Putin answers questions from Time magazine

Time magazine has chosen Vladimir Putin its “Person of the Year” for 2007. Earlier he was interviewed by Time magazine. The Russian President commented on such hot issues as relations between Russia and the U.S., the fall-out of the Iraqi war

On Russia-U.S. relations

On the war in Iraq

On Iran

On the idea of the third term of presidency and PM perspectives

About interference with other countries' internal politics

On the American elections

About Soviet Union heritage

On superpowers

On NATO

On corruption

About role of faith

On Russia-U.S. relations

Time: The first question is something I’m curious about both as a man and as a journalist. You were born in 1946. I was born in 1948. We’re of the same generation. We were both raised during the Cold War with each of our respective countries being held up as spectres of evil empires. Historically Russia and the U.S. seem to find themselves in line together in most big conflicts – World War I, World War II. My question is – with that history in mind, looking forward how do you envisage Russia and the U.S. going forward? How a generation such as ours – the way of thinking that we grew up with – how is that turned to a partnership? What happens generally?

Vladimir Putin: I could not have been born in 1946, because my father was wounded in the war, my mother survived the Leningrad blockade. They had lost two children and could not think of starting to have children straight away. That’s why I was born a little later, in 1952. But that should not change the essence of the issue; the question that you asked is very relevant at this point and for the future.

My answer will be somewhat philosophical, just as your question was. The fact is that Russia and USA were allies in the two major military conflicts in history -World War I and II. So there is some objective reality that unites us in difficult times. I think it’s the geopolitical setting, the geopolitical interests, but there is also some sort of moral aspect in our cooperation, in the most difficult times of the history of our countries. Of course the Cold War period was a tragic stage in our relationship. I would not want to see the rudiments of these former relations today or in the future.

I hope I will not hurt your feelings, you asked me to be honest, and I will be honest with you. I think that in the last decade or may be even in the last 50 years, the American social mentality has been infected with the idea of the exclusive uniqueness of Americans. Maybe there are certain reasons for that, because this is unprecedented in human history. In only 250 years a remote colony turned into a thriving, highly developed, country, one of the leaders today. This says a lot about how gifted the American nation is, and how it has the optimal design in political and economic areas.

But leaders do not usually get special rights, they have special obligations. And if a leader begins to think that he has special rights, he usually loses his leadership position. When we had two major world camps – the Western block with USA as the leader and the Eastern block headed by the Soviet Union, there was a possibility of strict discipline of communication between countries in the framework of block mentality. But now when most of the members of this international fellowship do not feel threatened, this habit of (again, sorry, don’t mean to offend you) of dictating something in international matters is not supported and often is even resisted. Different methods are needed today, different tools of communication, different ways to fight against current threats. Today in order to be successful one needs to be able to negotiate and find compromises. The ability to search for compromises is not some external diplomatic politeness, but respect for the partner’s legal interests. Whenever and wherever we are able to negotiate, whenever and wherever we can find solutions taking the partner’s interests into account, we do it.

For example, North Korea. We decided to be patient and take matters seriously, to begin to consider each other’s interests as well as the subject of our international discussion, North Korea itself. In taking this approach we solved the problem, maybe not completely, but to a great extent.

In cases when we are not guided by these basic principles, and some economic or political selfish interests rule, we cannot find real solutions for current problems. You mentioned one of them, but it’s not just terrorism. By the way, I would not define terrorism as Islamic terrorism. We think, and this is my personal conviction too, that terrorism does not have a national or religious face. Terrorism is international, and people with radical views can be found anywhere, in all countries and all religious faiths. From time to time something calms down, and other things come to the surface. We don’t fight against religious views, we fight against intolerance, no matter what it is clothed in.

So when we consider each other’s interests, we are able to achieve lasting results, but when, sadly, we cannot overcome our political and economic selfishness, we don’t see results. It seems that understanding how important it is to consider each other’s interests as well as other members of the international community, this understanding is now prevailing. I can use the Middle East conference in Annapolis as an example. I am deeply convinced that President Bush took up a huge responsibility, a big burden personally. And I want to congratulate him on this.  I think he did not take this risk in vain. It’s a serious step towards finding a solution to one of the oldest and the hardest problems, settlement solution in the Middle East. We have already done everything we could to support him and will continue to work in this manner.

On the war in Iraq

T.: You were very supportive of the U.S. after 9/11. Your phone call was one of the first that President Bush received. How would you say the U.S. has handled the so-called ‘war on terror’? You mentioned in your previous answer that terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon. But there are those in the U.S. who think that the response to 9/11 should have been more about police action rather than an invasion into another country. How do you think it was a mistake to invade Iraq?

V.P.: Our position on the question of Iraq is well known. From the very beginning I thought that the decision was a mistake. I don’t have any grounds to change that opinion of mine. Quite the opposite – all the train of events of recent years proves we were right. Well, if you look at the world map, Iraq is a rather small territory, especially if you compare it with Russia or the U.S. It seems easy to push down a small country but just look at the splashes. We still don’t know what to do with them. It is a small but very proud nation. Problems which had not been seen before arose. People didn’t treat the occupation as struggle against the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein anymore. They now take it as a personal insult and terrorists play upon that. Iraq didn’t use to have terrorists, now they do! It wasn’t me who brought up this problem. It was you who asked the question and I have to answer because it’s not my style to avoid straight questions. But I think we should talk less about what was done right or what was done wrong. I don’t think it will help improve the situation now. We should think more of what we can do now, in the near future. Generally I agree with President Bush when he says that everything should be done to enable Iraqi government to solve at least their security problems on their own. They need help building their own army, their own security service, police, so it's possible to hand questions on this level over to the Iraqi people. Where we are different fromh George is that he does not find it ossible to name any dates for foreign troop withdrawals from the territory of Iraq. In my opinion, that would a good thing to do. That would make the Iraqi leadership work more actively. Because if they know they will forever have American bayonets behind their backs, some might feel very comfortable under such an American umbrella. But if they know the deadline is defined when American and other troops withdraw, they will know they have to do something now to be prepared for that troop withdrawal. I think that would be right. But in the long run, this is the decision we have to take together at the level of the United Nations Organisation.

On Iran

T.: You undoubtedly followed the revelation by the national intelligence estimate in the U.S. that Iran did not have an active nuclear programme. You had said the same thing months before. What's your theory as to why the U.S. government has revealed this now and does this make any war with Iran less likely?

V.P.: This question needs to be put to the CIA director, as well as to the leading persons of the American administration. They also need to be asked why they destroyed the videotapes carrying terrorism suspects' interrogations. These are not questions to me! These are questions to them! But if you ask me, and you ask whether it lessens the possibility for a military action. If this report of the Central Intelligence Agency is not aimed to distract attention of the Iranian side from real preparations for military actions, which theoretically is also possible and which would be extremely dangerous, I think it would be another very serious mistake – I mean any military action against Iran. Any! And if we take it that the report was published to reflect the objective picture of the ongoing events, then it only supports the reality that when the Russian side expresses its foreign policy stand on this or that question, it is after all based on objective information. This brings nothing to me but joy. It also means that even among the American administration there are people that think they have to tell the truth  and this also brings joy to me. It also means that based on objective data we can build a straightforward dialogue.

On the idea of the third term of presidency and PM perspectives

T.: Some of the American media have portrayed the appointment of Mr Medvedev as President, and that you are likely to become Prime Minister, so that you are in fact trying to succeed yourself. Your term's limited and here’s a way of becoming a so-called national leader. Americans look at that as something that something they don’t quite understand. I know you have recently mentioned Franklin Roosevelt as a model and, of course, Roosevelt did run for the third term, but after that the American presidency was regulated into two terms. A lot of Americans felt like “well, he’s trying to get around that by ensuring the leadership position for himself by making the prime minister’s position strong and the presidency weak”.

V.P.: It would be possible to think in this way if I had changed the Russian Constitution to suit myself, my humble self; if I, for example, removed term limitations, or changed constitutional authorities between the government and the President and moved to the Prime Minister chair myself. I think that both are unacceptable and harmful for Russia. Russia is a country, which just like the United States, needs a balanced, but strong presidential power. I am strongly opposed to infringement of the President’s constitutional rights. I think it would be harmful. I have not personally made this decision yet – whether or not I will take the post of the head of the government. If I do, then my intention is to only execute those responsibilities in the framework of the law and constitution which are ascribed to the head of the Russian government, monitor present-day issues, economic and social problems – health, housing, education, another words – things that concern regular citizens the most. But the key priorities – of a political or administrative nature, or the area of defence and international relations are the President’s jurisdiction. They have to stay within this institution of power.

As far as the national leader, it is not an administrative or even political category. It is not defined by the number of phones on one’s work desk. It’s a moral category. And the foundation for it is people’s trust.

This person bears a great responsibility of making decisions, which might be welcomed with a hurray, but might also be misunderstood or even resisted. But then this person needs to prove trustworthy, to be honest with people, needs to speak bluntly and prove that while these measures might be unpleasant they are necessary, and in the end will bring positive results in the mid- or long-term. But it is important that people believe that this will happen, which means that such a person should never lie. Everyone has the right to make mistakes, but one needs to be transparent in his actions and strive to achieve positive results. And if such dialogue with people is in place, then the leader will be successful.

About interference with other countries' internal politics

T.: I’d like to ask you about American politics, about the presidential election. Is there a candidate that you prefer? Do you think that Hilary Clinton’s view that Senator Obama doesn’t have enough experience is valid? Or his counter argument is that it’s not about experience, it’s about judgement? And do you see anyone on the Republican side, somebody who’s been in American politics for a long time, Senator McCain for example, who could make a good President? You can influence the election!

V.P.: I can see you’ve understood nothing. The main principle of our work is that we consider it harmful to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. We do not let them interfere in our affairs, and will continue to not to allow this, but we do not intend to interfere in the affairs of other countries. You know, it may sound strange but one of my European colleagues said I thought Moscow would support this particular candidate. I was extremely surprised. We don’t do this. We don’t undertake such things, we believe it to be completely improper, and harmful – harmful for us, because if we allow ourselves to do it, then even that person who we would like to see heading this or that particular state would be compromised by this, because the population of this or that country will start to doubt what kind of interests and whose interests govern the activity of this person in a high government position. We don’t have any particular preferences concerning this question and, moreover, I am deeply convinced that whoever is elected to such a high position as President of the United States, of course there will be subtle differences depending on personal preferences, sympathies or antipathies, but the objective course of international affairs, the mutual interests of the United States and Russia will inevitably push both the United States and the Russian leadership into forming a good and favourable partnership with each other. Look what’s happening in the world. New and powerful centres of great economic and therefore political influence are springing up and growing at great speed. The world is changing greatly and in the next 30 to 50 years it will change even more.

India, China, Brazil, South Africa and other countries. Japan is getting stronger. I’m not saying its good or bad, I’m saying it will be different and in this connection I am absolutely convinced that Russia and the United States, not only now, but even more in the future will need each other, and will be forced to maintain good relations. And our future leaders, both Russian and American, who understand this, will be in great demand, and will be successful.

On the American elections

T.: As you know the U.S is going to put the presidential campaign now and every candidate including even the sitting President will envy your popularity ratings in Russia. I think our readers in America and not only in America wonder why the campaign could not have been more open in some ways and they wonder why, for example, Mr Kasparov was put in jail, however briefly, and why someone as you wouldn’t just have the press and the opposition be as open as possible which in the American context would only make you more popular.

V.P.: Why did Kasparov speak English, not Russian, when he was detained? Did you think about that? First of all, because all his thoughts were not the reaction to his own people, but to the West. A person who works to a foreign audience can never be called a political figure in his own country. Because if someone wants to take a leadership position in his country, he must think about the interests of his own people and speak in his native language. As for the detainment – you know everyone was granted a right  to express their own opinions as they will be during the forthcoming presidential campaign. According to law all participants have access to the mass media. Look at some channels – the so-called opposition activists didn't leave the screen on some channels. It is true that on the others there was less of them.

In terms of politics we have no worries, the matter does not lie there, it's here, where people speak English. I see it as a tool of foreign states for interfering into the domestic affairs of Russia. This is what is happening. As for the detainment – I want to repeat once again – everybody, whose opinion differs on this question or that, was given and will be given the opportunity to express their opinion publicly. The question is they do not just want to express their opinion, they want to be detained, they want to provoke authorities into some serious actions. And I tell you with full responsibility the authorities will continue to react in the same way. But if people act within the law, and don't break it, but will run into obstacles fulfilling their constitutional rights, then we will punish those who put up such obstacles. We will punish those authorities who prevent them from fulfilling their constitutional rights.

Envy is a bad feeling and it causes bad reactions. You just need some sober analysis of what is going on and a corresponding sober reaction. We rely on exactly this very type of reaction in future. I do not want to insult anybody but let's go back in time to see that already the first election of the incumbent president was not without difficulties. Basically the future of the presidency was decided in court! Not by a direct vote! Here in Russia we have a direct secret vote! A direct vote on the head of the state! You have it through the institute of electoral college. And as far as I remember, behind the electors who voted for the incumbent president there were fewer voters! Isn’t that a system error of American electoral law? And I want to direct your attention that at the end of the 18th century there was another such precedent in the history of the American people. Still we don’t make you change your laws! It’s a sovereign right of the American people, the law-makers. Why do you think you have a right to interfere in our matters! This is the main problem in our relations. Because in the recent years we have been hearing: we are waiting for you, we are ready to accept you into our family, into our civilised western family. But first, how come you decided your civilisation is the best? There are some much more ancient civilisations than the American one. And second – we are told or rather we get a hint, they make us understand, they whisper into our ear, that we are ready to accept you, but keep in mind, we have a patriarchal family, and we are the adults here, and you should listen to us! That is the continuation of the answer to the first question of your colleague. In the modern world there is no place for such relations.  This mindset must die away. A totally new system of relations must come to replace it. Not just caring for the interests of the others, but working out some unified rules – which is called international law and to strictly follow those rules. In the long run that’s the only thing that can provide stability in the world and protect the interests not only of small countries, but of big ones too, even of such superpowers like the U.S.

About Soviet Union heritage

T.: You have a most interesting position having grown up in the Soviet Union system. What are the things to be preserved from the old Soviet Union and what are the things Russia needs to learn to grow beyond where it was?

V.P.: First of all, you are absolutely right. Russia is an ancient country with great, ancient, deep traditions and a great moral foundation.This foundation is the love towards the motherland – it’s patriotism. Patriotism in its best sense. By the way, to a great extent this characterises the American nation as well. What do we absolutely need to get rid of? We need to get rid of that period in our Soviet history, when we tried to lead the world socialist and communist revolution and become world leaders in this movement. When we tried to dictate to other countries how they should live. I think not only the Soviet Union made this mistake, but it was obvious in the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly we need to get rid of this. I think whatever is possible we should keep. And what needs to be developed? We need to develop respect for our own history, regardless of all its problems, and love for the fatherland. We need to protect moral values to the greatest extent and consolidate our society on this basis. I consider this an absolute priority.

On superpowers

T.: Where do you see Russia’s place in the geopolitical order thirty to fifty years from now? During the cold war there were two superpowers, at the end of it there was one. Some call America a hyperpower but with the rise of China, all the stakes seem to be changing.

V.P.: You see you can’t somehow can’t get away from the Cold War period and the superpower way of thinking. I just said that the Soviet Union wanted to be the leader of a worldwide communist revolution, and we do not need this. This was a big mistake and we don’t want to repeat their mistakes in the future. We don’t want to order anyone around, we don’t want to be a superpower which domineers and gets involved in decisions. But we want to have enough power to defend ourselves, to defend our interests and to build good enough relations with our neighbours and with our partners so that these partners can also have an interest in the development and strengthening of the Russian Federation. This is not an easy task, and it is possible only through the consolidation of Russian society itself and increasing its economic opportunities. These will be our tasks in the short and long terms, and if we carry out these tasks then Russia’s rightful place in the world is guaranteed.

I think the U.S. already understands and in future will understand even more that only a strong Russia can respond to the core interests of the United States.

On NATO

T.: Could you speak for a moment about NATO? What is its purpose today? If Russia were invited to join it, would it do so?

V.P.: I wouldn’t say that NATO is the stinking corpse of the Cold War. But it is undoubtedly something that we have inherited from the past. There is no point in pretending otherwise. First, NATO was created – lets remember the history – and then, in answer to this, the Warsaw Pact was created. Two military-political and opposing blocs were created. If we are talking about the fact that we should introduce not only a new structure, but new principles into international life, if we are talking about the fact that we need to search for mutual understanding and compromises based on respect of each others wishes within a multi-polar world, then such organisations are not a universal instrument for solving today’s problems.

How can NATO combat terrorism? Did NATO stop the terrorists on the September 11 from launching a strike against the United States? Where was your NATO to block this threat, to liquidate it, to protect America from it? Where was it? It wasn’t there. It’s not there. And it can’t be there because such threats can only be combated by increasing trust towards one another and by working on an everyday basis with those players who are capable of blocking such threats. One of those players, one of those partners is, without a doubt, Russia.

Russia does not intend to join military-political blocs in order to limit its sovereignty, because participation in such a bloc undoubtedly does limit sovereignty. But we would like to have good relations not only with the United States, but with all countries, including the countries in NATO, and with the organisation itself. On the whole, NATO of course can be an instrument of international politics, which can help resolve certain problems. But I think that within the organisation there is a lot that also needs to change. It’s no longer possible to force someone into a military regime, or drive them into a corner, because today the situation is different. If before the United States shouldered a greater burden, and left itself open even to danger in protecting the Western world from the threat of the Soviet Union, then today there is no such threat, because there is no Soviet Union. Therefore, within the organisation it is necessary to build relations according to different principles. As far as fighting crime, and the issue of drugs, which cause real harm in our countries, with terrorism, with organised crime, with poverty last but not least, which is one of the sources of terrorism – for this we need to work together on a much wider scale than just one military political organisation.

On corruption

T.: Mr President, you mentioned organised crime. One of the perceptions that Americans have about Russia is that corruption is endemic here in many ways and that it has been an obstacle to you. How do you handle and control that?

V.P.: We are dealing with the issue poorly. Our control in this area is weak. But I have to tell you, and this is not new to you either, that in a transitional economy and also in the conditions of rebuilding a political system, of course it is harder to solve such issues because we don’t see a proper response from civil society. I have to admit there is no civil society control system in place nor control over state institutions. We now have greater possibilities from the standpoint of material resources, buying things from certain people and companies. But the income level in the state service sphere does not correspond with the wide range of decisions that the workers make. So, on the one hand they have their salary, and the importance of the decisions that they make on the other hand and these do not correspond. The social mentality still does not comprehend the fact that the work of state workers who manage multi-billion-dollar projects has to be rewarded accordingly, so that they are not tempted. So all of this together, as well as giving more opportunities to media, all of this together is one of the tasks that we are planning. But I am absolutely convinced that as we strengthen the political system and civil society, improve market relations, including making federal decisions when managing economy, these problems we will also be solved and more effectively than today.

About the role of faith

T.: One of the issues that is being discussed in our presidential election is the role of faith in government. One of the old stereotypes that Americans have about Russia, and certainly about the U.S.S.R., is that it was a godless country. You have talked about your own faith. What role does faith play in your own leadership and what role should faith play in government and in the public sphere?

V.P.: In answering administrative questions and the formulation of administrative tasks, we should always of course, first and foremost, be governed by good sense. But this good sense should be based on moral principles. There are no – and can be no morals and morality in today’s world - which are separate from religious principles. And that is all I want to say. I could say more, but I am going to stop here, because I do not want to assert my point of view to those people who have a different opinion. They have their right to their own opinions.