiftly. And surely I was asking myself the kind of question you have now formulated: how did it all come about?
I might offer a variety of explanations, or opinions, but I prefer just to state the fact that it happened. I am indeed the President of the Russian Federation.
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But still, it means a dramatic change in my life, and I admit that it was somewhat unexpected. As a matter of fact, I had never set myself such a goal. So there is an element of surprise there for me, too. And of course, I asked myself this question, but I couldn’t come up with anything more coherent than saying that “It is destiny”.
But I am grateful to my destiny because it gave me a unique opportunity to influence the destiny of my country in the most direct and resolute way. I have no other motives for acting than try to improve the life of ordinary Russian people: to make it more wealthy, more secure. And I think if I succeed in making even minor movement in this direction my life will not have been wasted.
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Question: What would your grandfather think about a grandson who has become a democratically elected president?
Vladimir Putin: The fact that my grandfather worked as Stalin’s cook says nothing about his political views. It was a different country and life was different. Nobody seems to be scared by the fact that many of the prominent Russian statesmen, prominent economists who preach the principles of democracy and a liberal market economy – that their parents and members of their families belonged to a different system. I think this is a natural process. I would like to think that my grandfather and my other relatives would have been glad and would have wished me success.
Question: Did your wife help you to take any decisions formerly? Now that you are the President of Russia, does she help you?
Vladimir Putin: I think that in a normal family the partners should always help each other, and my family is no exception. In my new position I have faced many situations for the first time. One of the problems I had to confront (and I think it is a problem of the number one person in any country, be it small or large, but especially if it is a large country) is the problem of isolation from the external world. And perhaps the only credible compensation for this shortcoming is family, children and friends. In that sense, of course, my close ones are supportive and helping.
Question: Does your wife give you any political advice?
Vladimir Putin: My wife has never been into politics and she is not interested in these problems, for which I am very grateful to her. She has other interests, she is a philologist by training. But if she puts into practice the ideas we discuss with her, the ideas connected with the spread and support of the Russian language, I think she would help me a great deal in my practical work today.
Question: Is your wife a modern woman or not a very modern woman?
Vladimir Putin: I am sure she is a very modern woman, we have a lot of discussions with her about the place of the woman in the modern world, in society. She insists that society and the state are not paying enough attention to women and are not involving them enough in governing the state as a whole, in tackling national, ethnic and regional problems. I agree with her there. So, in a way it can be said that ideologically, and philosophically, of course, she influences my ideas of what decisions to take in this or that sphere.
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Question: Have your daughters got used to the security that has to surround them now?
Vladimir Putin: They are getting used to it.
Question: At a meeting with the Russian Orthodox Church you said that spirituality is reviving in Russia. You have been baptized in Orthodoxy. Do you intend to become a champion of the Russian Orthodox Church?
Vladimir Putin: As regards my convictions in that field I would rather keep them to myself, because I believe that it is a sphere that you should keep in your heart, in your soul and not parade it. On the contrary, I think parading such things always smacks of insincerity. My attitude to religion and various denominations should correspond to the place I occupy. As the President of Russia, undoubtedly, I will support the confessions considered to be traditional in Russia and all the people who adhere to certain religious views, whether I like it or not.
Question: You are shortly to meet with Pope John Paul II <…> [question about the relations with the Catholic Church and its presence in Russia – Ed.]
Vladimir Putin: I think deciding whether or not to allow the spread of this or that religion or religious views is outside the remit of secular authorities. It is up to the believers and the Church and the citizens themselves. People themselves should decide what denomination they should belong to. And to impose my own opinion and contribute to the spread of one current while suppressing others is not, I think, the right way to approach such issues. I do not intend to build my relations with religious confessions in this way. There are some disputed issues between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. I think they should solve these issues themselves without government interference.
Question: Could you speak in more detail about how you feel about the growing role of the church in the life of society?
Vladimir Putin: In the most general way, after the collapse of the communist ideology we have offered nothing in terms of propagating universal human values. In that sense, of course, religion as a whole, individual confessions and churches do play a huge role in the life of society. We will certainly support everything that is done in this sphere. And of course, we should count on the increased influence of the church in society in the sense that the church must bring and is bringing to society the universal human values which should govern relations among people and between the citizens and the state.
On Special Services and Human Rights
Question: You have worked at the KGB. Many people cannot understand how a person who in the past suppressed the rights of other people in the interests of the ruling elite can now promote the principles of a democratic state?
Vladimir Putin: You have asked me how my grandfather would have felt about me becoming a democratically elected President of Russia whereas he himself used to work for Stalin. I replied that he would have wished me success. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this would have been his reaction because I know that my grandfather and my father, and all my relatives loved Russia, they were patriots of my country and they brought me up in that spirit.
We lived in a different system, in a different country. The security bodies performed their function within the state. By the way, the security bodies have many faces. When you said that as a security man I was suppressing freedom, you were mistaken, because I worked in the foreign intelligence service. As far as I know from the history of the United States, some former intelligence chiefs have become presidents of the United States. And this did not, I think, provoke the kind of reaction in the West that you have just spoken about. I see nothing unusual there. Ultimately it is up to the citizens to choose. Our citizens saw nothing wrong with that. Commitment to the interests of the state and love of the Homeland have always been the absolute priority for any statesman.
In my opinion the past does not matter very much. What matters is that past activities should be in accordance with the law. In my case, it was so.
Question: Is there anything in your training as a KGB agent that helps you in your new job?
Vladimir Putin: Yes. And I think my colleagues in Russia and other countries, including the United States, would agree with me that the main advantage of the people working in the special services is communication skills: the ability to listen and the ability to hear. In my opinion, this is very important. I think it is vital. But in addition, as I said, I have not just worked with security bodies, I worked with the foreign intelligence. And foreign intelligence is akin to your work, the work of journalists: it is an information service which broadens your horizon and enables you to meet a lot of people from very different walks of life. And of course, it couldn’t but provide a certain intellectual basis, a professional basis for work at a higher level. I think my colleagues from the United States would agree with me on that.
Question: The situation in Russia has changed now. The security bodies no longer snoop on citizens in their daily life. Still, are people aware of being protected by them?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. Everything has changed, the country has changed. We are a different country now. There is no Soviet Union, there is the Russian Federation. There is no KGB. In succession to the KGB several special services have been created, the functions of intelligence and counterintelligence, electronic surveillance and security of top officials have been separated. Previously it was all in one body, the KGB, now all that is separate. And, surely, today the special services are protecting the interests of the state. Let me just note that this was also what the KGB was doing. The only difference is that the KGB was also an ideological organization which catered to the interests of the ruling party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Now, thank God, we have no ruling party, no official communist ideology and, naturally, that function is no longer relevant. By the way, there is nothing odd about the KGB having such a function. That is history now.
Question: This is precisely my point. When you worked for the KGB in the past, it was an ideological organization, and now everything is absolutely different. So, my question is, has that ideology left any trace in your heart or are you a totally pragmatic man?
Vladimir Putin: You mean communist ideology? If you mean the communist ideology I should say the following. You know – and I would like to repeat it – that we lived in a different country and in a different world. We were brought up on other ideals and, of course, we were guided by these ideals. It was not by chance that the General Secretary of the former Communist Party initiated perestroika. Apparently the ideas that demanded change in society had matured within society.
I have to tell you that even the organization in which you are showing such a keen interest, the former KGB, had many people who believed that a lot of things needed to be changed. Speaking about my personal views, I am sure that the communist idea is no more than a beautiful and to some extent harmful fairy-tale – for society and the state. It is beautiful, attractive and if these ideas are embraced by millions of people it is not something to be ignored. But it is absolutely clear to us that having lived under that ideology for 70 years the country has found itself in an ideological and economic impasse. Clearly, this cannot provide the foundations of a state. To me, it is obvious. It is equally obvious to me that there is nothing more coherent to replace the communist ideology other than the principles of democracy. So, there are no contradictions there, we are witnessing evolution and development. And I think there is nothing unusual about it.
On the Situation Around Media-Most Company
Question: The Media-Most company scandal happened shortly after your inauguration. It provoked some disappointment because it was a sign that you were not supporting the press freedom.
Vladimir Putin: It provoked disappointment among those who used biased information that diverged from reality. The reality was a bit different. The reality is that there was no attack on Media-Most as a media outlet. The law enforcement bodies were looking into the activities of the Media-Most security structures, and our security bodies have grounds for thinking and they claim that there is evidence that Media-Most security structures engaged in illegal activities. They violated civil rights and human rights, they engaged in surveillance, wiretapping, bugged offices and so on.
This was what attracted the law enforcement bodies. As for the way it was done – ski masks, weapons – I too, don’t like it. But you know and I know, for example, that in the crisis with the Cuban boy (I think his name is Gonzales) in the United States the secret agents forcibly took him from his family, and we have all seen on television the American special service agents with automatic rifles.
And this surely prompts questions, as it is a humanitarian problem and a kid’s fate is at stake. Should automatic weapons have been used to take the boy away from his relatives and bring him back to Cuba? Some people would say it shouldn’t have been done. But I think there have been and still are people who would claim that it had to be done and they, too, have their reasons. And they will probably say that the boy was being guarded. There were crowds in the street and they were armed, it was necessary to demonstrate force. That is one way of looking at things and it has to be reckoned with.
In the case of Media-Most, I repeat, it was about its security structure which, in the opinion of our law enforcement bodies, started illegal activities and started spying on citizens, and, by the way, these security guards were also armed.
So, it is not surprising that the operations you are referring to were carried out by armed men. At the same time I would like to stress that our law enforcement bodies had not taken any illegal actions against Media-Most, and the latter hasn’t even complained. Everything was strictly within the law.
As for press freedom, let me note that I am deeply convinced that we won’t be able to build an independent, free and democratic Russia with an effective economy without a free press. There can be no doubt about that. It is a key element and instrument in creating a democratic society. As a matter of fact, we have no complaints and we haven’t been taking any actions against Media-Most information services as a mass communications outlet, nor with regard to any other media outlets.
On the Economy
Question: (Inaudible) How will you go about fighting the oligarchs?
Vladimir Putin: I understand that you are interviewing the President of, as you have put it, a great country – the Russian Federation. It wouldn’t be right for me to give characteristics to concrete individuals. But I wouldn’t demonize anyone and I don’t think there is anyone who rules all the oligarchs. That is unlikely, practically impossible. Just like it is impossible to imagine in the United States that a single individual or even a group of individuals would lead all the big businessmen and manipulate their opinions. As for the oligarchs, I have made my position known, and I can repeat it. If by oligarchs you mean representatives of big business, the government will cooperate with the representatives of big business and will support them at the national and international level. We will support Russian business. If by oligarchs you mean people who merged with the government and try to get close to the government in order to pursue their selfish ends, I assure you, everything will be done to prevent such a situation from ever arising in Russia. There will be no oligarchs in that sense.
Question: [Mr Berezovsky] has said that monopolies are good for Russia. They have made massive investments in Russia which are very beneficial for it. Do you agree with that?
Vladimir Putin: Mr Berezovsky has many original opinions about what is good and what is bad for Russia. He does not express any official opinions, he expressed his personal opinion on the issues he thinks he should pronounce on. If you believe you should interview him and disseminate his opinions among millions of people, this is your choice.
I believe that Russia has its antimonopoly laws, which should be strengthened, and I will act in this way.
Question: The main challenge now is to restore Russia’s economy. When we talked with our businessmen in the West, they said they wouldn’t invest a cent until you have conquered corruption. But corruption is connected with the handful of people who have monopolized the entire economy. What can you do to rectify the situation?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think that monopolization of the economy by a group of people is Russia’s main problem. That is obviously an exaggeration. But there is no doubt that we should strengthen the law. We should guarantee property rights to all owners. It is the duty of the state to protect the property owner, and we will be consistent in this. We will develop more coherent rules for investors and create a more acceptable investment climate. We are already working hard at the State Duma and we have introduced a package of tax laws.
We will seek to make commercial activities less bureaucratic and create equal conditions for everyone so that they are at an equal distance from the government. That I think is one of the main tasks, including the task of fighting corruption. Of course, we will seek to strengthen the banking system and address the problem of “money laundering”. But let me point out to you that two notions are often confused in the West, and in the United States: the outflow of capital under the current law and money laundering. These are different things and different concepts and they will be treated differently. As for the outflow of capital, we will pursue our economic policy in such a way as to ensure that the first investors in the Russian economy be precisely the people who have taken their money out of Russia. But, needless to say, we will be tough on those who violate the law. Make no mistake about that.
Question: Will [Boris Berezovsky and] the people who control all or most of the Russian economy retain their leading position?
Vladimir Putin: I think you are exaggerating if you think that Mr Berezovsky holds most of the Russian economy in his hands. Russia is too big for any person or group of persons to control its entire economy. I think we would make a big mistake if we provide such publicity to certain individuals, no matter how talented they may be in promoting themselves. In general, I have a sneaking suspicion that you might have agreed with Mr Berezovsky to do a sales job on him. But seriously, I don’t think this is the case. I have made my position clear: any person who has worked in Russia for some time or is entering its economy now should be at the same distance as all the others from the center where political decisions are made. And in that sense we will act with persistence, let me stress this, and without creating such a situation we won’t create a good investment climate, and that will be one of our main tasks.
Question: Do you understand the reasons why investors are in no hurry to invest their money, because they have done it in the past and it was unsuccessful?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, the reasons are clear. First of all, it is red tape in the economic sphere, excessive bureaucracy. In this respect, we will undoubtedly move towards the standards of a free economy. We will seek to combat bureaucracy in decision-making in the economy.
As I have said, we will work to improve the tax sphere. The Presidential Executive Office and the Government are actively supporting the drafting of a new Tax Code at the State Duma. We will lower the customs barriers. I have already said that we will seek to provide greater protection of property rights whether the property owner is a domestic or a foreign investor. We will seek and go on to discuss Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And finally, a very important element is uniform interpretation of legality and laws throughout the Russian Federation. If we manage to make progress in all these areas, I don’t think there will be any names bandied about of people who allegedly monopolize part or all of the Russian economy or have a chance to do so. If we manage to create explicit conditions, on the one hand, and make the state strong enough to guarantee the compliance with these conditions, I will consider my mission fulfilled.
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Question: (Inaudible)… A prominent American businessman has said that Russia is the biggest problem and the biggest opportunities at present. But the problems may be dangerous. Do you agree with that?
Vladimir Putin: I agree that there are many problems and opportunities in Russia. You wouldn’t deny that where there are no problems there are fewer opportunities. These are the facts of our life. Let me just note that we are aware of these problems and we are ready to work jointly with the man who said it – and one feels that he has a grasp of our current problems and knows Russia’s realities quite well – we are ready to work jointly with such people to solve these issues and we hope very much that they will come to Russia and they will feel the support of the Russian Government and the President of Russia, and will contribute to the economic growth of our country. And we for our part will guarantee the interests of business in the Russian Federation.
On Anti-Missile Defence, Relations with NATO and the US
Question: During the course of his forthcoming visit to Europe Bill Clinton will discuss missile defences because new systems are to be deployed there. Both presidential candidates in the United States support this idea. Mr Clinton has said that he was ready to share the technology with you. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for you to support the new missile defence technology? After all, you too can become a target of potential attack.
Vladimir Putin: The architecture of international relations in the security field has evolved over a long period and with difficulty. It has now reached a level and quality that we must all cherish. We should approach these problems with care and caution, following the principle of medical professionals: do no harm, do all you can to improve things, but above all, do no harm. That is why we have always attached a high priority to security matters in our cooperation with the United States.
Let me note that the level of confidence and the level of mutual relations in this sphere have improved in recent years. This is very important. We propose deep mutual cuts of offensive nuclear weapons while preserving the foundations of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We think it is an important basis for understandings in this sphere and we believe, given the mutual will, and taking into account each other’s interests and the changing world, we could combine our efforts in this sphere and find a solution without destroying the ABM Treaty.
You know it prompts some philosophical thoughts to me, which are however, very important, even for an ordinary citizen. We should proceed in such a way as not to destroy the system of balance to which we owe the present level of global security. We should be careful not to destroy it, because if we do it, we will undoubtedly make the peoples of our countries – both the Russian Federation and the United States – less secure. We will bring down the level of security because somebody may get the idea that he can act with impunity, and that is a dangerous move towards wrecking the existing agreements.
But we respect the opinion of our negotiating partners and we think there is some logic to what they are saying. We go along with that logic up to a point. New threats arise and we must respond. But we suggest that we respond together. I think these proposals have a future. I am sure we will have a substantive and useful dialogue with President Clinton on this matter.
Question: So you want nuclear missiles to be cut to 1500 for each side and (inaudible) the ABM Treaty to remain in place?
Vladimir Putin: We are just proposing it for discussion. We propose making the threshold of mutual threats as low as possible and we believe that it would benefit all the countries. The United States and Russia have stockpiled such quantities of nuclear weapons as to ensure overkill and mutual destruction and much of the rest of humankind. Why do we need such a level and such a threshold of mutual threats? As to the exact number of warheads on both sides – that is negotiable. In our opinion, the fewer, the better.
A system of agreements in the field of missile defence is in place. It is effective, and we believe that it should not be destroyed. But we agree that new threats are arising and we should react to them. We propose to do it together. You see, defending the whole territory means defending the triad: outer space, the world ocean and the land area. Speaking about the threats that Russia or the United States can be exposed to from this or that particular territory, the countries that possess such capabilities can only strike from their own territories. They have no nuclear submarines or nuclear-carrying planes. We can unfold these umbrellas over the potential threat territory. We can jointly protect the whole of Europe with this umbrella. There are both technical and political and ideological opportunities for that.
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Such mechanisms are possible if we pool our efforts and direct them to neutralize the threats which may be directed at the United States or at Russia or against our allies or Europe as a whole. We have such proposals and we intend to discuss them with President Clinton.
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As regards our relations with NATO, they are based on certain principles. These principles are expressed in joint documents. We intend to stick to these principles and build our relations on the basis of partnership. Only, we would not like NATO to supplant the mechanisms worked out in the framework of the United Nations. I believe that the instruments created after World War II were being worked out gradually and based on the balance of interests and forces. And we should handle that mechanism with care.
As for the NATO itself, we do not see NATO as an opponent, still less as an enemy. We would like to see NATO as a partner, a partner in the settlement of major problems and a partner, above all, in creating a safer world. But we should bear in mind that the prerogative of the UN Security Council as the main body for the settlement of international disputes should be respected.
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Regarding the security issues between the United States and Russia, I would like to note that our approaches have much in common. True, we differ on some aspects of the problem, but we have much in common. And I would particularly like to stress that in recent years, especially during the previous year, our relations had their ups and downs. But we have invariably achieved mutual understanding and cooperation. I am absolutely sure that it was made possible by the significant progress in the relations between the United States and Russia achieved in the last eight years. Our relations have reached a very high benchmark. It gives us hope that we will together solve the current issues connected with key problems of international security. I feel strongly and I hope that events will move in that direction soon.
On the Fight Against Terrorism and the Situation in the Chechen Republic
Question: Every three months the press reports that victory is at hand, yet Chechnya remains a festering wound. Is there a danger that Chechnya may turn into another Afghanistan?
Vladimir Putin: As for Chechnya turning into Afghanistan-2, that is ruled out, absolutely ruled out. Afghanistan is a foreign country, Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. That makes a lot of difference. That is one thing. Secondly, as regards declarations in the press about victory. I have not seen such declarations. And it is not our task to conquer the people of Chechnya. That would be a perverse interpretation of the task. The Russian leadership and the Russian military have never set such a task. We are fighting international terrorists there, that is undeniable.
I could imagine what would have happened in the United States if one state launched an armed attack on the citizens of another state. If people, thousands of people armed to their teeth had come and killed the citizens of another state, seized their property and destroyed their houses. How would the federal authorities in the United States react to such a turn of events? And yet this is what has happened in our country. For some reason the Western citizens, including the citizens of the United States, are not being told anything about it.
An attack was launched from the territory of the Chechen Republic on the neighbouring Republic of Dagestan. By the way, it is also a Muslim republic. As for the status of Chechnya, we have never said we were going to settle the problem by force of arms. It can be settled only by political means. That is how it will be solved.
Question: Can it happen that Russia will have to keep its military or law enforcement presence in Chechnya in the same way as Britain has long kept its forces in Northern Ireland?
Vladimir Putin: It is a very pointed question. In any case it pinpoints the problem. During the time that Russia was out of Chechnya – and Russia withdrew from Chechnya totally in 1996, there was not a single Russian soldier, or policeman, or judge, or prosecutor – Chechnya enjoyed de facto state independence. During these three years from 1996 to 1999 Chechnya turned into a haven for bandits. No state had been created there.
The territory was flooded with terrorists and religious fanatics from across the world. We in Russia understand that if we leave Chechnya, its territory will again be used as a bridgehead to attack Russia. Russia cannot afford it. We will not repeat such an experiment again. There is a clear understanding of this in Russian society, including in Chechnya itself, because the Chechens – many of them – believe they have been enticed into a trap, they have been exploited and that the striving of the Chechen people to self-determination is being abused.
So, it is better for us to keep our forces there – our Armed forces and law enforcement bodies – and tackle the problem of fighting terrorists there, rather than wait for them to attack other regions of the Russian Federation. It is our duty to solve this task and we are determined to solve it.
Question: (Inaudible) Is Russia threatened by the terrorists based in Afghanistan?
Vladimir Putin: The biggest threat to Russia is economic mismanagement. And speaking about external threats, I must say that the problems of religious extremism are present in Russia just like in other countries. You know, there are many Muslims in the Russian Army and they are fighting religious fanatics and terrorists. As I have said, last summer Dagestan was attacked from the territory of Chechnya. Dagestan is a Muslim Republic and Muslims there took up arms to defend their homes and to defend the Russian Federation. We are not fighting Muslims, that is rubbish, a distortion of the real situation. We believe that everyone should fight religious extremism. And speaking about Muslim extremism, Muslims themselves are interested in suppressing it not to invite an attack by all the other members of society.
By the way, this is happening in Russia.
Vladimir Putin: In the context of globalization, countries must have common features, especially such big countries as Russia, the United States, major countries of Europe and Asia. There is something in common and it will grow. But I would not like my country, Russia, to lose its originality and its identity. I would like the cultural roots, the spiritual roots of Russia which we are so proud and so fond of and which shape us as individuals, to be preserved. I would very much like, with all due respect for the common features of the world, which we also cherish, I would like my children to feel themselves Russian.