In an RT global exclusive premiere, President Putin gives his first post-inauguration interview, speaking in depth with RT’s Kevin Owen ahead of the APEC summit in Vladivostok.
RT: What I want to talk about first of all is the ongoing at the moment APEC summit. You'll be going there very shortly – in Vladivostok because it's the first time that Russia has held it, a prestigious event. But it always begs the question – what's actually achieved at these events, events like that, like the G8, G20?
Now, though APEC is primarily an economic vessel, there's a lot of politics involved as well. And of course a lot of the key players including you, including America, a lot of key players disagree on some very key issues. I'm thinking about Syria, I'm thinking about missile defense, I'm thinking about Iran. Is there a danger that the politics may stifle, get in the way of the big economic deals that the very same key players are hoping to sign at this summit or at least talk about signing?
President Putin: That is true. But in fact – and you’ve just said it yourself – APEC was originally conceived as a forum for discussing economic issues. And as this year’s host country, we also intend to focus on economic and socio-economic challenges.
APEC was originally established with the overall objective of liberalizing the global economy. And we intend to make this a key issue on the agenda in Vladivostok.
When I invited our counterparts, five years ago, to meet for this forum particularly in the Russian Federation, my rationale was to acknowledge the importance of this area for Russia, given that two-thirds of Russia’s territory are located in Asia, and yet the bulk of our foreign trade – more than 50 percent – is with Europe, whereas Asia only accounts for 24 percent. Meanwhile, Asia is developing rapidly and intensively. You and I know it, and everybody knows it. Therefore, we are planning to focus primarily on economic challenges, transport, global food security and the task of liberalizing the global economy. It’s a well-known fact that the past year has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people affected by starvation, which has grown by 200 million. This means that 1 billion people worldwide are currently suffering from food shortages or famine. I believe this is the kind of issue that will be the focus of attention, along with a number of other challenges that are highly sensitive and significant for millions of people.
As far as Syria and other hot spots are concerned – issues that are currently in the limelight – we will certainly address them in our deliberations at the forum, in bilateral discussions or otherwise. They won’t be overlooked.
RT: Do you think there should be more practical outcomes though? Is it too much of a talking show – events like APEC?
Putin: You know, I attended the G20 meeting in Mexico just recently. As a rule, such meetings are pre-arranged and pre-discussed by our aides and ministers and high-ranking experts, and still there are certain issues that eventually come into focus for the heads of states attending. And in fact, that’s how it was in Mexico. I was very interested to follow discussions and look at conflicting opinions, and I participated in some of those discussions. I think the coming forum will see just as many debates. But it’s only through this kind of meticulous, hard work – year after year and quarter after quarter, if not day-by-day, if you excuse my officialeese – that we can eventually arrive at acceptable solutions to sensitive issues such as, say, liberalizing trade. Because this is an issue that affects millions of people. You know the issues debated within the framework of the World Trade Organization, and the coming APEC summit are so immensely important for us, partly because Russia is now a full member of the WTO. We have also established a Customs Union and a Common Economic Space in the post-Soviet territory jointly with Belarus and Kazakhstan. And dialogue is very important for us, so that we can explain to our partners and help them realize how this kind of association in the post-Soviet area could be beneficial and helpful. Especially since the vehicles I’ve mentioned have been established based on WTO principles.
RT: Ok, thanks for explaining that. We're going to come back to APEC a little bit later if we may, but you touched on another big subject in headlines, the horrendous events that have been unfolding in Syria over the last 18 months now. Russia' position has been steadfast all the way along the line. Here you've said there should be no foreign intervention and it should be the Syrian people who do the deciding and it should be done through diplomacy. However, that's a great idea, but day in day out innocent lives are being lost on both sides. Is it time for something more than talking? Should Russia be reassessing its position maybe now?
Putin: How come Russia is the only one who’s expected to revise its stance? Don’t you think our counterparts in negotiations ought to revise theirs as well? Because if we look back at the events in the past few years, we’ll see that quite a few of our counterparts’ initiatives have not played out the way they were intended to.
Take the examples of the numerous countries ridden by escalating internal conflict. The US and its allies went into Afghanistan, and now they’re all thinking about how to get out of there. If there’s anything on the table, it’s the issue of assisting them in withdrawing their troops and hardware from Afghanistan through our transit routes.
Now, are you sure that the situation there will be stable for decades to come? So far, no one is confident about it.
And look at what’s going on in Arab countries. There have been notable developments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc. Would you say that order and prosperity have been totally ensured for these nations? And what’s going on in Iraq?
In Libya, there are armed clashes still raging among the country’s various tribes. I won’t even mention the way the country had its regime changed: this is a separate topic. What concerns us, and I want to emphasize this once again, is the current hostilities in Syria. But at the same time, we are just as concerned about the possible consequences of certain decisions, should they be taken.
In our opinion, the most important task today is, ending the violence. We must urge all the warring parties, including the government and the so-called rebels, the armed opposition, to sit down at the negotiating table and decide on a future that would guarantee security for all stakeholders in Syria. Only then should they get down to any practical measures regarding the country’s future governance system. We realize that this country needs a change, but this doesn’t mean that change should come with bloodshed.
RT: OK, well, given the facts regarding Syria that you see on the table now, what is the next step? What do you realistically think is going to happen next?
Putin: We told our partners we would like to sit down together at the negotiating table in Geneva. And when we did, together we charted a roadmap for further action that would help bring peace to Syria and channel developments down a more constructive path. We received almost unanimous support and shared the talks’ results with the Syrian government. But then the rebels actually refused to recognize those decisions; and many of the negotiating parties have also quietly backed down.
I believe that the first thing to do is to stop shipping arms into the warzone, which is still going on. We should stop trying to impose unacceptable solutions on either side, because it is a dead-end. That’s what we should do. It is that simple.
Luckily, we generally enjoy friendly relations with the Arab world, but we would like to stay away from Islamic sectarian conflict, or interfere in a showdown involving the Sunnis, the Shia, the Alawis and so on. We treat everyone with equal respect. We also get on well with Saudi Arabia and other countries; I have cultivated a warm personal relationship with the custodian of two Islamic shrines. The only underlying motive behind our stance is the desire to create a favorable environment for the situation to develop positively in years to come.
RT: What are your thoughts about the United Nations and the way the United Nations has reacted particularly in Syria. There's been criticism that it's failed to deliver a unified front if you like and has become more of a figurehead organization. Do you share that view?
Putin: Quite the contrary, I would say. My take on the issue is the absolute opposite of what you have just said. If the United Nations and the Security Council had indeed turned into a mere rubberstamping tool for any one of the member states, it would have ceased to exist, just like the League of Nations did. But the reality is that the Security Council and the UN are meant to be a tool for compromise. Seeking to achieve it is a long and complex process, but only hard work can yield us fruit.
RT: Understood. Mr. President, another question I'd like to ask you – a number of Western and Arab nations have been covertly … with supporting the FSA, the Free Syrian Army – indeed, some of them are doing it openly now. Of course the catch here is that the FSA is suspected of hiring known Al-Qaeda fighters amongst their ranks. So the twist in this tale is that a lot of those countries are actually sponsoring terrorism, if you like, in Syria, countries that have suffered from terrible terrorism themselves. Is that a fair assessment?
Putin: You know, when someone aspires to attain an end they see as optimal, any means will do. As a rule, they will try and do that by hook or by crook – and hardly ever think of the consequences. That was the case during the war in Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. At that time, our present partners supported a rebel movement there and basically gave rise to Al Qaeda, which later backfired on the United States itself.
Today some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to accomplish their goals in Syria. This policy is dangerous and very short-sighted. In that case, one should unlock Guantanamo, arm all of its inmates and bring them to Syria to do the fighting – it's practically the same kind of people. But what we should bear in mind is that one day these people will get back at their former captors. On the other hand, these same people should bear in mind that they will eventually end up in a new prison, very much like the one off the Cuban shore.
I would like to emphasize that this policy is very short-sighted and is fraught with dire consequences.
RT: I'd like to broaden that a little bit now, a little bit wider from Syria. You touched upon Syria. Syria is in the middle of a civil war, we're seeing conflicts in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia. Ok, things are a bit calmer in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, you mentioned it just now. But standing back from it overall, all the troubles that we've seen in the Middle East, all the turmoil there – has it been at all for the good or for the bad, where does it put that region now?
Putin: You know, we can discuss this into the small hours and still run out of time. For me, it’s a clear that these events have a historic logic. The leaders of these countries have obviously overlooked the need for change and missed ongoing trends at home and abroad, so they failed to produce the reforms which would have saved the day. All these events simply logically stem from this background. Whether this is a blessing or a curse with many negative implications, is now too early to say. In any case, the lack of a civilized approach, the high level of violence has so far stood in the way of any sustainable political structures which would help solve economic and social problems in societies hit by those events. This is what causes a lot of concern for the future. Because the people in these countries, who have had enough of their previous regimes, clearly expect the new governments to begin with tackling their social and economic problems in a competent way. But with no political stability, these problems cannot be solved.
RT: Let's turn now to the United States, the upcoming election there, which we are all looking forward to very much. Of course now the re-set button with Russia was firmly pushed by Barack Obama over the last 4 years, but its saw its ups and downs, and there's still that missile defense shield that's a headache for Russia in the East of Europe. If Obama does win a second term, what's going to define the next chapter of Russia and America's relations and is it chapter you can do business with?
Putin: I believe that over the last four years Presidents Obama and Medvedev have made a lot of progress in strengthening Russia-US relations. We have signed the new START treaty. Backed by the US, Russia has become a full-fledged member of the World Trade Organization. There have been more reasons to be optimistic about our bilateral relations: our strengthened cooperation in combating terrorism and organized crime, in the non-proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction and others. In other words, we have accumulated quite a lot of positive experience.
But the issue you mentioned – the US missile defense system – is surely one of the key issues on today’s agenda because it involves Russia’s vital interests. Scholars and experts understand that a unilateral solution will not enhance global stability. In essence, the intention is to upset the strategic balance, which is a very dangerous thing to do, as any involved party will always strive to maintain its defensive capabilities, and the entire thing could simply trigger off an arms race. Is it possible to find a solution to the problem, if president Obama is re-elected for a second term? In principle, yes, it is. But this isn’t just about president Obama. For all I know, his desire to work out a solution is quite sincere.
I met him recently on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico where we had a chance to talk. And though we talked mostly about Syria, I had the chance to feel the mood of my counterpart. My feeling is that he is a sincere man and that he sincerely wants to implement positive change. But can he do it, will they let him do it? I mean that there is also the military lobby, and the Department of State, which is quite conservative. By the way it is fairly similar to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. They are run by a number of professional clans who have been working there for decades. The thing is that in order to solve the missile defense issue, we both need to accept as an axiom that ‘yes, we are reliable partners and allies for each other’. Let’s imagine for a second we have the solution – that means that from now on we jointly assess missile threats and control this defense system together. This is a highly sensitive area of national defense. I am not sure that our partners are ready for this kind of cooperation.
RT: Is there anything that Russia can do to try and meet in the middle, to give a better ground?
Putin: We did what we could. We said, let’s do it together. Our partners are so far refusing to go along. What else can we do? We can maintain dialogue. That’s exactly what we will be doing, but naturally, as our American partners proceed with developing their own missile defense we shall have to think of how we can defend ourselves and preserve the strategic balance. By the way, America’s European allies (who also happen to be Russia’s partners) have nothing to do with it. I believe that as a European national, you should understand it. This is a purely American missile defense system, and a strategic one at that, with its European elements pushed to the periphery. You see, Europe, just like Russia, is not allowed to take part in either assessing missile threats or controlling the system. Our original proposal was to develop it as a three-party solution, but our partners have not agreed to it.
RT: Ok. So, we think you can work with Barack Obama if he gets in. What about if Mitt Romney gets in? Look, I've got some quotes here from just a month or two ago. This is the man that if he makes it to the White House said, "Russia is without question our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst" and he went on to say "Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage." Could you work with him, sir?
Putin: Yes, we can. We'll work with whichever president is elected by the American people. But our effort will only be as efficient as our partners will want it to be.
As for Mr. Romney’s position, we understand that this is to a certain extent motivated by election campaign rhetoric, but I also think that he was obviously wrong, because such behavior on the international arena is the same as using nationalism and segregation as tools of US domestic policy. Its effect on the international arena is the same, when a politician, a person who aspires to lead a nation, especially a great country like the U.S., declares someone to be an enemy a priori. And by the way, this brings something else to mind.
When we talk about the missile defense system, our American partners keep telling us, “This is not directed against you.” But what happens if Mr. Romney, who believes us to be America’s number one foe, is elected as president of the United States? In that case, the missile defence system will definitely be directed against Russia as it is technologically configured exactly for this purpose.
And you also have to think about its strategic character, it’s built not for a year or even a decade, and the chances that a man with Romney’s views could come to power are quite high. So what are we supposed to do to ensure our security?
RT: I’d like to talk about the latest developments in the Magnitsky case for a moment now, both the US and Britain, Britain most recently are working on this list of Russian officials, Russian citizens that they say are responsible for his death. He was a high ranking finance lawyer who died in a Russian jail, I’ll just explain for our viewers. Why is there still such a perception abroad that this wasn’t dealt with here in Russia, that the people responsible hadn’t been dealt with properly. Why does this keep rumbling on?
Putin: You see… there are people who need an enemy, they are looking for an opponent to fight against. Do you know how many people die while in prison in those countries which have condemned Russia? The numbers are huge! Look at the U.S. that came up with the so-called Magnitsky list. As you know, there is no death penalty in Russia while the U.S. still keeps it on the books. Anyone, including women can be executed. At the same time, all civilized societies know that judicial errors can occur in capital punishment cases, even when people plead guilty. It turns out later on that the convict did not commit the crime.
But that’s one thing. More importantly, I think only God has the right to take life away. But I don’t want to go too much into it right now – there’s a lot of philosophy in it. But with that in mind, we could have come up with our own black list, and more than one, of people who use the death penalty in other countries. But we choose not to do it.
As for Mr. Magnitsky, it is certainly a great tragedy that he died in prison. And there certainly must be a thorough investigation. If someone is guilty, they must be punished. But what I want to emphasize is that there is absolutely no political context to this case. It is a tragedy, but it only has to do with crime and legal procedure, not politics. No more than that.
Still, someone’s looking to spoil relations with Russia. They have banned some Russian officials that are allegedly involved in the death of Mr. Magnitsky from entering their country. Of course, I do regret his death and offer my condolences to his family.
But what should Russia do in such cases? Take appropriate steps and similarly list officials of the country that introduces such measures against Russia. Like that…
RT:And to make it perfectly clear, this case won’t be re-examined by Russia?
Putin: Which case? What needs to be re-tried? We must only find out whether someone’s guilty of his death or not. And if someone’s guilty and responsible for the death in some way, that person should be held accountable. That’s it. Again, there is no politics behind it. It’s the job of the law enforcement professionals to look into it.
And of course, the Russian authorities are going to do that. The Prosecutor’s Office is working on it now.
RT: Ok and now I’d like to talk about the trial and jailing of Pussy Riot, that punk group band. There’s been much criticism that the sentence handed down was too strong, too much and that the whole case was too big a deal off and that it actually back fired and has brought more people to their cause with the publicity. With hind sight , always a beautiful thing, but with hindsight do you think the case could have been handled differently?
Putin: You’ve been working in Russia for a while now and maybe know some Russian. Could you please translate the name of the band into Russian?
RT: Pussy Riot the punk band,I don’t know what you would call them in Russian Sir, but may be you could tell me!
Putin: Can you translate the first word into Russian? Or maybe it would sound too obscene? Yes, I think you wouldn’t do it because it sounds too obscene, even in English.
RT: I actually thought it was referring to a cat, but I’m getting your point here. Do you think the case was handled wrongly in any way, could some lesson have been learned?
Putin: I know you understand it perfectly well, you don’t need to pretend you don’t get it. It’s just because these people made everyone say their band’s name too many times. It’s obscene – but forget it.
Here’s what I would like to say. I have always felt that punishment should be proportionate to the offence. I am not in a position now and would not like, anyway, to comment on the decision of a Russian court, but I would rather talk about the moral side of the story.
First, in case you never heard of it, a couple of years ago one of the band’s members put up three effigies in one of Moscow’s big supermarkets, with a sign saying that Jews, gays and migrant workers should be driven out of Moscow. I think the authorities should have looked into their activities back then. After that, they staged an orgy in a public place. Of course, people are allowed to do whatever they want to do, as long as it’s legal, but this kind of conduct in a public place should not go unnoticed by the authorities. Then they uploaded the video of that orgy on the internet. You know some fans of group sex say it’s better than one-on-one because, like in any team, you don’t need to hit the ball all the time.
Again, it’s okay if you do what you like privately, but I wouldn’t be that certain about uploading your acts on the internet. It could be the subject of legal assessment, too.
Then they turned up at Yelokhovo Cathedral, here in Moscow, causing unholy mayhem, and went to another cathedral and caused mayhem there, too.
You know, Russians still have painful memories of the early years of Soviet rule, when thousands of Orthodox, Muslim, as well as clergy of other religions were persecuted. Soviet authorities brutally repressed the clergy. Many churches were destroyed. The attacks had a devastating effect on all our traditional religions. And so in general I think the state has to protect the feelings of believers.
I will not comment on whether the verdict is well-grounded and the sentence proportionate to the offence. These girls must have lawyers who defend their interests in court. They have the right to file an appeal and demand a new hearing. But it’s up to them, it’s just a legal issue.
RT: Is it realistic at all they will get some sort of early release?
Putin: I don’t know whether their lawyers have filed an appeal or not. I don’t follow the case that closely. If they appeal, a higher court is empowered to take any decision. To be honest, I try to stay as far away from the case as possible. I know the details but I do not want to get into it.
RT: There’s concern here and abroad that Russia has been suffering a clamp down on the opposition since you returned as President. There’s tighter defamation law, upping the fines for defamation, internet censorship laws brought into protect children. All these introduced under your watch. What’s the balance do you think between a healthy opposition and maintaining law and order? what’s your view?
Putin: So is it true then that other countries don’t have laws that ban child pornography, including online?
RT: Indeed they do.
Putin: So they do? Well, we didn’t, until recently. And if we began to protect our society and our children from these offences…
RT: May be it was the timing of the introduction? It may have seemed a bit heavy handed as you came back to power again.
Putin: You know, I try not to think about it. I just do what I think is right for this country and for its people. And that’s how I will work in the future. Of course, I am aware of how my steps resonate globally, but this cannot dictate my policies. Any steps we take are in the interests of the Russian people, and our children need this kind of protection. No-one is going to use this as a tool to restrict the Internet or online freedoms, but we have the right to protect our children.
If we talk of what some call a clamp-down … We should clarify what we’re talking about. If we understand it as a simple requirement that everyone, including the opposition, complies with Russian law, then this requirement will be consistently enforced.
You might also remember the mass riots that shocked the UK some year ago. A lot of people were injured and lot of property damaged. Is it better to let things deteriorate to that state and then spend a year tracking down people and locking them up? I think it’s best not to let things go this far? That’s my first point.
Now to my second point. Let me now get down to the hard facts. You must know that a year ago I backed reform that will see Russian governors elected, and not appointed, as previously, through secret ballot. But I also took the next step. After taking office, I introduced a new bill on elections to the Upper Chamber of the Russian Parliament. These specific steps will pave the way for a more democratic Russia, and it’s true both for its people and its state. There have been other proposals initiated too, including changes in the law-making process.
The State Duma is now considering using public initiatives on major national issues submitted via the Internet as a source of new legislation. If a draft bill is supported by 100,000 web votes, it will then be discussed in the State Duma. Right now we are looking into how to put this idea into practice. There are other major proposals as well. We seek to make our society more advanced and more democratic and we intend to be consistent in following this path.
RT: We started off our talk by talking about the forthcoming APEC summit which you are off to very shortly. When you are there you’ll be meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. You won’t be meeting Barak Obama because he’s not there, Hilary Clinton will be. Is that a sign of how he regards APEC? We know he’s busy but is it a sign of how he regards it? And is it a sign that China is increasingly becoming a bigger geopolitical and commercial partner for you?
Putin: China is indeed becoming a global economic and political hub. This is part of a global trend, with new centers emerging on the political and economic landscape. This is an obvious fact for everyone; the question is the pace of change. China has taken up this new leading role not only in Russia’s eyes, but also in the eyes of the whole world. What makes us rather special, however, is that Russia and China are neighbors, and our special relations took thousands of years to evolve to where we are now. We have been through times of sunshine which were very beneficial for both countries. We have also been through periods of gloom and conflict. Presently, Russia-China relations are at an unprecedented high, and we share mutual trust both in politically and economically. Over the coming years we are bound to achieve a 100 bln dollar turnover rate. To put this in perspective, currently Europe makes up 51% of Russia’s foreign trade, which amounts to over 200 bln dollars. That will be a serious push forward.
Our American partners told us long ago that Barack Obama will not attend the summit. The reason is the election race in the U.S., we think it’s okay. The U.S. will still be represented at a high level. So, yes, we’ve known that for several months now, and we fully understand the reasons. Anyway, this will be a great summit, with top officials coming from twenty countries – heads of states and governments. Of course, it’s a pity that the U.S. president cannot come this time, but nothing doing. I think if he really had the opportunity, he would not miss it, because it’s a good event for the U.S. to talk not only with us but also with other Asia-Pacific partners.
Anyway, I met Barack Obama earlier, as I said, in Mexico, and had a chance to discuss our bilateral ties and exchange opinions on the major global issues. So we do continue our dialogue.
RT:Domestically again I’d like to talk about corruption. It’s a word that comes up time and time again here in Russia. You have talked about it before but most notably the previous president was really putting it at the top of his list of thing to sort out. However when Dmitry Medvedev left office as president he reported modest success at tackling it. How serious a problem do you think corruption is here in Russia in 2012 and what are you going to do about it?
Putin: Corruption is a problem for any country. And by the way you will find it in any country, be it in Europe or in the United States. They have legalized many things. Let’s take the private corporate lobby – what is it, is it corruption or not? It’s legalized and so formally is okay, within the law. But that depends on how you look at it. Therefore I will repeat that this problem is an issue for many countries.
More important is the level and scope of corruption. In our case, they are quite high. But this is typical of transition economies. The reason is that while new economic models are evolving many things are not yet adjusted or aligned, and the state is not always in control. There are also value issues, especially when we move from a socialist mindset and planned economy values to eternal values. This is a complicated process, especially if the new market facilitates rapid wealth acquisition for some particular circles or groups of people. This is something that is perceived painfully and with reprehension. The average person then starts thinking: if it is okay for those people to earn billions in a couple of years, why is it not okay for me to do this or that even if it isn’t exactly in sync with the law and moral values?
All this undermines the very foundation of the campaign against corruption. This is a very difficult process. But undoubtedly this is an essential part of our agenda, and we shall continue our efforts in this area.
RT: There are a big list of causes you have cited where do you begin to go about tackling it, and when is there going to be some sort of sea change, when will it get better if you like?
Putin: What we need to start with is to make our entire society detest the very notion of corruption. Corruption is a two-way process, with two sides to it, the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker, and it often happens that bribe-givers are even more active than the bribe-takers. Therefore it is a matter of supporting moral values; it is also a matter of making our law enforcement agencies more efficient and developing a legal framework that minimizes opportunities for corruption. This is a multi-dimensional task, very sensitive and difficult. And we shall work on every aspect of it.
RT: One of the practical ways you are going about it is the new draft law that prevents government officials from opening bank accounts and holding property abroad. I don’t know what you think about that law, but isn’t it possible for someone to use someone else’s account. How are you going to enforce it?
Putin: Of course you could. This bill has not been passed yet, it’s being reviewed by the State Duma. This naturally implies certain limitations for officials, because current legislation allows any Russian citizen to have a foreign bank account or property. Yet, limitations may be introduced for some officials, especially at a high-level. I don’t see anything extraordinary about this, especially in view of today’s realities. But the State Duma will have to present the rationale for their proposal and develop it into a detailed draft law. Overall, I believe this law has value and would assist the fight against corruption to a certain extent. Of course it will, because those people who are willing to commit themselves to serving their country and their people should be willing to agree to such terms – that if they want to have a bank account, it’ll have to be a Russian bank account, or a Russian branch of a bank. Why not? Many overseas banks have branches in Russia. One can keep their accounts here. Why go to Austria or the United States to open an account? If you connect your fate to this country be so kind as to make public your interests here, including financial interests, do not hide your money anywhere.
RT: While we’ve got you with us sir.. I’d like to get your thoughts on the ongoing Julian Assange case in Britain, his legal battle with Britain and with a number of other countries as well but equally his attempts to get asylum in Equador which he’s now got and he’s holed-up in the Ecuadorean embassy. What’s your opinion on Britain’s stance, at one point they were talking about revoking the embassies diplomatic immunity so they could actually go in and get him. That sounds a bit odd when you think that Russia has a number of suspects it would like to talk to there, it’s a kind of topsy turvy situation, but they are given safe harbor in Britain.
Putin: This certainly is an unsettling factor in our relations with the UK. I used to tell my previous counterparts and friends in the British government – not those holding office at the moment – that Britain happens to be harboring certain individuals who have blood on their hands, having waged a real war on Russian territory and slaughtered people. I told them, “Just imagine what it would be like if Russia were to harbour militants from, say, the Irish Republican Army – not those negotiating and pursuing a compromise with the government these days (those are perfectly sane and sensible people), but those with a radical agenda.” You know what I was told in response? “But that’s exactly what the Soviet Union used to do, aiding people like that.”
First of all, I’m a former Soviet secret service operative myself. I don’t know whether the USSR used to aid this sort of people or not, simply because I never had anything to do with it. But even if we assume that it did, that was back in the Cold War era. There has been a cardinal change in the settings, the Soviet Union is history, and what we have today is a new Russia. How can we allow ourselves to be dominated by our old phobias and outdated perceptions of international relations and the kind of relations between our nations? Let them go at last.
We are constantly lectured on how independent Britain’s judiciary is. It makes its own decisions, and no one can influence that. What about Julian Assange? They have ruled to have him extradited. What is it if not an evident example of a double standard? I won’t make a definitive statement, but as far as I know, Ecuador has requested guarantees from the Swedish government that Sweden wouldn’t hand over Assange to the United States. No guarantees have so far been provided. At the very least, this suggests that we are looking at a politically motivated trial.
RT: Ok we’ll be following the developments there…We talked about some of the problems Russia faces, one of the long term problems Russia has been facing is the drugs trade, the import of drugs from Afghanistan. It’s increased many fold since NATO went in a decade ago, now the troops are due out in 2014 what then. Does Russia have any hope you can curb this huge drugs problem?
Putin: So far, it is not being solved. We are constantly engaged in dialogue with our partners, including those nations who have troops deployed in Afghanistan. And yet the situation has not improved – instead, it has deteriorated. The amount of drugs produced in Afghanistan has increased by 60 percent in the past year. By the way, I’m not sure about the exact figures, but some 90 percent of heroin peddled in the UK comes from Afghanistan. This is a common challenge and a common threat for us. For Russia, this is a very serious threat to our national security that cannot be overstated. More than 20 percent of the overall drug traffic coming from Afghanistan is marketed inside Russia. That makes up 70 tons of heroin and roughly 56 tons of crude opium as of last year, which is an immense amount, and it definitely qualifies as a threat to our national security.
RT: Could you explain to our viewers what the correlation was, why did this problem increase when NATO troops were there? Was there any connection? Why was that happening?
Putin: There is an apparent link. I won’t bring up any criminal schemes right now, but none of the nations who are currently committing their troops to Afghanistan want to make matters worse for themselves by combatting drugs in Afghanistan, because drugs are Afghanistan’s way of making a living. Nine percent of that country’s GDP comes from drug trafficking. If you want to replace this 9 percent, you’ll have to pay – but no one wants to. And you cannot get anywhere with mere statements about how you are planning to make up for those drug revenues with some other kinds of income. Talk is not enough – what you need is substantive economic policies and financial assistance. Nobody seems willing to provide that, to begin with. And no one wants to complicate matters for themselves by taking on drug trafficking, because if you take away drug revenues from those people, you effectively compel them to starvation, and that means making even more enemies in Afghanistan: if you go after drugs, people will go after you. That’s all there is to it. Drugs are closely related to terrorism and organized crime, but that is something everybody is aware of already. Everyone knows that drug revenues are partly used to finance terrorism. But even this awareness and the realization that Europe is being flooded with Afghan-made drugs are not enough to encourage our partners to seriously tackle this issue. And this is very sad.
RT: A final thought from you Mr President. While you’ll be talking money and finances at the forthcoming APEC summit that you are going to. Looking at the world economy from where you are generally. Do you think we are heading for a second global slump and if we do is Russia as well prepared to bat it off as it did last time. It did pretty well last time but is it as well prepared this time?
Putin: I believe we are even better prepared because we’ve already experienced the first wave of the crisis, and we have an understanding of what’s to be done about it and how we should do it. And we have the instruments for crisis management. Moreover, I tasked Russia’s previous Cabinet as early as last year with upgrading the already tried and tested instruments, drafting new laws and adjusting our regulations. We requested parliament to assign 200 bln rubles to a government reserve fund – and parliament agreed. Therefore, we are generally equipped for managing a crisis. On top of that, as you know, we have enjoyed fairly strong economic growth, a rate of 4.2 percent, which is highest among the world’s largest economies next to China and India. The euro zone’s average growth rate has been 3.9 percent, while ours was 4.2. By the way, both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are predicting negative growth at minus 0.3 percent for the euro zone next year. This year, we are still counting on positive growth ranging between 4 and 5 percent. That’s precisely why, even if Russia should face economic difficulties, it will have plenty of instruments at hand to deal with the challenge.
We have reinforced our gold and currency reserves, almost bringing them back up to pre-crisis levels. We presently rate third worldwide next to China and Japan with upwards of $500 bln in gold and currency reserves. Parallel to that, the government is rebuilding its own reserves. We have two government reserve funds: the $80-billion National Wealth Fund, and the Reserve Fund with roughly $60 bln, to finance a budget deficit, should we suffer one. But so far, we don’t have a deficit: next year’s budget registers a surplus, slight as it may be. Our unemployment rates are the lowest possible. While unemployment averages 11.2 percent in the euro zone and reaches 25—26 percent in economies such as Spain, topping 70 percent among youth, we maintain an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, which is even below pre-crisis indices. But this doesn’t make us careless and complacent. We are fully aware that the tricky aspect of the global economy is unpredictability, and you can almost never be sure as to where the greatest challenges and threats will emerge from next. That is why we closely follow everything that’s going on in neighboring economies and our partner economies.
We wish them success, and we are honestly willing to assist them as good partners. Because any kind of economic mishap in the euro zone, for instance, is bound to have painful ramifications for us. The euro zone is our major sales market. Should it shrink, our own production will immediately decrease. Therefore, our interest is in seeing the euro zone survive and our main partner-economies get back on track. We need Europe’s leading economies such as Germany, France and Britain to be in good shape. This is something that we’ll always keep an eye on. And this will be a primary topic for discussion at the Vladivostok APEC Summit.
RT: Well we wish you all the very best. President Vladimir Putin, thank you for talking to RT.
Putin: Thank you very much.