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From the fall of the US to the fate of the tigers – Putin’s Q&A covers it all

Published time: December 29, 2009 10:14
Edited time: December 29, 2009 10:14

Global and local, public and personal – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s annual televised live call-in show with Russian citizens broke time records and touched upon a wide range of issues.

In the light of the recent attack on a train which shook the country and claimed the lives of 26 people, terrorism was unsurprisingly the first matter the Prime Minister was asked to elaborate on.

Vladimir Putin said Russia is determined to fight this plague and do its best for the security of the people.

“We’ve always said that the threat of terrorism is still great. Throughout the world we are still encountering acts of terrorism. Our country was no exception; it also suffered from international terrorism, especially in the mid-1990s. We’ve already done a lot to break the back of terrorism, but the threat has not been removed completely,” Putin said.

Watch Vladimir Putin's Q&A session.

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He stressed that society has to realize the threat, which has been with Russia for years and “be vigilant and pursue large-scale preventative work.”

Vladimir Putin’s first live Q&A session took place in 2001, during his first presidency.

This year’s Q&A session lasted 4 hours – the longest one thus far.

Vladimir Putin answered 80 questions.

This year’s session received more than 2 million questions.

Questions were received via telephone, internet and sms texts.

The prime minister noted that eliminating terrorism is not an easy task in Russia: “We have a vast territory in Russia and the installations, and infrastructure. We must act efficiently in combating terrorism – the security services realize what I’m talking about here. We must give them credit: the Interior Ministry quite often achieves their objectives in this respect.”

However, according to Putin the tragedy of the “Nevsky Express” train indicates that the work in this particular direction must be upgraded.

“We must act with firmness and resoluteness against people who attempt to kill people – we have enough of this firmness and resoluteness.”

Prime Minister Putin stated that despite tension in some areas of the North Caucasus, he did not expect a war to break out. “No, certainly not. There will not be a war in the Caucasus,” he said.

Yet Putin admitted that the situation in the region was difficult primarily due to the presence of gangs and socio-economic problems. "The situation (in the North Caucasus) is difficult, various illegal armed units and extremist groups are operating there and tend to feel invulnerable," Putin said. “We will fight them mercilessly, till their complete annihilation.”

Putin also emphasized that many problems in the region stemmed from poor socio-economic conditions that required attention. He underlined the need to "create high-paid jobs” and fight corruption that “exceeds the general state level.”

Crisis – overcome or not?

Another issue that is on everyone’s lips at the moment is the global financial crisis. Prime Minister Putin reassured the audience saying that “the peak of the crisis has been overcome”.

Although according to him the turbulent phenomena both in Russian and world economy are still present.

“And the way out of the crisis will require from us time, effort and massive funds,” Putin said.

“Certain experts expected that the drop of GDP would be 10%, but it happened to be less 8.5-8.7%. That's still a lot – the drop in industrial output will reach about 13%.”

At the same time he noted that the country “is coping with the problems”. This year there has been growth in several spheres, including the agriculture and space industries:

“But in those branches of industry, which the state considers its direct responsibility, we are observing a more-or-less acceptable level. In the defense industry the output will rise 3.7%. In certain branches – like the space missile industry – there is a 13% growth, although it has problems, which we are monitoring.”

According to Putin, the Russian government has "ambitious plans for the development of nuclear power engineering." He noted that during the Soviet period, 35-38 nuclear power units were built, while today 30-32 nuclear power units are in the pipeline for the coming 10 years.

"This calls for enormous investments, and the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy has the money for that," he said.

With regard to the economic crisis, Putin received several questions about the so-called monocities – single-industry towns.

Last summer and autumn were marked by protests in the town of Pikalevo in Russia’s northern Leningrad region. Many of its 22,000 residents, employed at the city’s three main plants, were supposed to be laid off, which resulted in mass rallies. Prime Minister Putin made a visit there, ordering some drastic measures to be taken.

During the Q&A session, Vladimir Putin told Pikalevo residents that he is monitoring the situation and is going to meet the region’s governor to discuss the overall strategy for the development of the city and its industry.

WTO – strategic goal

One of the rather popular questions received via SMS and web regarded Russia’s accession to the WTO.

Putin called it Russia’s strategic goal adding though: “We have the impression that, for unknown reasons, certain people in the US are obstructing our entry to WTO.”

One of the obstacles for Russia’s joining the organization is the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment to the US Constitution, designed to restrict exports from the Soviet Union and some other countries.

The Prime Minister called the law “an anachronism”:

“The Jackson-Vanik amendment was introduced back in the Soviet time and it was connected to the US bringing in economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, as a reaction to Soviet restrictions on Jewish people moving to permanent residence to Israel.

As we all understand, today there are no restrictions whatsoever, and the Soviet Union doesn’t exist, but the amendment is still there – it is obviously an anachronism, which the representatives of different lobbying groups in US Congress are trying to use in quite selfish economic interests, like those connected with increasing quotas on US poultry meat. […] Such are the realities of today, and we are compelled to live with them.”

Goodwill towards Bush and US

Despite all the disagreements between the two countries which blossomed during George W Bush’s time in the office, Vladimir Putin had a lot of good things to say about his former colleague.

Cordiality and mutual affection helped the two former presidents maneuver through situations of conflict between the two countries, noted the Russian prime minister. While Putin doesn’t have contacts with the former American leader, he said he would be pleased to do so if the opportunity arises.

The PM was also asked if Russia will help the US after it falls apart, and Putin warned:

“If this happens it will also affect us, as the US is a great economic power and one of our biggest partners. It’s not good to wish problems upon another country. It would be better to live in a favorable world than in a world of catastrophes.”

The issue of neighbors

Russia’s relations with its neighbors could not be overlooked either.

“The main priority for us is to integrate with the post-Soviet space. That is why we are happy about the processes that are going on with the formation of the customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. But after the organizing the customs union, after it is established, there is a new quality we can come up with: we are joining the WTO together with this customs union, coordinating our positions with our partners in the customs union.”

Answering the question as to why he doesn’t respond to harsh criticism coming from Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko,” Putin began with a joke. "Perhaps, this is the expression of love?" the premier said. “We have very warm feelings towards all Belarusian people, the entire country of Belarus.”

“Of course, the Belarusian authorities would like to have more from us,” he went on.

Putin reminded the audience “that the year before the last, we gave Belarus a $1.5 billion loan, a $1 billion loan last year, and a $5 billion loan this year”. There was also a loan from Gazprom, he added.

As for Belarusian exports to Russia, they include meat, about 80 per cent of dairy products and a large amount of agricultural machinery. Belarus gets discount Russian oil, and buys it for “the lowest price in the world except for Russia”.

“In other areas of our cooperation, say social sphere, we treasure them a lot,” he said. “But, I repeat, the Belarusian leadership wants to get more. Perhaps it is possible, but I firmly believe this: it has to be in sync with the integration process in the Union State. The deeper the integration is, the more possibilities we’ll have to offer Russian prices for Belarus both for energy carriers and other things as well,” the premier said.

“Recently our Belarusian colleagues asked us to keep prices at the same level as this year. Even though we had signed a contract beforehand and it says the price should go up. It’s a slight increase, but still it’s an increase. The same applies to loans; our experts believe the loans we have offered are sufficient. Especially since Belarus receives support from the International Monetary Fund. And it’s the fund that Russia sends its money to. We always emphasize that this money should be used to support our neighbors,” Putin said.

Relations with Ukraine have also come into the spotlight. Despite the recent hostility that has strained cooperation between the two countries, Prime Minister Putin reassured the public that the situation will improve.

“Russia and Ukraine are first and foremost people and not simply territories or natural resources,” said Putin. “So many ties from the past, the present, and – I am confident – the future connect us.”

Putin insisted on the inviolability of Russia-Ukraine relations and blamed the recent antagonism on particular individuals among Ukraine’s authorities who “use difficult aspects and problems of the past and present [solely] for personal benefit.”

The prime minister also denied suggestions of his involvement in the presidential campaign currently underway in Ukraine.

“I don’t support Yulia Timoshenko in the election. We cooperate with her as the prime minister of the Ukrainian government. We have a large sphere of cooperation, a joint work plan, and we are following it,” he said.

He added that Russia also has good partisan relations with the Ukrainian Party of Regions. The party is headed by Timoshenko’s key rival in the campaign, Viktor Yanukovich.

******************************

Despite the fact that Putin devoted attention to global matters and issues related to the foreign policy of the country, it was domestic concerns that dominated the discussion.

Yukos case

Answering one of the questions about the fate of the former head of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin said that the man was serving his sentence in accordance with a court ruling.

“The well-known person involved in the case [Khodorkovsky] is in prison under a court decision. The important thing is not when he will be released – the essential issue is to assure that such crimes are not repeated. In this case we are talking about economic crimes.”

Putin said that the Yukos management was also involved in killings.

“Nobody recalls that one of the Yukos security service heads is in jail. Do you think he was acting at his own discretion and risk? He did not have concrete interests; he was not a shareholder. It is clear that he acted in the interests of the owners. And what are his actions? In this case there are at least five proven murders.”

In this respect, the prime minister also said that the money gained from selling the company has been used in the creation of a 240 billion ruble fund for communal services.

“Ten million people have already felt the results of this fund’s work, whose houses and flats have been repaired. Another 150,000 will be moved to new houses from slums,” Putin explained.

“If this money was once stolen from people, it must be returned to them directly. Not to some abstract people but some concrete persons who have found themselves in the most difficult situations,” he added.

Continuous battle with corruption

The summer closure of Eastern Europe’s largest market was another question that concerned many. It was obvious to many enquirers that such an enterprise would be unable to work without the support of corrupt officials.

Despite the market’s having shut down, the corrupt partnership survived in other places. Another enterprise owned by the Cherkizovsky Market’s proprietor – luxurious Mardan Palace Hotel in Turkey was labeled “a monument to Russia’s corruption” in one of the questions.

“If the illegal partnership lives, we will continue working on this matter. As for the hotel in Turkey – by itself I don’t see anything criminal in building it, so long as the investment is done according to law. However, if there are resources for investment, it would be a good idea to invest them inside Russia, creating more jobs and a wider tax base. For example, nobody prohibited building hotels in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Regarding all the rest – any suspicions in smuggling or corruption have to be proved in court first,” Putin said, proceeding afterwards to bring about the issue of a lack of efficiency in combating corruption.

“We will continue to combat corruption. Russia’s President has spoken about this many times. Though this is a very deep-routed problem, Russia is not unique in suffering from it, as it affects most countries with transition economies, because there are plenty of grey areas not covered by law. Yes, our battle with corruption is not efficient, but we have certain results, and if we consistently work hard on it, the efficiency will pick up. On the contrary if we do nothing, the problem will persist.”

Police crimes

In recent months Russia has seen several scandals related to corruption in police, and even crimes committed by police officers. One of them took place in April, when Major Denis Yevsyukov went on a shooting massacre in a Moscow supermarket, killing three and injuring six.

When asked about the problems within the Interior Ministry, Putin pointed out that the response to crimes should be tough but “it is unacceptable to paint all policemen black”:

“Our neighbors in Ukraine have had such an experience. They liquidated the road police, but nothing good came out of it. They got more bribery and less order on the roads after the functions of road police were passed on to other departments, who were not ready for the job.”

National defense industry on the rise

Russians involved in the country’s defense industry have been worried by the reports that Russia is planning to buy foreign military equipment, particularly speaking about the possible purchase of the French Mistral helicopter carrier. The final decision about the deal hasn’t been made yet, Vladimir Putin said, adding that the national defense industry complex is doing pretty well. But problems still exist, the Prime Minister noted.

“The defense industry complex has produced rather good figures,” Vladimir Putin said. “But many problems remain. We are engaged in working to analyze all branches of it. There are many problems connected with technological renovation of our leading enterprises, because using old equipment dating back to the 1950s, we won’t be able to produce modern combat equipment in order to ensure the defensive capacity of the country.”

However, Russia doesn’t need to purchase foreign armament to ensure its defense security, Putin underscored. He pledged to favor offers from national defense enterprises when solving the country’s defense industry-related issues.

Lamborghinis no different to gold teeth

A phone call from Tatarstan raised another recent controversy: the road accident near Lake Geneva.

People who got rich during the turbulent 1990s or later – of course we cannot blame all successful businessmen. But there is a term for it – nouveau riche. People who got rich quickly and cannot use their money properly, they boast of it. During the Soviet period, some people boasted of their richness by putting in golden teeth, especially at the front. Today’s people with Lamborghinis and other expensive fripperies are no different from them,” Putin said notably mispronouncing the name of the car brand.

Personal concerns

The prime minister received numerous questions concerning low salaries and pensions, and affordable housing. Most of them dealt with the concrete personal problems of those calling.

However, there were some anxious about other people’s needs and difficulties.

One pensioner was anxious about the fate of an old woman living near the railroad in the Tver region where the “Nevsky Express” derailment occurred.

This old lady greatly helped the rescue team, saving people injured in the incident.

I saw a lot of men by her falling fence. Now that they have gone, what is going to happen with the old lady, her fence and the house?” the question was put.

Putin assured that the 78-year-old woman will be alright.

The head of Russian Railroads has already met her,” Putin said. “This woman will get a life pension from the company, in addition to the pension of 4,000 rubles she is getting now.”

Her house will also be restored, the prime minister informed.

President again?

Prime Minister Putin had also to answer a long expected question whether he is considering running for president again in 2012.

"I will think about it. There is still time," he said.

"Everyone of us should perform his duty,” added the Prime Minister, “We should work effectively and, depending on the economic and social situation, the corresponding decisions will be made regarding the election campaign 2012…The biggest mistake would be to devote the time needed to solve current problems to the interests of the future election campaigns.”

The prime minister once again assured that his working relations with President Medvedev are good.

“We’ve known each other very well for many years. We studied at the same university, learning from the same teachers, who not only gave us knowledge, but also similar attitude to life,” he said.

Good personal relations make their working relations more efficient, Putin added.

Wildlife warrior

The question about why Vladimir Putin looks happier when being pictured with animals, than when he’s with his ministers allowed the PM to address the problems of ecology.

He cited a famous phrase: “The more I know people the more I like dogs,” but added that it had nothing go do with his relations with the cabinet.

”I just like animals,” he said. “There are a lot of endangered species in the world and we have to attract attention to the Amur tigers, for example. There are approximately 500 specimens left of them. And the Far East leopards are in an even worse condition. Specialists say there are only 50 or 60 left and they are being killed just for the fun of shooting.”

The prime minister also talked about the program of protecting the white whales and polar bears. He also shared plans to restore the population of snow leopards, extinct in the Caucasus, confined to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

“I encourage everyone to work voluntarily in the direction of protecting nature and animals,” he concluded.

Olympian benefits

Speaking about Sochi the PM said that the city and the whole of Russia have already benefited from the decision to host the Olympics in the city in 2014.

“We have almost completed the road around Sochi. There was no normal water supply no normal sewers – everything was dumped into the city in Russia’s major resort city. Now we have taken care of all this. We built a power station and we’ll have another one soon… And, frankly speaking, this wouldn’t have been done unless we were having such an occasion. And our country wouldn’t get a resort of such level.”

Putin said the same thing applies to the World Cup 2018, because if Russia wins the bid, it will be easier to organize the national resources to put infrastructure in hosting cities.

Reaching out to the younger ones

Explaining why he recently visited a hip-hop battle on one of the music channels, Putin said he didn’t do it for ratings.

“First of all, this program was initiated by the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation and sponsored from the federal budget as a campaign dedicated to tackle smoking, drugs and alcoholism,” the PM outlined.

“To make it look as though young people who are involved in break dancing and hip-hop and other types of modern art do not exist is a great error. We must work with them too. When I was visiting the show, I felt real sympathy towards these young people, not only those performing – the artists on stage did a good, professional job – but to the boys and girls in the audience. They are very young and also very trusting people, and for them it’s very important what their idols are saying. And it’s important for us to tune into those idols to do positive work,” he added.

Putin’s friend

The Q&A session wasn't all serious business. Some interactions made the public and even the prime minister smile.

Not everybody can brag about having a president or a prime minister among his friends. Aleksandr Astrakhantsev from Komsomolsk-on-Amur is one of the few.

During a live talk-session with Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr reminded the prime minister of their meeting in May of 2009. Aleksandr was then one of a group of workers who were lucky enough to talk to the head of the Russian government. Putin was visiting the Amur Shipbuilding Plant, which had been renationalized for a token sum and was to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid.

Aleksandr Astrakhantsev said that since former Russian President Vladimir Putin invited him to take part in the conversation he’s been nicknamed “Putin’s friend” among his colleagues.

When will you quit?

Dinar, from the southern Russian city of Kransdonar, surprised the prime minister with a straightforward question about when Vladimir Putin is planning to quit politics, so that Dinar could take over the office.

Vladimir Putin replied laughingly, “Not in this lifetime. But if you have a desire to work together, we can discuss your proposal and offer you a good job to realize your potential.”

Not-so-serious matters

The call-in show revealed that Vladimir Putin is unaware of the jokes made up about him. When asked about whether his subordinates tell him funny stories about himself, he said:

“No, they don’t. My friends try, but my subordinates don't. They don’t tell me any jokes.”

The prime minister couldn’t find the answer for the question: “Why do great people go through depression?”

“I don’t consider myself to be in the category of great people. That’s why I don’t have problems of depression,” he said.

There was also a question sent by SMS saying “Do you skip stupid questions?” And after a small pause Putin addressed its author asking him, in which category he would put his own question.

“We’ve came here to discuss serious questions,” he explained.

A 54-year-old woman didn’t have any questions, but just asked Putin to congratulate her on her upcoming birthday, which the Prime Minister did “from the bottom of his heart.”

He also promised to put computers into a village school saying; “I will, of course, help you because you managed to reach me.”

Another caller wanted to know whether Vladimir Putin would like to live forever and “go into eternity as a citizen of planet Earth.”

“I am proud to be the citizen of Russian Federation. That’s quite enough for me,” was Putin’s response to the last question of the session.

Read also – Putin Is a Very Good Psychologist for the Masses

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