Interview with Aleksey Pushkov
Russia Today: Economic issues seemed to dominate the session. Is Vladimir Putin's confidence there will not be a recession in Russia justified?
Aleksey Pushkov: I think it is fully justified because for the last 4 or 5 years the country has been developing at a high rate. The usual rate was between six and seven per cent of economic growth per year which is an impressive figure. Russia was included by all international observers in the new group of quickly developing economies – the Chinese, the Indian, the Brazilian. In my opinion, there are no dramatic factors which can prevent Russia from keeping the same or even achieving higher rates of growth in the coming years. This year it was 7.7 %.
RT: There was a lot of talk on clamping down on corruption. How does Mr Putin plan to deal with this?
A.P.: He was not very specific on this issue. He praised Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov very much who, according to Mr Putin, has done a lot to fight corruption. But I think that this struggle is yet to be developed. As I heard in November, the Security Council will discuss the creation of a new specialised to fight corruption. And I think, maybe after this meeting which is being prepared now, more practical steps will be taken.
RT: Mr Putin promised major improvement to Russia's armed forces – how much does this have to do with international issues such as missile defence and NATO expansion?
A.P.: I think that Russia is rebuilding its military forces which sank very deep in Boris Yeltsin's presidency to such an extent that it even provoked some fears in the adjacent states and the U.S. whether Russia is able to control its nuclear forces, for instance. So, I believe that now those fears are gone because Russia is in full control of its military. We had also some dramatic stories like the Kursk submarine sinking and some other incidents that showed that the military should be approached with much more attention and much more money. These days the Russian currency reserves are the third in the world after those of Japan and China, that is $US 424 billion, which is an impressive sum of money. About $US160 billion are in the so-called stabilisation fund. So, I think Russia is in a position to start re-arming its military forces with modern armours, enlarging the officers' and military pensioners' fees and creating a new type of army. In Soviet times there was in a rather high social position. In Russia it has descended very low, all the prestige of serving in the army has gone. Now the President is restoring the moral factor and the economic basis around the army. I think we have enough resources to do this. And I also believe that a strong army in Russia is not just important for Russia itself, it just shows that on this huge territory that Russia occupies all the weaponry is under tough control, that it will not go abroad to some terrorist groups. So, a strong Russian army is in the interests of other states as well.
RT: The President's comment that the U.S. should set a date to withdraw troops from Iraq has attracted the attention of Western media. How can you comment on this?
A.P.: It was no secret that Mr Putin was opposed to the war in Iraq and he was, I guess, the first country leader to call George Bush and tell him – 'I think you are making a mistake'. The Russian President did not give up this position within the last years; he still considers it a mistake. I suppose, it is also a part of a diplomatic game. The U.S. are criticising Russia on Iran, for instance, on supplying the armaments to Syria. In my opinion, the Russian leader has been very polite and very politically correct for several years – he was not commenting on America's war in Iraq. But when he is being attacked by some American diplomats, when the U.S. say they will right now start building the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic – I think Mr Putin wants to counter this with some kind of criticism and say that not only the U.S. criticises Russia on certain issues but that Russia is also critical of the U.S. foreign policy. I think it was just to redress the balance a bit. The last talks with Condoleezza Rice in Moscow were not very successful, and I think the U.S. will go on with its AMB plans in Europe. I guess Mr Putin just wanted to make a point that the U.S. are failing in Iraq, that it is time to change the policy, that Russia is still against this war. I think it is a part of the debate which is going on between the American and the Russian sides on how foreign policy should be conducted.
RT: This Q&A session is the last for Vladimir Putin in the capacity of the President, and the number of the questions broke all previous records. How does this reflect on Putin's popularity, and the tough task facing the next president?
A.P.: I think that the number of questions reflects a very high level of his popularity, if he was not popular there would be very few questions. People think that asking questions to him they can really motivate him for solving the issues they are bringing up. I also believe that in Russia a lot of things really depend on Mr Putin's popularity and actually hang on his popularity. And the day when he is gone the next president may face a lot of issues because a lot of positive changes have taken place in Russia, but we should take into account the very low level from which Russia has to rise and there are a lot of problems which have not yet been resolved. Will the next president be able to gain such a popularity which would allow him to solve the problems with no social unrest to occur, and will Mr Putin have to help him from his new position in the future – this remains to be seen.