RUSSIALINK TRANSCRIPT: “[Putin at] Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club [Transcript Concluded]” – KremlinRu

Vladimir Putin file photo with VOA logo; screen shot from video still

(Kremlin.ru – October 18, 2018)

[en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/58848 includes full video with English translation]

Fyodor Lukyanov: Andrei Sushentsov, welcome.

Andrei Sushentsov: I am Andrei Sushentsov from the School of International Studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

There have been media reports on a number of countries developing biological weapons agents, and the issue of the presence of the United States’ biological laboratories on the territory of other countries has long been a concern among experts.

Recently, the former Georgian minister of state security presented documents to the media regarding this. There is a convention that prohibits the development of biological weapons. What measures can be taken in response? And is this data true?

Vladimir Putin: I would not judge whether this is true or not. I saw this statement by the former Georgian minister of state security. This is definitely cause for concern. These developments – if they are actually taking place – are very dangerous and are related to the latest achievements in genetics.

From what I have seen, I can only repeat what is there: it is about finding agents that can selectively affect people depending on their ethnic group, and over two or three generations, allegedly, they have used animals to conduct such experiments.

Dogs and rats have relatively short lifecycles, and in the second or third generation changes occur that dramatically alter the initial look. If this is so then it poses a big threat.

How can this be prevented? Everyone has to be aware that nothing comes from nothing and nothing disappears; every action has a reaction, or rather, an opposite. So if someone is developing this technology, they have to understand that others will be doing so as well. So it is better to sit at the negotiating table beforehand and develop unified rules of conduct in this very sensitive area.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Yaroslav Lisovolik.

Chief Economist of the Eurasian Development Bank Yaroslav Lissovolik: Good evening, Mr President. During today’s discussion, you mentioned the refocusing Russia’s foreign trade towards Asia. The question is to what extent this can be expressed in currencies other than the dollar. Are there opportunities for the de-dollarization of the global economy?

There are different opinions, and this issue is being actively discussed not only in Russia but internationally as well. It would seem that given the exaggerated role of the dollar in past decades, there is a lot of room for de-dollarization. On the other hand, the developing markets’ currency volatility poses certain questions here. What is your opinion regarding the opportunity for the de-dollarization of the global economy?

Vladimir Putin: First, we are not making an effort to redirect our foreign trade from Europe towards Asia. This is just happening naturally. For example, our trade with the European Union was 450 billion (euros or dollars, I do not remember exactly, but that’s not important), and today it doesn’t even amount to 300 billion, or even 250 billion. But there is growth: last year it was 23 percent and during the first eight months of this year it was 22 percent.

In Asia, mutual trade is growing slightly faster. So, as I mentioned, Russia’s foreign trade is 41 percent European Union, and 31 percent the Asian countries. If this trend continues, the figures will soon become equal.

As regards using the dollar in international transactions, I am not the only one talking about this. For instance, the French president recently mentioned this. He said Europe should increase its economic and financial sovereignty. This means shifting from the US dollar, and France is one of the United States’ major trade and economic partners.

As I recently said, our American friends are quarrelling with their bread and butter. They challenge the reliability of the dollar as a universal tool for international settlement. Once again, this is a typical mistake for an empire.

Why is this happening? Because – and I am not lashing out at anyone – but an empire always thinks it can make minor mistakes and allow excess, because its might makes it all irrelevant.

But the number of these excesses and minor mistakes inevitably grows, and the time comes when this cannot be handled either from a security standpoint or from an economic standpoint. Obviously, this is the way our American friends are acting; they are devaluating confidence in the dollar as a universal settlement tool and the world’s sole reserve currency.

And of course, everyone started giving it more thought. The EU countries want to conduct trade with Iran. They do not think Iran has violated anything in its nuclear deal with the international community. And it actually has not. But our US partners decided that this deal should be revised, but the Europeans disagree with that.

The Americans are imposing sanctions, so-called secondary sanctions, on everyone cooperating with Iran. Certainly, why should companies lose if they are working in the US market? Some will leave anyway and someone else, who is not tied up with the US, will be pleased to continue working there, however, settlements should be arranged for. For this reason, an alternative to SWIFT, the current international settlement system, is being created, and more transactions are being completed in national currencies.

You are certainly right that volatility in the developing markets, the volatility of national currencies, is very high, which is unavoidable. Still, certain instruments are being introduced that can reduce this volatility. For example, a pool of national currencies and a joint bank have been created in the framework of BRICS, which means that such instruments are already on the way. It’s true that this bank cannot be compared with the IMF in terms of potential, but at least something is being done in this respect.

Indeed, currency volatility exists. However, if we keep working at this, and we are working on it, insurance support or other ways to hedge risk will be found, they are real. I will not go into details, but even now, in dealing with some countries, we have found certain instruments to avoid these risks. We can link them to certain agreements; we can do whatever needs to be done.

This will not happen today or tomorrow. And our companies in, say, the oil and gas field, in energy commodities, are not interested in giving up dollar transactions at this point and going to only national currencies.

But if these instruments are created – that provide for giving up the US dollar and disposing of national currency volatility – a transition will be guaranteed. As soon as this happens, hard times will come for the US dollar as a universal unit in accounting.

We will see. We will definitely move in this direction, not because we mean to undermine the US dollar but because we want to guarantee our own security, because they impose sanctions on us and do not give us a chance to operate in US dollars.

This is why we have reduced our gold and foreign currency reserves in dollar equivalent in the treasury; the Central Bank had to withdraw from this.

Why are they doing this? In my opinion, it would be wiser of them to pursue their goals without discrediting their national currency. Nevertheless, many companies in the US are following this route. I believe they are making a big mistake.

Fyodor Lukyanov: We have people here in this room who know how to live without the dollar. Mr. Sajjadpour from Iran, please.

Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour: Thank you, Mr President. I am Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour, Institute for Political and International Studies, Iran. Thank you again.

I have a question about militarisation of the Middle East. Three facts. First, there is military activity in Syria beyond the control of the Syrian government. Second, there are people in the United States imagining that we are responsible for the invasion of Iraq <…>. Third, there are some actors in the region who really want a military confrontation, bringing the US to a broader military confrontation.

How do you see the picture and what would be the US response? Do you feel there is more militarisation in the region? And does this militarisation need to be contained? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: The key underlying factor of all the problems in the Middle East is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; you know as well as I do, in fact everyone knows this. Whatever our perspective on the Middle East, we will come to this in the end anyway; therefore, every effort must be made to resolve it, to establish direct contacts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to resume multilateral efforts to resolve this multi-year, even decades-long crisis. This is my first point.

My second point is the following. There are new crises associated with terrorism, and the actions of our American partners are doing little to improve the situation in the region. On the contrary, truth be told, we repeat a hundredth time, and you just said: the invasion of Iraq resulted in a sharp increase in the terrorist threat due to the weakening of statehood. That’s what happened.

And Libya? In general, that state ceased to exist. It is being torn to pieces between separate armed units still fighting among themselves. This is a catastrophe. Gaddafi once said Libya was an insurmountable obstacle to the movement of refugees and immigrants from Africa to Europe. He said: “What are you doing? You are destroying this wall.” So it was destroyed. This is what is happening right now. Seeking for a guilty party. But they have only themselves to blame.

It’s okay to dislike a regime in a country. Tastes differ. But, destroying the existing regime and offering nothing in return or offering something that is unacceptable or impossible for the people due to historical specifics is absolutely thoughtless, immoral policy that leads to the worst results.

Our position is that we probably can support someone or sympathise with someone without directly interfering in the affairs of other states, but any move should primarily rely on the country’s internal development. True, this requires patience, and a delicate handling of the current situation, but there is no other option. Any other behaviour, attempts to impose something from the outside leads to the gravest consequences, as in Libya or Iraq. This is the result of monopoly, the result of a unipolar world, which they tried to create at the time. Thank goodness, this situation of unipolarity and monopoly is already coming to an end and it has practically disappeared. I believe this is very dangerous, including for the monopolists, because they lose their bearings and get a sense of permissiveness, and this is always very dangerous and leads to dire consequences.

But at any rate, at a certain level, as we now deal with the Syrian crisis, we have developed a way of cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey, which is working and is rather effective, although we do not use the same approach for everything that is taking place in the region. Nevertheless, we did manage to do this. We have developed enough contacts, at any rate, at a working level, with all the participants in this process, including with the United States. As a matter of fact, the US military behave in a more responsible way than certain politicians, but all of this, in any case, paves the way for expanding the basis of joint work.

Militarisation is always a bad thing. What good can it do? It’s an explosive region. We know Turkey’s grievances against the selfsame United States: It is arming various groups. We see what is happening. I have mentioned the current goings-on on the left bank of the Euphrates: They are supplying arms there as well as they are bankrolling the armed groups, but, regrettably, they have failed to cope with the threat, which is yet to be finally eliminated. Seven hundred people have been taken hostage. It’s a disaster! But, alas, this is really happening. We should work together.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, you say that monopolism is a bad thing. America, for example, used to artificially dismember monopolies on the market to create competition. Should we perhaps do the same in politics?

Vladimir Putin: You know, there is talk about a tragedy that has allegedly occurred – I don’t know for certain – in Istanbul, where the case in point was also dismemberment. These are always nasty events linked to the use of force or something of the kind. People should find common ground through talks. I think, life will anyway force the parties to sit down together at the negotiating table and team up to neutralise common threats.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you.

Timothy Colton.

Timothy Colton: Thank you very much. Timothy Colton, Harvard University. I have a question about Russian public opinion.

As is well known, since you became leader of the country all those years ago in 2000, you have had very steadily positive ratings in the eyes of your fellow citizens. Approval of your work in office is usually higher than 60 percent and sometimes is as high as 80 percent. This is quite extraordinary. But Russian sociologists also ask a number of other questions, but one in particular, which is very interesting. It is a question about the direction that the country is taking. And if we look back, we have this information all the way back to the 1990s. There is often a rather large difference or gap, that very commonly has been the case that support for you personally coincides with many Russians actually thinking that the country is going in the wrong direction. Now, after 2014, the so-called ‘Crimea bounce’ occurred, your ratings went even higher than usual but at that point for several years, more Russians, a lot more Russians thought that the country was going in a positive direction and not in a so-called ‘tupik.’ But this has changed this year, all of a sudden. It seems that more Russians think that the country is going in the wrong direction even as they continue to support you. So what is your interpretation of this disparity?

Vladimir Putin: I don’t see any inconsistencies. I’ll explain what I mean.

First of all, who can be fond of the 1990s and the early 2000s that you have also mentioned? These were the years, when the great and huge state was disintegrating. This is my number one point. Many people both in Russia and the former republics of the USSR don’t like this. Just ask people over there and they will tell you. True, they have their own interpretations but anyway they think they felt more secure, calm and confident in the Soviet Union. In a united, huge and powerful state, there were more prospects.

Of course, there are many changes and people in many of these countries feel the advantages of sovereignty. After all, everything that happened at that time was Russia’s initiative – not even its suggestion! When they in the post-Soviet space start accusing us of something, I always ask them: “But who did that?” It’s we, Russia, who did it. Well, not me, of course, it was the doing of Russia’s former leaders, but Russia all the same. This is my first point.

My second point is that no one who remembers how it was in the 1990s wants to make a comeback. Street crime was on the rampage; the economy, social sphere, healthcare and education were in tatters, all was lost. There was total poverty! So, as I see it, the main achievements that have been scored over the past years are not only the domestic political stabilisation or the solution of the most pressing problems related to fighting terrorism in our country – we had a civil war on our hands and combat operations… Who would like to return to that state? No one!

But I think what is most important is the restoration of the economy, economic growth, our own foundation for development and the growth of people’s incomes. But, of course, everything is relative: things might have been a bit better yesterday and are a bit worse today, but, nevertheless, the income level has improved radically.

Yes, there are still many people in the country who live below poverty line, and this number has grown a little since the 2008 crisis. But in the early 2000s, they accounted for almost 40 percent of the population, almost half of the country. Is there a difference? Of course, there is. But nevertheless there are fluctuations. After the 2008 crisis incomes declined somewhat, and who would like that? Of course, everybody understands it, and so do I.

As for Crimea. Yes, in Russia, the actions of the President and the state in general are considered to have been just and fair. Because historically this land belonged to Russia, and its inhabitants wanted to return to Russia. This is important because some people prefer to ignore it and pretend that such sentiments do not exist. But in fact, the public reaction is the best proof that it was fair.

The Government is currently introducing a series of painful but necessary measures related to the pension law and the raising of the retirement age. All other countries are doing the same. Who would like that? I understand these people perfectly, those who are discontent.

But do you know what the Russian phenomenon is? Our people are smart. They may not like something, but they understand that the Government has to do it. And if not today, then we would have to do it tomorrow anyway. By 2024, we plan to reach the life expectancy of 78 years, and by 2030 it will be 80 years. Well, inevitably we will have to raise the retirement age, but then without any transition period or any benefits.

What did we do here? What did I suggest we do to make the transition easier? People who have reached their retirement age but have not yet retired and do not receive pensions, will be able to receive benefits both in utilities and taxes, and others.

Most people understand that it is an inevitable move. There is nothing to be happy about, but understanding is key. It is important that people trust the leadership and their Government. I think this trust has not been lost and in my opinion, this is the most important key factor in the domestic political life.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Sabine Fischer, please.

Sabine Fischer: Thank you. My name is Sabine Fischer, and I work for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Good afternoon, Mr President. I would like to continue the discussion about Russian society. Last week, the Civil Initiatives Committee published a new report that says the Russian society has a growing demand for changes, and which is proved by the recent opinion polls.

What do you think about what the report authors call a change in the collective consciousness of Russian society, and how are you going to deal with it?

Vladimir Putin: I think it is a perfectly natural thing that people strive for change. Doesn’t Germany have such a demand? Let us look at the election results in Bavaria and it will be clear if people want change or not. As I see it, they want it a lot.

In general, Europeans want change. In Great Britain, they voted for Brexit, which is unbelievable. And in Russia people want change too.

However, it is unlikely that most people in Russia want revolutionary changes. We had enough of revolutions in the 20th century and even in our recent history.

Therefore our task is to time these changes well, which, by the way, we are doing in close cooperation with civil society. This is the key to success in our domestic policy.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, do you want any changes for yourself?

Vladimir Putin: I want this discussion to end already. (Laughter.) It is time for me to leave for Uzbekistan and I want to play hockey on the way.

Fyodor Lukyanov:So my question was well-timed.

But let us take some more questions?

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Mikhail Pogrebinsky, please.

Director of the Kiev Centre for Political and Conflict Resolution Studies Mikhail Pogrebinsky: Mr President, I think the conversation would be incomplete without mentioning Ukraine, the fraternal country I come from. Although Mr Lavrov described in detail the homeostasis in this difficult matter, maybe you can add something optimistic here?

I believe my country’s Government is doing its best to drive the solution to this problem into a dead end, and the US, as represented by Kurt Volker is helping it, while at the same time the Normandy format seems to have frozen and nothing it happening there.

Is there, in your opinion, maybe not in the immediate future, but in the medium term, any chance of healing this bleeding wound in our relations and steering the situation out of the deadlock?

Vladimir Putin: I will only have to repeat what I was already saying earlier. We all know that the crisis in Donbass is, of course, the most pressing problem. I think many people will agree with me.

Terrorist attacks and assassinations of people elected by the population to administer these regions are, on the part of the Ukrainian secret services, the worst method to establish relations with these territories.

The best way of doing this is to implement the Minsk Agreements. No one forced their hand. This document is a compromise which Ukraine has accepted. But today, obviously, we can say just anything when it comes to this.

But it is quite clear to everyone that the current Ukrainian authorities are not only shirking from implementing the Minsk Agreements but also have no intention to do this for the moment, including for domestic political reasons: I mean the approaching presidential and parliamentary elections.

All political forces have their hands tied because any move to accommodate the opposite party at home – and you know this better than me – will be interpreted as, pardon me, high treason.

But can we hope for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements under these circumstances? The situation being what it is, we ought, I think, to desire just one thing – lest they should conceive the temptation to aggravate the situation and use the exacerbation in domestic political affairs, including during the preparations for the presidential and later parliamentary elections. This seems to be the best-case scenario we can expect for now.

But, of course, Russia is interested in a full-scale revival of relations with Ukraine. What the current Ukrainian authorities are doing today means driving the situation into an impasse. More than that, they are pursuing an anti-state and anti-national policy identical to the one that was conducted by Saakashvili in Georgia, who at first sought to conceal [his plans] and then made an attempt to implement [them] by attacking South Ossetia.

As a result of its openly criminal actions, Georgia has lost vast territories, which was precisely the consequence of Saakashvili’s acts and doings. It would be very sad, if the current Ukrainian authorities followed suit.

I hope this will not happen. But what has taken place recently in the economy and social sphere? The Ukrainian economy is in the process of being completely deindustrialised. There is practically no investment; they are just talking about all kinds of investments, but there is nothing of the kind in reality.

How can one work with an economy that is constantly shaken and ripped apart from within by internal political crises, with a country where military hysteria is whipped up? Will investors go there? Certainly not. And the things it had before were all ruined.

Where is the shipbuilding industry that Ukraine used to be so proud of? Where is the aircraft industry that was created by the whole Soviet Union over decades? How many people are employed there today? The same thing is happening to all the other sectors that Ukraine deservedly prided itself on in previous decades.

This is exactly what I said would happen. Let me again, though I am aware that this will fall on deaf ears, repeat a rhetorical question: Why were our Western partners, above all, the then leadership of the European Commission, pushing so hard for such a tough scenario involving Ukraine being dragged into this association with the European Union?

What did it give Ukraine? The opening up of EU markets? They now want Ukraine to allow the export of round timber. But this is not Siberia. Three or four years of felling and there will be no forest left at all.

The American partners are now pressing Ukraine to use genetically modified organisms in its agriculture. If this happens, we will be forced to completely shut off the border as GMOs are prohibited in our country. Next, it will start exporting humus, etc. There is nothing else it can do.

Therefore, I believe that the current policy followed by Ukraine’s government is aimed solely at – what are they selling? – Russophobia and anti-Russian sentiments. They have no other goods left.

In return, they are forgiven for everything, because even in their wildest dreams our so-called partners would not envisage that Ukraine and Russia might cooperate in any way as they fear that competition in the world would grow as a result of such cooperation.

In fact, we are not laying any specific claims whatsoever. We just wanted to function normally. So, why was it necessary to cut open the Ukrainian markets without giving anything in return, while constantly pressing the Ukrainian government to raise domestic prices for energy, for gas, aware that the purchasing power of the population verges on zero?

Even in former times, meagre sums were collected for the use of energy resources, and today, probably, none at all is collected. What is there to pay with? Pensions are at zero, revenues are falling.

Therefore, we should wait till the internal political cycle runs its course. And I hope very much that we will manage to build at least some relations and negotiate something with the country’s new leadership. We are ready for it and we want it.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin: Thank you, Mr President, for this large and deep discussion.

I am in politics for 40 years, and I have never seen the world so dangerous. We have a lot of conflicts, and we have a lot of threats, and we have a lot of war everywhere; school for wars. We have never schooled for peace. But we know that peace is not something coming from the sky; peace is work, hard work. So I would like to know how we can promote peace, promote antiterrorism, make reforms – for example, for multilateralism, for the WTO, for the Security Council? How can we develop a dialogue with people we do not agree with? And I think it is very important for people to know that no one wants a war in their country. They know that war is awful, as you said, a disaster. So, in this matter, how can we have some development of the culture of peace? Such a very big point for everybody in society. And so, maybe together we can make peace great again.

Vladimir Putin: There is a lot to be said about this situation. I think the problems that have appeared in the past few years or so concerning global politics are related to the unipolar world that, as just pointed out, appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Everything is recovering now though and the world is becoming or has already become multipolar, and it will inevitably lead to the need to recreate the importance of international law as well as international global institutes such as the United Nations.

It is necessary to, based on the UN Charter and on everything that was achieved in the past decades, on mutual trust – and one needs to handle the rest of trust with care, to learn to listen, hear and respect each other and be ready to find compromises.

I think that it is inevitable in the long run. The sooner it happens, the better. We are ready for this.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, there is another question standing between you and the changes, and I cannot just sweep it under the rug , because there is a winner of the Valdai Award this year. Actually, there are two winners, but this is of particular importance. Our colleague Piotr Dutkiewicz was rightfully awarded the prize and let him ask the final question.

Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University (Canada) Piotr Dutkiewicz: Mr President, you have taken part in the Valdai Club for 15 years now. It is a long period of time, and many changes have taken place.

Permit me to ask you a question. During these 15 years, how has your perception of Russia and what surrounds it changed? And what is most important is how did your perception of yourself as Russia’s leader change?

Vladimir Putin: Please let’s just skip the second part of your question. I think it would be rather unbecoming to evaluate myself.

As for Russia and my attitude towards our country, I can tell you that my love of Russia, and I am not afraid to express myself in such a way, has increased masses of times over the years. Frankly speaking, I did not know Russia too well before.

Of course, I am Russian, my roots are in Russia, my ancestors lived for 300 years in the same village and went to the same church, which I know from church records. Knowing this is exciting, I feel a part of our country and a part of the Russian people, even if it sounds like a high-flown statement, but I really do.

My previous life and work were connected with international activities, so to say. I have been working in intelligence for almost 20 years, so, of course, I did not know Russia as well as I got to know it after I came to Moscow and started working at the federal level, and then became prime minister and president.

I saw how deep and powerful this country is, and what powerful historical and moral roots it has. It was not from the books about the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 that I became convinced about the might as well as the wisdom of the Russian people. I saw it with my very own eyes.

So it is in this connection, and I’m not exaggerating, that I am saying that my love of Russia has increased many times over. As for the events unfolding around it, there is nothing unusual about it and it has always been that way when it boils down to the history of our country.

We have always been treated more or less well when Russia was going through difficult times, and they were happy to send humanitarian aid to us. By the way, this is good, and we are grateful to our partners for this. I am not being ironic when I speak about this.

But as soon as it became a sufficiently notable and influential competitor in international affairs, they immediately started to create problems in order to impede our development. Perhaps, from the perspective of the logic of mutual relations on the international arena, this makes sense. After all who in their right mind wants to have a strong competitor?

It is much better to be able to push forward without any competitor or competition. However, this is a bad thing for those who go alone and are at the forefront. I have pointed this out many times already.

So, I think that the world, despite the numerous threats that we are observing today, is still becoming more balanced due to its multipolarity which is now taking root. It is good both for Russia and our partners all over the world.

I very much hope that we will overcome today’s difficulties, build a dialogue with all our partners and participants in international activities and strengthen ourselves from within, which will enable us to build full-fledged relations with our partners on the international arena.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, of course, the Valdai Club cannot compete with the wisdom of the Russian people, which you have been partaking of all these years. However, we will commit ourselves and try and come up with some sort of an intellectual surprise for you next year. I hope we can make it happen if we pool all our efforts.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you very much for your time, and we hope to see you again next year.

Vladimir Putin: On my part, I would like to thank all the Russian and foreign experts who have been participating in this work for so many years now. Special words of gratitude go to my colleagues who have held or are holding now high government positions, because they have places to go where they can be useful, but they nevertheless choose to come to Russia in order to participate in discussions with us.

It is important and good for us, because it gives us a chance to convey to you our position on key development matters and listen to what you have to say. Even the way you frame your questions is important for us, because it also provides an important perspective for us.

I would like to wish you all the very best and thank you all very much indeed.

[featured image is file photo from another occasion]