Nikolai Svanidze: The most burning topic today is the situation in the State Duma. We have already heard the phrase ”parliamentary crisis“. One third of the lower house is not taking part in its work. The Unity parliamentary party is playing one of the key roles. It has a reputation of a pro-government and pro-Kremlin party. Consequently, there has been some criticism, even targeting you, that the root cause of the situation is in the Kremlin and that you could have done something to prevent it.
Vladimir Putin: I see. First of all, I do not think that this is a crisis, because there is a large enough number of deputies in the assembly hall. There is a quorum for making decisions and adopting laws. Secondly, the deputies who are not present in the assembly hall have not stopped their work in the Duma. I believe they have all said so. They continue working, including on drafting bills.
I agree with you, nevertheless, that such a situation cannot be called normal and, of course, it needs to be resolved in some way.
As to the idea that the government or the Kremlin being responsible for the situation because the Kremlin supported the Unity party in the elections, I find it very hard to agree with it. Yes, there was a time during the election campaign when I voiced my support for the Unity party. But let us be open and honest: I also indirectly supported the Union of Right Forces, because the posters that hung in many cities across the country, including in Moscow, with slogans ”Putin for President, Kiriyenko for the State Duma!“ were made by the Union of Right Forces. Today, as we know, one of the presidential candidates is a leader of the Union of Right Forces. There is nothing we can do about it; that’s just what these experienced politicians are like. I cannot influence and has never tried to influence their actions. The same is true of the Unity.
But that’s not even the point. I believe I should never interfere with the work of the parliament, which is a representative state body. In fact, as prime minister, I had an interest in influencing certain appointments in the Duma, in the distribution of portfolios, committees, and so on, to make it easier to pass some of the bills. All bills that are included in the government package and will soon be debated in the Duma are market-oriented, and, of course, we will rely on the right-wing deputies to a significant degree. We are interested in all right-wing forces working together. I could have helped them to get as much influence as possible.
But as acting president, I believe that it is absolutely unacceptable and that I do not have this right, because the distribution of forces in the parliament must reflect reality and correspond to the distribution of forces in the entire society.
Yes, those who have left the assembly hall had won a total of about 18 million votes, but the Communist Party alone had won 16 million. And we know who these voters are. In fact, even the Communist Party's leaders do not conceal it. They are mainly people of the older generation. They often vote not for ideological reasons, and not because they are such functionaries, of course, not. We should fight for these people’s votes, but not in the parliament or by using some tricks. We should fight for them by implementing a strong and clear economic and social policy. It is necessary that these people – I will say it again, these are people of the older generation, the most disadvantaged and, unfortunately, helpless group in our society – should feel the results of our work, practical results. They should live better, eat better, and feel safer. They should have the opportunity to plan their own future and the future of their children. And when they realise this and feel a difference in their lives, then the social foundation of political forces will change too, and with it the distribution of forces will be adjusted. So the country should have a clear mechanism that would protect the interests of all groups in society regardless of their political sympathies. And there can be no other such clear and distinct mechanism as the institute of the presidency.
Nikolai Svanidze: Mr Putin, you have said just now about people who voted for Communists. But voters, Russian citizens, are one thing, and the Communist Party's functionaries, who hold influential positions in the State Duma, are something else entirely. It was with the Communist functionaries that the Unity party has reached an agreement. So there has been a lot of criticism about making a political deal with the Communists.
Vladimir Putin: Let us not forget that all these decisions were made during the election campaign. We have been hearing many different harsh statements, positions and words. There is nothing special about it; we should not be surprised. By the way, all these years, no matter who headed the government, what forces were represented in the Duma, they had to unite with Communists, because without their votes it would be impossible to pass almost any law. So there is nothing special going on now. We shouldn’t over-dramatise here.
As to the leaders and parties themselves, I have already said that the government’s package of documents submitted for the State Duma's consideration includes mainly market-oriented bills and we, of course, will look for support from deputies who share these values, who are oriented towards right-wing, democratic and market principles. Of course, the programme statements made by the Communist Party about re-distribution of property, about the need to confiscate and nationalise, as they put it, are unacceptable for us.
But there are no grounds, no reason to speak of a strategic political deal. You know, this is not the first time I have heard of it. Moreover, now, especially during the election campaign, opinions have been voiced that this is a prototype of a future dictatorship and your humble servant is presented as a potential dictator. In fact, the people that scare the public with the allegedly approaching dictatorship are the very same people who tell me, ”Order the Duma to vote the way they should. We know how they should vote. Just give the order.“ Some of them go even further in private conversations. They say, ”You were the FSB director only recently. Just show them who is boss, and they will do what they have to.“
Do you remember the old joke where one person asks, ”How is your health?“ And the other answers, ”Don't waste your time waiting.“ Do I make myself clear?
Nikolai Svanidze: Yes, quite clear. So, if I’ve understood what you are saying, you do not have the temptation to show them who is boss even when you have the opportunity?
Vladimir Putin: I believe that this is counterproductive. Counterproductive and unacceptable. I have already said that a country should have a state body that would protect the interests of all groups in society. It would also have another purpose, an important function. It should make sure the rules of the game are followed.
This is a vital function. It is essential both politically and economically. Perhaps, it is even more important for the economy. Because if we talk about increasing the state's role in the economic sphere, we must never say that the state should directly interfere in the economy, that it should give orders, restore centralised economic management, manage directly, although there should be companies and industries where the state cannot abandon these functions. In Russia such companies were called governmental, for instance in the defence and other sectors.
Overall, however, the state should have a different function: it should set clear and effective rules and, most importantly, create a system to enforce these rules. Unfortunately, our legal system still does not function properly, and this applies to all spheres – general jurisdiction and arbitration. Unfortunately, anti-trust mechanisms are not always used in the interests of the state and market players, but to further the agendas of certain factions and groups, or to give certain entrepreneurs a competitive advantage. This is not how it should be. If we do not correct the situation, if we do not ensure that the state enforces the rules of the game, we will never create a good investment climate, and then all our numerous multi-billion resources will never be used to full capacity and in a proper way. This is what we must do.
Moreover, I believe that the active support of the majority of the population to our operation in the North Caucasus comes not only from hurt national identity and pride, but also from an indistinct but correct idea – an ordinary person may not put it exactly with these words, but it is so, and the idea is right – that the state must be strong, and it has become weak.
Nikolai Svanidze: Let us return to your relations with the Communist Party, if you don’t mind. Why did you or why do you support Gennady Seleznyov? You supported his nomination for the State Duma speaker.
Vladimir Putin: The Communist Party again. Somehow you cannot drop the issue. I understand your specialty, but I have to disappoint you: I did not support Mr Seleznyov personally. If you remember, I said from the very beginning that it would be good to have a woman in this position. And I believe that Lyubov Sliska was a strong candidate for the role. But after consultations, deputies decided that the speaker should and could represent the Duma's biggest party, that is, the Communist Party.
Why did they choose Gennady Seleznyov? There should be certain logic there. I personally believed and told [Communist Party leader] Gennady Zyuganov and Gennady Seleznyov himself that perhaps it would be right if the speaker were a little known political figure, a new face on the country's political stage. I believe that an element of revitalisation would be appropriate. But there was a different logic at work: Mr Seleznyov has extensive experience in running the Duma. Not even of running it, but of presiding over meetings. After all, he is not a head, a boss; he is a speaker, a coordinator. This is a difficult job. It was his experience that became the decisive factor in the choice. He had already shown that he was capable of doing the job. It was not my decision. It was the decision of State Duma deputies.
Nikolai Svanidze: You have played no part in what went on and what is going on in the State Duma. Perhaps, your subordinates, the Presidential Executive Office or some officials, played an active part in it?
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much for this question. My friends from the Union of Right Forces and some other parties and movements keep asking the same question. There is a well-known old maxim in Russia, ”the good tsar and the negligent officials,“ who, first of all, conceal information and, secondly, do something behind his back. I will disappoint you, but I do not think it is necessary for me to hide behind someone's back. My position is that a president or an acting president has no right to interfere with the work of the parliament. He should not issue orders and he certainly should not distribute portfolios, positions, committees and cars with flashing lights. This is my approach to everything related to influencing the work of the parliament in the part related to adopting bills. It is possible to submit bills, defend them, participate in the debates, but nothing more.
Nikolai Svanidze: If I’ve understood you right, if something is done on behalf of the Kremlin after all – let us take a different, abstract, possible situation – all the questions about that should be put to you and not to your subordinates.
Vladimir Putin: I believe this is the absolutely correct approach. You cannot dodge responsibility that comes naturally with a certain post.
Nikolai Svanidze: How do you assess the current distribution of committees and portfolios in the State Duma? The biggest complaints from the newly formed Duma opposition have been about the distribution of portfolios.
Vladimir Putin: I would believe that we should first of all talk about professionalism and look for professionalism. The Unity, by the way, knows my position on the issue, I have told them about it. We also discussed the issue with Grigory Yavlinsky [the leader of the Yabloko bloc]. I would be glad to see Vladimir Lukin as chairman of the State Duma committee on international affairs. He is a professional diplomat and has earned a good reputation at his previous job. I believe he would succeed.
But, I repeat, the principle of party affiliation prevailed. I cannot say anything about the people who have been appointed committee chairs. I do not know them well enough yet. But I believe that committee chairs should be chosen first of all for their professional skills.
Nikolai Svanidze: So you will not use your influence to change committee appointments in a way you believe more sensible. That is, this person should be in this committee, and that one in another.
Vladimir Putin: I have already explained my position. God forbid. I have no intention of doing that. I believe that the influence of the government and presidential agencies on the work of the parliament should be different: it should not be the support to a particular group fighting for an office, position or a car with flashing lights. We should promote ideas and bills. Yes, we will come to the Duma, and we will plead, insist, persuade and debate. This is the function of the executive power in its relations with the representative branch, not in distributing positions in the Duma. I am not indifferent to what is going on there. Of course, the situation is not normal if one third of the deputies leave the assembly hall. This is why I have talked to Sergei Stepashin, who, as we know, represents the interests of Yabloko. I have talked to Sergei Kiriyenko. I have repeatedly spoken with Gennady Seleznyov and Gennady Zyuganov. I am in contact with everyone. But this does not mean that I put pressure on the decision-making process.
Nikolai Svanidze: You have anticipated my next question, but I will still ask you to clarify your position. Even if we distance ourselves from the ideological aspect of the conflict in the Duma, we need to discuss something different. One third of the Duma is not working in full force and it is unclear when it will come back to its duties. The situation in the Duma is not normal. Perhaps, it will develop into a scandal, or, perhaps, in some different way. But you are the acting president and you are running for the presidency. This situation will truly damage and, perhaps, has already damaged your political authority. And you say that you have talked to a number of leading politicians. What else do you intend to do to resolve the conflict at the Duma in the interests of the state?
Vladimir Putin: I believe this is enough. I believe it is enough that I should create an environment in which they would moderate some of their positions and find a way to resolve their conflicts. Such a way exists and has been offered. After my telephone talks and personal conversations with some of the people I have mentioned earlier, the consultations [in the Duma] will continue today, tomorrow and, I hope, in the near future. I hope that a solution will be found.
Nikolai Svanidze: Do you mean that your intuition tells you that the situation will be resolved in some way in the near future?
Vladimir Putin: I do not believe that there are any deep contradictions here. These are not ideological contradictions between the right and the left. It is just a distribution of positions.
Nikolai Svanidze: Another important issue that has been at the forefront of our minds for a long time is the situation in Chechnya. Some time ago, the military commanders of the operation said that its timeframe had been set, and even specified the month. What could you say about it? What are the criteria for ending the military operation in Chechnya, in your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: As to the timeframe, I have already talked about it. The timeframe is determined only by military relevance. This will not be set to coincide with any date in Russia's political calendar. It will not. We will not sacrifice our soldiers' lives to achieve any success, to coincide with any events in the country's political life. When some commanders, even high-ranking commanders, talk about a timeframe, you should bear in mind that this is operative information. Each of them is responsible for their own segment, and there is only one commander responsible for the entire counter-terrorist operation — the commander of the headquarters of the counter-terrorist operation. Under the presidential decree, this is the defence minister. A special information unit is being set up for him, and the newly appointed presidential aide Mr Yastrzhembsky will take an active part in its work. He will be the official source of information and I ask you to listen to him in that. The rest, I repeat, is operative information.
What can be considered a conclusive indication of the actual end of the counter-terrorist operation? I believe that it is the dispersal and final elimination of large terrorist groups, withdrawal of our Armed Forces involved in the operation from the Chechen Republic and simultaneous permanent deployment of the Russian Armed Forces units there. There are such plans, and they are already being implemented. Our efforts are mounting: work is also under way to build the republic's law enforcement system. This includes the republican interior department, divisions and department of the Federal Security Service, the judicial system. This is a beginning of democratic political processes and procedures, including elections to the State Duma and elections to the republic's state bodies. The beginning of political procedures in general. Various scenarios are possible here. Law presents us with numerous opportunities.
All this will be considered the end of the military stage of the counter- terrorist operation.
Nikolai Svanidze: How would you assess the actions of law-enforcement agencies at present? Do you have any serious complaints about them? If so, what are they?
Vladimir Putin: There are always problems. There is a pike in the lake to keep all fish awake. But I would like to say that there have been no serious complaints about the military, and there will not be any if the operation continues as it is conducted now. The personnel are very professional, they fulfil tasks, they meet the deadlines, and they do it, I repeat, with great professionalism and courage. We can only thank them.
But, of course, there are problems in the day-to-day operations. Problems are inevitable in such an operation. The heads of the law-enforcement bodies and of the Armed Forces are aware of these problems. We discuss them on a daily basis, and have done so today. And we make adjustments.
Nikolai Svanidze: Let’s discuss the international situation related to Chechnya and the attitude of the Western community to Russia. Lord Russell Johnston [chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] has made a visit to the Russian Federation. It appeared that he left with a different attitude to what was going on in the North Caucasus than the one he arrived with. He said he would not recommend expelling Russia from the Council of Europe. How would you comment on his visit? You communicated with this international official a lot.
Vladimir Putin: I communicated not only with Lord Russell Johnston, but also with the entire delegation. They were many of them, about 15 or 16 people. It is true that we talked for a long time. I did not try to save time, because I believe that it is an important part of our efforts in the Caucasus. But although it is important, it is somewhat lagging behind what we are doing in the military and political sphere inside the country. Judging by what the head of the delegation said before leaving Russia, he had truly revised his position to a significant extent. That is very good.
But that also shows us something else. It shows us that we have not done enough work in this sphere. Of course, there are people in the West who will always criticise us and take an anti-Russian stand out of geopolitical considerations. Unfortunately, there are such people and we have to accept that. But a significant part of the international community does not understand what is going on there and is influenced by superficial information and terrorist propaganda. This is easy to do. In fact, they disguise their ambitious terrorist plans under the cover of a fight for national independence. This idea is easily brought home to the Western mind. But this does not give the full picture of what is going on there; the essence of these developments is not shown. This is clearly our own fault. So when people come here, meet us, go to the scene and meet the local population, when they have a better idea of what is going on, no wonder that they change their opinion about the essence of these events. If it is really so – and I have no reason to suspect that the head of the delegation was being insincere – we should be glad. The question is whether he and the members of his delegation will be able to convey the opinion they have formed after the trip to Russia to all members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Will they be able to do it, to push it in the right direction so that the international community will turn towards Russia and improve their understanding of what is going on here. They have to understand that we are not fighting Chechen people, but international terrorism and the most violent form of ideological and religious extremism.
Nikolai Svanidze: Do you think we can say that the Western community or, perhaps, its officials at least, have begun turning towards Russia, and that the change in Lord Russell Johnston's position can be indicative of that?
Vladimir Putin: I would very much like to hope so.
Nikolai Svanidze: If it is so, can it be related to the change in your own official position? I mean that they no longer view you as a prime minister that can be appointed and then dismissed. Now you are acting president and a likely future president. Do you believe it may play an important part in attitudes towards what is going on in Russia?
Vladimir Putin: I believe that the biggest part is played by the position of the Russian people. After the parliamentary elections, I believe, the West realised which policies were supported by the majority of this country's population. It is impossible to ignore the will of the Russian people. I believe that this is the most important thing.
As to the change in my own position, I have no comments.
Nikolai Svanidze: Now, could we turn to the CIS for a moment? Boris Yeltsin is now the chairman of the Council of the CIS Heads of State. The next chairman should represent a country that alphabetically comes after R. It is T, i.e. Tajikistan. This means that the president of Tajikistan should be the next chairman. But Tajikistan, with all due respect, is not a very big country. There is an opinion that this may have a negative effect on the situation within the CIS and that separatist trends may increase. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has just proposed electing you to this position. What is your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: Actually, I believe that it is S that comes alphabetically after R, and only then T. But as there is no country starting with an S, it will really be Tajikistan's turn.
I believe that all our actions should seek to strengthen the Commonwealth of Independent States. As to the issue of electing the chairman of the Council of the Heads of State, you have touched on a very sensitive issue, because Russia has held this position for quite a long time. In fact, Mr Yeltsin has chaired the Council for all these years. But at present I am not the president of the Russian Federation; I am the acting president. But the decision about this post – it is a landmark one – will depend on the Commonwealth's heads of state, on the presidents that will gather here for a summit on January 25. We will go with their decision.
Nikolai Svanidze: Mr Putin, there is a lot of talk now about you cancelling your planned foreign trips, notably, the visits to Germany, Italy and Britain, if I am not mistaken.
Vladimir Putin: That is correct.
Nikolai Svanidze: They connect it to you being both the acting president and the incumbent prime minister. So if you go abroad, the country is left without either the president or prime minister. Is that why you do not want to go?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, it is. In recent years, the president and the prime minister have never left Russia at the same time. There is a certain sense in this practice. And I do not intend to change this.
But there are other considerations, too. I believe they are natural and lie on the surface. We are going to hold a presidential election on March 26. It is so far unclear who will be elected. So how can I go and put my partners in an uneasy situation? Today they will talk to me, and in two months there will emerge another head of state, the government may change. And they will have to begin everything from scratch. I do not think that is the right thing to do.
But I do not think that we should stop our cooperation and development of relations with the countries you have named and with other states. There are ways to make up for this. As you know, I recently met with the Italian foreign minister; yesterday I met with the foreign minister of the Federal Republic of Germany. There will also be visits from the French foreign minister and the US Secretary of State. We are preparing visits of the NATO Secretary General and the UN Secretary General. Very recently, the defence minister of the People's Republic of China visited Moscow. So our international relations are developing actively, and there is no harm done by my decision to postpone these visits.
Nikolai Svanidze: Mr Putin, can we conclude from the forthcoming visit of the NATO leader that there is a certain positive trend taking shape in Russia-NATO relations?
Vladimir Putin: We still advocate the idea of a multi-polar world. But my answer to your question is affirmative. Yes, there is such a trend.
Nikolai Svanidze: Thank you.