Excerpts from the transcript of the Russian Popular Front conference
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, dear friends. I am glad to be able to welcome you to the Russian Popular Front conference.
I just heard in detail about how discussions went in different forums, discussions about the economy in general, the social sphere, healthcare and pension reform. I know that these discussions were quite energetic, tough, meaningful, and that a lot of suggestions were made.
I consider it very important that events like today’s and yesterday’s are being held at precisely this time, because as you know we are preparing the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. And it is very important to hear what you are devoting attention to, what worries the Russian Popular Front and those who work in these forums, and what suggestions you have.
Actually, a fundamental idea behind the Russian Popular Front was to create the conditions for citizens and various social and professional groups to participate directly in setting a national agenda. The idea was that people should have the opportunity to set the authorities various tasks, and to ensure their implementation.
What did I want to note at the beginning of our conversation? Six months ago, at our founding congress, we created a broad social movement: the Popular Front for Russia. This movement is ready to take responsibility for solving the most difficult problems and, indeed, the discussions I just mentioned bear witness to this. The Front is ready to take responsibility for implementing our general programme using the mechanisms of direct democracy and by ensuring that citizens participate in our country’s life. I am grateful to you, dear friends and colleagues, for taking on this work without hesitation. Certainly, this position generates a positive response from our citizens.
I would also like to thank my authorised representatives, who are present in this room. I know that many of you are involved in developing the Russian Popular Front federal and regional structures, and some simply interact with the movement in different instances.
The main thing is not formalities, but that the Front and authorised representatives continue to act as a team, because naturally we all share the same goal. I should add that initiatives of Russian Popular Front members, their insistence and persistence, have forced all levels of authority to move forward, to get active, and to operate faster and more efficiently. Not simply to pretend, but actually to listen to public opinion. This is an extremely important thing, and I can assure you that it is being felt in the so-called corridors of power.
In this regard it is revelatory that the process of taking administrative and economic decisions has become more open. And the public discussion of many important issues, something initiated and organised by the Russian Popular Front, played an important role in this respect.
I would single out the work of our representatives within the State Duma. Deputies from the Russian Popular Front have already achieved [the adoption of] legislative amendments, amendments that are important for millions of our citizens. And to do this they sometimes had to argue with the authorities – I know this very well – with colleagues not only from opposition parties but also from the majority faction. If you are convinced you are right, you must continue, as happens today, to firmly defend your position.
The assets of the Russian Popular Front include a number of public initiatives with far-reaching effects, including the Internet project, For Fair Procurements. This project did not take a populist turn, but rather became a working mechanism for social oversight of state procurement orders and the fight against corruption.
I know that you plan to establish effective public oversight in a field such as road repairs. This is an extremely important thing! Strictly speaking, the initiators of this movement joined the Russian Popular Front after they had already garnered some practical experience in this area.
What I would like to emphasise? For a broad social movement such as the Front there are no minor problems. Because behind every seemingly private matter, behind each of these issues there is concrete human life, the fate of entire regions, and real situations in particular towns or villages. And of course indifference to this is absolutely unacceptable.
Therefore, the Russian Popular Front must continue to use all possibilities and measures to restore justice if it has been infringed, and to protect people’s interests and rights. You must act as an example of citizens who actively participate in our country’s life, and serve as an example for our entire society.
Dear friends, I am sure that the Russian Popular Front will evolve, and more of our representatives will actively assert themselves not only through public activities, but also within government structures. I would point out that our political system has become more open and competitive, that opportunities for new, bright people to enter politics are expanding, and that demands on candidates themselves to participate in all levels of government are increasing.
The importance of elections in single-member constituencies is rising. Here people can see who votes honestly, who expresses their position openly, and who achieves what they promised during the election campaign. And we must prove that we have the right to represent citizens’ interests by remaining in direct contact with them.
You need to be with people and take on their interests. Of course, it is possible to do this through the instruments of the Russian Popular Front. I am sure that all those who have meaningful ideas, who intend to solve problems in towns, cities, regions, and in the entire country, will be able to adequately express themselves during election campaigns, and become real people’s deputies.
Again I would urge you to communicate as much as possible with citizens, to obtain feedback on how our plans are being implemented, and what is preventing them from being implemented, especially on location.
Precisely here there is a great space for citizens’ initiatives, for their participation in the lives of their cities and towns. And we need to develop and support these initiatives. I am referring to the realisation of social volunteer projects and other forms of civic participation. And of course, we have to involve in our work talented, professionally trained people, activists who have proven their worth at the level of local government.
It is important that Russia’s human capital increases, and for as many as possible bright, energetic people to participate in the development of their regions and the entire country. And, as I already said, to participate in implementing our overall programme, which reflects the interests and aspirations of the majority of our citizens.
Thank you very much for your attention.
We can discuss the topics which prompted our gathering; I know that yesterday you already did so very actively with various levels of authority, and especially with the Government.
Vladimir Putin: Let’s begin with a very sensitive and important subject – last year’s presidential executive orders and their implementation. The executive orders are not just some papers that were prepared during the election campaign. They concern a number of issues whose resolution has been long overdue. These documents serve as a roadmap and an objective for all executive authorities, both federal and regional.
We know that the tasks set forth in those executive orders are very serious in practically all areas. They are difficult to fulfil even under the best conditions, with booming economy and high economic growth rates.
Unfortunately, today we see that our economy largely reflects what has already been happening for several years in the global economy and, worst of all, in the European economy, since Europe is our main market. More than 50% of our trade turnover is with EU nations.
So the on-going recession, which has already lasted several years and continues, is now affecting us as well. Our growth level is higher than in many EU nations, but it is insufficient, and the rate of growth is not enough to reach all of our objectives.
What does this mean? It does not mean we should use this as an excuse to put aside the 2012 executive orders we are discussing right now and say we cannot implement them. I am sure we can and must do it.
The question is what sources will be used to implement these objectives. In previous years, oil and gas revenues served as the primary source of funding; but today, tomorrow and in the next few years, the source of funding should come from restructuring of our economy, social sphere, and making a qualitative step forward in their improving effectiveness and competitiveness.
Can we do it? Of course, we can. Incidentally, regardless of the oil and gas revenue level, this is still our only future. And the events currently occurring in the global and European economy, the fact that they affect our own economy, should mobilise us. They should not make us complacent; on the contrary, they should serve as a booster for us. But we must all understand that this is not an easy path.
What does it mean when I talk about restructuring the economy and the social sphere? It means that we must eliminate everything that has been functioning ineffectively, which is costly and does not yield the necessary results for our citizens or the nation overall.
But by choosing this path, including with involvement of platforms like this, which are becoming exceedingly important, we must strive for national consensus and an understanding of what is ineffective and what needs to be done in order to increase the competitiveness of individual sectors and the entire economy overall. We must identify action steps to minimise possible social consequences during this restructuring process, to bring them down to zero, identify how to concentrate government resources in order to reach new technological levels in our economy without putting the social sphere on the back burner. This is what we need to think about.
This is what we must consider in advance and work purposefully. That way, we will not only achieve the goals set forth in my 2012 executive orders, but also achieve our main goal: we will make our economy and society more effective, modern, and future-oriented.
And this will allow us to improve our people’s living standards on an entirely new basis, and achieve the goal I spoke about – 25 million jobs, and so on. These are only figures, but they should be followed by real changes.
Finally, do we need to work on the issue of monitoring implementation? Of course we do! And it is imperative for this monitoring to be public. Under no circumstances should we allow the May 2012 executive orders to turn into a series of run-arounds. Before we discontinue any such monitoring, we need to examine it on a broad public platform such as the Russian Popular Front.
But I don’t want to make any enemies. The work I have spoken about is very difficult. And it often elicits a certain kind of reaction if we do not explain what is and will be done in a clear, timely manner. This is difficult work. But colleagues from executive authorities must understand that they will be carrying out this workunder public supervision. There is no top secret involved that needs to be hidden from our people.
I fully share your position and will give direct instructions to the Control Directorate to continue supervisionuntil this work is completed.
As far as ‘Open Government’ is concerned, it would seem that our colleagues have not got used yet to working so openly. Let’s see it as growing pains. Of course they are going to have to get used to it and keep going. It’s absolutely not enough to just discuss a few international issues through the Open Government system, discuss matters, join or not join this or that international legal agreement. We need far more than this.
If what we want is for our executive government bodies to be open, then they have to be open in practice, in real life. I can therefore assure you that we will continue with this work, step by step, but in rapid time, and we will definitely achieve our objective, especially if we carry out your proposal on monitoring implementation of executive orders.
Let’s hold a separate meeting on education. I’m not opposed to the idea, on the contrary, I’m all for it. This is an important area, probably one of the most important spheres of our life. If there really are things that are not very clear and require further clarification or perhaps some adjustment, this is normal enough. We just need to discuss it and take the necessary measures in good time. Let’s plan a meeting and examine the issues through this platform.
On the subject of using museums, in the past they were certainly widely used in the education process. I know this very well because I lived in Leningrad – St Petersburg – and we went often to the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, and the Ethnographic Museum. I remember it well. I can say from my own experience that it really was very useful. It was a part of my general education, just as for the other kids who studied with me in school and then at university. It was very important for us.
I agree completely with you on the subject of developing domestic tourism. This is extremely important, especially for the more remote parts of our country. In Kaliningrad say, there is a whole generation now, many teenagers and young people, who have been numerous times to Poland or Germany, but have never visited anywhere in Russia outside Kaliningrad Region. This is obviously something we need to think about. We need to take action, work in interactive format, and this means using our federal programme for developing local and domestic tourism.
On the subject of agriculture, we allocated somewhere around 200 billion rubles for supporting the agriculture sector this year, I think. That is a lot of money. Perhaps even this is not enough, but you know that we also made decisions on extending earlier loans and lowering interest rates and loan payments under agro-leasing schemes. You also know about the decision to subsidise each hectare of cultivated land. All of this amounts to quite substantial and large-scale support.
Of course we will not abandon the agricultural producers, who have ended up in difficulties due to droughts and to the floods in the Far East, and also – let’s be frank – due to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, which has put some agriculture sectors in a difficult position and increased competition on our domestic market. Import volumes have gone up.
We have done a lot in poultry farming say, but I know that there are still problems in that sector too. Seven years ago, we were importing 1.4 million tons of poultry. From there, the figure has dropped to almost nothing. It went down to 600,000 tons, then to 200,000 tons, then to 150,000 tons. But the poultry sector still has problems. True, through the WTO we now have protective measures.
I already spoke about this, but for those who do not remember all the details, let me remind you: we have the right to give $9 billion in subsidies to our economy through to 2013 inclusive. Then it must come down to 4 or 5 billion and we will have to gradually lower it. But this is a good and solid safety cushion. Problems still remain even so, including with agricultural engineering. This is something we need to examine of course. The Government and the Agriculture Ministry will have to calculate how much extra funding is needed. I promise that I will send this signal to the Government.
Regarding healthcare modernisation and the modernisation programme, yes, funding for that programme ended this year. How much did we have, 460 billion over two years?
Vladimir Putin: Funding for this programme has ended, but this absolutely does not mean that the whole modernisation programme has ended. Of course this is not the case. This particular programme was only a part of the overall modernisation plan, which is to ensure that we at the federal level do what is impossible or difficult to do at the regional or even more so at the local level. The aim is to build up the technical base in the healthcare sector in the regions so that they will then be able to work on the areas that come under their direct responsibility.
Whether at the federal or the regional level, the healthcare modernisation programme is planned to be carried out over a period of decades, and it does not end when funding of 460 billion ends for a particular part of the overall programme. Of course this is not so. Additional funds will be allocated at regional and at federal level. We need to monitor this very closely.
On the subject of pensions, this is an extremely important issue in both social and economic terms. From the economic point of view, this is one of the biggest fundamental development issues that we face. We have 34 million pensioners and a third or more of them will take early retirement. This creates a burden for the budget and the Pension Fund.
The Pension Fund is currently running a deficit. We are covering the deficit with money from the budget or from the National Welfare Fund, which is formed by oil and gas revenues. I want this to be clear. I have already spoken about this many times. We often hear: “Oil and gas are expensive here. How is that affecting our people?” It is precisely this oil and gas revenue, which we put into the Reserve Fund, that we are using to cover the pension system’s deficit.
But ultimately, there should be no deficit in the pension system at all. We have already discussed many times the idea of raising the retirement age, as many European countries and our neighbours too have already done. Incidentally, Ukraine raised its retirement age too. We are not taking this step.
But we do need to ensure our pension system’s sustainability and make it an effective part of the Russian economy as a whole. It must ensure social justice and guarantee that pensions will be comparable to the average incomes we have had over recent years. In other words, we need to guarantee the replacement coefficient – how pensions compare to wages. What’s more, we need to strive for the same kind of level that the developed world economies are able to provide. Is this possible? Yes!
Interethnic relations are an extremely sensitive, crucial area of our lives. Over 80% of our population consists of ethnic Russians, and they are certainly the group that drives our nation’s development, both culturally and demographically.
But Russia’s strength lies in the fact that it is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith nation. If we want to preserve this, we must give this matter our utmost attention. And there is just one correctapproach: all citizens of the Russian Federation are equal regardless of their faith or ethnicity. This means everyone must respect our laws equally, and everyone must be held equally responsible if they violate those laws, also regardless of national, ethnic or religious affiliation. And nobody should hide behind their exceptionalityand demand any sort of special rights for themselves. That is what’s most important.
The fight against corruption, particularly in law enforcement, and the fight against ethnic crime are exceedingly important issues, and it is vital to react to such crimes swiftly. So I am once again appealing to all participants and members of the Russian Popular Front. Sometimes, it is hard to counter them at a local level; that means we should take these matters to a higher level of the Popular Front, so that they reach the executive authorities more quickly and help us all react promptly and firmly to these problems. We will not let this issue fall by the wayside.
I would like to point out that we now have the best birth rates in over 20 years, and this is not only due to maternity capital, although that is part of it. It has to do with the entire system of measures the government has been taking over the last seven to eight years. And what’s most important is that people are planning further into the futureand there is an increased sense of stability. That, I think, is the most important factor, when you can plan a family and are not afraid to have children, as well as maternity capital and other forms of support.
It is true that we had a sharp drop in birth rates in the 1990s – probably the greatest drop since World War II. I think it may even have been worse than during the war. You see, the 1990s were a catastrophic period for our nation. What does this mean? It means that the generation born at the start of the 1990s will now be joining the workforce and starting families. It is a small group, relatively speaking, and we will once again experience a decline.
Therefore, we must bear this in mind when we make plans to build social institutions. And what should we do in the regions? We must combine the construction of preschools and schools. Why? Because when there are enough preschools, we will be able to use those buildings as schools as well. My colleagues in the regions and I have been discussing this, so they know about it.
As for developing transport infrastructure and rail operations, it’s true that this sector has certain problems, and they are also related to budgetary financing, including support for Russian Railways. The situation is really very difficult, but it is extremely important and necessary to maintain support for Russian Railways, especially as far as passenger trains are concerned. First and foremost, I am talking about commuter trains; therefore, it is essential to provide financial support to the regions where this kind of commuter transport is particularly important.
The Government is working on this, and in spite of all the budgetary limitations, a decision has been made to provide this support. I do not think our attention to this matter will lag, although we certainly have problems, and they need to be resolved.
I won’t go into details now; this is a vitally important and very difficult area. The fact that you have once again pointed it out is very good, so thank you very much.
You said that Russia is located between the East and the West. In fact, it is the East and West that are located to the left and right of Russia. Nevertheless, the transit potential should certainly be used much more effectively than we have been doing up until now.
Incidentally, we have a great deal of competition at the international level. There are various attempts to organise projects bypassing our territory. But I can tell you that Russian Railways is working very actively in this area. I am sure you have heard about the project to connect the Trans-Korean Mainline and Trans-Siberian Railway.
In spite of all the political complications and risks, Russian Railways has renovated 54 kilometres of railways in North Korea in fairly challenging conditions, and this was not a cheap project. I recently visited South Korea, where I was told that if we connect the two railways, the flow of freight from the industrially developed regions of South Korea through our territory will increase significantly.
There are many other domestic projects aimed at the development of Siberia and the Urals, particularly focused on facilities pertaining to the prospective extraction of mineral resources: the Polar Urals project – I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
Some of these projects have to do with reaching the Arctic seas and building new ports in the south of the country – I am referring to the cluster of ports in the Black Sea Basin, the Sea of Azov and the Caucasus, as well as other ports in the north, such as the Sabetta Port and the development of the Murmansk transport hub. We have enormous projects in this sector, and they will certainly be implemented.
What I am especially glad to see is that our discussion has been very lively and substantive. I know that the same kind of direct communication took place at round tables yesterday with members of the Russian Federation’s Cabinet and regional authorities. I must tell you: this fills me with certainty that the Russian Popular Front will become an instrument that will truly connect society with the government and help make our entire government apparatus more effective and consistent in its efforts. As a result, our joint work will be truly useful to the citizens of the Russian Federation.
Thank you very much. Please do not be offended that I must end this meeting. There are many questions. I would like to thank you and wish all of us success.