Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has spoken at length with RT about the world’s burning issues, including war-torn Syria, Iran, US surveillance and terrorism. He exclusively answered questions from RT journalists while paying a visit to the channel.
Margarita Simonyan: Mr. Putin, thanks again for visiting us.
Vladimir Putin: Thanks for inviting me.
Margarita Simonyan: According to the Russian tradition, as hospitable hosts we are always happy to have such guests.
Vladimir Putin: I have to say, it was somewhat unexpected for me that our talk would be on air, not to mention it being live. But I was happy when Margarita just told me about it. I knew that we were having a meeting with journalists but I had no idea that you’d arranged such an ambush as live broadcast of it. Well, it’s all yours.
Margarita Simonyan: Well, we have nothing to hide.
Vladimir Putin: There’s nothing to hide, indeed.
Vladimir Putin: There’s nothing to hide, indeed.
Margarita Simonyan: My first question is a bit immodest – about our channel. What are your impressions of it?
Vladimir Putin: I have good impressions.
When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the world’s scene, a player that wouldn’t just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also try, let me stress, I mean – try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams. And it seems to me that you’re succeeding in this job.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
I’d like to emphasize something of the key importance. We never expected this to be a news agency or a channel which would defend the position of the Russian political line. We wanted to bring an absolutely independent news channel to the news arena.
Certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another. But I’d like to underline again that we never intended this channel, RT, as any kind of apologetics for the Russian political line, whether domestic or foreign.
Margarita Simonyan: One issue that at least our viewers are generally excited about today is the Snowden case. A man who is now being dubbed ‘a second Assange’ has exposed total surveillance practices employed by the American government. There are two sides to this story: on the one hand, that was classified information, which makes this man a traitor. But on the other hand, the information he has leaked is of crucial importance, primarily for the American public, and for the world in general. What do you think of that?
Vladimir Putin: He told us nothing we didn’t know before. I think everybody has long been aware that signals intelligence is about surveillance of individuals and organizations. It is becoming a global phenomenon in the context of combatting international terrorism, and such methods are generally practicable. The question is how well those security agencies are controlled by the public. I can tell you that, at least in Russia, you cannot just go and tap into someone’s phone conversation without a warrant issued by court. That’s more or less the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism with modern-day technology. As long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the law that regulates intelligence activities, it’s alright. But if it’s unlawful, then it’s bad.
Margarita Simonyan: Mr. Obama said, rather gaudily, that you cannot have hundred-percent security while maintaining hundred-percent privacy…
Vladimir Putin: Yes you can. I’d like to reiterate: you do have to obtain a warrant for specific policing activities domestically, so why shouldn’t this requirement be valid for intelligence agencies as well? It can, and it should.
Margarita Simonyan: As you probably know, it isn’t Snowden, or Syria, or Turkey that’s been top news in Russia this week. It’s your divorce everybody has been talking about. Both yourself and Ms. Lyudmila Putina explained it at length when you spoke to the press after a ballet performance, but a few questions still remain. I wonder about the religious aspects of your divorce, and this is something many people are questioning at the moment.
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I can tell you that Lyudmila and myself agree that it’s much more appropriate to be outspoken about our actual state of relations rather than try to keep it secret.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Margarita Simonyan: That’s what they say in the press, too, regardless of political affiliation.
Vladimir Putin: Well, thanks for that much. As for the religious aspect of our marriage, there is none, because we never wed in church.
Margarita Simonyan: You didn’t wed?
Vladimir Putin: No.
Margarita Simonyan: Thank you. The next question will be from Maria Finoshina, who’s sitting right next to you. She is a war correspondent on RT English. She has spent 56 days in a row in war-time Syria recently, isn’t that right?
Maria Finoshina: Almost. It was 54 days.
Margarita Simonyan: She went on air every day without fail.
Vladimir Putin: As RT’s CEO, you should know that this isn’t right.
Maria Finoshina: It was my own initiative, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: No, I’m serious here. Some friends of mine, including your colleagues from European countries, professionals who dedicated their life to journalism, believe that. One of them told me that you cannot keep a reporter in a warzone for that long. The reason for that is because people…
Maria Finoshina: Start to lose touch with reality.
Vladimir Putin: Exactly, lose touch with reality and lose the sense of danger.
Maria Finoshina: That’s very true.
Vladimir Putin: You have to pull reporters out.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Margarita Simonyan: I’ve called you so many times and told you to come back! Honestly.
Maria Finoshina: But I’ve already lost my sense of danger…
Margarita Simonyan: I started calling her on day 20, telling her, “Masha, how are you doing over there? Get back!”, but she said no, she had more stories to shoot.
Vladimir Putin: This is very risky, it’s no joke.
Margarita Simonyan: Of course. Most of us have been to hot spots at some point, and it’s very dangerous. Maria, the floor is yours.
Maria Finoshina: Thank you very much, Margarita. Hello, Mr Putin, we are very happy to see you here, in our new home. Something seemed to be missing here at first, but now it’s become much cozier.
I was introduced as a war correspondent. Some people believe that all correspondents are, in a way, invisible soldiers, so to say. Over the last two years we had to work in warzones, where the war was very real. I’ve spent a lot of time in Syria – 54 days just recently – we travelled across the country, visited practically every town and village. We also went to neighbouring countries, which in majority of cases did not support al-Assad’s regime. The thing that struck me most was that over time more and more people were becoming involved in the conflict. We’ve talked to a huge number of completely different people. Now, two years later, there is no single person standing on the sidelines. One way or another, the conflict affected everyone. The people we talked to were very different, I mean, we talked to, for example, widows of military officers of the Syrian Army and their children, who would maybe prefer not to be involved, but it’s impossible. Their fathers have been killed, and they must seek revenge. Perhaps they don’t want to, but they must – it’s a matter of honour. We also talked to rebels, both Syrian and non-Syrian, who were living in Syria and other places, for example, in Europe, Turkey, and Jordan. They were in very high spirits at first, very optimistic, but then they started complaining that the West had forgotten and betrayed them. They wanted more money and more weapons. As you’ve highlighted yourself, Bashar al-Assad is no angel, and we met with people who openly hated him. I remember seeing this old man in a hotel in Damascus where the UN observers were staying. He was a shoe polisher, and he kept doing his job, mechanically going through the familiar motions, and the only thing he was thinking about is when the happy news that Bashar al-Assad is gone – either dead or no longer president – would reach it. He has been hating al-Assad vigorously ever since 1982, for what his father did to the city of Hama.
In Lebanon we managed to contact arms dealers who ship weaponry into Syria. They told us that they didn’t care in the slightest who got those guns and who got killed as a result. They said, “We are businessmen, we care only about money”. We talked to young boys, about 11-12 years old, who were given these guns – maybe they even came from Lebanon – put in front of cameras in their scarves and made to read aloud the words that someone else wrote. Nasty business. Well, you know, children are being used in this conflict.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
We have seen so much, and during our time there we became part of it. The horrifying part is that it doesn’t matter where any of these people were in March 2011, when it all began. Now it feels like they’ve crossed a critical line of sorts, losing hope and faith – in themselves and other people, perhaps even humankind as a whole, in kindness and justice. And they’ve become angry, really angry at everyone. So, coming to my question – there are people who are really angry at Russia. Some people feel that way because they think Russia is doing nothing in order to stop the bloodshed. Others are angry at Russia for supporting al-Assad and supplying weapons. And everyone’s expecting something from Russia, hoping for something. And it’s not limited to the Syrian conflict, it happens every time – in Serbia, in Kosovo; everyone’s asking where Russia is. The same is true for Iran, where we’ve been just recently, and even in Mali they ask about Russia. So, as the president of this country, I would like to ask you a question on behalf of these people.
Vladimir Putin: You mean me as the president or you as the president?
Maria Finoshina: No, no (laughter). I meant to say I wanted to ask you, as the president.
Vladimir Putin: Who are these people? (laughter)
Maria Finoshina: What should I tell these people?
Vladimir Putin: That was such a long question, so I’ll try to be concise. First of all, you mentioned I once said that Bashar al-Assad was no angel. I said no such thing, as I try to be very careful about the way I put things. What I did say, however, is that the country was obviously ripe for some kind of change, drastic change. The country’s leadership should have realised this and started implementing the necessary reforms. It’s obvious that had they done that, what we see now in Syria wouldn’t have happened. That was my first point. Secondly, I said that we’re not advocates of the current Syrian government or the country’s current president, Bashar al-Assad. And one more thing – what we wouldn’t want to do is get involved in the conflict among various denominations of Islam, between Sunni and Shia. This is their internal issue. We have very good relations with the Arab world, and we have good relations with Iran and other countries.
So I will tell you what we are concerned about and why we assumed our current stance. Look at the region as a whole. There’s still unrest in Egypt. There’s no stability in Iraq, and there’s no certainty that it will stay united within its current borders in the future. There’s no stability in Yemen, and Tunisia is far from peaceful. Libya is suffering from clashes between various ethnic and tribal groups. So the region as a whole finds itself in a state of, at the very least, uncertainty and conflicts. And now Syria joined the rest.
In my opinion, this is happening because some people from the outside believe that if the region were to be brought in compliance with a certain idea – an idea that some calls democracy – then peace and stability would ensue. That’s not how it works. You can’t ignore this region’s history, traditions and religious beliefs, and you can’t just interfere. Look at what happened in Libya. Whether the regime was good or bad, the living standards in the country were the highest in the region. And what do we have now? There’s fighting over resources, incessant clashes between tribes, and no one knows where that might lead.
We are very concerned that if we try the same thing with Syria, the result will be similar. Is the pocket of uncertainty between Afghanistan and Pakistan not enough? No one is controlling that territory, except militants who set up their bases there. Is that what we want? It’s very close to our borders. So this is our primary concern.
Secondly, we are concerned over the future of all ethnic and religious groups living in Syria. We want this country to have lasting peace and security, with the people’s interests and rights guaranteed. So we believe that first of all the Syrian people are to be given an opportunity to decide how their state should be organized, how their lawful rights, interests and security should be ensured. When there is consensus on these issues, systemic change should take place, not vice versa, when you eliminate some forces and try to establish order, and chaos engulfs the country instead.
There’s a question our Western counterparts fail to answer. One of the main armed opposition groups – specialists in Arab countries will correct me if I’m wrong – is called the Al-Nusra Front. The US State Department dubbed it a terrorist organization connected with Al-Qaeda. The Al-Nusra itself doesn’t make a secret out of it. So these are the people what will make up Syria’s future government? Our Western counterparts say that it will not happen. “How will you get rid of them, then? Chase them away like flies?” I ask. “No,” they say. So what is going to happen? They say they don’t know.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
This is no joke, though, this is very serious. I’ll give you another example. On the one hand, some Western countries support some organizations that are at war with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but these same Western countries fight these same organisations in Mali. They’re not even the same organisations – they are the same people. Some have left Syria and come to Mali. The West is fighting them in Mali, but once they cross the border into Syria, they get support from the West. What is the logic in all of this? Where will it take us? You need to understand, this is not just rhetoric.
I very much hope that the current initiatives, such as the one put forward by the Egyptian president – we have recently met in Sochi, and he proposed the countries of the region take a more active part in resolving the conflict – and by the British Prime Minister, who believes the permanent members of the UN Security Council need to be more involved, and the joint initiative of Russia and the United States, that the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department have been working on together, I hope that this will enable us to resolve the Syrian conflict.
Margarita Simonyan: Irina Galushko is a correspondent of RT English, too. She has travelled a lot, and became one of the first in Japan to cover the Fukushima disaster.
Irina Galushko: My question will not be dealing with Fukushima. Recently we have spent a lot of time in Europe, covering all kinds of demonstrations. There are a lot of protests in Europe, and we can say that there are mostly young people on the streets. They take part in demonstrations because they have nothing to do – the have got an education or they are still students, but they can’t find a job. They don’t have any prospects for the future at all, let alone a promising one. So of course they are dissatisfied – they take to the streets and voice their protest against what is going on in their countries. Meanwhile the governments of those European states believe that the only solution is austerity measures – they tighten the screws, especially in terms of the social obligations. They tell those young people to wait for some ten or fifteen years, promising that maybe after that period the situation will probably get better. Do you think this the right approach? If no – then, does Russia have a recipe how to deal with this?
Vladimir Putin: It is a correct approach for them.
Irina Galushko: And what about Russia?
Vladimir Putin: It is incorrect for us – we have got different economies. Russia is a developing economy and a developing market, while Europe mostly consists of well-developed, advanced economies, the state of which is different in each country. The Russian economy is rather healthy, and, I must say, it is unburdened by an external debt the way it is in Europe or the USA.
The average national debt across Europe is about 90 per cent, and the USA is well over 100 per cent. They have a high unemployment rate. All of the budgets are deficit-ridden. So not only do they have a huge national debt, but also a massive budget deficit. Russia’s external debt is 2.5 per cent, our overall debt is 10 per cent. Russia is deficit free, our unemployment rate is 5.6 per cent, whereas in some European countries it reaches 25-26 per cent, and among young people it is up to 40 or sometimes even 60 per cent. It is a disaster. So we are in different situations. Obviously, Russia can use the so-called oil-money and rely on oil and gas exports. But I’d like to note that we don’t use monetary mission – we don’t print more money in reserve currencies the way they do in the Western countries. So it’s not just about Russia having oil and gas reserves, but it’s rather about Russia restricting its spending. The Central Bank of Russia is often criticized for high interest rates – I guess it is about 8 or 8.5 per cent at the moment, or maybe 8.25 per cent. It doesn’t matter – it is still high, while in the USA, for instance, it is 0.25 per cent, if I’m not mistaken. Europe has similar rates, too. Some say Russia should have the same numbers as well, but the Central Bank is keeping its rates this high in order to avoid financial bubbles. Of course, we could provide cheap loans, low-interest credits, which would be used by manufacturers to produce some goods that would not be much in demand later on. So you have a bubble that is about to erupt. The highest performance is finding balance between having a more liberal monetary policy and toughening spending cuts, in a way that would ensure maximum growth. I don’t think we are there yet. I believe we are not that efficient in everything we do as a government. I do hope that following our repeated meetings Russian government will make an effort and come up with some additional proposals to stimulate the economic growth and business activity in Russia.
Speaking of which, one of such measures is something we use constantly, for which we get criticized by our counterparts – liberal economists: that is active support of growth in real income of the population. Last year it was about 4.5-4.6 per cent, and beginning February through April this year it has gone up to over 5 per cent. That is the growth of actual income of the population, which implies an increase in domestic demand. So the conditions we find ourselves in are different. Generally, I do share the viewpoint of some of our European colleagues who suggest we should consolidate budgets and bring discipline to the economy to get out of the crisis. Still, everything has its boundaries, and we can’t shift the entire burden to the shoulders of the population.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Margarita Simonyan: Daniel Bushell, the presenter of one of our shows in English. Western media such as Foreign Policy and New Statesman often comment that he is too critical of the mainstream view on the world. I think it’s really so. Daniel, the floor is yours.
Daniel Bushell: Mr. Putin, I’d like to hear your opinion on multiculturalism. Not long ago, the leaders of the European Union admitted reluctantly that their experiment with multiculturalism failed. When I lived and studied in England, and then worked in France and Belgium as an RT reporter it was evident that the local residents and immigrants had little in common. Over the last years Russia’s been facing the same issue of mass immigration. I’d like to ask, how can Russia avoid the same mistakes that the EU has made in the issue of immigration?
Vladimir Putin: We have different starting positions with the West. In the Western Europe and, by the way, partially in the United States all these migration problems are, in my view, more severe; they are more explicit and more dangerous. As we know, Western Europe and the United States have to deal with people who come from different countries and who find it difficult to assimilate in their new homeland. They fail to learn the local language, they fail to speak it, and they fail to find their way in the labour market.
One of my Western European counterparts once told me that immigrants from, say, North Africa would live in a new country for ten years and still fail to speak the local language. In that instance he was referring to Spanish. And what about Russian immigrants? I guess they’re doing better now, but those who immigrated to the United States back in 1980s and 1990s… Someone I know once was visiting an area where Russian immigrants have been settling…
Comment: Brighton Beach.
Vladimir Putin: Exactly. So there was an old lady who’s lived there for 15 years, and didn’t speak English. She was telling her guests that tomorrow she would go shopping in New York. She didn’t even realize she was living in New York.
So it is a general problem which is related primarily to the economy and to the need to attract a cheap labour force. Actually the same thing is happening in Russia. But in our country, despite how acute this problem is, it’s still not as severe and dangerous as it is in Europe and in the States. Why?
If we speak about immigrants, i.e. citizens of other countries in Russia, most migrants come here from different parts of the former Soviet Union. This new generation might not be speaking good Russian but their families do one way or another. We still do share a common mentality, a common historic memory. Some of them or perhaps their relatives may have lived in the regions of Russia. These factors make it much easier for these people to integrate in the lives of those ethnic groups where they are resettling for permanent residence.
Nonetheless, even in Russia we should make more efforts in preparing those people who are willing to come and live to Russia. As we’ve said, we should set up Russian language and history classes in those former republics, in those new states – so far we haven’t done a very good job at it. This way we would help people understand each other better from the start.
And of course we need to educate our citizens or those aspiring to become Russian citizens in a sense of responsibility. We have to help them realize that they are in a different country now and so they have to observe our traditions and our laws; they have to respect our culture and our history.
This is an entire separate field of work. It used to be ignored in the past but now we need to pay attention to this matter, and we need to contribute more centralized efforts to it.
As for the domestic migration, it also is a complicated issue. Back in the Soviet Union, there used to be a domicile registration (propiska). Those who violated it were thrown in jail or banished beyond 101 km from large urban centers.
RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev
This situation is much more complicated now. The Russian Constitution delegitimizes propiska, so we need more modern mechanisms to regulate this matter. But let me repeat that we do have an advantage in our country that we are a multiethnic people, and we are an integrated civilization as a whole.
Margarita Simonyan: Speaking of immigrants… We have an immigrant in our midst – Jelena Milincic. She works on RT Spanish, but she is actually from Serbia.
Jelena Milincic: Yes, I am from Serbia, and I have lived in Russia for 11 years. I can say that Russia has become my second home, but I still don’t have Russian citizenship. And if I file for citizenship now, the process will take at least 5 or 6 years.
But in order to do that, I need to own an apartment, for example. In order to get an apartment, I have to take out mortgage, but I have to be a Russian citizen for that. It is a vicious cycle. So seems that in the West, where this is a more serious issue, like you said…
Vladimir Putin: It’s easier to get citizenship, than in Russia
Jelena Milincic: That’s why it’s a more serious issue, because it’s easier to get citizenship. Will anything change in Russia in this respect?
Vladimir Putin: We have to be very careful here, making sure we protect the interests of the majority. Our country is Russia, and 85% of our citizens consider themselves Russians. Other people groups living on our territories are closer to us than those living outside Russia. These are our indigenous people. And there are over 120 ethnicities indigenous to Russia. You’ve lived here for 11 years? But it takes 5-6 years to get citizenship you said. You should’ve filed already.
Jelena Milincic: I have to have residence registration for that.
Vladimir Putin: You could’ve bought some basic housing…
Jelena Milincic: But how can I take out mortgage?
Vladimir Putin: I think if you really wanted to become a citizen, you could’ve bought a room in an apartment outside Moscow, just to meet necessary requirements to file for citizenship and observe the formalities.
Jelena Milincic: Isn’t the fact that I have’s lived and worked here for 11 years enough?
Vladimir Putin: It is. I think you are right. We do have to adjust our immigration policies in some cases.
We have to welcome professionals like you. You are a young and beautiful woman. I am sorry, but it is true that you are a woman of childbearing age. Your boss here sets a good example, by the way… Some countries, Canada, for example, have special programs to attract certain categories of people from other countries. Unfortunately, our system is very outdated in this respect. There have been some developments in this area. There are initiatives to make the citizenship procedure easier for certain categories of people from the former Soviet Union. But as a whole, our immigration policy lacks flexibility. It has to protect interests of Russian citizens, but it also needs to allow for an inflow of specialists that our country needs. So you are absolutely right, and like I said, the government is working on that.
Margarita Simonyan (L) and Sophie Shevardnadze (RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy)
Margarita Simonyan: Sophie Shevardnadze, presenter and show host on RT English, has Russian citizenship. Authorities were more flexible in her case.
Sophie Shevardnadze: It didn’t happen right away though.
Margarita Simonyan: Yes, she had to jump through hoops first. Sophie, our presenter and show host.
Sophie Shevardnadze: I have lived here for 8 years. Mr. Putin, I work in Moscow, but I was born in Tbilisi and grew up in Georgia. I wouldn’t be honest if I said that I wasn’t concerned about the relations between Russia and Georgia. This is something that I care about on a deep personal level.
Do you think there is a chance that these relations will return to normal in the near future? As we know, Georgian athletes will come to the Sochi Olympics, and Tbilisi is even ready to help with security issues during the Olympics.
Vladimir Putin: I have talked about this on many occasions, voicing Russia’s opinion. I think that President Saakashvili made a big mistake. We have discussed it with him several times, so I don’t think he would deny this. I used to tell him, “Mr. Saakashvilli, whatever you do, please make sure there is no bloodshed.” To which he would always respond, “Of course not! We will be patient and try to work things out with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Unfortunately, it all ended up in a war.
Many of your colleagues, especially in Europe, the US, and Georgia itself, often blame Russia. But I think any unbiased observer would agree that Russia had nothing to do with this. This ethnic conflict has been going on for decades or even centuries. And people in Georgia are well aware of this. They know about what happened in 1919, in 1921. They know about relationships between people groups.
They had to have patience and political wisdom if they wanted to build relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of one state. Unfortunately, they failed. Russia reacted to what was going on at the time, and eventually this response led us to recognizing independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I can’t imagine how this could be reversed, it’s simply impossible.
But this is also the red line that Georgia cannot cross. Because for Tbilisi this is a strife to restore its territorial integrity. This is a complicated issue that has to be dealt with very carefully. And it requires not just a competent solution, but there must be a will to solve this issue on the basis of respect towards interests of all people who live on those territories.
Here is what I think. If interests of all people living on those territories are considered and respected, and this respect becomes a basis for solutions, this might become a long-term fix. But it can only be done by people living there, no decision should be imposed from the outside.
As for the new government of Georgia deciding to participate in the Olympics and make other reconciliation steps, it’s not lost on us. We appreciate those steps and respond in the same manner, as you have probably noticed.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Would you be willing to accept the help they offer? I mean security assistance…
Vladimir Putin: Of course, we are ready to work with Georgia. We want to restore relations with Georgia, we like Georgia. We have close ties with Georgians. You live here, you have Russian citizenship. And how many Georgians live in Russia? We are proud of their contribution, we see them as our own people.
Margarita Simonyan: Many.
Vladimir Putin: I won’t go back as far as the War of 1812, we all know which war general I am talking about. Georgians did great things for Russia back then, during the Soviet period, and they are still doing them now… So we are very close culturally and otherwise. Not to mention the religious aspect. I have met with the Catholics…
Sophie Shevardnadze: Ilia II.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, he is a very kind person and a true Georgian. The whole time he kept talking about the interests of Georgians. But there was so much wisdom in what he had to say, and his tone was very gentle and calm.
As you know, we have decided to allow Georgian products back on the Russian market. We understand that this may not be the key issue, but it is still a very important step that will help Georgia’s economy. We will continue developing our relations, but the most important and complicated issues have to be solved by people living there through a dialogue and without any external pressure.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Can I ask a simpler question? It’s about visas. A couple of years ago I asked Dmitry Medvedev this same question. And he basically said that while Saakashvili was in office, there was not going to be any progress in this area.
What needs to happen, so that my relatives, my close ones can freely visit me in Moscow, just like my Russian friends go to Georgia without any visas?
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Vladimir Putin: If we work together fighting crime and terror, it will become possible. I don’t think I will reveal a big secret by saying that terrorists often get to Russia’s Caucasus region from Georgia.
When 6-7 years ago we had to attack Georgian territories, those were not just strikes on Georgia, we targeted militant groups that came very close to Sochi – they were only 30 km away. Do you realize how serious the situation was?
Margarita Simonyan: You mean the Kodori Gorge?
Vladimir Putin: No, the Kodori Gorge was a different situation. In any case, Georgian police vehicles were transporting the militants to the Russian border. So we had to take some pre-emptive measures. And I informed the president about this. We don’t want to see this ever happen again. We want to work with Georgia, want to restore relations. Again, if we begin to work with law enforcement and security agencies, this would be the first step towards cancelling visas.
Margarita Simonyan: Thank you. Salam Adil is Deputy Editor-in-Chief with RT Arabic. Salam, you have the microphone.
Salam Adil: Thank you, Margarita. Actually, I have only occupied my present position for a week. Before that, I spent twenty years working as a reporter. I’ve travelled practically all over the world, including many conflict areas. I haven’t lost my sense of danger in the process, and that’s why I’m still alive.
Vladimir Putin: Thank God.
Salam Adil: Yes, thank God.
Vladimir Putin: God bless you.
Salam Adil: Thank you very much. And my question concerns conflicts, too. I mean to ask you about drones.
Margarita Simonyan: Unmanned aerial vehicles.
Salam Adil: As you know, America employs drones to deliver airstrikes, almost on a daily basis. This happens especially often in Pakistan and a few other countries – you have already mentioned the explosive situation we are seeing at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drones are arguably a very convenient means of warfare: there is no direct engagement, and no risk for your rank and file. It’s all remote controlled, like a computer game. However, and this is something we see in the news almost every day, this kind of warfare is fraught with massive casualties among civilians. So, on the one hand, drones are efficient in combat, but on the other hand, we are all aware of collateral damage. The public in many countries have found this shocking, and there has already been a motion for imposing an international ban on using drones. I would like to ask you about Russia’s attitude on this issue. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Gunpowder was originally invented in China, and no one has managed to keep it from spreading ever since. Then came nuclear arms, and they also started to spread. Modern means of warfare keep evolving, and they always will. I doubt if it’s possible to simply ban it all. But you certainly can – and should – introduce certain rules and exercise control. I’m sure the United States does not target civilians on purpose. And the drone operators you’ve mentioned are people, too, and I think they understand all those things. But you still need to combat terrorism. I know they are currently debating this issue in the United States, and a notion is being advocated increasingly often within the UN framework that you need to put drones under control, you need to lay out certain rules of engagement in order to prevent or minimize collateral casualties. It is extremely important. I don’t know whether our [Western] counterparts will choose this option, but I would suggest it would be in their best interest. However, there are other threats, too. For example, they are presently debating the option of using non-nuclear ballistic missiles in the United States. Can you imagine how potentially dangerous that is? What if such a missile were to launch from somewhere in the middle of an ocean, and get spotted by a nuclear power’s early warning system? How should that nuclear power react to a missile coming its way? How are they supposed to know whether that missile comes with a nuclear warhead or not? What if the missile impacts right next to its border, or inside its territory? Do you realize how perilous that can be? Or take the notion of low-yield nuclear weapons – do you realize how badly it can blur the very notion of using nuclear arms, or how low it might bring down the threshold for authorizing such a strike? Can you imagine the possible implications? Where are the limits for lowering that threshold, and who is setting them? There are many threats in the world of today, and there is only one way to address them efficiently: that is, working together within the boundaries of international law.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Margarita Simonyan: And now I would like to give the floor to Peter Lavelle, who is the presenter of one of our most popular shows CrossTalk. Peter has worked with RT since its very beginning. He will be speaking in English and I will translate the question for you.
Peter Lavelle: Thank you.
Margarita Simonyan: Shall I translate it for you?
Vladimir Putin: No. Well, every opposition can prove useful. You just mentioned Occupy Wall Street. At a certain point we saw the police cracking down on the Occupy Wall Street activists. I won’t call the actions of police appropriate or inappropriate. My point is that every opposition movement is good and useful if they act within law. If they don’t like the law, they should use democratic ways to change those laws. They should win voters on their side, they should get elected into legislatures so that they have a chance to influence the laws. This is the way to change things on the ground. If there are people who act outside the law, then the state must use legal means to impose law in the interests of majority. That’s the way it’s done in the US, and that’s the way it’s done in Russia.
Truth be told, we are grilled for that, but when the same thing happens in the US, it is considered to be normal. Never mind, these are double standards and we have got accustomed and pay little attention to it.
Margarita Simonyan: When it happens in the US, RT grills America.
Vladimir Putin: Way to go! Everyone must be treated in the same fashion. Because these situations are identical. The only difference is that our diplomatic missions don’t actively cooperate with
Occupy Wall Street, and your diplomatic mission works together and directly supports Russian opposition. I think this is wrong because diplomatic missions must forge ties between states and not meddle with their domestic politics.
Getting back to popular movements. Reckless behavior is not appreciated by people. If these activists are breaking the law, then it’s illegal. If they express their will by legal means, without breaking the law then they are fully entitled to do that. Then it would be beneficial to any state because it’s a way to provide grassroots feedback on state policies – social, domestic or foreign ones.
As for Mr Kudrin, he is my long-standing associate. We see eye-to-eye on many vital issues of Russia’s development. But that’s for an obvious reason – we’ve known each other for a long time now. We worked together back in St. Petersburg, and then he became a member of the cabinet and proved to be one of the most efficient ministers. I have always backed him on key decisions. If I didn’t he wouldn’t have been able to work, to implement those ideas and principles that he promoted. So to a certain extent that was our joint policy. He has his own view on certain things. It so happened that they had a disagreement with Mr Medvedev on a number of issues and since Mr Medvedev was president, he had the right to take the decision that he eventually took.
Today Alexey Kudrin says that he is ready to re-join the executive branch if the authorities were more decisive. But he is quite reluctant to specify what he means by being more decisive when I ask him to. Why? Because ‘more decisive’ means ‘taking tougher steps’, for example, in terms of the pension reform, in terms of raising the retirement age. No-one, including the opposition, wants to speak about to the public. They think it’s the right way but they don’t want to talk loudly about the issue.
Also, taking tougher steps on other issues, like slashing budget expenditures, and social spending, first of all. Many of our liberal economists think that our social expenditures are too high, that we raise salaries and pensions and social benefits too fast. They point out that the growth in real disposable income is unjustified – last year we had a 4.2 percent increase, and it’s been up 5.9 percent during the four months of this year already. They argue that salaries are growing faster that labour efficiency, which is bad and dangerous for the economy. There’s no denying it, and they are absolutely right. But maybe it’s best not to decrease real disposable incomes but rather to improve our labour efficiency? Russians often say that the goal is not to expand the amount of the wealthy people but rather to reduce the amount of the poor. That’s a very hard thing, but the best part of the opposition has admitted that in private and professional meetings with us. But publicly they are afraid to speak about it. And this is wrong. I have told them many times now. If you stick to some idea, you have to be straightforward about it. Don’t be afraid that some part of the nation won’t like it. If we are to rally a bigger support for your ideas, you have to stick to your principles to expand your electoral base. Look at today’s Western Europe. They brought their countries on the precipice of bankruptcy, but whenever they talk of lower salaries, people are up in arms. So it would have made more sense to increase your social spending and debt more gradually. Also, it would have been great for the authorities if there had been someone who could have told them about it. I don’t think our social spending is too high, I don’t think that we increase pensions, salaries and social benefits too much. But generally, Mr Kudrin and the likes of him have a point to make, and we need to listen to them. It’s a very useful thing. So I believe that an opposition that has national interest at heart will be in demand.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Margarita Simonyan: Next question is from Oksana Boyko, the presenter of our new show. She moved into presenting after several years of reporting for RT, she, too, went to many war zones.
Oksana Boyko: My question is a follow-up to your previous reply, concerning principles and a principled position. I would like, however, to apply these notions to the Iranian issue. Iran will be holding a presidential election soon. I know that Russia doesn’t like to meddle with domestic politics of other countries that’s why my question would be as general as possible. It’s more of a philosophical kind. To me, Iran is a great example of how you can create extreme tension in mutual relations by blowing out of proportion some insignificant differences. The Iranian nuclear issue that everyone’s been talking about for the last decade basically relies only on some vague suspicions which, year after year, have been dismissed even by Americans themselves. But that rhetoric has ignored the fact that Iran has been compliant with the nonproliferation regime by 99 or even 100 percent. The mainstream focus is on suspicions, but at the core, as I see it, is the relationship between the US and Iran. Tehran is partially to blame for the tension buildup, but the root of the problem is the stance of Washington, their signature foreign policy principle – friend and foe divide, meaning that if you are not their ally, you are their enemy. And it seems that the level of tolerance to dissent is quite low, and when it drops too much, we see threats of war based on groundless suspicions, as is the case with Iran, or assistance to war, as is the case with Syria.
Russia has a good record of avoiding tension in relations with other countries. Your public statements indicate that you know the cost of enmity or, rather, open confrontation. However, I believe that Russia and the US have ideological, fundamental differences, on the use of force in particular, that no private meetings can resolve. It all stems from the national idea of the US. They believe they have a higher responsibility, which is actually just a bigger right. So where is this line for you between avoiding an all-out confrontation that could have an impact on Russian security and maintaining our principled position, which could, too, be critical to our security?
Vladimir Putin: I didn’t quite get – was it a punch at the US or Iran?
Margarita Simonyan: She’s our tough guy.
Vladimir Putin: A response to your question could take hours. It’s so complex. I will try to be as concise as possible. First, I have repeatedly voiced Russia’s official stance – Iran has the right for a peaceful nuclear program and it cannot be singled out for discrimination. Second, we need to be aware that Iran is located in a very challenging region. I have told our Iranian partners about that. That’s why Iranian threats made towards neigbouring countries, in particular Israel, threats that Israel can be destroyed, are absolutely unacceptable. This is counterproductive.
Oksana Boyko: This is not a proper quote of the Iranian president.
Vladimir Putin: It doesn’t quite matter whether it’s a proper quote or not. It means it’s best to avoid a wording that could be improperly quoted or could be interpreted differently. That’s why the focus on Iran does have a reason behind it. I have no doubts that Iran is compliant with the rules, simply because there is no proof of the opposite. According to the latest IAEA report, Iran has been abiding by the commitments it has taken up. True, there are some outstanding issues but with due patience and friendly attitudes, they can be resolved.
I have a great respect to Iran and a great interest in it. This is a great country indeed. You don’t often hear this attribute mentioned in relation to Iran but this is true. This is a country with a great culture, a great history and a great nation. They are very proud of their country, they have their own understanding of their place both in the region and in the world, and that’s something you have to respect. You have grasped the core of the problems. Iranians are very smart and cunning politicians. To a certain degree, they have exploited this confrontation with the United States.
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Oksana Boyko:They are not the only ones.
Vladimir Putin: They are extremely crafty in this, and they do it to tackle their domestic political issues. When there is an external enemy, it united the nation. But I guess the United States have been employing the same technique. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been no external threats that would allow Washington to dominate in the West. There must be a threat so that the US can protect their allies from it. This position yields political and economic benefits. If everyone relies on one country for protection, then this country is entitled to some preferences. So it’s very important to possess this status of a global defender to be able to resolve issues even beyond the realm of foreign policy and security issues. I think the US has been using Iran for this very purpose, that is to unite their allies in the face of a real or fake threat.
It’s quite a complicated issue but it’s not an issue for Russia. We have been complying with our international commitments, including on Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. As you know, Russia built the Bushehr power plant in Iran, we have completed this project and are prepared for further cooperation. Yet when we proposed to enrich uranium on the Russian territory, our Iranian partners refused, for reasons unknown to us. They argue that they will enrich uranium on their own in line with existing international regulations. And, as I said earlier, if they don’t break any rules, they are fully entitled to do that. We will endorse this right but we will also remain aware of the concerns that other states and the international community has concerning full compliance with these rules.
Oksana Boyko: Can I clarify something? The thing is, I was asking you not only about the US-Iranian relations but also about the US-Russian relations. Would you agree that we have fundamental ideological differences on key issues of international law?
Vladimir Putin: So right on the eve of my meeting with Barack Obama, you are pushing me to make some serious statements…
Oksana Boyko: It is a very important issue. If the country thinks it has more rights that others…
Vladimir Putin: I thought you wouldn’t notice my deviation. But you did. Indeed, you are very persistent. To date, we don’t have any significant ideological differences. But we do have fundamental cultural differences. Individualism lies at the core of the American identity while Russia has been a country of collectivism. One student of Pushkin legacy has formulated this difference very aptly. Take Scarlett O’Hara from ‘Gone with the Wind’ for instance. She says ‘I’ll never be hungry again’. This is the most important thing for her. Russians have different, far loftier ambitions, more of a spiritual kind, it’s more about your relationship with God. We have different visions of life. That’s why it is very difficult to understand each other but it is still possible.
Oksana Boyko: That’s why there is international law to create a level playing field for everyone.
Vladimir Putin: The US is a democratic state, there’s no doubt about that, and it has originally developed as a democratic state. When the first settlers set their foot on this continent, life forced them to forge a relationship and maintain a dialogue with each other to survive. That’s why America was initially conceived as a fundamental democracy. With that in mind, we should not forget that America’s development began with a large-scale ethnic cleansing, unprecedented in human history. I wouldn’t like to delve so deeply into it, but you are forcing me to do it.
When Europeans arrived in America, that was the first thing they did. And you have to be honest about it. There are not so many stories like that in human history. Take the destruction of Carthage by the Roman Empire. The legend has it that Romans plowed over and sowed the city with salt so that nothing will ever grow there. Europeans didn’t use the salt because they used the land for agriculture but they wiped out the indigenous population. Then there was slavery, and that’s something that is deeply ingrained in America. In his memoirs, US Secretary of State Colin Powell revealed how hard it was for him as a black man to grow his way up, how hard it was to live with other people staring at you. It means this mentality has taken root in the hearts and minds of the people, and is likely to be still there.
Now take the Soviet Union. We know a lot about Stalin now. We know him as a dictator and a tyrant. But still I don’t think that in the spring of 1945 Stalin would have used a nuclear bomb against Germany, if he had had one. He could have done it in 1941 or 1942 when it was a matter of life or death. But I really doubt that he would have done it in 1945 when the enemy had almost given up and had absolutely no chance to reverse the trend. I don’t think he would. Now look at the US. They dropped the bomb on Japan, a country that was a non-nuclear state and was very close to defeat.
So there are big differences between us. But it’s quite natural that people with such differences are determined to finding ways to understand each other better. I don’t think there is an alternative. Moreover, it’s not by chance that Russia and the US forged an alliance in the most critical moments of modern history – that was the case in WW1 and WW2. Even if there was fierce confrontation, our countries united in the face of a common threat, which means there is something that unites us. There must be some fundamental interests that bring us together. That’s something we need to focus on first. We need to be aware of our differences but focus on a positive agenda that can improve our cooperation.
Margarita Simonyan: America and Russia’s relations with the US are important issues for our network, largely because Americans make up most of our audience. That explains why you wouldn’t get that many questions about America from any other channel, particularly any Russian channel. If you simply look at our website’s hit statistics, you’ll see that most of our audience comes from America, so anything related to the US is a key topic for us. And here is Anastasia Churkina, who has specially come over from New York for this meeting. She works at our US-based channel, RT America, which caters to an American audience and focuses specifically on American issues. Is that right, Anastasia?
RT photo / Semyon Khorunzhy
Anastasia Churkina: Yes, thank you. I’ve lived in New York for the past five years. You have mentioned the fundamental differences as well as the common features that Russia shares with the United States. I would like to go back to our diplomatic relations and the present issues of international law. When I meet American politicians and Russia experts these days, I often hear them acknowledge off-record that the Magnitsky Act has effectively come to replace the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which demonstrates the same outdated approach towards Russia. As we know, when Barack Obama met with Mr. Medvedev during the summit in Seoul last year, he made some hints, saying he would have more flexibility after re-election…
Oksana Boyko: I see you guys just won’t get off their backs, will you?
Peter Lavelle: This always happens.
Anastasia Churkina: This is the last question, I promise. Obama hinted that it would be easier for him to cooperate with Russia. However, that is not what we are seeing today. We’ve already touched upon many of our remaining issues with the US. Why do you think the reset has not worked? And can it ever take place in the first place as an equal, reciprocal process? Or is it that Russia is always expected to sacrifice its national interest?
Vladimir Putin: Any state pursues its national interests, and the US is no exception. What’s unique here is that the collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the world’s single leader. But there was a catch associated with it in that it began to view itself as an empire. But an empire is not only about foreign policy, it’s also about domestic policies. An empire cannot afford to display weakness, and any attempt to strike an agreement on equitable terms is often seen domestically as weakness. But the leadership cannot afford to display weakness due to domestic policy considerations. I think that the current administration realizes that it cannot solve the world’s major issues on its own. But first, they still want to do it, and second, they can only take steps that are fit for an empire. Domestic policy considerations play a huge role. Otherwise you would be accused of weakness. In order to act otherwise you either have to win overwhelming support or there must be a chance in mentality, when people will understand that it’s much more beneficial to look for compromises that to impose your will on everyone. But it certainly takes time to change those patterns of thinking in any country, in this case it’s the US. First and foremost, this change should take place in the minds of the ruling elite in the broad sense of this phrase. I don’t think that it’s impossible. I this we’ve almost come to that point. I very much hope we will reach it soon.
Margarita Simonyan: Thank you very much, Mr. Putin. The issues we have just discussed are the headlines on our air. It is not a classic interview – we wanted to talk to you on those problems that we talk about daily to our audience. Those are very much different from what you can hear in the Russian media – since they have a different audience – and from the interpretation of the Western media as well. We are different – we have different values and views on both Russia’s domestic issues and the world’s system on the whole. But I think it would be right to say that we share one view: there shouldn’t be one leader in the world that is running the show, and it applies to the media, too. And when all the TV channels say with one accord that the main headline of the day is that a NATO drone is shot down in Libya – there should be some other channel that will tell the world about a NATO shell that on the same day killed a family of 13 people there. We actually had such a story, when our coverage was completely different from the coverage of our colleagues. We do that and we are happy to have this opportunity, as that is what we believe in, given all the differences. That’s exactly what we tried to show you today – how and where we do it. Thank you very much for paying a visit.
Vladimir Putin:Thank you for the invitation. I would like to wish you all the best of luck. Thank you very much. Goodbye.
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