Sergei Dorenko: Mr. Putin, how do you like your new office, new chair, and your new position? Are they very different from what you had before?
Vladimir Putin: No, they aren’t. The amount of work is about the same, but there is more responsibility, of course. But this has nothing to do with a chair or office.
Sergei Dorenko: I would like to start with Russia’s biggest political problem, Chechnya, in order to understand what is going on there. We’ve had confusing reports since the New Year. One report says we have stopped and are not liberating Grozny, another is about an outbreak of fighting in Shali and Argun, and a third is about a truce. The situation is unclear. Where do we stand now?
Vladimir Putin: I’m surprised that such questions arise. I thought everything was going according to plan. The plan has remained unchanged, and nothing unusual has happened to make us think about changing it. The only exception was a break in fighting during the holidays – Christmas and Muslim Uraza-Bairam. Our opponents asked us to suspend hostilities, and we agreed. We all know how they used the break – attacked two villages, Shali and Argun. I must say that our military handled this with high professionalism and resolve. In fact, the attacks were more of a propaganda operation, but they were dangerous.
Sergei Dorenko: But what about our losses?
Vladimir Putin: There were no losses among Defence Ministry forces, but the Interior Ministry had some casualties. I cannot say that the people in charge of the operation did everything right, as they should have done. In some cases the terrorists outwitted them. We have learned a lesson from our mistakes. But let me emphasize that the situation in Chechnya has not changed, and believe me, it is not going to change.
Sergei Dorenko: I think the generals made some political blunders, for example, when they branded all Chechens aged between 10 and 60 as suspected of terrorism. Adopting such a tough position betrayed a weakness and a backlash. It looked as if we were too suspicious.
Vladimir Putin: Let me tell you something. It has only occurred to me now because you are talking in terms of weakness and strength. It is not about weakness. What we have is democratic institutions and policies versus terror and crime. Our actions towards our adversaries comply with Russian laws, whereas they use terror against us. This is why it happens the way it does. If we could detain and arrest people not for two or three days as set out in the Russian Criminal Code, but for 10, 20, 30 or 60 days, many things would be different. This is the main reason, and it also explains why the statements made by our military are sometimes inaccurate.
I am going to tell you something that I’ve never said before. In conformity with the law on terrorism, we have a presidential decree on establishing the Counter-terrorist Operational Headquarters.
Sergei Dorenko: Here in Moscow?
Vladimir Putin: Yes. The decree has put the Defence Minister in charge of it. Let me repeat that this decree, issued last year, is fully in line with the law on countering terrorism. All reports to the mass media at Defence Minister level can be treated as official information. Everything below this level is current operational information, and may or may not be accurate.
Sergei Dorenko: Do you consider media coverage adequate? You see, people in Russia have taken a very favourable attitude to the operation, to those who are carrying it out, and to those who have made this political decision. But its coverage has been so confusing over the past month or fortnight that one gets the impression that something has gone wrong, not as it was planned. Some people do not explain anything, but suddenly declare that all locals aged from 10 to 60 are potential terrorists, and we become horrified of all Chechens except small children and the elderly. Suddenly there appear statements that the fighting has resumed. This is the coverage we are getting. The opinion has not yet changed for the worse, but there are many fears that something is amiss, and that we are probably not being told the truth. Do you think this is happening because the coverage is the responsibility of generals from the Interior and the Defence Ministry? Maybe, some other body should be set up for this purpose?
Vladimir Putin: I’d like to comment briefly on the first part of your question. You said that people have taken a very favourable attitude to the operation in Chechnya. I don’t think this is the case. I believe people want order in Russia, including the North Caucasus. I am convinced that we are acting in the North Caucasus on behalf of the Russian people. They are sick and tired of our laxity and irresponsibility.
As for the media coverage, I would agree with you that it is probably not up to the mark. I think this is partly because the federal forces have advanced practically through Chechnya’s entire territory, and have approached mountain areas, whereas the information support has been left behind on the liberated territory, as it were.
Sergei Dorenko: Journalists are kept in Mozdok.
Vladimir Putin: Yes. This is because the Counter-terrorist Operation Headquarters has not yet established an agency that would supply official information.
Sergei Dorenko: The way, for example, NATO handled information when its troops invaded Kosovo. Information on what appeared, at least to us, an unfair and hard-to-justify war, was disseminated by the media every hour, and explained to the minutest detail.
Vladimir Putin: NATO invaded a third country whereas we have been conducting an anti-terrorist operation on our own territory.
Sergei Dorenko: It should be easier for us then.
Vladimir Putin: In some ways, it is easier, in others it isn’t because our own citizens are at risk, and we must think about them. On the other hand, I think you will agree that reports on the operation in former Yugoslavia should not be taken at face value. Today we know the other side of this coverage, and it was not our invention. British MPs report that today’s exhumations show that civilians had not been shot by anyone. They were not killed by bullets but by bomb fragments. This is an about-face from what we saw when events were unfolding in Yugoslavia. It is possible to say that everything was done properly there – properly in the interests of those who conducted the operation there.
Sergei Dorenko: That’s it.
Vladimir Putin: Here I agree with you.
Sergei Dorenko: Yes, winners are never blamed. Even if there is disappointment, it will come later on.
Vladimir Putin: Sure.
Sergei Dorenko: But still, what about the brass? As far as media coverage is concerned, it is a total mystery what responsibilities are assigned to particular generals. Troshev, for one, was in charge of the eastern direction. He has been replaced but still retained his former position. Who is doing what? Was Troshev punished? Or was it someone else? Who is in charge of what?
Vladimir Putin: There should not be any concern about this. The generals have done nothing to deserve punishment. They have been awarded with the Hero of Russia titles, and they have earned them. Nobody has been replaced, not to mention demoted. Formal changes are made only in response to the changing situation. Troshev commanded in the east, and Shamanov was in charge in the west. Now that their troops have approached the mountains, in the south, the zone of direct hostilities and operations has narrowed down to two, three, or four points. Their deputies can well cope with the tasks involved. This does not mean that the zone of their responsibility has been reduced. To the contrary, it has been expanded. They continue to be in charge of what is happening in the south of the republic, and are responsible for their directions on the entire territory where they operated before. Nothing has changed in this sense. Let me repeat that the zone of their responsibility has been increased rather than reduced. Their deputies are in charge of combat operations that the armed forces are conducting in these narrow points. This was an absolutely natural decision that was agreed with them. It does not mean at all that they have been moved or removed.
I’ve already said this, and will repeat it once again – these people deserve the deepest respect and have made a great contribution to the success of this counter-terrorist operation. Russia is not dumping generals like Vladimir Shamanov and Gennady Troshev.
Sergei Dorenko: Here’s what I’d like to say. I know that you have avoided the question about the operation’s duration but the military have their own political resources. Getting reports about three casualties per day will not work in the long run. We have been saying that these are not big losses, but they mean tragedies for at least three families. If there are political resources, how long can this military mission continue? I believe that no matter how bloody it might be, it should be short. In our September 5 programme we talked about carpet bombings. They could resolve the problem in a fortnight. And now, months after this problem could have been resolved, and all villages occupied, we could debate whether this was good or bad, but, as we’ve already said, winners are never blamed. You are saying the problem is that they are using a human shield. As a result, we are accused of foul play. This is what the West is talking about, this is what the Western and even Russian media have been writing about. Those who are using this human shield are not accused of cruelty. So, if we are to play by these rules, we have two options – either start negotiations with them and avoid civilian deaths, or close our eyes and go for a quick carpet bombing.
Vladimir Putin: We see the problem differently. I’ve already discussed it with you. We consider Chechen civilians our citizens and will never sacrifice them to any military objectives. We will never do that. As for the operation’s duration, it will be determined by military expediency.
Our actions will be tough but not cruel. What does that mean? Let me remind you what has been happening until now. Say, our troops have approached a village. If people from certain buildings offer armed resistance – I emphasize the adjective “armed” – that threatens the lives of our troops, these buildings will be destroyed. But if there is no resistance, if civilians oust the terrorists from their villages risking their own lives, we will cooperate with them. We will not simply cooperate and welcome such actions by civilians – we will win them over to our side. Only by gaining broader local support will we achieve final success – not with carpet bombings.
Sergei Dorenko: This is a long process.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, it will take time and patience. But it is the only civilized solution to the problem. Any other solution will not merely be useless for achieving our objectives in Chechnya, but it will not be accepted by our own people. You see, it would be a heavy burden for Russia. If we win this way, it will be a heavy burden for the entire country. I don’t think we should try to achieve our goals by such means.
Sergei Dorenko: I’d like to ask you this question. You’ve spoken about success. Success is a political solution. In other words, military success should be replaced with a political process. After all, civilian life in Chechnya will not be determined by military garrisons. Hence, talks will have to be held with men aged between 10 and 60. Not with women probably, but certainly with men, and some of them are on the battlefield now.
Vladimir Putin: You are underestimating the role of women. It is true that during hostilities and by virtue of certain traditions, relations are taking a different shape there. But you shouldn’t underestimate women – they play an important role in Muslim countries as well.
As for resolving major problems by political instruments, we first have to make sure that we have these instruments. This is very closely linked with what we’ve just discussed. If we decide to employ any means to reach our objectives, we will never create an environment for political settlement. There will be nobody to negotiate with, except for men aged 10–12, children. Neither women nor adult men will talk to us if we treat them with cruelty.
Sergei Dorenko: But we could turn some other way. What I mean is that the process should have a goal. It should be like a flag on a hill that a skier can see from the valley. You move toward this flag even in a snowstorm when you can’t see the track. But in our case, we can’t see the flag.
Vladimir Putin: We do. Let me show you. First, we will gain complete control of Grozny. Second, we will complete our operations in the mountains, no matter who might be hiding there in the caves.
Sergei Dorenko: Will the elections come next?
Vladimir Putin: This has nothing to do with the elections or any other political events in the country. If we tailor counter-terrorist operations involving loss of human lives to some political campaigns, we will lose both ways and make a mess.
Sergei Dorenko: I’m sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. I meant the elections of the new Chechen president.
Vladimir Putin: This is a separate subject. We must consult the Chechen population, and find out how they see their own future. This will be a political process, and it can move in many directions. The law offers us various solutions.
Sergei Dorenko: What if they confirm Maskhadov’s authority?
Vladimir Putin: I doubt it. You know, Maskhadov has turned into a complete puppet in terrorists’ hands. Where is he? He still wants to meet with us. OK, we are ready to meet with him on certain terms. Let him return the hostages and denounce the bandits, the terrorists that we already know. Is he doing any of that? He has been hiding in the mountains, rushing from one village to another, and leaking discrediting information about our servicemen. On the whole, we have the impression that he has stopped being an independent political figure, if he ever was one. If he acts on his own, he is welcome. But I think that his is a lost case, and not only as a negotiator for us – he hardly has any chance among the Chechens.
Now people have realized what has been happening in the last few years. They have understood that they have been simply cheated. Look at what is happening there – abject poverty side by side with palaces. What money have they been built with? At whose expense?
Sergei Dorenko: Is it a grotesque model of Russia?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, it is grotesque, because the level of poverty has gone beyond any limits. At the same time, there are palaces that were built quite recently with money from who knows where. I mean we do know where it came from. Either from the use of resources, such as oil, which belong, by the way, to the Chechen people, not to one or two bandit ring leaders. Or this money could have been stolen from the federal budget – the money we transferred to Chechnya for pensions and social payments. Over the past three years nobody has received either pensions or wages there.
Sergei Dorenko: In our discussion about Chechnya, we have come to the issue of corruption, stealing, violation of private property, and all the rest. You said earlier this week that you hoped there would be no smear war, no incriminating evidence during this presidential campaign in Russia. Do you mean that participants in the race can do whatever they want without fear of press scrutiny?
Vladimir Putin: I’m very pleased to hear this question from you. I think that the election campaign without a smear war means that we shouldn’t juggle with facts. We shouldn’t fan up tensions in society. We must react to real violations of the law on a daily basis, not during the election campaign. Incidentally, this is a duty of law-enforcement agencies. This means that we should conduct this campaign in the spirit of the values we talked about at Christmas.
Sergei Dorenko: I think “thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal” are some of these values.
Vladimir Putin: There are many values there.
Sergei Dorenko: But these two are definitely there. I think that the term “incriminating evidence” is rather vague and has a derogatory connotation. Maybe we should divide it into facts and fiction? No doubt, we should deal with the facts.
Vladimir Putin: As I’ve already said, it is the law-enforcement agencies that should deal with the facts.
Sergei Dorenko: The public should be involved as well.
Vladimir Putin: This can and should be public knowledge, but should not be timed to election campaigns.
Sergei Dorenko: There is a risk that someone who has concealed certain facts gets into a position where he will decide our destinies. If his ambition was to become a street cleaner, I probably wouldn’t worry about his values. But if he seeks an executive position, I’m much more concerned. I think that this super-elite unit, a super ministry that you, as they say, are creating out of the FSB and a number of Interior Ministry departments will deal with such facts, will verify them.
Vladimir Putin: Mr Dorenko, “as they say” is all hearsay… This is absolutely untrue. We have no intention of creating any super-elite units. You are the first to tell me this. But if we want our bodies of authority to employ honest people that were not involved in any under-the-carpet deals, but will proceed from hearsay and tell our conclusions to a multi-million audience, we will be involved in a foul play. Before telling our potential voters and TV audiences anything, we must verify this information and only quote authentic facts.
Sergei Dorenko: The best way to verify anything is to ask you. This is why I’ve addressed my question to you.
Vladimir Putin: And I’ve replied to your question. This is not true. We are not planning to set up any super special service, and I don’t have any such plans on my agenda.
Sergei Dorenko: Could you please say how much you influence the distribution of major seats in the State Duma? It is rumoured… let’s avoid this word – there is unofficial information that you have an agreement with (leader of Fatherland-All Russia party) Yevgeny Primakov that he will not take part in the presidential campaign, and in return, you will help him become Speaker of the State Duma, in particular, by using the potential of the parliamentary parties supporting you. Is this right?
Vladimir Putin: No such agreement exists. I’ve never discussed it with Mr Primakov. We had met only once in the presence of other people. If you remember, we met when I invited the parliamentary parties’ leaders of the former Duma and the heads of the movements that had been elected to the State Duma of the third convocation. This was a general meeting. We had no special conversations about this, and no agreements.
As for my influence… I have this influence primarily because of my consultations with the leaders of the parties that have been elected to the State Duma. But these consultations were very general, and I did not dictate anything to them because they are generally very independent and self-sufficient. Of course, we have our agreements sometimes. I’m not indifferent to what the future State Duma will be like. But it is important to make sure that it reflects reality, and is not the product of some covert agreements, even if they are made by esteemed people. The correlation of major seats in the future State Duma should reflect the real alignment of political forces and attitudes in society. Positions that influence lawmaking in the country should not be occupied as a result of behind-the-scenes intrigues. The existence of a parliamentary party means that a certain number of voters gave it their support. The party then has the right to be represented in the Duma accordingly, and influence the lawmaking in parliament, and hence, the nation’s life and future.
Sergei Dorenko: You have struck up a friendship with Gennady Seleznyov. I mention this because you’ve backed him in the election of the Moscow Region’s governor.
Vladimir Putin: This is a slight exaggeration. If you remember, it was after that meeting that I said the nation had moved from one campaign to another, whereas some people had not yet finished their own campaign in the Moscow Region. I said Mr Seleznyov was still taking part in this campaign, and wished him success on behalf of all parliamentary parties. I said this quite casually but my phrase was immediately picked up both by Seleznyov’s opponents and supporters. I should probably have been more cautious in making such remarks, but I hope Mr Seleznyov and I will work well together. I’ve said this before and I sincerely believe so. We had good working relations with the previous Duma.
Sergei Dorenko: You know, everything you say can and almost certainly will be interpreted as something pronounced by Vladimir Putin on behalf of the whole Russian Empire, from the Grand Duchy of Finland to Alaska. The eagle has spoken, and now Seleznyov will become Speaker because that’s what Putin wants. This is how every word you utter is interpreted. And the proof is that you’ve worked wonders with the SPS (Union of Right Forces) and the Bear (Unity interregional movement), haven’t you?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t know whether this is right or wrong but I say what I think, and what I say reflects reality. For instance, we’ve agreed with the Duma on key issues such as the budget and certain laws. We’ve managed to develop a good working relationship. This wasn’t easy. Sometimes we argued – members of the government would not leave the Duma until 5 a.m. But we’ve come to terms, and I think this is a very important signal for society in general, a signal to unite. We’ve shown that we can work together. Shouldn’t I talk about this? Why should I keep it secret?
Sergei Dorenko: But aren’t you losing your prestige, the prestige of the eagle and of the banners behind you? You know, it’s like when you hit bull’s eye every time in a shooting gallery. Everyone calls you a magician. But a magician has no right to err. He isn’t a man in the street; he is a magician, maybe a future president. He is acting president now and he’s a faultless magician. Then, imagine, all of a sudden Seleznyov is not elected. On another occasion you say that Lyubov Sliska could become the first woman to be elected Speaker of the State Duma, and she is not elected either. You talk about Vladimir Yakovlev but tomorrow we find out he has done something that discredits him – St Petersburg is a big city and anything can happen. Somebody would say: “Akela, you have missed.” The choir will repeat: “Akela has missed.” Meanwhile, the elections are still far ahead, on March 26.
Vladimir Putin: Well, this risk is always there, but one has to make some fundamental decisions. It is not worth saying what someone else wants to hear. I believe I should always say what I think and what has to be said. If I make one mistake after another, I’ll have to revise something. I’ll have to listen to my critics.
Sergei Dorenko: Here is one question about the economy. I would like to ask if Mikhail Kasyanov will be our next prime minister? Is this a trial period for him?
Vladimir Putin: First, under the Constitution this decision is made not only by the President, but also by the State Duma. Second, Kasyanov is not the worst candidate for the post. Third, since the Chairman of the Government must be endorsed by the Duma, this person should be a figure that suits many, but should also be capable of performing the difficult duties of the prime minister.
Sergei Dorenko: Thank you for the interview. I hope you will remain as straightforward with the press as you are now.