Merci! Medvedev gives candid interview to Parisian press

In anticipation of Dmitry Medvedev’s upcoming trip to France, Paris Match magazine met the president at his Moscow residence to talk about everything from NATO to his relations with Vladimir Putin.

The interview kicked off with questions concerning Russia’s relationship with France, which this year is hosting “Year of Russia” celebrations.

Medvedev’s answer provided a penetrating insight not just into the present state of affairs between the two countries, but their lengthy mutual history as well, which has oftentimes been quite colorful.

Relations with France

“Indeed, the relations between our countries have been developing for many centuries,” the Russian president began. “There have been many historical events when the ways of Russia and France crossed. The history of our states has witnessed both bright moments and sometimes problems, which also brought us together, but in the end the scope of cooperation has been tremendous. A classic example is the life of Queen Anna, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, who got married to Henry I, King of France. However, it was long ago, though this fact is quite remarkable.”

After making passing references to other remarkable aspects of the French-Russian relationship – including Russia’s interest in the French language, bilateral cooperation during World War II and mutual respect during the Soviet period of Russian history, notably under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle – Medvedev stressed that “the new Russia enjoys a very good partnership, a strategic partnership with France.”

“We are no longer divided by ideological differences,” the Russian president said. “This does not mean we have no disputes at all, but we actually maintain very good and positive relationships with the French administration, including my personal contacts with President Sarkozy. When we reach an agreement, President Sarkozy always keeps his promises, which is something every politician should be able to do.”

On buying foreign-made armaments

Medvedev was then asked if he intended to negotiate for the purchase of a Mistral-class warship [This month, France agreed to sell Russia a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship and received an order to build another three, Radio France Internationale reported. “It's no longer one command ship, but four,” Jacques de Lajugie, head of international sales at the French Defense Ministry, was quoted as saying. He added, however, that the new order was being examined “on a technical level” and needed to be “vetted at a political level” ]. The Russian president alluded to Russia’s success at producing and exporting military arms, while admitting that “we can always learn.”

“Russia has always been a major producer of military equipment,” Medvedev stated, “and we still are one of the largest suppliers of military equipment from Kalashnikovs to, say, S300, an antimissile defense system. But there are areas where we can learn and see what other countries are making. By the way, this would be useful for our defense industry as well, because it needs to maintain its competitive edge anyway. We therefore have interest in buying advanced models, including warships.”

Fond memories of Paris

The conversation then turned to the Russian president’s first impressions of the French capital, which he visited in 1991 during the Christmas season.

“Though it was originally a visit to discuss cooperation between St Petersburg and Paris businessmen, it was also a chance to see Paris,” Medvedev relayed to Paris Match reporter Olivier Royant. “The special atmosphere of Paris, a walk along the Champs-Elysees, eating in small restaurants, all this just a week before Christmas, with all that illumination and the Eiffel Tower, I was very impressed…In other words, in reality it was, indeed, far more impressive than any pictures.”

How to handle a hot crisis?

Paris Match asked Medvedev about the global financial crisis and what Russia, together with the so-called BRIC nations [identified as Brazil, Russia, India and China], is doing to keep its head above water during these critical moments.

Medvedev did not mince words about Russia’s situation, and acknowledged that the country must wean itself away from its dependence on raw materials.

“First, the crisis highlighted our weaknesses: our economy's dependence on raw materials,” the President said. “We should modernize our economy, we should achieve growth based on other sources, not just raw materials, we should develop high technology, we should, essentially, create a new segment in our national economy.”

President Medvedev then mentioned the creation of a government commission to develop a strategy to deal with this issue.

“I have established a special presidential commission, and this is our strategy for the nearest future. Of course, the ‘hydrocarbon’ economic growth fuelled by oil and gas sales will continue for some time, but it should not be our universal way of development. We must have other sectors in our economy, powerful and comparable in size,” the president stressed.

Medvedev then hinted at his dissatisfaction with the structure of global markets and institutions, now largely dominated by the United States, when he said we should “create a new financial architecture for all.” These words will certainly find a sympathetic ear in France, where President Nikolas Sarkozy made similar suggestions during the Davos Summit in January.

Calling the past two years of economic downturn as a “crisis of globalization,” Sarkozy said our faith in free markets had failed us and that we must rebuild the “moral dimension” of the financial system.

“From the moment we accepted the idea that the market was always right and that no other opposing factors need to be taken into account, globalization skidded out of control,” the French president said.

Asked what he thought about Russia’s current level of progress, Medvedev, who has made battling corruption one of the pillars of his presidency, admitted there was still much work to do.

“Living standards are not improving as fast as we want them to,” the President admitted, “and corruption remains one of our most serious concerns and most vulnerable spots. I am not quite satisfied with the investment climate in our country either, and with the way technological changes are taking place in the economy.”

He then offered a brief outline of what needs to be done to reverse the trends.

“What needs to be done? We need to work. We need to work every day, to give clear, strict instructions, to shake up officials, to meet with businessmen, to talk to our partners and learn from their good practices.”

Is NATO Russia’s enemy?

The issue of NATO, which ranks in Russia’s recently updated military doctrine as one of the major security threats facing the nation, took center stage. Medvedev, however, downplayed the threat of the military bloc, while focusing more on its continual eastward expansion up to Russia’s borders.

“It is not about NATO,” Medvedev said, “and our military doctrine does not treat NATO as the main military threat. It is about the never-ending enlargement of NATO through absorbing the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, or happen to be our closest neighbors. It definitely creates certain problems, because NATO, whatever one may say, is a military alliance.”

Medvedev denied the suggestion by the Paris Match interviewer that Russian criticism of NATO means that “we are sliding back to the Cold War era.”

“If a military alliance – which is, by the way, our partner in general – keeps on moving even closer to our borders, if missile defense or something else is being reconfigured, it is a good enough reason for us to be concerned. I think this is an absolutely open and correct position. It does not mean that we are sliding back to the Cold War, but we must take this into consideration.”

The Russian president then applauded France for taking a “well-balanced position on this issue.”
“I would like to say that major European actors…France in particular, have taken a well-balanced position on this issue, and we have always been grateful to France for such a balanced position with regard to NATO enlargement.”

Medvedev then mentioned a number of global challenges that Russia and NATO can address together, including “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, terrorism and drug trafficking.”

Nostalgia for the Soviet period?

Royant then asked Medvedev, who was born in the Soviet Union, how he perceived those times, and if there was any feeling of nostalgia.

“I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union and received my education at that time,” the President responded. “But the society we had back then, its ideology and principles are absolutely alien to me. And that is why emotionally many memories of those times are dear and pleasant to me, but if we consider the social foundations of that period, let alone the economy, I would not like to return to that past at all, even for a moment.”

Medvedev and PM Vladimir Putin have “the same blood”

The interview then turned to the question of Medvedev’s relations with Vladimir Putin, because, as Royant reminded, “once Mr. Putin said that you are ‘people of the same blood,’ and what future do you see for yourself in connection with the 2012 presidential elections?”

“Regarding blood type,” Medvedev replied, “I think Mr Putin was right: we do have the same blood type in the medical sense of the word, as we found out recently. (Laughter)

“As regards the political future, no one can really tell. But, naturally, we are responsible people, and we will no doubt discuss together the political future of our country and our places in it. In any case, so far we have an effectively functioning alliance that is, in my opinion, good for our country.

“In general, it is very good when President and Prime Minister have good relations. It is worse when these relations are different.

Don't you think so?” the President asked

Iran is responsible for Iran

Concerning the burning issue of Iran and what Russia can do to help resolve the standoff [presently, Iran is developing nuclear facilities for the ostensible purpose of providing nuclear energy; other countries, however, believe that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program and are demanding that severe sanctions be placed on it], Medvedev said that Iran holds the key to a solution in its own hands.

“I think that Iran’s own responsible behavior is the key to solving this problem. We believe that Iran should adapt its nuclear programs to meet the requirements of international organizations such as the IAEA; on the other hand, we want it to conduct its nuclear activities in a manner that is transparent in terms of control.

“As yet, unfortunately, there are a lot of problems here. Therefore, we are continuing our consultations with key parties to the negotiations and we are ready to contribute to this process together, with France as well,” the president clarified.

Medvedev added that Russia is very concerned about the situation because “if something very serious happens, it will lead to a humanitarian disaster, let alone other problems for the entire region.”

The Medvedev philosophy

The Paris Match interviewer then asked about the Medvedev “philosophy”

“Sometimes I do feel like catching a break, doing something different,” the President said. “So I have several things that I find interesting, at least for the time being, and they include both music and photography. I like music and listen to it quite a lot in my free time. And like any other normal person, I read books.”

Then Dmitry Medvedev expressed his fondness of French culture, while admitting that he “regretted learning English instead of French or German.”

“Sometimes, I watch movies, including, by the way, French ones. I like French cinematography, because it is much closer to ours. I have nothing against Hollywood – Hollywood is good, too. Yet French cinematography is something much closer to our Russian perception, to our highly sensitive Russian soul.

“By the way, I admire how French cinema has been developing. I think it is the experience that Russian cinema should definitely build on. It’s a pity I cannot enjoy French movies in French. I have always regretted learning English instead of French or German, and I will tell you why. When I was in the legal profession I had to read a lot of books and legislations of France and Germany, which are much closer to ours, especially the civil law, than the English law. Similarly, the Code Napoleon is also obviously best read in the original,” Medvedev asserted.

Is the Russian President happy?

But is the Russian president happy, Royant inquired.

“You know, I believe that everyone should be happy to serve their country, the country that they love, and to try to do good too, especially at such a high level. From this point of view I am definitely happy. Lack of time, however, is the other side of the story. But what can I do about it?” he said.

Foreign media and Russia

And what about the way that Russia is sometimes perceived in foreign media? Medvedev took a very diplomatic stance on the issue.

“Well, to tell the truth, sometimes it makes me feel really bad, but I understand one thing. On the one hand, it could be possible to highlight different things, but on the other hand, these problems persist, and the fact that our foreign friends are writing about them is yet another reason for us to set about addressing these issues,” he acknowledged.

How are global leaders doing?

And finally, Medvedev was asked his opinion of the G20 leaders, and if they are keeping up with modern times.

“I would hate to hurt the feelings of the leaders who gather around this table, because I am one of them,” Medvedev began, before showing his surprise that so many diverse nations can sit down and discuss international problems.

“I can say just one thing, which is quite simple and everybody is talking about it. Twenty years ago it was impossible to imagine that the leaders of the United States, France, the Soviet Union, China and some other nations would sit down at the same table to discuss the global economy. Yet, this is what we have today, and we are making decisions. These decisions are not ideal, perhaps, but nonetheless, they are decisions, not just declarations. Therefore, I think that on the whole we can find a common language, although some issues could be resolved more promptly. And we still have many things to do,” the president concluded.

(To read the entire transcript of the Paris Match interview, please go to the Kremlin’s official website page, available in English