(Government.ru – January 27, 2013)
Fareed Zakaria: Mr Prime Minister, thank you for agreeing to this meeting.
In 2009, when you were President of Russia, you wrote a very interesting and important essay about Russia’s future. You said that the two major problems of the Russian economy were excessive dependence on oil and excessive corruption. A look at current statistics shows that these two problems have only grown: the Russian economy has become even more dependent on hydrocarbons, and corruption has grown by any count. Do you think this means that you have not resolved your biggest problems?
Dmitry Medvedev: No it doesn’t. We have some achievements to our credit, and the situation has changed compared to some time ago. First, I’d like to say that Russia still heavily depends on hydrocarbons, but it currently accounts for less than half of state budget revenues. This is still a lot, yet the situation is changing, because the sale of goods, work and services on the domestic market account for the other half of the revenues.
It is very important that our competitiveness is growing in two areas. One is agriculture: Russia can again become a leading agrarian power; it has a large area and very many opportunities on the food market. Foods are becoming increasingly expensive, and so Russia is seeking to occupy an appropriate niche. The second and equally important element is that Russia is a country with a high level of education, and although we are not always satisfied with our educational standards, we can still occupy a place in the segment of high-tech companies and major educational projects, and hence use intellect to create budget revenues. So the situation is changing, even if not as rapidly as we would like. We should possibly be acting more energetically, and the Government will focus on this.
As for corruption, I don’t think that we wasted time these past few years. We created the foundation for anti-corruption legislation, something Russia has never had before, during tsarist rule or in the Soviet or post-Soviet periods. We have created an absolutely new legislation, which fully corresponds to international conventions, the requirements of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other international standards. We have started to apply this legislation, and the growing number of corruption and criminal cases is not evidence of growing corruption, but of the fact that we are prosecuting corrupt officials more often. Various investigation services are currently dealing with around 50,000 corruption cases. There were fewer cases in the past, but this does not mean that corruption has grown; it means that we are more actively calling people to account for such crimes. This is a positive sign, but on the other hand, it must not be a campaign designed for two or three years, but efforts designed to change people’s mentality. I have said before, but I want to say again, that corruption must not be simply outlawed but it must be seen as a moral evil that is denounced by the whole of society rather than a few individual members.
Fareed Zakaria: Let’s talk about corruption. Looking at it from a distance, one might think that you still do not control the situation. We have heard about the case of Sergei Magnitsky, and the most amazing thing is that it seems the money involved was stolen from the Russian Government. Hermitage Fund (Hermitage Capital Management) has provided documented evidence that Russian tax authorities were defrauded out of about $1 billion. But it seems that no one is capable of dealing with the situation. How should we assess this?
Dmitry Medvedev: I will tell you that I am sorry about Sergei Magnitsky, as I would be sorry about any other person who dies in prison. The Russian legal authorities should at long last determine what happened in the prison, why he died and who is responsible. But as for the activities of the late Mr Magnitsky, I have a different view of them. He was never a fighter against corruption; he was an ordinary corporate accountant or lawyer who served his boss, while his boss, who as far as I know is politicking in Davos, was earning big money in Russia. According to different sources, he earned billions of dollars in Russia, and it was not an entirely honest income. It was an income earned through the use of various financial schemes, and Mr Magnitsky was helping him in his official capacity. I assume that he came across instances of corruption, because there is a lot of corruption here, but he never acted as the agent of the government working to retrieve illegal revenue. He was a corporate professional, although this cannot justify the tragedy that led to his demise. Contrary to the opinion of some political forces in some countries, which developed in part due to media reports, he was not trying to retrieve embezzled funds for Russia. He was acting to protect the financial interests of his boss, nothing more and nothing less, while his boss left Russia after raising big money, as I said. This is the truth of the matter.
Fareed Zakaria: But he was prevented from returning. Mr Browder was denied a visa when he tried to return.
Dmitry Medvedev: Because according to Russian jurisdiction he is a criminal. Russian jurisdiction, the Russian investigative authorities assume that he committed a crime in Russia. But until a court ruling comes into force, he has the presumption of innocence, yet our investigative authorities are after him, and there is nothing unusual in this. US investigative authorities prosecute foreigners, and they don’t always do it properly but in violation of international law. Likewise, we search for those who are believed to have committed crimes. I believe that our investigative authorities will continue to do their job, for they can’t do otherwise.
Fareed Zakaria: You said that the Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison, the horrifying circumstances of his death must be investigated. You said this as President, and now you are Prime Minister. It is strange that you keep saying that the case must be investigated, but there is no feeling that a proper, fair and objective investigation is being conducted. For example, Magnitsky’s mother does not believe that such an investigation is underway in Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I believe that this is not about the Magnitsky case itself, which, in my opinion, was completely politicised and was used to achieve completely self-serving goals. Rather, the issue is that the death of any inmate must be investigated. Unfortunately, such things happen. This happens in Russia, in the United States, in Europe and everywhere else. Criminal cases must be opened in every instance and investigated as thoroughly as possible. These investigations must establish whether this was an incident, or whether it was the result of someone’s ill will. Indeed, the state must dot all its i’s, because there are different theories of what happened, and, really, all aspects of this case must be assessed completely. Unfortunately, it is impossible to resurrect this person. It is impossible to return the son to his mother. This is very sad and lamentable, but we must complete this investigation, so that nothing like this happens in the future. Sometimes they say that someone can be accused of committing a crime after his or her death. This is not the case, this is impossible. Under Russian criminal law and under the criminal law of most civilised countries, it is impossible to prosecute a dead person, because there is no subject of a crime. But every country stipulates post-mortem procedures in line with the legislation for criminal proceedings. And this is what must be done.
Fareed Zakaria: The US Congress has passed a law, which links US-Russian trade relations with issues of corruption. A list of reportedly corrupt persons has been approved. You have criticised this law, and said that Russia would make symmetrical and asymmetrical responses. A set of measures has been approved, and we will discuss them later on. But should we expect any other reciprocal measures from Russia?
Dmitry Medvedev: I believe that Congress has made a mistake by simultaneously abolishing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and passing the Magnitsky Act. I have already told you what I think about the Magnitsky case. And here is what I think about the Congressional acts: To be honest, it is very bad when a foreign parliament passes a decision concerning another state. It is even worse when a foreign parliament, namely the US Congress, lists a number of persons as criminals. The difference must be felt here. Every country has the right to deny an entry visa to any citizen of another country without any explanation. This is normal, and it is in line with international conventions. And the United States could and can deny an entry visa to any Russian official. The US can also check their accounts or any other assets owned by them in the United States. Russia can do the same. But when this turns into a public act, and when Congress says that it will compile a list of persons implicated in a crime, then what do you call this? This is arbitrary rule. People are pronounced guilty without a trial or investigation. I would understand it, if the pertinent decisions were confirmed by a Russian or US court. But something else has been done. An entire group of people has been listed as criminals. I don’t know whether they have been implicated or not. And what about the presumption of innocence? It’s unlawful. I believe that our esteemed US colleagues, our esteemed US legislators, are not thinking about this at all. And what if it turns out that someone from this list has no connection to this case, but what if information that this person is a criminal is circulated worldwide without any trial or investigation, now that this situation has been made public? Is this justified? I believe that this runs counter to any law and to any international conventions. In this sense, the US Congress has committed a legal error. Unfortunately, this was a deliberate mistake, due to this politicised case. The Russian Parliament had to respond in this situation. I don’t want to discuss what response is symmetrical or asymmetrical. It appears that these assessments are emotional. At any rate, one can always find people who, as the Russian Parliament believes, violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens or the citizens of any other country. And they have found these people, and they have passed the pertinent act. Is this good? You know, I believe that this is bad, if we assess the entire situation. Incidentally, this response is stipulated by international law. But I wish this did not happen. Indeed, we have always been able, and we are still able, to make entry-exit decisions non-publically.
Fareed Zakaria: But there will be some response measures in accordance with international law?
Dmitry Medvedev: This is why I believe that this is a bad situation. It will not benefit US-Russian relations or international law and order.
I have always viewed this situation from the legal standpoint. I do not believe that any state, even such a powerful and democratic state as the United States, has the right to adopt such decisions with regard to other countries’ nationals in the 21st century. Sovereignty has not been outlawed.
Fareed Zakaria: One of the responses to the Magnitsky Act… You have punished your orphans with this step. Do you believe that [international adoption] is undesirable? That it is a good thing when children who are considered unwanted cannot find a family in the United States? Why have Russian orphans been punished?
Dmitry Medvedev: The first thing I’d like to say about this document is that it was definitely adopted under the influence of emotions created by the relevant decision of the US Congress, but it is not connected to the Magnitsky Act legally or factually. The so-called Dima Yakovlev Law is a document that reflects the concern of Russia’s parliament the State Duma and the Federation Council regarding the fate of our children. Opinions may differ, but it is the direct duty of the state to ensure proper care and medical assistance for orphans. We don’t doubt that most countries that are working in this area have no problem with foreign adoption. I want to stress that international adoption is not prohibited in our country. In this situation, our country must do everything possible there are laws and Presidential executive orders to this effect to ensure that we simply don’t have any orphans; that our people, our citizens have the incentive, just as foreign nationals do, to adopt our orphans. We must create the necessary conditions for this. It can be described as part of our moral culture. Yes, many foreign nationals generously adopt our children with special health needs. I believe that the time is right for our citizens to have a look at this issue. I think that this would be perfectly right, that this will be evidence of the moral health of our society. Hence, although many believe that our actions are directed against those US nationals who want to adopt Russian children, this is not so. The issue has an additional aspect: we must at long last take the necessary decisions to ensure that there are no orphans in Russia. This problem does not exist in the United States. It does not exist in most European countries. Russian society is quite prosperous, and our people are fairly prosperous. They are able to take proper care of our children. This is the essence of the decisions we have adopted.
Fareed Zakaria: You could incentivise adoptions in Russia, instead of prohibiting foreigners from adopting Russian children. If the [social] culture does not change in Russia and it cannot change within the course of two or three years an entire generation of orphans will be punished by this ban on foreign adoption.
Dmitry Medvedev: There is one more side to this problem, which is very complicated. I don’t wish to talk about it, yet I must. Unfortunately, the information we have about the life of adopted Russian children in the United States is not gladdening to anyone.
A large proportion of US families who have adopted Russian children take proper care of them and ensure their proper upbringing and education. Such behaviour is highly commendable; it is a highly moral behaviour. Unfortunately, we know about a large number of cases in which Russian children adopted in the US have died, or were abused or whose health deteriorated in the United States. Even one such case would be enough to introduce a relevant bill. This is the first thing I wanted to say.
Fareed Zakaria: Do you have documented evidence of this?
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course. Perhaps you did not have access to this information, but all these cases have been shown many times on our television and on the Internet. I regret to say, but the adoptive parents guilty of these crimes received disproportionately mild punishment, such as public censure or very mild sentencing for the death of a child. These cases have provoked a public outcry. To give you a better understanding of the situation, I can tell you that 75% of Russian nationals are against foreign adoption. This is the result of a recent poll.
And lastly, we have recently signed an agreement on adoption and on the issues of the family as a whole with the United States. It is a good agreement; our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State worked long and hard on it. Unfortunately, some very strange facts have come to light: everything is well and good at the federal level, but the rules for monitoring the life of adopted children as laid out in the agreement are ineffective at the level of states. The lawmakers and the legal authorities of some states have refused to honour this agreement. At the very least, we need to review everything that has been done in the legal area. This agreement, if we look into the future when it could be applied, must be honoured not only in Russia but also in each particular state of the United States. These are the problems related to this issue.
Fareed Zakaria: You’ve been a party to the best known private exchange between you and President Barack Obama. And he said his famous phrase: “During my second term I’ll have more flexibility towards Russia.” And you said: “Thank you. I’ll inform Mr Putin.” What was he talking about? What flexibility? What did he mean?
Dmitry Medvedev: This question should probably be addressed to Barack Obama, not me. Seriously, though, I think this matter is an extremely simple matter. We certainly didn’t plan for those speculations to be made public even though they are anything but top secret. At any given time, people face certain circumstances. We understand that a number of decisions a negotiating position, openness to compromise, etc. are modified during a president’s term of office. That is life. You, Mr Zakaria (Fareed Zakaria), know this as well as I. So it’s not for me to explain to you the intricacies of US politics. But it is absolutely clear that a second term is the final term for any US President under the US Constitution. In this sense, a President can be tougher and more resolute during his second term. The same applies to the Russian Federation. Of course, we don’t have restrictions on the overall number of terms a President can serve, but a President can only serve two terms back to back. Obviously, the laws of politics make it possible to discuss certain things more openly during a second term. I think this is what Mr Obama meant.
Regarding the subject itself, it’s an extremely difficult thing; I don’t see any flexibility so far. There’s no ease in relations over missile defence, no flexibility has been shown. We are sticking to our former positions, both the United States and Russia, and these positions have not been brought any closer together. But what I said in late 2011 shortly before the end of my own presidential term remains valid: we are open to talks on missile defence. We don’t want future generations of politicians in 2019 or 2020 to take decisions that will open up a new stage in the arms race. But this threat does exist, and everyone both in Russia and the United States should know as much. We still have a chance to come to terms. Personally I have suggested possible solutions to this problem. President Putin, who coordinates all Russian foreign policy under the Constitution, has been doing the same too. Our negotiating position has not changed: it is open and, to my mind, even quite flexible. What have we suggested? We’ve suggested just one thing to our US and European partners: Russia should be part of an integrated European missile defence system. If we are worried about missile threats emanating from other states, let’s address this together. It doesn’t matter that Russia is not a NATO member; we are also worried about threats that exist in our vicinity, we are also worried about the militarisation of a number of countries that are trying to develop missile systems and tip them with nuclear warheads. So again, let’s do this together! But we hear in response: “You know, guys, it’s better to do it separately, but you should trust us because we are not against you, you are our friends…” But we know full well that we will not have the kind of guarantees that joint programmes would provide, which means that this missile defence system can also target Russia’s nuclear capabilities. What does this mean? This means that the parity we have established with President Obama by signing the strategic arms reduction treaty (a very important treaty, by the way, and very useful an achievement of the so-called reset) will be disrupted because a missile defence system is a direct extension of one’s offensive nuclear capabilities and nuclear weapons. It’s something all of us should think about.
Fareed Zakaria: Let me ask you about Syria.
Dmitry Medvedev: Why not?
Fareed Zakaria: You said that Russia wants to be neutral in the conflict and that you do not support al-Assad’s regime. But in reality Russia trained the Syrian army and has long-standing contacts with that country. You are one of the very few countries that can influence the Syrian government. I’m trying to understand your position. If the continuation of the conflict is not in your interests and you don’t want new extremist and jihad groups to take part in it because it is close to your southern borders (Dagestan and Chechnya) why don’t you try to bring it home to the al-Assad regime that it has to compromise or that al-Assad must go. You could do this proceeding from Russia’s interests.
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, this is another communication problem. I don’t think there are irreconcilable contradictions in our positions. Let’s analyse it. Initially, the Russian Federation was not some kind of exclusive ally of Syria or President al-Assad. We had good relations both with him and his father but his regime had much more privileged allies in Europe. This is the first point.
Second, I’ve been to Syria once and seen how its society is ordered. Compared to what I’ve seen in other Arab countries, Syria was the most stable, open and civilized, though its regime was harsh and suppressed basically any political activity.
Third, President al-Assad made a mistake in how he conducted political reforms. He should have done everything much quicker and brought the moderate opposition over to his side, as it was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him. That was his big mistake, maybe fatal.
Importantly, we have never said that our goal is to preserve the existing political regime or President al-Assad. This is up to the Syrian people. The Syrian people have many ethnic groups and religious beliefs. All groups Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Druze and Christians should come to the negotiating table. Only in this way it is possible to develop meaningful national dialogue. If some group is not included, the civil war will continue. This war is already going on, and I think the country’s leadership and the irreconcilable opposition are equally to blame for it. Incidentally, this opposition largely consists of Islamic radicals.
Fareed Zakaria: Why isn’t Russia trying to destroy the current status quo and be in the lead?
Dmitry Medvedev: We are not trying to destroy anything. Quite the contrary, we have always sent… I myself called al-Assad several times and told him to carry out reforms and take a seat at the negotiating table. Again, unfortunately, the Syrian leaders were not prepared to do this.
That said, it is absolutely necessary to prevent the ousting of the current political elite by armed force. If this is done, the civil war in Syria will last for decades. We do understand what could happen. I’ve already had a chance to contemplate this subject. Can we be pleased about the current situation in Libya? Indeed, there is no Gaddafi there. The attitude to him was different, but it was not me or any other Russian leader who would invite him for talks from time to time and then did this to him. What matters now is not his sad end but the fact that the situation in Libya remains very tense and nobody can rule out that the country will collapse. At least there is no civil war in Libya. As for Syria, there is a good chance that the civil war will continue, either with al-Assad or without him.
Therefore, the task of the world community the United States, Europe and regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar is to bring the sides together at the negotiating table rather than demand that al-Assad go, after which he may be executed like Gaddafi was or taken into the courtroom on a stretcher like Hosni Mubarak now.
Fareed Zakaria: Can al-Assad survive?
Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t know. I think the chances for his survival go down with every new week and month. But let me repeat that this is up to the Syrian people not to Russia, the United States or any other country. Today the main thing is to ensure that there is a process of national reconciliation. In the meantime we must think about what could happen. What if opposition groups that were formed outside Syria come to power? What would they do? They would destroy representatives of other trends in Islam and other religions, as they are already doing this. Therefore, there can be either a process of national reconciliation under the supervision of the world community or endless civil war. There is no other choice.
Fareed Zakaria: But you will agree with me that the current situation in Syria is not in Russia’s favour because of the growing Islamic and extremist attitudes? After all, we are on the other side of the globe but you are Syria’s next-door neighbour.
Dmitry Medvedev: It is hard to disagree, but I think this situation is alarming to everyone because jihadists and other radicals are coming not only to Russia but also to Europe and the United States. So this situation is bad for everyone. But this does not mean that we should bring radicals to power with our own hands. Syria should undergo a comprehensive civil process that will calm people down. We are ready to take part in this, as we have said repeatedly. We have never concealed this. We have different contacts in Syria, including with the opposition, and are sending them signals via different channels. Naturally, we are sending signals to President al-Assad. I think we all bear great responsibility for what ultimately happens in Syria. If we allow events to take a disastrous turn, we will have made a colossal mistake and this will be an enormous challenge in the decades to come. And any dialogue in the Middle East will become impossible.
Fareed Zakaria: And now my last question, Mr Prime Minister. When we last met you were president and I asked you: “You think you’re doing a good job as president, right?…But if you are doing a good job, it would make perfect sense for you to run again in 2012. Correct?” You replied: “Yes, certainly, if the conditions are right, Why not?” I thought you sounded fairly optimistic about the prospects of a second term. But President Putin decided to run instead of you. Why?
Dmitry Medvedev: We Mr Putin and myself have explained that this was the most suitable, failsafe option for the political coalition and the political direction that we represent in this country.
Fareed Zakaria: But if you were successful as president, why didn’t you go for the second term?
Dmitry Medvedev: We achieved our main goal we ensured continuity of policy and, as happens in any political competition, we guaranteed that the political coalition we represent has work to do in the future. The people supported us. If the situation had been different and this is what I had in mind when I talked with you and other colleagues everything might have turned out differently. We might have taken a different decision. Politics is a living thing and develops every day. But at the time when we were making this decision it was the simplest and the safest option. The outcome shows that we chose correctly.
If you are referring to my feelings and ambition, I never said that life is over for me in, say, 2012. I have a very interesting job as prime minister. This is important work, very important, and I will continue to do it and be useful to my country as long as I have the strength. Sooner or later I will have to make some other decisions, and naturally, I will be guided in them by the opinion of our people as well as by what I feel and what I want personally. So I cannot rule out that I will continue to have a career in politics or anything else. But it is absolutely pointless to speak about this now. I’m asked all the time why I did this. And what if I asked you what I was supposed to do in your opinion compete against my close colleague and friend? For the sake of what?
Fareed Zakaria: Was it your decision or his?
Dmitry Medvedev: Can you imagine the fight this would cause in our political coalition? It would have been senseless and counterproductive. Everything might have been lost. I think we made a responsible decision, though some people did not like it and were disappointed. Maybe some wanted a different outcome, but that’s how it goes.
Fareed Zakaria: Do you know what people are saying? They are saying that all power is in the hands of President Putin and that you are a moderate figure representing the Russian Government, a pro-Western man, but all power belongs to Putin.
Dmitry Medvedev: What a strange suggestion. First, like in the United States, the President of Russia is the head of state and is vested with all powers due to him. He has a full arsenal of political means at his disposal. When I was President, I enjoyed the same arsenal of political means, whether people believe it or not. But this does not mean that I had to deploy it in a manner contrary to my own views.
Now Vladimir Putin, my friend and colleague, is President. Full responsibility for the fate of our country rests in the hands of the President, just as it is in other countries. The head of the Government is also a very important job. The United States does not have an exact counterpart for this position it does not fully coincide with that of vice president, because a prime minister has more powers than a vice president. This is so because under our Constitution the head of the Government is the head of the executive branch and deals with the economy, all social and cultural issues as well as a host of other things. I can tell you that I have plenty to do. Every day I sign hundreds of papers that I’m solely responsible for. I will never be able to say that the President has told me to do this or that, and in that sense this position is very interesting and self-sufficient. As for the future, nobody can predict. Let’s wait and see.
Fareed Zakaria: Mr Prime Minister, thank you very much for the interview.
Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you.