Question: This morning you had a meeting with our scientists and industrialists on the problem of Lake Baikal and the pulp and paper plant. Are there any signs of progress, and in general will the government pursue the issue?
Vladimir Putin: Of course it will. Unfortunately, the solution of this and many other environmental issues is being unreasonably delayed. And the longer it is delayed the more acute these problems become.
Environmental problems in Siberia are particularly acute, as I am sure you know better than I do. So we organised a meeting with scientists and some industrialists in order to discuss the problems of the environment. And of course, since we are here in Irkutsk, we spoke above all about Lake Baikal. We have agreed that the tentative project will be worked out by the enterprise, with the government’s participation. We have agreed that the relevant commission will continue its work and the government will bring in scientists, in the first place the Russian Academy of Sciences. The government is prepared to sell its stake, but not until feasibility studies have been approved for the restructuring of the enterprise in line with environmentally acceptable parameters. Moreover, we have agreed to work out a system for the use of the Baikal Fund, which, as you know, has been included in the budget for the first time. It is not an awful lot of money (60 million roubles), but it is much needed if the problem is to be solved. We have also agreed that the money will be allocated for this specific target in the 2001 budget. These are the decisions we made today.
Question: Your trips of this kind usually include visits to enterprises and factories, but this time your programme is more on the “humanitarian” side: kids, the environment, students, a meeting with academics, people in the arts and culture. Why?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the problems of the environment, as I said, in my opinion, environmental problems are among the most important for the nation as a whole. For Siberia they are, probably, the most important problems, because we are aware of what is happening in this area and we know how the population suffers from this. That is why humanitarian issues are given priority. Environmental problems are connected with production and with the people who are concerned about these problems. That explains the meetings with the representatives of creative arts and academics. The problems of Lake Baikal and the problems of the environment in general were first raised mainly by the intelligentsia. Because all these problems are interconnected, this accounts for the bias of this trip.
Question: A question not related to Siberia, if I may. What do you think about the initiative of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) – although it has been turned down by the Central Election Commission (CEC) – on holding a referendum on a number of issues, including limiting the president’s right to dissolve the government and broadening property rights?
Vladimir Putin: I support the SPS initiative on all these issues. But let me note that the CEC rejected the initiative on purely legal grounds. I talked about it with Alexander Veshnyakov yesterday. He said that the CEC could not endorse it because certain irregularities occurred when collecting signatures. And we cannot argue against that. However, on the substance of the problems raised, I would like to say again that I support the initiative, above all, because it is aimed at creating a viable state in Russia. These initiatives are aimed at making the state more efficient.
But let us start with the first issue on the list. It is the issue of guarantees of property rights in Russia and of the rights of the owner. To me, this is not just about the guaranteed property rights for major corporations and companies – Russian and foreign – but about the right of our citizens to own flats, houses, plots of land and so on. At the end of the day, we cannot tolerate a situation when the state, having declared the right to property, itself initiates a revision of these issues. And a good-faith buyer is put at a disadvantage from the start. We must do everything we can to avoid such a situation if we are to create a good investment environment.
Then there is the issue of parliamentary immunity. I support the SPS here too. Of course, that problem should be dealt with by the State Duma and the Federation Council. But I see no reason why the people should not have the right to express their opinion. I for one do not think that the deputies should enjoy such absolute protection in all matters. The State Duma deputies and the members of the Federation Council should enjoy protection when performing their duties. The SPS has proposed a change that concerns situations when deputies commit a crime – what’s wrong with that proposal? I would be in favour.
As for limiting the rights of the president with regard to the government, for me personally the issue is irrelevant because I am acting president and prime minister. So, we can revisit the issue later. That said, it is a major issue: actually, it is not only about the powers of the president, but about reviewing all the elements of the state mechanism to make them more efficient. That holds both for the regional and the federal components.
And the fourth issue is that of a professional army. It is a complicated issue. We discussed it when initiating the reform of the Armed Forces, the development strategy and the concept of national security. We are going to move in that direction. Clearly, we should be mindful of the real potential of our state, but when it comes to trouble spots and armed conflicts we should of course make sure to send professionals to fight there. By the way, about 30% of the army personnel now active in the North Caucasus are serving under contracts. So, we are going to move in that direction. It certainly cannot be done overnight, but that will be our strategy.
Question: Your contacts with the governors are becoming closer and more frequent. What is the key problem you are urging them to address at the current stage of economic and political development? What do you expect from them, apart from supervising the spring planting of crops?
Valdimir Putin: As for my contacts with the governors, they did not begin yesterday or today. You may remember that as a member of the Presidential Executive Office I was responsible for the regions. That meant, above all, work with the governors.
What tasks do I consider to be the most important and what is the main thrust of my cooperation with the governors? There are many different elements. I spoke about them today in my concluding remarks: these are economic issues (I think the agenda today was well-balanced), socio-political and organisational issues. Governors and speakers of legislative assemblies are members of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and they have a big say in approving laws. So, we count on their support of the government policy aimed at strengthening the state, and the government policy aimed at strengthening the tax system.
We look to the governors to help us in the social sphere because they are aware of what the state can and cannot do. The real potential of the state, on the one hand, and the social commitments, on the other, should be comparable and commensurable. The governors, the people who are directly responsible for the decisions being taken, are well aware of that and we count on their support on that issue. But not only that. We count on the support of the governors in improving the mechanism of the state. One of the problems raised here today is in fact an element in developing the state. Governors are responsible for vast territories, and are perhaps more aware than anyone of where the state mechanism is working effectively and where it hits the skids. So, there is this mutual exchange of opinion on these matters. We will consider their proposals and study them, and we will put them into practice.
Question: Perhaps it is off-topic, but still, it will soon be February 23, when we will again commemorate our war veterans and will perhaps spare a thought for 76-year-old Vasily Kononov, a former partisan who was sentenced to jail by a court in Riga last January. How do you feel about it personally and are you going to do anything about it as the head of state?
Vladimir Putin: You journalists are well-informed people and there may be some new information I do not know of yet. This morning I sent a letter to the president of the Latvian Republic asking him to see what he can do to influence the decisions connected with the fate of that World War II veteran.
But I think the issue does not concern only him personally. Strangely enough, the repressive apparatus of the state in Latvia has recently been turning more and more often against resistance fighters, people who fought against Nazism, and that worries and alarms us.
As regards Kononov, in my letter I asked the president of Latvia to see that a fair decision is passed on the issue, but I also told him that Russia is ready to offer Kononov its citizenship and allow him and his family to move to Russia. The Russian Federation will do everything to provide accommodation for him. But, as I said, the issue has to do not only with that particular individual, but with other similar facts. As a Russian newspaper reported recently, a former anti-Nazi fighter committed suicide during an attempt to arrest him, and some criminal cases have been opened. That way, we may end up with large-scale persecution of the people who fought Nazism.
Today, on the eve of the 55th anniversary of Victory over Nazism, this does no credit to the international community. The Russian Federation will build its relations with Latvia bearing in mind the whole range of humanitarian issues.
Question: How will you go about fighting corruption? The previous prime minister proposed to release a certain number of prisoners to make room for future ones. Do you have some other remedy for that traditional Russian malaise?
Vladimir Putin: There can only be one remedy, and that is uniform interpretation of laws and a sustained effort to enforce them. A consistent, relentless and persistent effort. I can’t think of any special unorthodox ways of dealing with the issue. What is needed is a persistent, consistent and uncompromising fight against corruption. I must tell you that this is one of the key tasks of the state in making our country economically attractive and politically advanced. Economic progress is impossible, it is out of the question, without fighting corruption. So this has been and remains one of the highest national priorities.