TRANSCRIPT: [Putin] Interview with the French Newspaper Le Figaro

Paris, France, View from Eiffel Tower

( – October 26, 2000)

Question: Thank you for finding the time to meet with us.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. I think it is important that on the eve of our visit to Paris your readers find out the answers to the wide range of questions you are going to ask me.

Question: French readers have long been interested in Russia and all things Russian.

Vladimir Putin: Let us hope it is true.

Question: With your permission I would like to start with a question which is highly topical, especially since you have just had a talk with the Foreign Minister. So, if you do not object, the first question is about the situation in the Middle East. It falls into two sub-questions.

First, how do you assess the situation taking shape in the Middle East?

Second, Russia has been standing aside lately in the process of Middle East settlement. Does it mean that Russia is losing its positions as a world power and is going to play a more modest role in the Middle East?

Vladimir Putin: The first part of the question has to do with the assessment of the situation. I would describe it as dangerous. There is a danger that everything achieved in the past years may be lost.

For Russia, France and Europe as a whole, the Middle East is a region that is not far from our borders. France, Russia and Europe have their economic, political and other interests there, so we are not indifferent to how the situation will develop. Of course, when there are explosions, shooting and people die it always gives cause for concern and dismay.

In our opinion, there is no need to invent anything new, everything has been set out in the relevant documents and resolutions of the United Nations. All we need to do is to work out mechanisms for implementing these decisions.

Now about Russia’s role. We have many internal problems and we do not seek to intervene in every conflict and try to play a role there if it does not directly affect Russia. We only do it if we are asked to and if the parties to the conflict want Russia to be involved in resolving it. In the event, the parties to the conflict and the settlement process have repeatedly called on Russia in various ways to take a more active part in the process of Middle East settlement.

As to whether Russia feels that it is not as active as before in international affairs and that large-scale international problems are being solved without its participation, I would like to ask you: “Have any problems been solved?” I think that in order to solve such problems, participation in the settlement must be more broad-based.

Russia is a co-sponsor of the settlement process along with the United States. We think that a more active involvement of Russia, and indeed of the European Union, would benefit the settlement process. In our opinion, other Arab countries should be brought into the process; work should proceed along several tracks, to use diplomatic jargon, namely the Lebanese and Syrian tracks. We genuinely want a settlement and are ready to make our contribution.

Question: So, Russia is still a great power?

Vladimir Putin: This is not the only sign of a great power. But Russia has changed the principles of its foreign policy in many ways. It no longer seeks to impose its will on anyone. We are ready to take part in international affairs on a broad democratic basis.

Question: Mr Putin, you appear to be more concerned about what is happening inside than outside your country. How can the Russian state be reformed while preserving the democratic gains that have been achieved?

Vladimir Putin: I think it is only natural that I am more interested in internal affairs. After all, I have been elected President in Russia, and not outside Russia. Even the foreign policy I have approved as the head of state gives priority to internal problems.

Improving the state and strengthening it is of course a priority. In fact, we have been in the process of the so-called perestroika (restructuring) since 1985. And since the 1990s we have been living through a real revolution. Revolutions, even if they are bloodless, always involve the dismantling of old state institutions. But a revolution must end some day and a creative process should begin.

One component of this creative process should be the strengthening of state institutions on a new basis, on a new democratic basis. In that sense strengthening the foundations of the state, enhancing federal relations, strengthening the judiciary and improving the principles of governance are, of course, on the agenda. Strengthening the multi-party system and creating conditions for the development of the political parties in the country are important tasks.

Question: You want to strengthen the state in order to save the country. Who are you going to lean on? Such law enforcement structures as the police, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Security Service are corrupt and therefore weakened.

Vladimir Putin: It is wrong to rely only on law enforcers in the fight against corruption, regardless of whether they are weak or strong. Obviously, without effective law enforcement, without law and order agencies there can be no crime control. But it is equally obvious that relying solely on punitive agencies will be fruitless. So we should above all strengthen the democratic principles of society, civil and public control, and create economic conditions that would deter economic crime, including corruption. So, the task you have mentioned is important, but we will use a multi-pronged approach to address it.

Having said that, if you tell me that there is no corruption in France, I would permit myself to doubt it. At any rate, I would be ready to take issue with you.

Voice: If one can laugh at such things at all.

Vladimir Putin: It is always a pleasure to talk about the problems of your neighbours. But sometimes one should take a broader look at a problem to understand that it is a common problem.

Question: There are two obstacles in the way of state development. Above all, it is the influence of oligarchs and the position of regional leaders. What can you say about that? Especially if you consider that oligarchs control the law enforcement agencies in many ways.

Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t over-dramatise things. I don’t think they control the law enforcement agencies to any considerable degree. If by oligarchs you mean business leaders, I think the problem of the influence of big business on the state is universal. If you understand oligarchy as a merger of private business and government structures, I would say that this problem is perhaps more relevant to Russia than to other countries. It is true that it is a problem for us.

There is nothing new in the idea that it is necessary to improve law enforcement and to raise the living standards of the law enforcers. But most importantly, it is necessary to pass laws to create conditions in which private businessmen would be unable to and would not even be interested in influencing the life of the state. I must tell you frankly that representatives of business, especially big business, want the rules of the game to be the same for everyone. So, the state has many allies, including in the business community.

Question: That is true. On the other hand, Berezovsky’s remark – “Boris Yeltsin pretended he wasn’t there and Putin pretends he is there,” – shows that all is not that well in the relations between business and the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin: Of course, after the revolutionary events of the early 1990s some people took advantage of the fact that government structures had not yet jelled and were not functioning effectively. Having amassed capital, they took advantage of the state and would like the situation to continue. And of course they don’t want to vacate their comfortable perches.

One of the instruments they successfully used and are still trying to use is their monopoly on the mass media. They want to continue to influence the state, the decision-making, to scare the political leadership and to blackmail it to make it more amenable. But I wouldn’t say that the state and the oligarchs are confronting each other dagger in hand. This is more in line with the West European tradition.

We wield a big stick, called “palitsa” in Russian, which can clinch an argument with one fell swoop. But we have not used it yet, we are simply holding it in our hands, and that has had some resonance already. But if we are provoked, we will have to use it.

Question: In other words, if blackmail continues, the state will take the big stick in its hands?

Vladimir Putin: The state already has it in its hands, but for now we are not swinging it. As for the challenges, they do not consist in not giving in to blackmail, but in taking the instruments of blackmail away from them, instruments to which they have no legitimate claim.

Question: But if you use the big stick, isn’t there a danger that it would lead to a dictatorship?

Vladimir Putin: There is always that danger. But to avoid it, to prevent the danger from becoming real and leading to a catastrophe – and I believe it would be a catastrophe if Russia reverted to totalitarian rule – to prevent that happening everyone must be equal before the law. I don’t think there are any countries where all people are absolutely equal before the law. This is simply a goal to strive for, to work towards.

Question: What do you mean by saying that everyone should be equal before the law? Do you mean that a rich man and a poor man, a Russian and a Chechen should be equal before the law?

Vladimir Putin: Everyone you mentioned, plus the state itself, which must be put within the limits described by the law and must have obligations to its citizens. An effective mechanism must be created for the citizen to secure redress if he thinks his rights have been violated by the state.

Question: For the democratic process to be effective, the executive branch should operate within a system of checks and balances. But can you afford such balances under the present conditions when the state is being actively built? The press is one such balance.

Vladimir Putin: Not only can one afford it, but also positive development would be impossible without it. The press must be free.

We haven’t invented it. Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, once said that absolute freedom of the press was unfreedom for everyone. The problem of the free press presents a challenge for the state. Everybody must be equal before the law, including the press. Everyone must learn to abide by the law. That is difficult. But it would be hard for us to achieve a balance without resolving that task.

Favourable economic conditions should be created for the development of the information market. And if two or three individuals, in the context of the revolutionary events in the early 1990s, amassed fortunes by hook or by crook and gained control over state-owned media under some mysterious pretexts and are using them as an instrument to preserve their position of oligarchs – is that freedom of the press? Is it in the interests of the state, society and the people?

But without creating conditions for a free press the goal of building a democratic society cannot be achieved. It is an indisputable fact which we do not challenge.

Question: Another balance is the legislative branch, in other words, the Duma. At the time the issue of the reform of regional relations was voted on at the Duma, the Kremlin resorted to a kind of blackmail of the Duma. There is no real democratic debate, simply one branch of power is overshadowed by another.

Vladimir Putin: I think you are simply mistaken. Who told you that the Kremlin blackmailed or brought pressure on the Duma when it voted on federation relations? In fact, these ideas were first aired in the Duma before they were conceived at the Kremlin. Parliament simply knew that the laws to change the relations between the federal government and the regions would not be passed without the support of the executive branch. But the idea was born in Parliament itself. At a certain stage we agreed with the overwhelming majority of the Duma deputies and said: “We are ready to work on the issue together with you.” But the idea was first born in Parliament rather than here at the Kremlin. And of course we had arguments with Parliament, because although we agreed that the reforms were necessary and the relations between the federal government and the regions had to be changed, we had differences with some groups of deputies over details, and of course we argued with them and tried to build our case. Of course, there were arguments, but it had nothing to do with blackmail or pressure.

On some issues the package of resolutions was aimed at strengthening the role of the federal government. But on other issues we felt that the role of regional leaders with regard to their constituent parts should even be strengthened, for example, by allowing them to dismiss the heads of municipal entities in the regions if they broke the law. We agreed, and I personally agreed, with the opinion of regional leaders and proposed the motion at the Duma. But the Duma did not support the Kremlin and the motion was not passed.

It was complicated and intense work, but the fact that it has yielded a positive result shows that society is united on cardinal issues of state development. It is a very good sign.

Question: Speaking about relations between the state and oligarchs, it is really about making them play by the rules set by the state. But it should be done in such a way as not to scare them because otherwise they will keep their money abroad, as is the case now. How long will this situation last?

Vladimir Putin: This is not because of the fear that the state will take the money away from them. The challenge is to get everyone to understand that there are rules in Russia which the state can enforce. These rules are universal and apply equally to all the market participants. This is one of our key tasks. And then no one will need to be persuaded to invest money here. As the investment climate improves, foreign investments will grow and the first wave should undoubtedly be the voluntary return of the capital which by various devious means ended up outside the Russian Federation.

(Turning to a correspondent). Is that an order you have there?

Answer: It is a Legion of Honour Order.

Vladimir Putin: How did you earn it?

Answer: I have been a journalist for many years and, apparently, not a bad one.

Vladimir Putin: Now, there is a link between the free press and the state. Is it not natural for the state to recognise the services of the free press? It does not mean that the state is bribing journalists.

Question: For the state to move along a democratic path it is not enough for an initiative to come from the top; the grassroots should also be involved. Don’t you think that for the process to move in the right direction it is necessary to cut the link that exists between the state and the mafia?

Vladimir Putin: You know that of course there are criminal communities in Russia. But there is no mafia in the traditional sense, as a criminal organisation with its own history and internal laws. There are criminal gangs, but they are easier to defeat than the traditional mafia, because the historical Mafia lives by its internal laws which help it to survive. I repeat there is no such mafia in Russia.

In the context of globalisation, crime also acquires a trans-border character. It spills over from one state to another, which is why it is important for the countries to pool their efforts in fighting organised crime.

Question: I have read your book in which you describe how you were baptised and how your mother gave you a cross to be sanctified in Jerusalem. And at the same time you worked for the KGB. How do you square these two things? According to Western ideas there is a contradiction there.

Vladimir Putin: All life consists of contradictions. Where contradictions end, life ends. It shows that Russia, like other parts of Europe, is not something artificial, but a country with its own history, its present and future. It shows that historical and cultural roots survive and cannot be destroyed. To use a metaphor, they are like grass in a big city which grows through the asphalt.

My mother was a believer. In the former Soviet Union it was not just unfashionable, as it is now, but it was dangerous. And she had me baptised in church, not secretly, but without publicising the matter. It is not surprising that she gave me a cross to be sanctified on the Holy Sepulchre.

We had no other state except the communist state. Every state has a set of instruments, a set of mechanisms that make it a state. One such instrument was the Foreign Intelligence Service for which I had the honour to work. It was interesting work. It did not hold me back in any way. And the fact that my mother baptised me in church when I was about a year old – I don’t even know exactly how old I was at the time – did not prevent me from discharging my duties as a foreign intelligence officer.

Let me just remind you that I was not simply a KGB agent, I worked for foreign intelligence. Having said that, in the Soviet times foreign intelligence was part of the KGB, an autonomous part, but still a part.

I must tell you that in the Soviet Union there were 19 million Communists. The worst thing we could do would be to start screening everyone politically if they were members of the Communist Party. In the Soviet Union it was impossible to be in the civil service and to pursue a career without being a member of the Communist Party. I assure you, the overwhelming majority of the 19 million had a very vague idea of the main tenets of the communist ideology, and were simply forced to be Communist Party members if they wanted to have a career.

I assure you, a decent person remains decent under the communist system and in a democratic society. And, vice versa, a dishonest person will remain dishonest in any social system.

Question: You recently met with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But I don’t think you agree with Solzhenitsyn when he says that Russia cannot develop further until it settles its scores with communism.

Vladimir Putin: You are wrong. I absolutely agree with him on that. But to settle scores with communism does not mean staging purges and hounding people on the grounds that they were members of the Communist Party or worked at some paramilitary organisations connected with the Communist Party. It would be the worst mistake. It would mean sowing discord in society.

But I absolutely agree with Solzhenitsyn that every citizen should understand that the collapse of the country, the collapse of the Soviet Union, is above all the result of the prevalence of the communist ideology in politics, in state affairs and in the economy.

Question: Mr Putin, as far as we know, you still do judo and show off your muscles posing stripped to the waist. And when you visited the Navy we saw you in a naval uniform. What are we to make of the manly image that is being projected? Is it because you want to assert yourself personally as the new Russian leader or perhaps you want to make people forget and never recall Yeltsin, or perhaps it is intended to symbolise a new democratic Russia, the future of Russia?

Vladimir Putin: It may be an odd way to answer your question. I cannot pick any one of the versions that you have suggested.

If I do sports, including judo, I do not do it to impress anyone, but because I enjoy it. I have done it since 14 and I do not intend to stop even though I don’t have much free time. I like it.

The press has shown a very keen interest in this. I think that is good because there is an educational element there. Sport always attracts attention. If two or three people follow my example, I would be happy.

If the press writes that I don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol and do sports, that is a plus. It is not only a plus for me, it promotes a healthy lifestyle. As for the emphasis on my being close with the military, the reason is quite different. In the Soviet Union the significance of the military and the army and security was overemphasised, and at a certain stage, especially in the period of revolutionary transformations in the early 1990s, many were inclined to put all the blame on the people in uniforms.

And yet servicemen and officers are not to blame and have nothing to do with the problems that arose in the Soviet Union. They simply served their country to the best of their abilities, and in any case they served loyally. And they have not deserved such an attitude on the part of society. It was unfair. Moreover, such an attitude to the military aspects of the state has caused serious damage to Russia.

Today everybody understands that, unfortunately, powerful and modern armed forces are not the least important factor. And if I fly fighter planes and submerge with the submariners, I do it for several reasons.

First, I want to demonstrate my personal positive attitude to servicemen, to the Armed Forces, and thus to stress the importance of the Armed Forces and all the military elements of the state.

On the other hand, the military should realise that their activities are under strict supervision of civilians, including at the totally operational level.

And thirdly, I am, by virtue of my office, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and I believe that I should have personal knowledge of some things which appear to me very important in terms of national security and in terms of making decisions, if I am called upon to take such decisions.

Question: Don’t you think that in the eyes of Western public opinion and the Western media the fact that you were an intelligence agent leaves a kind of trail behind you?

Vladimir Putin: I don’t think that is so. Some unfriendly people may take advantage of this, but I see no grounds for such opinions. Intelligence work is work with information and it is very much akin to that of journalists.

And hasn’t it happened in the history of other countries that former intelligence officers became heads of state? Why is that acceptable, and why shouldn’t it be in Russia? As far as I know even former actors became heads of state and it did not terrify people.

Question: I understand you are referring to George Bush Senior, who was CIA Director in his time. But was he baptised?

Vladimir Putin: I am proud to be associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. I think it is a great honour. It links me to my people, its culture, and it gives me inner calm and moral fortitude. I think it is very good.

Question: Do you feel a nostalgia for the former imperial might of Russia?

Vladimir Putin: No, because I believe that imperial forms of rule are short-lived and wrong, they lead to disintegration, they do not provide a solid long-term basis for the development of the state and so they are inherently wrong, short-lived and unpromising.

Question: You are going to France six months after being elected. You visited Britain some time ago, why were you so slow in responding to the invitation to visit Paris? Is the tardiness due to the sharp criticism in France over Chechnya?

Vladimir Putin: I accepted the invitation to visit Paris at once. But my international schedule was arranged so as to have a meeting with the EU on October 30. Paris was chosen as the venue. So we thought it would be reasonable to hold this visit close to that date.

But it may have been a blessing in disguise: this time has been used to prepare a Russian-French meeting thoroughly and to fill it with constructive proposals. This visit may well become a milestone in our relations. I am sure it will help resolve the outstanding issues in bilateral cooperation in the near term and in the medium term.

The criticism in France, especially in the media, of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya could not have influenced the date of the visit. The forthcoming negotiations are not just going to be talks on pleasant topics, but a discussion of issues on which we may differ. Besides, the political dialogue between Moscow and Paris is continuous and it has never stopped for a minute.

Question: Do you have the impression that Paris now has a better understanding of the Russian policy in Chechnya?

Vladimir Putin: I would find it easier, and I think it would be proper, to answer that question after my visit to France. But there is already a sense that the French have a deeper insight into the consequences of the spread of international terrorism and into the causes of the tough stand taken by the Russian leadership. It is not just about Chechnya. Look at what is happening in Afghanistan, in Central Asia and other regions of the world. We are talking about a global threat. Russia was among the first countries to confront it. Terrorism has acquired a transnational character and it is our duty to unite the efforts of the international community in fighting that evil.

Of course, the situation in Chechnya has changed dramatically. The military part of the anti-terrorist operation is over and the process of political settlement has started. Life is gradually coming back to normal in the republic, as the numerous representatives of various international organisations can see for themselves.

Question: Are there still any differences between Paris and Moscow, and what are the prospects of cooperation?

Vladimir Putin: Even if there is general agreement on key international issues, there can objectively be differences between our countries on certain problems. I think that is an absolutely normal phenomenon and I am not inclined to dramatise it. Yes, we do not always see eye-to-eye on the Chechen problem or on NATO actions in the former Yugoslavia. But it does not prevent us from thinking alike on other issues, including such fundamental issues as the maintenance of strategic stability through the preservation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the central role of the UN, the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and the problems of Middle East settlement.

I would like to dwell on the preservation of the ABM Treaty. The UN is shortly to take a vote on the draft resolution in support of that fundamental treaty tabled by Russia and some other countries. Let me be frank: we are not seeking confrontation with anyone. Our draft is couched in the same terms as a year ago when it won the support of an impressive number of countries, including France. It reflects our common interests in preserving that document, which is critical for the maintenance of strategic stability and a continued process of strategic nuclear arms reduction. We hope that France will vote for the resolution, like it did a year ago.

We look to more intensive interaction with France on common European projects and on establishing closer partnership between Russia and the EU.

I am convinced that the coming talks in Paris will broaden the common ground between us and will help to remove the differences. Our task is to ensure a high dynamism of Russian-French relations and to bring them to a level of real partnership. Bilaterally, it is important to tap the full potential of our trade, economic and investment cooperation. The time has come for our relations to get “a second wind”.

Question: Does Russia feel it is encircled by NATO countries, or is a junior partner cooperating with the alliance? Shouldn’t NATO have disappeared simultaneously with the disappearance of the “Red threat”?

Vladimir Putin: Let us take your questions one by one. We want to see equal and mutually beneficial cooperation with the alliance. Our being a “junior partner” is out of the question. Only equal relations can be fruitful. Only relations based on mutual respect have future. And, by the way, such relations are useful in assessing one’s own strength.

Now about enlargement. We are opposed to NATO enlargement, but not because we are afraid of being “encircled”. In our opinion, the alliance is not coping with the main task in the Euro-Atlantic space, namely, ensuring equal security for all. In fact, it sometimes works against that purpose. Russia would rather build a system of European security in which every state, whatever military-political alliance it belongs to, enjoys equal rights and has equal duties, and the conflicts are settled in strict accordance with the UN Charter and universally accepted international legal norms.

In such a setup, it would not be closed military groups that would have the main responsibility for stability and security in Europe. But it is our firm position that determining the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is up to its member states.

Russia’s objective with regard to NATO is quite different: it is to improve the quality of our relations. We should move more resolutely from exchange of opinions and information to coordinating concrete steps in areas of mutual interest.

Question: The second Chechen war entered its second year in early October. Every week the Russian army loses about 20 men, and many observers think it is bogged down in this conflict. Do you agree?

Vladimir Putin: One of the militants’ chieftains, Shamil Basayev, said recently that he was planning to send 150 of his gunmen to the area of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Imagine 150 top-notch experts in ambushing, mining, hostage taking and torture of prisoners. It is not the number of gunmen but the fact that they would lend a totally different character to the conflict.

If I may ask you a counter question: if we had not launched a counter-terrorist operation in the region, how many of his men would Basayev have threatened to send to the conflict area? And how far would he have gone in his plans of expansion?

To me the conclusion is obvious. The only way to pacify a criminal is to put him on trial. If terrorism is not stopped in Chechnya, tomorrow it will hold sway all over Russia and in due course it would feel like “trying its hand” outside Russia. Believe me, I am not exaggerating. You are familiar with examples of such brazen behaviour of international criminals.

I think it is clear why we consider the efforts of our soldiers and police in Chechnya as efforts in the name of life, as a barrier to still greater human casualties, especially among civilians. Unfortunately, that effort involves putting one’s life on the line.

And I would like to remind you that most of the objectives we set for them a year ago have been reached. And having solved the most complex task, I am sure we will solve all the rest.

Question: You have described the fight against terror as your policy priority. Do you include the Taliban, who have come to power in Kabul, among terrorists? Do you support the American demands for the extradition of bin Laden? Is your attitude to the Taliban changing for the better?

Vladimir Putin: We see the Taliban as a military political group fighting for power in Afghanistan against the legitimate government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which has been recognised by the UN. Like the whole international community, we have some serious questions to the Taliban in connection with their sabotage of UN resolutions on the political settlement of the internal Afghan conflict and wide-spread violations of fundamental human rights.

But of late Russia and our partners in and outside the region have been particularly concerned about international terrorism and the threat of drug trafficking, which gravely undermine overall security.

The world centre of terrorism and drug-trafficking has in fact moved to Afghanistan under the Taliban, and a dangerous bridgehead has emerged for trans-border expansion of instability. There is a growing network of camps and bases for military and sabotage training of people from the Russian North Caucasus, Central Asian and Arab states, Pakistan, China and more than a dozen other countries. Religious extremists trained in Afghanistan today fight in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and tomorrow they may find themselves in any other part of the globe.

It is high time the world community became fully aware of the gravity of the challenges coming from Afghanistan and administered a resolute collective response. That is why we have staunchly supported the UN Security Council resolution on introducing international anti-terrorist sanctions against the Taliban and are ready to take further steps in that direction together with all the interested states.

Russia will only change its attitude to the Taliban if they unconditionally comply with the UN resolutions on the peaceful settlement of the crisis in Afghanistan and respect of human rights, especially the rights of women, if they stop supporting terrorism, religious extremism, national separatism and drug crime.

Question: Some people believe that by artificially stoking up tensions in Chechnya and Central Asia, Russia is trying to strengthen its positions on its periphery. How would you comment on that point of view?

Vladimir Putin: Such surmises can merely raise eyebrows – unless they are prompted by certain political goals. To act in this way is to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

We believe that Russia can strengthen its positions above all by developing mutually beneficial economic partnership with its close neighbours, by contributing to joint efforts to uphold peace and stability, including a collective rebuff to international terrorism and extremism. I would like to quote the statement made by the Presidents of the CIS countries at a recent meeting in Yalta: “The deepening of multi-lateral and bilateral cooperation within the CIS is in line with the world trends at the turn of the 21st century and meets the national interests of the Commonwealth states.”

Question: Is the reform of the Russian army a priority and what is its aim? To rebuild a world military power at the risk of ruining the country again? Or simply to ensure the defence of Russia? But if so, against whom?

Vladimir Putin: Reform of the army is undoubtedly a Russian priority. The question about its aims is indeed a key question. A professional army is not only about modern military hardware and weapons. It is about competent and well-educated commanders. It is about soldiers who see meaning in their service and who understand what the true dignity of a country consists in. And the dignity of a democratic state depends in many ways on its ability to maintain peace for its citizens and ensure their security.

Of course, one should not forget that we have certain obligations to our allies. We extended the Collective Security Treaty in mid-October. It envisages, among other things, military assistance of member states to each other if armed aggression is launched against any of them. In addition to Russia, the treaty has been signed by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Nor can one discount the fact that our arms control initiatives do not always meet with the understanding of our partners. It is no secret that world arms trade continues to grow.

In this context, maintaining Russia’s defence capability at a level of minimum sufficiency, and pursuing corresponding research and development is the prime duty of the Russian leadership. And this is the aim of the reform of the Russian army. Its task is to optimise the structure, reduce the number of units and troop strength of every element of the military organisation, coordinate the tasks of the army and security agencies in ensuring the defence and security of the country. I would like to stress that the resources thus released are used to improve the material and technical conditions and social security of servicemen.

And finally, we keep in mind the restrictions imposed by our budget. The Russian army will always perform the tasks set before it by society, and not vice versa.

As for your question against whom should Russia defend itself, my answer is very simple: against surprises. This, I think, is the aim of the defence policies pursued by the US, France and other states. The more predictable and fair the international order, the less will the states have to spend on their security.

Question: Do you give priority to strategic forces, as does your Defence Minister, or do you take the side of your Chief of Staff, who says that land forces are more important for maintaining security?

Vladimir Putin: I hope you are not asking me about my personal likes and dislikes, which would be irrelevant. In fact, your question is about priorities. And it has practically been answered: Russia must preserve its strategic potential at the level of reasonable sufficiency and it should make its land forces more competent and mobile. Our specialists are working on the most effective plans of such transformation.

Of course, it is not an either-or situation: either strategic forces or land forces. They have different tasks, but both are equally essential for the country’s security. The challenge lies elsewhere: we are building a balanced and effective structure of the armed forces. We are identifying priorities, concrete tasks and threats to national security. Russia cannot afford to spread the defence budget thin. It is not that big anyway.

Question: Do you want to build a pure market economy or do you seek to combine the market with a strong regulatory function of the state, like in Western Europe after the war?

Vladimir Putin: Our aim is to build an effective economic system that will match the development level of the leading industrialised countries. We try to free the economy from bureaucratic and administrative barriers and guarantee an equal competitive environment.

Today we are tackling many of the same tasks that faced the West European countries in the post-war period. Above all, we are talking about a substantial modernisation of the economy. A number of countries have gone through an accelerated modernisation period. They include Germany after the war, South Korea and South-East Asian countries. Their experience attests that modernisation aimed at catching up with other countries calls for active state interference in the economy. Above all it should create conditions to attract investment and accelerate the development of spearhead sectors and industries, and implement an active industrial policy.

Russia has yet to determine the optimal degree of state participation in the economy. In some market segments its presence is excessive, and in others it is obviously insufficient. The state must take part in economic life, but not as an omnipotent supervisor, but as the guarantor of the rule of law, equal treatment of all the economic agents and of the common economic space in the country. All this is a constant concern of the Government.

Question: For private entrepreneurs Russian legislation is a mind-boggling collection of rules. Because entering into contracts is one of the basic human rights, don’t you think it is necessary to streamline these procedures to attract foreign investment? Or do you hope that the Russians can ensure Russia’s economic recovery themselves?

Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t agree with you that entrepreneurs are unable to pick their way through Russian legislation. Russian and foreign businessmen have been very skilfully taking advantage of its drawbacks and loopholes.

Our key task is to bring about a cardinal improvement in Russia’s investment climate. To solve it, we are going to improve the legislation on the interaction and relations of shareholders inside a joint stock company. Above all, we will introduce amendments to the Law On Joint Stock Companies. These changes should offer greater protection of the rights of shareholders and give them a bigger say in managing the joint stock company.

It is necessary to develop the legislation on the protection of intellectual property. That is particularly important for attracting investment in the hi-tech sectors. The system of registration of real estate and securities transactions should be improved. That will make the system of registration of property rights more reliable and protect the rights of good-faith buyers.

It is a duty of the state to provide the most favourable conditions possible for business and set clear rules. That means simplifying the procedure of approvals of investment documentation by introducing the “one-stop” principle. It calls for reducing the number of activities subject to licensing and a uniform licensing procedure throughout the country. And of course, it calls for an improvement of the taxation system.

We should rely above all on our own potential, supporting the domestic producer and creating an equal playing field for all. But Russia is becoming more and more integrated into the world economy and, accordingly, takes an active part in international capital markets. This lends a strategic character to the issue of providing safe conditions for the inflow of foreign investments.

The problem of protecting the rights of foreign investors in Russia is within the purview of the Government, its Chairman and the President of Russia. The Foreign Investment Advisory Council, headed by the Prime Minister, regularly discusses the problems of foreign investors. Within the Council, foreign investors constantly voice their grievances and proposals to improve the mechanism of attracting foreign investment to Russia. Most of them translate themselves into regulatory acts.

Question: Do you see foreign investors as partners Russia needs for its development? If so, how to persuade the public opinion in your country that they are not “exploiters” who have come to plunder it?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, we see foreign investors as partners. “Exploiters” is a long outdated propaganda cliche.

I would like to note that by now the necessary public consensus has been reached on fundamental issues of the country’s economic development. So there is no need to explain to society the benefits of cooperation with foreign investors. Rather, it is the question of an adequate reaction inside the country to infringements on the interests of Russian exporters to the world markets by certain countries with regard to certain categories of goods.

Question: How do you assess the recent events in Yugoslavia and the overall prospects for the situation in the region?

Vladimir Putin: Yugoslavia is at a turning point. The process of democratic transformations gives hope that stability will come to the country. The new Yugoslavian President faces formidable challenges. They include internal political reforms in Serbia, restoration of civil peace in the country and consolidation of society, normalisation of relations with Montenegro within the federation and working out a position on the Kosovo problem. Taking the country out of a prolonged period of international political and economic isolation is a major task. We are glad to see some positive shifts in the position of our G8 partners. The Western countries are lifting the financial and economic sanctions introduced against Yugoslavia.

At present, Yugoslavia needs an active support of the international community. We must help it to rebuild the economy, reintegrate it into international organisations and the system of European cooperation. As for the former aspect, particular responsibility devolves on NATO countries to make good the material damage inflicted on Yugoslavia during the military operation in 1999. For our part we have rendered and will continue to render as much economic aid to the people of Yugoslavia as we can.

The question of the full membership of Yugoslavia in the United Nations, resumption of its work in the OSCE and accession to the mechanism of the Stability Pact for South-East Europe takes on particular significance.

And of course, the main condition of Yugoslavian settlement remains its sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is the key task for stabilising the situation in the region in the long term.

The Russian-French political dialogue – on every aspect of the situation in Yugoslavia and in the Balkans as a whole – is frank and intensive. Russian and French views are very close on many points. That provides good prerequisites for still more effective coordination of our further actions in this area.

Question: What are the implications for the future of our planet of the fact that the US, effectively the sole superpower, is exercising world hegemony, although without fighting wars?

Vladimir Putin: Our position on that is perfectly clear. The new world order means stable and peaceful development without crises and upheavals. To this end it is necessary to form a multi-polar, if you like, “non-monopolised,” system of international relations. A system that accommodates all the diversity of the world and ensures diversity and the balance of interests. Such a world order should be based on collective solution of key problems, supremacy of the law and sweeping democratisation of international relations. That is an objective and natural reflection of the processes connected with the growing inter-dependence of states, globalisation and emerging new challenges and threats to international security. Any other approaches based on anyone’s hegemony contradict these realities. They are dangerous and counter-productive. No country, however important, can solve all the world problems single-handed.

We seek to build our relations with the Untied States proceeding from this vision. What we value is mutual assistance, equality and balance of interests.

Question: What can you say about Russia’s relations with China and Japan?

Vladimir Putin: The relations with China is a very important aspect of our foreign policy in its own right. I consider the long-term strategic partnership established between Moscow and Beijing back in 1996 to be a great achievement of our two countries.

Today, we are working vigorously on the Treaty on Good-Neighbourly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation as a new legal basis for Russian-Chinese relations. At government level, we are promoting a number of strategically important economic and technological cooperation projects. Finally, we are closely coordinating our actions on global issues of the world order and key regional problems.

The relations between Russia and Japan have emerged as a new and important factor of international politics.

We are united in our concept of what is most important in the modern world. Namely a world order that relies on the central role of the UN in compliance with international law and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Japan is an authoritative and responsible power whose role and influence in world affairs are constantly growing. We welcome that process. And of course we value the fact that Japan approaches Russia from a similar position.

These are the underlying reasons for the strategic and geopolitical rapprochement between Russia and Japan that we have witnessed in recent years. I paid an official visit to Japan in September. During that visit we agreed that relations between our countries have never experienced such an upsurge as now. We determined real paths towards partnership, including through the signing at the summit level of such conceptual documents as the joint declaration on interaction between Russia and Japan in international affairs and the programme of deepening trade and economic cooperation. We also signed a package of other agreements on cooperation in various spheres.

I am sure that given the upsurge in the relations between Russia and Japan, we will be able to achieve a mutually acceptable solution of what is in fact the only outstanding problem between us: the signing of a peace treaty, including the border delimitation aspect. Especially since both sides have pledged to seek such a solution.

Question: Do you believe that reunification of the North and South Koreas is inevitable?

Vladimir Putin: What is important for Russia is that harmony and peaceful cooperation should prevail on the Korean Peninsula. We have recently done a good deal towards that end. In fact, we have helped North Korea to break out of its isolation, which enabled it to establish a dialogue with those whom until recently it considered to be bitter enemies. These processes are bringing early fruits, I mean the start of reconciliation between North and South and rapid progress in the KDPR’s relations with the US and Japan.

As for the issue of reunification of Korea, it should take place through the efforts of the Korean people with due account of the interests of the two Korean states. We unreservedly support this prospect because it fully meets not only the interests of the Korean nation, of regional and world security, but also the national interests of Russia.

Question: How do you see the future of the peace process between Israel and Palestine?

Vladimir Putin: The current crisis, one has to admit, has dealt a serious blow to the Middle East settlement and has thrown it back. However, it is clear that there is no reasonable alternative to the peace process. It is the only realistic way towards a comprehensive peace and durable security in the region on the basis of the UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338 and 425. In this context resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue is a pressing task.

At the same time one should derive a serious lesson from the current tragic events. We should all ponder the causes of the major failures in Arab-Israeli settlement and think about ways to make this process stable and irreversible. It is already evident that international assistance to the negotiating process should be collective and far better coordinated.

As a co-sponsor, Russia will continue to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East on all the tracks – the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese.

Question: Do you believe that at present militant Islamism is the biggest threat both for Russia and for the West?

Vladimir Putin: Radicals, whatever garb they don, are creating a lot of problems by their subversive actions all over the world and are undermining international security and stability.

There is growing intolerance of terrorism and extremism everywhere, including in Muslim countries. Their leaders unequivocally condemn extremists who cast a shadow on the genuine ideals of Islam.

It calls for the efforts of the whole international community to fight terrorism.