Question: Mr President, among the many Kremlin secrets there is one that especially intrigues the German viewers. Is it true that Mr President speaks German?
Vladimir Putin (Answers in German): There is no secret there. I have lived in Germany for five years and, of course, I speak a little German. Naturally, I exerted some effort to study it. But my children are much more fluent than I am. At home, they sometimes speak German almost as if it were their native tongue.
Question: Amazing. Mr President, you are going to our country, which you know and where you have worked for five years. Could you say a few words about your visit?
Vladimir Putin: I would very much like this visit, this business trip, and the talks with my colleagues in Berlin to promote relations between the Russian Federation and the Federal Republic of Germany. We have all it takes, we have everything to be able to develop our future relations positively. I very much hope that it will be a truly working visit aimed at creating better conditions for cooperation between our countries as a whole and among individual citizens, among the people who want to develop relations in the field of culture, science and education, who want to do business both in Germany and in Russia.
Question: Mr President, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in the eyes of many Germans, Russian-German relations were mainly associated with the personal friendship between Boris Yeltsin and Helmut Kohl. How will things be now?
Vladimir Putin: First, I must say that we in Russia still regard Mr Kohl with respect. We believe he has done a great deal to develop German-Russian relations. As you know, we also give credit to the first President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. We believe that both the first President of Russia and the former Chancellor have made a substantial contribution to promoting relations between our countries.
I think personal relations between the countries’ leaders can create a certain background. But interstate relations must be based on the pragmatic interests of the peoples and the desire to develop bilateral relations. I think healthy pragmatism is just what we need today, it would help us. In general, I think that in my present position the main task is not to get in the way. As the doctors say, “do no harm”. And the people, both in Germany and in Russia, who want to cooperate in the field of education, culture or business will do it better than the presidents, chancellors or kings. They are more keenly aware of the need for such cooperation. To be sure, if we, myself and my colleagues in other countries, could help and remove the barriers in the way of such cooperation, I would consider my mission fulfilled.
Question: Do you agree that relations between Berlin and Moscow have worsened?
Vladimir Putin: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think our relations have grown worse in any way. There are no signs to show that they have worsened. I think we in Russia have still a lot to do to make our foreign partners, including those in Germany, feel sure in the Russian economic environment, feel secure. It is not surprising that there has been a certain decline in our relations, above all in the economy, following the crisis that broke out in Russia in August of 1998.
The financial crisis in Russia, as we know, is just a fraction of the global crisis. But being aware of some objective aspects of this process and this crisis does not make things any easier for our partners. Of course, we have a lot to do to make our partners feel confident in Russia. But it has to be said that certain steps are being taken in that direction. As you know, a package of laws aimed at providing absolute guarantees of property interests, at making the economy less bureaucratic and minimizing government interference in the economy is pending approval by our parliament, the State Duma. At any rate, we will try to avoid unjustified interference of the state in the solution of economic problems. We will strengthen the court system, improve our finances and the banking sector and, of course, we are planning some serious changes in the tax system. Suffice it to say that beginning with next year the tax burden will be reduced by 2% of the GDP. That is a major step forward in terms of creating a more favourable and attractive environment in Russia for future investors. I think all this will help raise our relations to a fairly high level, not only matching the former level, but in many ways exceeding that level of relations.
Question: Mr President, economic problems… (audio break).
Vladimir Putin: I think promises, talk and general statements are no longer enough. We have passed that stage. Initially, I think, it was true that the rest of the world was listening avidly to what Russia thought and how it saw its future and what it was going to do. I think those who wanted to listen, those who were interested, have already heard enough and know what has been said here in recent years. The time has come to move on from words to deeds. If we speak about improving taxation we must take real steps. I have said that such steps are already being planned. If we succeed in cutting the tax burden by 2% of the GDP we will have left about 136 billion rubles in the economy. That is something tangible.
Another area of effort should be to fight bureaucracy in the customs taxation. We may have to take some tough and unpopular measures. If all this is done the people who work here – and our German partners have been working here for quite some time and, unlike many other partners, they are working in the so-called real sector of the economy, in finance, and I must give them their due, they are not after quick money, they have come here to stay – they will immediately feel the difference. What is needed is not words but practical actions.
We would like everything that we are undertaking in the sphere of the economy to be of practical benefit for our businessmen, both Russian businessmen and their foreign partners whom we also treat as Russian entrepreneurs because, after all, they work here obeying our laws. And as soon as they feel the difference we will see their reaction.
Question: It would set a good example to foreign investors if Russians themselves invested in the Russian economy. Then foreign investors would feel less worried about the fate of the money they have invested.
Vladimir Putin: That is true. I know that the first wave of foreign investments is usually national capital flowing back disguised as foreign investments. This has always been the case in all countries. As soon as business feels that the economy is becoming more liberal, that the state does not just lay down general rules of the game, but can guarantee compliance with these rules, the business returns to the country. The second wave is foreign investors proper. Naturally, they behave more cautiously because they don’t have such a keen sense of what is going on in the country. Of course, they need greater protection on the part of the local governments, that is true. We hope this will be the case.
Question: When you speak about the need for a strong foreign and domestic policy, especially the domestic policy, your critics say that you are infringing upon democracy and moving towards an authoritarian state.
Vladimir Putin: Don’t listen to these people. They are giving you bad advice. There is absolute harmony between what I say and what I do. Not a single action of the Government or the President is aimed at dismantling democratic institutions. On the contrary, everything we do and everything we say to strengthen the rule of law is strictly within the Constitution. When I speak about the supremacy of the law, the dictatorship of the law, I mean only one thing: that the law should be interpreted in a uniform way by everyone everywhere in the Russian Federation.
We have touched upon economic problems. One problem that is constantly raised by our foreign partners is the lack of a solid common legal space in Russia. Unfortunately, many of the laws passed in the regions, and often at the federal level, do not comply with the Russian Constitution, with the federal legislation. All our efforts in this sphere are aimed at creating uniform legal environment in the country, at ensuring that any citizen in any part of Russia enjoys the same rights and the same protection. This applies both to our citizens and foreigners who live and work in the Russian Federation. Perhaps this process of making everyone equal before the law and exacting strict compliance with the law is not to everyone’s liking. But it is a must if you want to build a rule-of-law state.
Question: For a German “the dictatorship of the law” sounds a bit ambiguous, to say the least…
Vladimir Putin: I agree. It may not be a very apt word combination, just like the word combination “strong state” may sound unusual to a Western ear. I have seen it several times: when I speak about a strong state the Western audience is a bit scared because a strong state is instantly associated with a dictatorship. Actually, the two have nothing in common. By a strong state we mean something quite different. We mean deregulation, non-interference of the state in civil affairs or in the economy, and the creation of common rules in the sphere of social relations, in the economic sphere. But having laid down the rules, the state should guarantee that they are respected. It should guarantee that they are complied with uniformly by everyone. That is what we read into the terms “strong state” and “supremacy of the law”. We might as well call it not a “strong state”, but an “effective state”.
Question: Isn’t the creation of seven federal districts with the President’s envoys indicative of a trend toward centralization of power?
Vladimir Putin: Not really. It would have been so if, for example, we had abolished the election of governors by direct secret ballot, as some governors have suggested. Indeed, in that respect Russia is far ahead of some European countries. It is not everywhere that the heads of regions are elected by direct secret ballot of the local population. But it is the case here. And we have not renounced that principle. Our problem lies elsewhere. Our problem is that, in my opinion, there is no balance between the interests of the federal government and the regional governments. This is the problem addressed by the proposals I have made in the shape of draft laws introduced at the State Duma.
We have not given up the principle of elections. There is no centralization here. But there is one principle that I think should be respected in a normal democratic society. I mean the principle of the delimitation of the terms of reference. A governor is, if anything, a body of executive power. Sitting in the upper house of parliament and engaging in law-making under our Constitution, he is effectively writing laws for himself. He writes the laws, passes them, and then enforces them. That is a gross violation of the principle of the delimitation of powers. Again, it is not surprising that it happened in our country, because Russia is in the process of creating civil institutions. Russia is just building a civil society, but these obvious mistakes must be corrected.
Question: Mr President, I understand the problem. But one cannot help being struck by the fact that five out of the seven presidential envoys are generals. Why have political accents been placed in this way?
Vladimir Putin: Nothing surprising about that either. Let me tell you that out of the seven regional heads only two are acting generals. So, if we go on saying that all the seven are generals, Mr Kiriyenko, the former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and a leader of the right-wing democratic opposition would also turn out to be a general, and he doesn’t want to be one. So, let us not make decisions on his behalf.
As for the fact that many of them have a military background, this is not surprising. It would have been surprising if their duties included economic regulation. But this is manifestly not the case. Their prime duty is to coordinate the actions of military and law enforcement bodies. It is hard to imagine a person who has engaged in art all his life being appointed to this job. Everyone should work in the sphere he is well versed in. And those who have ample experience and connections, an understanding of how the army, the security bodies, the police and the tax service should act, must be professionals in their sphere. This was the principle used in selecting them.
Question: But there is yet another group of people, I mean are financial tycoons, including those who have made fortunes during privatization and have gained an opportunity to influence politics and bypass the law. Is there a place for them in today’s Russia?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. You know, several notions often tend to be confused. There is a lot of talk about huge amounts of criminal Russian money abroad, about Russian money laundering and so on. You have to distinguish between two processes: the process of legal export of capital, which is not a crime. We don’t like it, but it is happening within the law. And there is the process of money laundering, laundering of really dirty money. This is not happening on a huge scale, something we often read about with interest in our own or Western press. However, there is large-scale legal export of capital.
The same applies to the people you have just mentioned. Yes, there are some people who, because of the lack of strict regulations in the political sphere, insufficiently developed civil society and poorly formulated rules of the market economy have not only grown rich but at certain periods acquired great political clout, greater than is possible and necessary for a country. I think it is not only a Russian phenomenon. Let us face it, many countries, including in Europe, have the same problem.
Speaking about the representatives of big business in Russia who work strictly within the law, we will welcome their activities and will support them. I think some of their competitors abroad, in the process of rivalry, often tend to blemish them as semi-criminals or oligarchs engaged in illegal business. That is not so.
There are, of course, people who take advantage of the loopholes in the political or economic regulations and try to exert pressure on the political leadership. Such people will naturally be cut down to size. They will have no additional influence other than what they are entitled to under the law and under the Constitution, other than can be done through the levers offered to them by the mass media to influence the passage of laws through parliament. They will have no other levers of influence, that is absolutely clear.
Question: Do you think you have won the landslide victory in the presidential elections because the media has built up your image as the man who won the Chechen war? Could you comment on this?
Vladimir Putin: That is not true. But come to think of it, our election campaign and events in the North Caucasus coincided in time. Even so, I am absolutely convinced that it was not the war in Chechnya or the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya that brought me to the Kremlin. Having lived in Russia for a long time, I think you may agree with me, deep down, though I don’t know what your public comments will be. Our people are weary of the muddled way in which the state institutions are run. What is happening in the Caucasus generally and what is happening in Chechnya is just one element of the weakening of the state. The weakness of state institutions has come to worry our citizens who see this weakness in their daily lives. They feel unprotected, they feel insecure, they are not sure about tomorrow in economic terms.
And all this has led to the evident result: the voter wanted to see and feel that the state is turning into an institution that will guarantee the rights of every citizen in any part of Russia. If you look at the problem from that angle, Chechnya, the fight against terror and banditry in that particular republic and all the subsequent actions aimed at strengthening government institutions and enforcing the law – all that has exerted a substantial influence on the economic sphere.
The combination of all these factors contributed to the outcome of the election for me.
Question: Mr President, perhaps not all people in the West understand the implications of this situation. Of course, they get a different kind of information about that war, in the first place from us journalists, and we do not think of ourselves as mouthpieces for the Chechen separatists, we show objectively what we see, including Khattab and Basayev, who took up arms because they want to be free.
Vladimir Putin: Of course neither you nor your colleagues are the mouthpieces of terrorists, we understand that. You have said that you “cover what you see” but one can cover what one sees in various ways. For example, a close associate of the man who calls himself the President of Chechnya recently appeared on television and openly called for total extermination of Jews. Did you show this? No. But you should have. Such things should be shown. People should know about them. The people in Western Europe should know who we are fighting in the Chechen Republic. We are not fighting against the Chechen people there. It has never been our aim to suppress or enslave Chechnya. It is simply impossible and it does not accord with our tasks and plans. If coverage were truly objective I think the Western public opinion would have a different attitude to what is happening in the Caucasus as a whole, in Central Asia and in Chechnya.
Chechnya is just one episode in the common threat that is creeping up on Europe. But Europe is not realizing it yet. That threat is called the “terrorist international” which is emerging in that region. If the coverage were really objective, they might have spared a thought for how the Chechen events began. They might have recalled that they began with a totally unprovoked attack by thousands of gunmen on the peaceful villages of Dagestan. When the bandits came to these villages – by the way, it is also a Muslim republic – they murdered people, destroyed houses, stole property, they took things out of homes by the truckload. You know that people in Dagestan are poor. I watched in amazement trucks carrying away whatever property people had: tables, television sets, fridges, and fairly primitive at that. How could they have done it? And when our armed forces drove the bandits out of Dagestan, they blew up houses in Moscow and other cities, blew up market places – all in revenge. A total of 1500 innocent civilians died as a result. Just think of it. 1500 innocent people!
Of course, we have no choice but to prevent the use of Chechnya as a bridgehead for attacking Russia. Russia can no longer afford such an experiment. No other country in the world would have reacted differently. What were we supposed to do? Exhort them not to kill and shoot their own fellow citizens in city squares? And such things did happen in Chechnya – massacres, mass kidnappings. And the blame for this was put on Russia which had no control over the situation. I repeat, Chechnya had become a bridgehead for attacking Russia. Russia is not fighting Muslims there. It is fighting terrorists who use religious slogans. In fact, Russia is protecting Muslims there. It is protecting the local people and the neighbouring Muslim republics, including Dagestan.
Where do we go from here? It is, of course, a serious question that needs very attentive and thorough study. On the strength of what I have said, it is clear that Russia has not sought and will not seek to solve political issues there by military means. Of course, we will move on to political procedures to decide the future of Chechnya.
We might have negotiated with Maskhadov if he had not offered as negotiating partners people who, among other things, call for the extermination of Jews. Would you talk with such a man? Not me, spare me that.
But we understand that the problem cannot be solved without the Chechen people. You have noted quite rightly that the Chechen people are not great admirers of the bandits whom you have just mentioned. By the way, I never call bandits and terrorists by their names, I think that amounts to giving terrorism publicity.
We will continue to fight terrorists and bandits, we will seek to arrest them and put them on trial. But we will build a peaceful life, we will continue to restore the social infrastructure: hospitals, schools and other social institutions, we will rebuild the economy. As you know, I have submitted to the State Duma a draft law on temporary rule in the Chechen Republic. The head of the Chechen Administration is to be appointed soon, and once the social sphere is restored, we will pass on to normal democratic procedures, to elections. The future of Chechnya as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation lies in the building of a normal democratic society and a normal economy.
Question: And the final question. You have lived in Germany for several years. Who were your best friends there and what did you like about Germany most? And could you say something to our German audience in German?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I have spent several years in Germany. I began studying German at school, and then continued at University. And I studied the language later, when I worked at the security bodies, and then I lived and worked in Germany for five years. I had many friends. If I didn’t have a special warm feeling towards your country I wouldn’t have done all this. And besides, my children often speak German at home, practically as a native tongue. We are very fond of German culture. You have lived in Russia for many years and you too, surely, have both positive and negative impressions of our country. But I assure you a hundred percent that when you go back home only good things will remain in your heart. You will always have warm memories of this. It is the same with me and with my family. We are very fond of Germany and we are proud that we have been exposed to the German culture, that we can read some great books in the original, to talk with you in the same language. I repeat, we are pleased to do it. So, of course, I have the kindest of feelings.
As for saying something, well, I can only wish you all the best – alles Gute!