“Everything’s ready for Customs Union” – Medvedev

Ahead of meeting the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan on Friday, when a long-awaited deal on the Customs Union is expected to be signed, President Medvedev has given his first-ever interview to Belarusian media.

RT presents the transcript of the meeting with journalists.

Dmitry Medvedev: Shall we start? Let me say a few words first. It seems to me we don’t come together often enough, and that’s not good. Unfortunately, our people often get the information that should be available to them, through other sources. Taking into account how close our two countries are and given the fact that we have the Union State, I think it is very important for state leaders to have regular meetings with the media. Mr. Lukashenko set a good example in this regard; he does it regularly, and I think he does it frankly – and effectively. Therefore, I think we should also fill this void. And I think such meetings—once again, considering how close our countries are—should be both substantial and regular.

So, I invite you all to ask questions. That’s all I wanted to say. Let’s get started.

Let’s do it this way. For our meeting to be democratic—and we are people of democratic convictions—I won’t point fingers at anybody, telling who should speak next. How about we just go around the table clockwise? Perhaps we could start here, on this side. Please.

Pavel Tukhto: Mr. Medvedev, let me start by thanking you. This is the first time a Russian president is meeting with Belarusian journalists. And I’m sure everybody else in this room feels the same way. Before I ask my question, I’d like to bring up one minor point. Our country is called Belarus—that’s how you spell it: seven letters, the fourth one is A. That’s how our country is called in the UN, and that’s the name the Moscow Institute of Russian Language recommends using. Perhaps you might want to follow their recommendations. All politicians and government officials in Russia—

Dmitry Medvedev: Who are you talking about now—me or other members of the Russian establishment? Because the name I use is the one that is used in the UN. But perhaps there are some cases—

Pavel Tukhto: Some call it the old way—Belorussia, which is not right. Now to questions. My question is about politics. Belarus will soon have an election. Some politicians are supported by the West; others seem to be backed by Russia. Recently, there was a kind of get-together arranged in the State Duma for Russian politicians to meet some Belarusian opposition leaders. What do you think of this, I guess I might say, meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state?

By the way, one of our opposition leaders announced that, after your meeting with the Belarusian media, you are expected to receive Belarusian opposition activists in the Kremlin. He said this to the Russian media. Are you going to have such a get-to-know-you meeting?

Dmitry Medvedev: Well, you know, Belarus—and I insist on this version of our brotherly nation’s name—is indeed an independent state, a sovereign state, with all the attributes of an independent state. Therefore, your political life has its own scenario. This scenario has nothing to do with us. But it matters to us what is going on in your country. And of course we follow closely your political processes, because Belarus is our neighbour, a country we have a Union Treaty with, a country whose people are dear to us. Our economies are closely interrelated. So, whichever way you look at it, Belarus is a territory, a state, which has fundamental ties with our country.

But I’d like to emphasise once again: everything that takes place in your country happens according to Belarusian laws, Belarusian regulations, Belarusian constitution.

As for meetings between politicians, there’s nothing wrong with that. When foreign leaders come to our country, they have meetings with our opposition, whether we like it or not. There are some things I don’t like. But they regularly invite Russian opposition leaders to get a fuller picture of Russian politics. I think there is nothing wrong with that at all—even if during such meetings they say some uncomplimentary things about the authorities or about me personally. And I think all other countries should do the same. There is absolutely no way you can describe this as meddling in someone’s internal affairs. Meddling in internal affairs is when a foreign state tries to control the political process in a country. We never harboured any such goals—and, anyway, this would be impossible. Belarusian voters themselves decide who they like; they vote accordingly, and as a result, you have a certain political layout, and a certain political leader comes to power.

As for politicians’ contacts with the media, I believe this can only be positive. You said yourself that this is the first such meeting. I hope it won’t be the last one.

Ulyana Boboyed: Many in our country believe that Russia is putting pressure on Belarus to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Is it so? Please explain why our country needs to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Will this change anything?

Dmitry Medvedev: I never asked the Belarusian leader or any other Belarusian government official to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia in our official or private contacts. I never suggested to the Belarusian president anything of the kind—directly or indirectly. I think all speculations on the subject are totally groundless. They resemble attempts to bargain: “Whoever offers us more, whoever helps us more, that’s who we shall side with.”

I have more than once presented Russia’s position on the recognition of two new subjects of international law. We did this ourselves. It was a very difficult choice for us—a very difficult choice. We made it only after Georgia launched its aggression against these two territories, which were unrecognized autonomies at the time. We did it to protect the people living there, including Russian citizens, and to prevent similar conflicts in the future.

As for all the other distinguished members of the international community, they need to decide for themselves whether they want to recognise these new territorial entities as subjects of international law or not. This fully applies to Belarus, among others.

Therefore, this is an internal affair. We never spoke about this. I think any talk about Russia putting pressure on Belarus, demanding that Belarus recognize these two territories as subjects of international law and establish diplomatic ties with them, is inaccurate or even provocative. I repeat, I think the reason behind this is that somebody is trying to haggle to get a better deal through some of their other international contacts.

I have never asked for it and never will, because it’s none of my business. It’s up to the other states to decide whether they do it or not.

I’ll be frank with you: perhaps it would be better for Russia if these new subjects of international law are recognised by a larger number of countries—just because this would make it easier for these states to develop—develop their economies, improve the quality of life for their citizens. But we never meddle in these processes. We never try to dictate. This is simply against international law.

So, it’s your internal affair. On the other hand, I have heard Mr. Lukashenko say more than once that Belarus will definitely consider this matter and most probably will recognize these republics, but it needs to do so independently, without external influence. I think this is a right way to approach the issue. It is totally fair. Let Belarus decide for itself. Let the president decide whether he needs it or not. That’s what I think.

Marina Zolotova: Tut.by web portal, Marina Zolotova. As you know, the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are expected to sign the documents on the Customs Union in Minsk on Nov. 27. However, on Nov. 17, Aleksandr Lukashenko said publicly he doubted that Belarus would benefit from this union. In particular, our president is concerned about export tariffs on Russian oil and the issue of uniform pricing for natural gas. What was your reaction to this statement by Lukashenko and how will it affect your plans to visit Minsk? Are you going to adjust your plans?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, we do our best not to change our plans. Personally, I try not to adjust my plans because of somebody’s opportunistic statements. Moreover, I think sometimes people pay too much attention to such statements, given the context of our special relationship.

I think the subject of the Customs Union is rather obvious. We’ve travelled a long way to get to this point, to this agreement. And the road to the Customs Union was not smooth. But at some point we stepped up this work, and now everything is ready for the Customs Union to start operating. All documents have been signed. But this doesn’t mean that all problems have been resolved. We need to synchronize our positions—particularly on tariffs, including some sensitive sectors like cars and others. I know that many people in Belarus itself are concerned about this. And it’s understandable.

On the other hand, the benefits of the Customs Union are also obvious. Firstly, we’ll have practically a common custom-tariff zone with no barriers and the same rules for everybody. Secondly, we planned to join the WTO as parts of the Customs Union—either all together or each country in its own time. So, the Customs Union would make us one step closer to international organisations that promote free trade.

As for oil and gas trade, strictly speaking, these subjects are not even part of what we are currently talking about as regards the Customs Union. But, of course, if you are concerned about this issue, you need to make up your mind about it. There are two things I can say. In terms of natural gas, over the last few years Belarus has been buying natural gas from Russia at a reduced, preferential price. Moreover, some time ago the price even matched the prices for our domestic consumers. According to some experts, the overall amount of benefits Belarus received from Russia during this period by way of preferential prices for natural gas, oil and some other raw materials is $50 billion. To put this into perspective, our benefits for Ukraine amount to $75-100 billion.

These are really huge figures. And they demonstrate what a close and special partnership we have. We didn’t think it appropriate to make our tariffs uniform before—and even in the current situation. And this despite the fact that inside Russia, we are taking steps to bring gas prices up to what we call “the level of equal profitability.” And we will continue to advance in this direction. In other words, our gas prices for domestic consumers will match international prices. So, this has been decided.

As for our gas agreements with your country, everything is all clearly defined in the contracts. In the fourth quarter, we supply natural gas at the price of $122 per 1,000 cu. m. That includes the 30% discount that was part of the deal Gazprom made with its Belarusian counterpart. The price for the next year is currently being calculated. I won’t mention it now. It should be calculated automatically based on the contract we have. But I can tell you definitely that this price will still be 30-40% lower than what we charge for our gas supplies to other similar countries. This is because of the special arrangements we have in our contracts, and because we are involved in the Belarusian gas-transporting system, and because we are implementing some projects together. So, I think it is premature to say we have problems related to gas or oil trade. But, of course, we will continue discussing these issues. I don’t think this should have any effect on the future of the Customs Union.

Marina Zolotova: Is it okay if I clarify something?

Dmitry Medvedev: Go ahead.

Marina Zolotova: You said $50 billion—that’s for how long?

Dmitry Medvedev: That’s since Belarus became an independent state.

Marina Zolotova: You said “other similar countries.”

Dmitry Medvedev: I meant countries that are close to Russia and thus are similar in terms of the pipe length and transport tariffs.

Marina Zolotova: Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: You’re welcome.

Eduard Pivovar: Mr. President, Belarusian Telegraph Agency, Eduard Pivovar. Let’s stay with the subject of gas, but approach it from a different angle. It is obvious that the shortest route from Russia to Europe lies through Belarus. Nevertheless, Russia has decided to build the Nord Stream pipeline, which will obviously be much more expensive than running a second pipe from Yamal to Europe via Belarus. Belarus already has the infrastructure necessary for such a pipe. Does Russia plan to give another thought to the Yamal-Europe II project?

Dmitry Medvedev: I’ll be totally frank with you. I think the more options we have for our gas supplies to Europe the better—better both for Europe and for the Russian Federation.

Indeed, during the Soviet era we built the unique Yamal-Europe system, which helped Europeans solve their gas problem in the 1970s. That was a long time ago. Gas consumption has grown significantly. Countries believe now that natural gas should come from different sources, that gas supplies must be diversified. That’s why a number of new projects have emerged.

Furthermore, frankly speaking, gas transit through other countries has not always been stable. The example of Ukraine has demonstrated clearly that in case of political complications, or internal instability, energy security may fall victim to internal strife.

But that’s not the main reason—even though we surely must remember this, and I always bring this up when I meet with our partners from the EU. The main reason is it needs to be convenient to consumers—all kinds of consumers in Europe.

That’s why several new projects emerged: Nord Stream, South Stream… There are other projects as well—we don’t participate in them but they are frequently mentioned. Say, the Nabucco project. So, the more projects we have the better.

As far as their cost is concerned, we need to be more accurate when dealing with these things. For example, it costs more to run a pipe at the bottom of a sea than on dry land, naturally. But on the other hand, in this way you avoid certain risks that are either difficult to estimate or in some situations may lead to very serious consequences—say, disrupt consumers’ energy security, which is what happened at the beginning of this year. So, when we balance the cost of running a pipe along the seabed in one scale against the guarantee that we will be able to fulfil our obligations in the other scale, I’d say the latter is more important.

But this doesn’t mean we should totally forget about other projects. Let’s wait and see. If gas is in much demand, we would be open to consider other ideas, including the Yamal II project you mentioned. But for that to happen, first we need to have contracts with gas consumers for additional amounts of natural gas. And Europeans’ current policy, as you know, is to get energy carriers, including natural gas, from multiple sources.

So, if this fits with the European policy and if we think it’s economically viable, we may use various options, including the ones we discussed earlier.

Irina Levshina: BelaPAN news agency, Irina Levshina. Belarus and Russia call themselves strategic partners. But as time goes by, the number of problems that plague their relationship does not decrease. Don’t you think the time has come to abandon the Union State as a purely nominal entity and switch to regular partnership between neighbours?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I think that since we have achieved a certain level of integration, why would we want to abandon it? For example, Europe worked hard to evolve from the coal and steel union into the European Union we see today. Yes, sometimes it’s not easy. We may disagree about certain things. At times, we may have areas where we don’t understand each other—but still, that’s an altogether different degree of integration between our economies. That’s an altogether different level of coordination.

You know, I remember clearly what was happening on Dec. 8, 1999—or rather shortly before that date. I even have some personal memories that I’d like to share with you. I had just moved to Moscow at the time, and I was deputy chief of staff for the government of the Russian Federation. Mr. Putin was prime minister at the time—believe it or not.

So, I was asked to read through the treaty. And so I did. I still remember how I read it until 11 p.m. Somebody brought it to me in the evening and told me to go over it. I thought to myself, “Oh no, it’s almost time to go home, and they want me to read this document!” But even back then I realised this was a historic document.

The document was prepared and signed, and the Union State resulted. Yes, the Union State does not develop as fast as we expected. But I repeat: the institutions we have, the rules we have, the level of integration in our economies, the level of coordination in our political actions—all this is much better in this document than if we were merely partners. So, why would we want to drift apart? It is better to either add substance to this document or adjust it, if we decide that we don’t need some of its institutions. But one thing we definitely don’t need to do is to lower the level of integration.

Currently, we are about to launch the Customs Union. We have a number of thing going on inside EurAsEC. This is also a much higher degree of integration than merely the integration former Soviet republics have in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Therefore, I’m all for continuing to work actively on the Union Treaty and creating conditions for ensuing integration of our economies. The Customs Union is part of this process.

Maya Shendrik: Maya Shendrik, the Respublika newspaper. Mr. President, some political analysts in Russia say openly that the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership program means hostility towards Russia, no less. In fact, you spoke along the same lines at the Russia-EU summit—

Dmitry Medvedev: Really? What did I say?

Maya Shendrik: Well, I can’t give you an exact quote—

Dmitry Medvedev: (laughing) See, that’s what I’m talking about.

Maya Shendrik: You know yourself what you said.

Dmitry Medvedev: (laughing) You’re smart.

Maya Shendrik: Do you really think that Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership program is a hostile, or unfriendly, step with respect to Russia?

Dmitry Medvedev: Dear Maya, I’ve never said anything like this. I’ve never said this means hostility against Russia. First of all, I’m mentally stable—I hope you don’t doubt that. How can I discourage somebody from integration if the countries themselves think they will benefit from it? Just a minute ago, I spoke about the Union State.

Second, I don’t see anything particularly dangerous about this Eastern Partnership. In fact, I don’t see any particularly positive aspects either. And all members of this program that I have talked to say the same thing. But I don’t see anything there that would be directed against our country. At least, they do their best to convince me this is so. They even offer us various associate membership options.

So I just hope this program will bring additional support to those countries that participate in it. Of course, if it is used to discuss anti-Russian scenarios, I as the Russian president would disapprove of this. But I hope our partners will not do this. Otherwise, they are welcome to discuss whatever they want.

Maya Shendrik: Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: You’re welcome.

Andrey Skurko: Andrey Skurko, the Nasha Niva newspaper, Minsk. Mr. President, if push comes to shove and Belarus refuses to join the Customs Union, what will Russia do about it?

Dmitry Medvedev: Well, you know, I’ll be frank with you. Russia is interested in the Customs Union no more than Belarus and Kazakhstan. No more and no less. What is this Union. It’s just an opportunity to develop and trade by the same rules. If we think these rules are favourable to us—and this includes tariffs and everything else—then we all agree to follow them.

As soon as we agreed to set up the Customs Union, you may have noticed that all kinds of talk started right away—especially with respect to Russia, because Belarus and Kazakhstan have not worked so hard to join the WTO.

But I am just peppered with questions: “What are you doing? You’ve set up this Customs Union, and now what? You’re not going to join the WTO? The WTO will never accept the Customs Union. We in the WTO have been waiting for you to join us for so long.”

To this, I always respond the same way: I believe that our countries will benefit greatly from the Customs Union. And our countries should work out a common policy as regards custom tariffs first, and then we should join the WTO with this coordinated policy—because this will benefit our countries.

But if somebody decides they are not interested, I can tell you frankly: in terms of Russia’s chances to join the WTO, perhaps it will be even easier for us to go through certain procedures if we are on our own.

It’s the question of whether the people of Belarus and the nation of Belarus need this. I always thought that uniform trade rules are much better than different rules in different places.

In addition, Russia is an important market for Belarusian manufacturers, for those who export goods to our country. In spite of the few controversies we had this year, we are still extremely close partners. Russia account for 40-50% of Belarusian exports, including food exports. With food exports, the numbers are striking: practically 99.9% of Belarusian meat exports go to the Russian Federation. With sugar, it’s almost 95%. With milk and dairy products, it’s 82%—and last year the figure was even greater.

In other words, the Russian market is very attractive to our Belarusian friends. But if we don’t want to have the same rules on this market, then we can abandon the Customs Union. But I’d say this would run counter to our interests.

Andrey Skurko: Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: You’re welcome.

Anatoly Slonevsky: Mr. President, perhaps my question is not an easy one but I’d like to ask you—

Dmitry Medvedev: Like the ones we had up to this point were easy. (Laughter).

Anatoly Slonevsky: Several years ago a particular explicit suggestion was made to Belarus: “Why don’t all your six regions join Russia?” I understand it wasn’t you who had made it, but nonetheless, this suggestion had confused or even shocked Belarus. You have never renounced it. I am asking this question, since this issue has often emerged in the state and non-official Belarusian media. It would be good to close it once and for all.
In your opinion, what are the strategic priorities for development of our countries, generally speaking? What areas of common interests could we have?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, this issue cannot be closed as it had never been opened. Russia has never suggested that Belarus should join the Russian Federation, neither de facto, nor de iure. You must be referring to a well-known conference with participation of Mr. Lukashenko on one hand, and Mr. Putin on the other hand. You are well aware that they had been discussing prices for gas. In one of his statements, my predecessor said the following: if one wants to be given special prices, they should realize that internal prices exist for parts of the Russian Federation only. But this does not imply that we, in one way or another, were inviting Belarus or any other country to join our Federation. This issue could be discussed, which is absolutely appropriate. But no legal invitation for it had been made. Moreover, such issues could be determined only by means of public voting. And in my opinion, there is nothing to discuss here without the expression of public opinion. These are not even the presidents’ prerogatives. It has to go even higher than that. Thus I believe that this issue is non-existent.

But talking about prospects, I have just talked about them; the Union State is a prospect. We should really saturate this Union State with real authorities. We should strive for a much higher extent of economic integration, equal trade rights, unacceptability of any barrage decisions, and prevention of conflicts on these grounds. There is much work to be done in this area. This is right.

If we follow this way, there would be a really good future ahead of us.

Anatoly Slonevsky: Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: You’re welcome.

A. Gulyaev: I would like to return to the Union State issue again. There is a paradox situation in Belarus today: the longer the state exists, the more community groups are saying that the population is losing its trust in it. So the question emerges today.

Your viewpoint is clear. You’re saying that we need to saturate [the state] with new content. This is clear too. However, if this situation remains the same, when all contacts are made at the level of officials, but citizens do not see any improvement of their living standards or improvement of contacts, their trust would be dropping. Is there a possibility of reforming and creating new forms?

Dmitry Medvedev: Let me try specifying your question. Mr. Gulyaev, are you asking me this, because you believe there is a deficit of mutual understanding between our countries’ leaders, between our presidents and governments, which affects the fate of the Union State? Otherwise I am not quite getting the meaning of your question.

A. Gulyaev: I mean that basically there is no trust for this project, according to public surveys. If the progress remains at the same level, trust will keep dropping.

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, we should always remember where we are coming from and which way we are going. Certainly trust can grow or drop; people may be dissatisfied with the way how quickly certain issues get resolved. But I would like you to note: if not for the Union State, the level of our cooperation would have been different, including different ways of addressing a number of issues. I believe this is something we should be talking about, including by means of media. Let us look at such a sensitive issue as tackling the financial crisis. We do not have such special financial relations with any country other than Belarus. Belarus is the largest borrower of our funds. During recent years, the last 2.5 years basically, we had loaned more than three billion US dollars. We haven’t loaned such amounts to anyone else. Why are we doing this for Belarus? Only because we are working within the framework of the Union State; and because our economies have been closely integrated, and we have political obligations toward each other.

Our help to any other state would have been smaller. Our economy is not brilliant either. Moreover, our situation is worse than yours regarding the volume of industrial production fall. According to the recent figures that I have looked at, this year the Belarusian economy is likely to show small growth, a modest one, but it is still growth. But we will have recession. Yes, the Russian economy is larger and stronger in a number of terms, but our population is bigger too.

The reason I am talking about loans is that we often forget about the real content of various political institutions when speculating about their helpfulness. But these loans are their real content. Let me remind you that in the area of the IMF, and in the area of the European loan institutions, the total volume of help that had been provided for the Belarusian economy is just getting closer to three billion, and not all of these decisions have been made yet; whereas we have already allocated this money for their economy. Therefore this is the right tool for testing our cooperation; this is the main criterion of success; I mean the ways we have been helping each other in certain situations.

We have discussed this matter quite extensively, including the talks between Mr. Lukashenko and myself at the CIS summit in Chisinau. We have had a clear and even at times emotional discussion on this issue. I have already said it privately, and I am telling you now that the way we support Belarus is by our special attitude toward it. Other than special relations that bind our two countries, we have been jointly promoting certain institutions as well; in particular, the Anti-crisis Fund that we have formed within EurAsEC. The fact that Russia had agreed to the formation of this Fund, witnesses to the fact that we care about our relations with our nearest partners and neighbors. Let me remind you that we are committing 7.5 billion US dollars to this Anti-Crisis fund, whereas other countries’ input is significantly smaller. Kazakhstan makes a certain input. All other countries commit relatively small sums, but they may request much larger sums for themselves. If this mechanism is implemented, we would receive support under conditions of the crisis.

Therefore I believe our companionship and our relations within the union should be tested by means of these economic schemes, and by means of special economic relations. This is why I am surprised to hear at times from our partners that we have not been helpful enough for each other. No other country has been as helpful to its partners as the Russian Federation has been. And this totally and fully relates to Belarus.

L. Rakovskaya: We are all journalists from the state and private media, but I believe we are all united by the fact that we are Belarusians, citizens of Belarus, patriots of our country. Sometimes it hurts us to read statements in the Russian federal press that I thought journalists were unable of writing. If they do have such convictions, do they really have such a bad attitude toward Belarus? They include such emotional things as, for example, that Belarus is Russia’s boarder, a so-called weight in the way of its development.

We all understand freedom of speech, and we understand that this is a sacred tool, a possibility for journalism to exist as a job. But what would you wish to Russian journalists who have been writing about Belarus in this manner? For example, recently there was a reference to an anonymous source from the Kremlin making an insulting statement that someone does not want to be the President of his country anymore. You would remember it, I suppose.

Dmitry Medvedev: I remember everything; it is my job to. There is one thing I want to wish to journalists of Belarus or Russia: tell the truth. This is a sacred obligation of any journalist, regardless to which country they live in or what media they work for. Whether it is a small internet publication that considers itself to be oppositional, or whether it is a powerful state media organ. Telling the truth is the obligation.

Regarding assessments, they will always be very different, and this is nothing to be offended by. We should not worry about those who write economic essays and reflect on calling someone a weight and the other one, an assistant. They are expressing their viewpoint. Belarusian media has been expressing alternative, or even totally opposite viewpoints regarding help and support provided by the Russian Federation. I do not think there is anything bad about it or anything to be offended by. But telling the truth is the sacred obligation of any media. However, we do have something to talk about regarding the tonality of discussion and our ethics.

Perhaps we are not flawless either, meaning the Russian Federation and particular officials saying things, or certain sources sending various signals. I would like to note that recently our Belarusian partners and Belarusian President himself have made a significant number of emotional statements that were often beyond the frameworks of diplomatic protocol. Frankly speaking, very peculiar statements have been made regarding specific Russian officials. I mean members of the government as well as the head or our government. I do not like this. I believe this is unacceptable. Moreover, attempts of showing that we could build good personal relations on one hand, and peculiar statements made about members of the government at the same time, can only lead to a deadlock. In my understanding, this government had been appointed by the State Duma. So when any of my colleagues polemize this government, they polemize with me. There could be no other options here. The bottom-line is: one should be more discreet.

L. Rakovskaya: Including journalists.

Dmitry Medvedev: Certainly, including you.

I. Seredich: Some analysts of the two countries do note that Russia duplicates almost each step taken by President Lukashenko who is called by some, to our shame, the last dictator of Europe. We have never had elections for mayors and local governors; they have always been appointed. You have given up direct elections as well. In our country, oppositionists can never make their way to television, radio and state newspapers. And it has been a while since I saw people like Nemtsov, Kasyanov and Kasparov on your TV. I could make more examples of such parallels. Is this a way of expressing sympathy with President Lukashenko, or is it a particular Russian type of democracy?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I have just made an assessment of various emotional statements, I hope it was clear and to the point. Regarding various helpful experience, it could be copied, why not? In my opinion, this is not a bad thing. Regarding the political arrangement, with all due respect to our Belarusian friends and Belarusian political arrangement and regulations, your country is not the only one that appoints local governors or, like in our country, provides them with authorities without elections. There are other European countries, the so-called developed democracies. It is up to a particular state as to what system they adapt. I have already talked about it a number of times; I can say it again here.

I do not believe that elections of local governors are a sign of democratic character for one or another state’s setup. Moreover, in a number of instances, such technologies produce an opposite effect. Thus at some point we had changed that situation. I have also talked about it many times, that I do not believe it would be right to return to local governors’ elections, at least in historical perspective. At least this is my viewpoint. A future president could introduce his own viewpoint as well. But I believe this is the most efficient system of management for Russia. Frankly speaking, managing Russia is not an easy task. This is a federation with 83 regions that has been covering a territory of 11 time zones so far.

Regarding media, these are subjective issues of assessment. I have answered such questions a number of times. I can tell you that I don’t believe a regression is happening in our media sphere. It is a different issue that we have been changing, and our media is not the same as it used to be in the nineties. Perhaps they do include fewer complicated political issues now, only for the reason that our citizens are less interested in them. In the nineties, a lack of financial well-being was compensated by endless political discussions. By the way, this is one way of managing: if you have no food it is better to have something to talk about. Honestly speaking, since we are aiming at constructive labour, we have to be working. But all the opposition characters are quite capable of communicating their viewpoint to all the parts of our community that are interested in it.

Regarding the abovementioned individuals, the question is what political forces they represent. We have various opposition parties, some are members of parliament, and some are not. They have been making regular appearance in media, including television. And they basically say whatever they want. However, when certain political figures do not represent any force, as a rule nobody is interested in them. But even these individuals have the opportunity of communicating their message by means of modern technologies. Talking about the Internet, about 50 million of our people are using is, which is almost one half of our country’s entire adult population. There is a large number of internet media resources, including a lot of opposition ones. Anyone willing, including the colleagues you have mentioned, are saying just whatever they want to. They denounce the government, they suggest their remedies for fixing the situation, and they participate in public activities. So nothing has really changes in this sense; on the contrary, I believe the situation has improved.

A. Korol: The key message of your article ‘Go, Russia!’, as well as your Presidential Address, could be expressed in two words: modernization and democratization, from managed democracy to proper democracy upon the European standards. In the context of your ideas, what would you suggest for the slogan ‘Go, Belarus!’? In which ways would you see Russia encouraging Belarus to make changes towards democracy?

Dmitry Medvedev: I have spent the last hour trying to prove one simple thing to you, and via you to Belarusian citizens, that Russia does not intend imposing anything on anyone…

A. Korol: I mean moral encouragement.

Dmitry Medvedev: …or encouraging. But we are certainly interested in development of the Belarusian society and state. This should not be causing any doubts.

It is true that my piece ‘Go, Russia!’, a corresponding article and the later Presidential Address do talk about a need for modernizing the political and economic institutions of our country. I believe it is the time to do it. We have spent a lot of time, practically the last 10 years, on stabilizing our state, on making it stronger and more capable of facing modern challenges. And I believe we have succeeded in it. In my opinion, this work had been performed seriously and successfully.

But the goal of state development is not just to stabilize the state institutions and not as much to stabilize the state institutions, as to provide a comfortable living to the state’s citizens. In order to do so, economy and political sphere have to be adapted to the current requirements. This is why we need modernization. Modernization does not mean denying everything that has been done. Modernization means development with regard to our abilities and to the general environment, including, in our country for example, the financial crisis, the raw material orientation of our economy, imperfection of numerous social institutions and the need for improvement of the political system. Thus I believe all these problems, to a large extent, exist in other states that had been formed on the basis of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus. None of these states had progressed much further than others; none of them could be considered developed and self-sufficient. Belarus is not like that, nor is Russia, or any other country. Therefore we should listen carefully to advice from our neighbours. By the way, we have been doing so; we have been really interested in the experience that our neighbours had accumulated. Therefore I will be happy if our Belarusian friends find my ideas from the article and my Presidential address helpful.

V. Evtukhov: Mr. Medvedev, if we assess the Russian policies, as much as I can assess it, from the nineties up until now, the fact is that Russia has been losing friends in the post-soviet space. Using your words, some have a non-stable transit, others have other issues. Over the last few years we have been under the impression that something similar is happening in relation to Belarus. In Slovenia you put it as “things aren’t that simple.” We can talk about the gas war or the milk scandal, about some sugar problems or ultimatums made by Russian officials. Are you not afraid that this kind of policy would push Russia out of the niche that it has been taking so far as Belarus’ friend and ally, and some other country would occupy his niche?

Dmitry Medvedev: I am not afraid of anything; if I was afraid of something I would not be working as president. You know, we just have to see things reasonably. We have not lost any of our friends. Moreover, we want to develop partnerships and friendships with everyone, and very close allied relations with Belarus. We don’t use the language of ultimatums with anyone. This would be very unproductive and wrong. But we certainly want others to reckon with our interests as well.

Russia certainly is a large country. But this does not mean we cannot have economic interests. I have given you the loan figures. By the way, at the moment we have been considering the issue of providing an extra number of loans in the commercial area for Belarus. We have also been considering an issue of purchasing a large Belarusian bank; this decision has practically been made already. This means that the economic projects have been progressing. Therefore there are no ultimatums. But we still have to work on the basis of market relations. Say, we cannot sell according to prices that would be significantly lower than those in the rest of the world. This would be wrong and unproductive.

We should certainly develop unified conditions for trade in order to avoid offences and in order to have reasonable duty. This would prevent all sorts of conflicts that we have had this year. I would like to note that, thank God, we have never had a so-called “gas war” with Belarus. We had a tough situation with the Ukrainian consumers due to political difficulties that the Ukrainian state has been facing. But it is not the same of Belarus. We just always take a long time to discuss all the conditions, but eventually we do reach a reasonable compromised understanding. Therefore Russia is not losing anyone. Russia wants to be civilized and modern. We want to operate in a way that is pleasing for our partners. If we work this way, if we respect each other’s interests, then we would have the best and the warmest relations and the closest partnership.

V. Khodosovky: Mr. Medvedev, could you comment on a statement that Russia’s generous assistance in the form of cheap fuel, energy and loans had de facto slowed down the structural and economic reforms, and even the democratization process in Belarus?

Along the line of modernization, would it not be helpful to talk about modernization of these relations in a clearer way, in order to avoid repeating this situation? Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you. You know this is just a hypothetic statement; if we gave less, the reforms would have happened quicker. Even though I myself have been thinking about it; not regarding our relations but rather regarding our economy. But this is just a scholastic discourse. Would we have a better living, or a worse living, if Russia had less gas? On one hand it should have been worse, as we would have less export potential. On the other hand, we would have diversified our economy sooner, and in this sense we would have been better protected from the crisis. The same relates to Belarus. We have been helpful, really helpful during a certain period in order to enable development of our neighboring states, including Belarus. But we did not see it as anything special, since we had all originated from the Soviet Union and we all had equal, rather one-sided economies. If we, at some point, in the nineties had decided to supply gas under the same conditions as to Europe, then economies of numerous states, including Belarus, Ukraine and others, would have drowned. This would have been unacceptable for us; this is just unacceptable, these states have been very close to us, including your state.

However at some point we certainly did have to switch to the modern relations, to the proper market relations; and we found enough willpower to do it. Here I am talking about both the Russian Federation and our Belarusian partners. We have a plan of bringing our prices in line with the international prices that are based on equal earning capacity, the Europeans prices; and we will keep striving for it. All the rest is in the area of hypotheses and might-have-been things, as I have said. These issues should be considered by analytical articles, but it is pointless discussing them in the regime of political practice.

The influence of the economic situation on political institutions is even more complicated. Therefore, those trying to speculate that one or another political regime would have ended, if there had not been this assistance, are making one mistake. It is like that in theory but very different in practice. Everything depends on a large number of factors. A large number of factors! I certainly do not intend on analyzing the situation of Belarus or any other state of the post-Soviet space from this angle; but money does not always talk. A lot depends on the nation’s political culture, on the elite’s determination and on education. You will not believe how much depends on the media’s activity. Only in this case one could say whether a country is ready or not for a new stage in its development; or whether economy has or has not been influenced. Therefore I believe we should look into the future, and the future should be one of partnership; as I have said, it should be modern and it should be based on pragmatic yet friendly approach. If we stick to these principles we would end up with stable and very close relations.

V. Khodosovky: Is it easier and quicker to do so in the format of bilateral relations than within the Union State? Are there any political aspects to it?

Dmitry Medvedev: I have already talked about it. You know, I will say it again. I believe that no matter what complaints we make now about certain elements of development for the Union State, this state has played a crucial role in bringing our countries closer and in developing the mechanism for operation. Therefore, going back would be a regression. We need to saturate the Union State with real authorities or modify it according to today’s interests, for example. But in any case, it certainly would not make sense to destroy it and talk about new ways of partnership. We do understand how it would end. When an old partnership is broken and a new one is not made, this would mean problems between countries and problems between economies; and people would suffer as a result. This is the toughest thing.

Aleksey, are you going to ask a question on behalf of the Belarusian…

A. Gromov: I would like to…

A. Gulyaev: On the line of media, Mr. Medvedev, what do you think about people calling you a blogger?

Dmitry Medvedev: I do not mind, as I am a blogger. I have my own blog, therefore I am a blogger, but I suppose a special one, since I am in such a particular position. But I generally do not see anything wrong with the blogger label, whether it is for an ordinary citizen or for a country’s president. By the way, many of my colleagues are bloggers too; they have their own blogs in which they are as active as I am in mine. So there is nothing wrong with that.

A. Gulyaev: This is great.

A. Surkov: Could you clarify something?

Dmitry Medvedev: Colleagues, go ahead.

A. Surkov: In your reply to Mr. Gulyaev’s question, you mentioned that Belarus would show some economic growth next year; a small one but still a growth.

Dmitry Medvedev: I said, this year.

A. Surkov: I am sorry, this year. Unlike in the Russian Federation. What has caused this situation?

Dmitry Medvedev: There were quite a number of reasons, actually. On one hand, it is the scale of the Russian economy, and on the other, problems that our economy has been facing during the crisis year, and excessive raw material orientation of our economy which I had openly talked about just a little while ago; and therefore a significant collapse that we have seen in a number of areas of our economy, in particular in metallurgy sector, in vehicle building sector and some other types of industry, especially in single industry towns. This is why we have experienced a larger collapse than we had expected.

As for the situation in Belarus, I think it is linked to several things. First of all, your economy turned out to be a bit more protected thanks to the existing diversification of production and also thanks to decisions that were made on time. I do not want to say anything wrong about the decisions made by Belarusian partners. It seems to me that they were modern and well-timed. But one of the reasons, if you wish, is the support given to the Belarusian economy, including on the part of the Russian Federation. Had anybody given support to us proportionately to the size of our economy, our decline figures could have been a bit lower. I think that Irina Olegovna wants to ask a question?

Irina Levshina: Some political scientists believe that the relations between Moscow and Minsk are being aggravated by complicated personal relationships between Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin. I would highly appreciate if you could comment on that. And how can personal relations between politicians influence Russian-Belarusian cooperation?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I partially answered that question when I talked about the elements of polemics which exists and which, in my view, should be conducted in a civil and regardful manner. This, I think, should always be born in mind. As for personal relations, to the best of my knowledge, Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin always had normal relations of partnership when my predecessor was president. It does not mean that they never argued. They did, of course, and it is absolutely normal. The same is true of me. I also have good partnership relations with Aleksandr Lukashenko. But again it does not mean that we never argue with each other and that we agree on every point. Another question is that I think that one should not only treat his partner with respect but also try to hear his point of view. This is a backlog of success. But, naturally, in politics, and I have become convinced of it myself, a personal factor is very important. Denying that is pointless. But this factor is not dominating. I will give you an example which I have already given many times. We had very good personal relationship with the administration of George W Bush. Our relations were warm. But at a certain stage that didn’t prevent our inter-state relations from degrading to the almost cold war level. I think it is a very accurate example. Good relations between politicians but bad relations between states. There can be a different situation. Relations among top state officials can be cool, but the level of inter-state relations is so high that no cool personal relations can actually disrupt them. But, of course, when personal relationships between politicians and inter-state ties are in harmony, this, in general, allows one to develop the best possible relations among peoples and states.

A. Korol: Are you planning a bilateral meeting during your forthcoming visit to Minsk? A bilateral meeting with Lukashenko?

Dmitry Medvedev: Mr. Lukashenko and I will find an opportunity to meet each other, one way or another, during my visit to Minsk. We will do that without fail. At the moment, we haven’t defined the final format of my visit yet. Frankly speaking, I still do not know the exact dates of my visit to Belarus. I am thinking of that. I have a number of ideas to this effect. But, anyway, it never happens that we do not meet and do not talk to each other. Our talks can be longer or shorter. But we do not have a deficit of communication. We meet regularly. The last time we met I was visiting your country as your guest. We had good contacts during the joint exercise. Then we met each other in Chisinau. There we had a public discussion of many issues, including crisis phenomena in the world economy. We also have telephone conversations. So, we will think of something. Next question, please.

V. Khodosovky: Could you tell us about the role of a military-strategic factor in bilateral relations? It is an open secret that our NATO neighbors, I mean NATO member-states, have had a painful reaction to the recent exercise. In other words, they saw some threats to their interests coming from the Belarusian-Russian forces.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you. You know, a military-strategic component plays a very important role in our bilateral relations because we are a union state and close partners. I think that this is a component that should always be remembered and which we should consolidate in every possible way. The more so that today’s Europe is not monolithic. Europe consists of various countries despite the existence of the European Union. Europe has one big military bloc. Its name is NATO. We do not have a separate military bloc but, nevertheless, we are bound by obligations as allies, including commitments between Russia and Belarus, on the one hand, and commitments between Russia and other members of the CSTO (the Collective Security Treaty Organization), on the other hand. The CSTO is not a military bloc in the literal sense of this word. But still it’s an organization which has a military component. We have recently reinforced it by creating a collective rapid reaction force (KSOR). We are glad that Belarus takes part in this collective force despite a certain pause in the signing of documents. Nevertheless, I think that this participation is useful both for the collective rapid reaction force and Belarus.

Therefore, I think that we should develop this component because ultimately our strategic component, as you have just said, contributes to strengthening security in the European continent. If someone is not quite pleased with our exercises…You know, the thing is that if other countries conduct exercises and if these exercises are held within the framework of NATO, we do not take part in those exercises. True, we have our own partnership relations with NATO. We should also train and drill our military skills. There is nothing supernatural here. The exercises which we held were certainly defensive. They are not directed against anybody but we certainly train ourselves. This practice is normal and will be continued. It is not only my opinion. The Belarusian president also shares this point of view. We have agreed to hold such exercises once in two years. I think it is going to be useful.

I suggest we speak with the women. But please, let’s do it briefly. After that we will say good-bye to each other? Is that all right with you?

Ulyana Boboyed: Mr. Medvedev, the Customs Union… Could you tell us about the Customs Union between Russia and Belarus and how do you think we should uniform customs duties for foreign cars. This is a source of concern for the people of Belarus. Should Belarus raise its customs duties for foreign cars or Russia will start decreasing them as of July 1?

Dmitry Medvedev: Well, as for duties for foreign cars. It is a very sensitive question, of course, especially in case of Belarus. The thing is that Belarusian duties were inconsiderable compared to those existing in Russia. But if we have decided to agree to set up a customs union, from which, and I will repeat it again, we are going to benefit in general, we should, certainly, uniform our duties by taking reciprocal actions. On the one hand, Belarus should reduce duties for foreign cars; on the other hand, we are ready to increase payments, duties for large vehicles such as MAZ trucks and other vehicles of this category. I know that it is going to be painful but we have to live through this period. After all, upon creating the Customs Union, we can at one moment agree on new single rules of the game, including trade in automobiles. The more so that Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus seek to join the WTO, and a number of decisions which we are now making for ourselves will be adapted this way or another to our membership of the WTO. Nothing is eternal. There are no eternal duties but now, at this stage, we should resort to this measure in order to be able to harmonize our financial and customs relations.

Maya Shendrik: Mr. Medvedev, you have just said replying to our questions that our friendship is tested by economic relations. This is absolutely true. But this particular year was rather complicated in terms of trade and economic ties between our two countries.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, it was.

Maya Shendrik: Early this year your Ministry of Economic Development and the Belarusian Ministry of Economy reached agreements which say that in conditions and in the period of the world crisis we should by no means worsen conditions of supplying goods to the markets of each other. Do you think that these agreements were observed? If not, why did that happen and are these agreements still urgent?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, the year was really complicated. I have no objections. It was difficult for all of us and it is still difficult both for you and us. We tried to observe these agreements to the maximum. We didn’t succeed in everything because some forms of our mutual trade largely depend on subsidies and state support. In some cases, both you and we decided to give up this state support. Why? Because the state made a difficult but responsible decision to help the national producer in the first place. It is a fact. At the same time, nothing crucial happened, except for some technological laps which, in fact, were emotionally-motivated. We eventually reached a normal level of cooperation. Even today nine regions in this country have ten assembly productions which assemble machines and equipment from Belarus. But have we closed or abandoned anything? No, everything goes as it did before. Therefore, the year was not easy. But I cannot say that we blocked our cooperation and that this year threw us backward considerably.

But, of course, lessons should be drawn from this too. We should be prepared for possible crises in future, including in mutual trade, and we should think of how to make, say, a larger number of banking institutions ready to issue credits not only to national but also to close producers with whom we have cooperation ties.

We should, certainly, think about that. Incidentally, this is a good reason for banking cooperation to develop. I have already said that Sberbank is buying a Belarusian bank.

Maya Shendrik: Belpromstrojbank

Dmitry Medvedev: Belpromstrojbank. It’s great. It means that financial cooperation may improve thanks to this deal.

I have said that I will give the women a chance to speak. I always keep my promises, especially to women. Your question please!

Marina Zolotova: The question of the collective rapid reaction force (KSOR) has already been somewhat raised. Aleksandr Lukashenko has signed documents on the creation of this collective force. But so far we do not have much information about the essence of these documents. In other words, it is interesting what exact steps does the Russian side expect from Belarus within the framework of the collective rapid reaction force? For example, are Belarusian troops supposed to participate in hostilities in the territory of other CIS countries?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know that Aleksandr Lukashenko, like all the other presidents, did not sign any secret protocols to these agreements. We all signed one and the same document that created a Collective Rapid Reaction Force. What is the purpose of their creation? They are designed to respond to the most complicated challenges such as terrorism and extremism as well as to the drug threat. These are operative forces which we can use to remove the aforesaid problems, including through the use of the armed forces and military force. Actually, I will remind you that in accordance with our Collective Security Treaty we have the same rule as the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization that classifies an attack on one country as an assault on the entire Alliance and all countries of the Treaty. This is a very serious wording. Sometimes, we tend to forget about its existence but this, in fact, is what partnership, including in the military sphere, is all about. So nothing new has actually happened. We have simply created an additional instrument to promptly react to the complexities of our life. They are predominantly concentrated on the territories of other countries, though we also have our own problems. Russia certainly has them. But I hope that there are fewer of them in Belarus. These, above all, are threats that come to us from the East, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other adjacent countries. In the long run, the above-mentioned threats develop either into a terrorist threat or into crimes. This new document is designed to respond to these threats.

Marina Zolotova: But will Belarusian troops be involved in any military operations in the territory of one of the Treaty member countries, for example?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, this question should be solved on the basis of two documents. I will answer you as a lawyer to a lawyer. It should be solved in compliance with the Constitution of Belarus and its internal laws, on the one hand, and on the basis of international law on the other hand. International law is supranational and should conceptually prevail over internal legislation. The Treaty on our collective security forces is a supranational document. Now you can draw your conclusions.

V. Khodosovky: Can I ask a question about Russia?

Dmitry Medvedev: I have said that all women can put their questions first, yours will be next. And that will be the end of it, my dear colleagues.

L. Rakovskaya: Mr. Medvedev, people in Belarus, just as voters in Russia, like that Russia has such an energetic and modern president…A modern one.

Dmitry Medvedev: All right (laughs)

L. Rakovskaya: You know, in your recent speeches, the article “Go Russia!”, at the congress of the United Russia Party and in your Address to the Federal Assembly, you spoke about modernization of Russia, the modernization of its economic and political institutions. What would you advise in this connection and how do you see the modernization of Belarus within the framework of the Union state with Russia and within the framework of our cooperation and our two countries?

Dmitry Medvedev: Do you mean the modernization of political institutions on anything else?

L. Rakovskaya: You spoke about modernization of both political and economic institutions. But here you can focus on a part that won’t be regarded as interference in the internal affairs of another state.

Dmitry Medvedev: In fact, this is the main question. I’ve already told your colleague…