‘Elections decide everything’ – Vladimir Putin
The interview started off with a bang, with one of the questioners asking Putin bluntly: “Why are you returning to the Kremlin?”
Judging by the length of his response, it is a question that Putin seems to have asked himself on more than one occasion.
“As I’ve mentioned many times,” he began thoughtfully, “I never aspired to this position. Initially, when this offer was made, I explicitly expressed doubts over my ability to handle such a huge workload and enormous responsibility (that determined) the fate of the nation.”
Once he accepted the responsibilities, however, Putin said that he worked for nothing less than “maximum results.”
Putin then took issue with the political opposition, which is often heard uttering the platitude: “it’s so bad, things can’t get worse.”
Things could get worse
“I strongly disagree with those who say ‘it cannot get worse,’” the Russian premier said, before slipping into a brief history lesson of Russia circa the1990s.
“I would like to remind our left-wing audience, i.e., the Communist Party and leftist radicals, of the late 1980s…People were saying, it cannot get worse.’ And yet there it came! The 1990s were marked by a complete collapse of the social care system, factories and even whole industries ground to a halt. People didn’t get their pensions, allowances and wages for months. There were times when pensioners, workers and servicemen had to wait for up to six months to get their money. Crime was rampant. Things were so tense that the country was heading towards civil war.”
Putin then drew attention to one of the predominant moments of his early presidency, when he was forced to extinguish the burning powder keg in the Caucasus.
“We must call a spade a spade and remember the massacre in the Caucasus, when aviation and heavy equipment, including tanks, were deployed,” he said. “We still have a lot of problems there, also in terms of crime and terrorism, but, thankfully, it’s not what we had in the past.”
The slightest false move, Putin said, and Russia could find itself facing similar hard times.
“That’s why I would be very careful about phrases like ‘it cannot get worse,’" he warned. “Triggered by two or three missteps, this past could be back with a crushing blow before we brace ourselves for a response."
Putin then took deliberate aim at those who suggested that Russia is in for a period of stagnation, similar to that when “Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was in power.”
“I do not want to sound too critical, because there were many achievements,” Putin said. “But in fact I do not recall any of the post-war Soviet leaders who would be as hard-working as myself or the incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev. I don’t remember any.”
"I didn't change the Constitution"
Defending the decision to run again for the presidency, Putin pointed to the historical experience of other countries (the United States, Canada, France, for example), stressing that everything is being done in accordance with the Russian Constitution.
“I didn’t try to hold on to power, although I could have easily taken advantage of the constitutional majority of the ruling United Russia party to amend the Constitution,” Putin said. “I didn’t change the Constitution to suit one man only – myself.”
“I wanted the people to see that there would be no tragedy in a natural change of power,” he added.
Putin reminded his interlocutors that Russia is still trying to get back on track following one of the most turbulent periods of its long history.
“We’ve been through what could be called the collapse of a state – the Soviet Union broke up,” he began. “What was the Soviet Union? Basically, it’s Russia; it was just called a different name. We went through the turmoil of the 1990s and only in the past decade did we start to get back on our feet, providing for domestic peace and order and balancing out the situation. Russia is in desperate need of a period of sustainable development.”
Speaking on what motivated he and Dmitry Medvedev to work in co-ordination with each other, Putin said there was a general feeling at the time that “something was looming” on the economic horizon.
“Of course, we didn’t anticipate that we would be hit by a crisis, but we saw that something was looming, something was happening to the world economy that could cause a crisis,” Putin explained. “We understood it back then, we felt that… That’s why we decided to go through the next four-year term together, and if we managed to pass it successfully, we would be able to make our proposals on the power configuration to society – on the roles each of us would play, on the guiding principles and the path we would take our country along.”
The Russian Prime Minister stressed, however, that in the final analysis, it will be “up to Russia’s citizens to approve these suggestions at the polling station or not.”
“Elections decide everything,” he emphasized.
Medvedev "natural choice" to lead United Russia
When asked why it was decided that President Dmitry Medvedev would lead the United Russia ticket for the upcoming election, Putin pointed to his success in the last four years in implementing crucial projects.
“As the president of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev has been able to implement a number of crucial projects that prior to that had existed only on paper and stayed within minister rooms,” Putin said. “He introduced them into the public domain and practice. These things were initially formulated in the development program worked out for our country till 2020, the famous ‘Program 2020’.”
According to the prime minister, this program included the development of democratic institutions, diversification of the economy and its modernization, which previously existed in the hall of power as “mere words.”
“President Medvedev has to take credit for taking these words out of behind-the-scenes discussions and ministerial rooms and introducing them into public domain and practical work,” Putin explained. “So it will be natural if Dmitry Medvedev heads the United Russia Party list, if the voters cast their ballots in favor of this ticket and we are able to form a viable parliament in which United Russia retains its leading role.”
In such a situation, Dmitry Medvedev could form a viable government to jointly implement the policies that we have put on his agenda, he added.
Putin was then questioned on the creation of the Popular Front movement, which was devised to bring new talent to United Russia, as well as winning numbers in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 4, 2011.
“We had to put together the list of United Russia, and I said back then that we would draw new people on to the party’s list by using the potential of the Popular Front, by attracting new people with fresh ideas and the energy to implement those ideas,” he said. “Out of 600 names on the list, more than half have never taken part in federal elections, which means we have managed to update the party’s ticket by more than 50 per cent.”
It had been predicted that 20-25 per cent of the ticket would come from non-members of United Russia, but that figure has increased to a third, he added.
The "loneliness" that comes with power
Another question directed at Putin centered on the feelings of “loneliness” of political power, which Putin explained comes with the necessity of “keeping people at a distance.”
“Their loneliness is not related to staff policy; it has nothing to do with appointments and reshuffles,” the Russian premier explained.
“Prominent political figures cannot let anyone near themselves,” Putin said, because it is important not to “favor certain people over others.” Decisions, he said, cannot be based on “personal sympathies;” they have to be based on “professional, impartial analysis and the will to take responsibility.”
“If you don’t mind me speaking frankly,” Putin continued, “we are all only human, and everyone wants their share of the benefits that being close to someone in power provides. I am forced to put it plainly, but it’s true. Not everyone pursues that, of course. Some people, especially personal acquaintances, have their own moral code and never come to me with requests. They live their own life, sorting out their own problems, but the temptation to ask a top-ranking official for help is always there, so we have to keep people at a distance. This is what causes that solitude that you mentioned.”
As for the willingness to get rid of people who have proven themselves inefficient, Putin reiterated that Russia needs a lot of new people in the government and the parliament, while taking care not to go overboard.
“At the same time, we cannot go to extremes,” he warned. “There has to be a degree of succession in power, we cannot start playing games. We cannot go and dismiss the parliament just because someone on television or some print journalist said we have to. That would not be serious.”
Putin then borrowed a quote from Charles De Gaulle, the French leader who underlined the difficulty of ruling when he advised: “Always choose the hardest way, you will never find rivals there.”
In defense of the hawk
Putin was then asked to explain why the West views him as a “hawk,” as well as his thoughts on the “reset” of Russian-US relations, which has been suffering a setback of late.
“Well, the hawk is a good bird,” Putin responded with his trademark brusqueness, which never ceases to entertain audiences.
“But you are certainly no dove,” the interviewer then responded.
“I am a man and I do not like clichés,” Putin shot back sternly. “Our foreign policy, in the past and today, was thought-out and aimed at creating a favorable environment for Russia’s development. This means we want to have friendly relations with all of our partners.”
It is natural that Russia defends its national interests, but we have always been respectful of others when we do this and we plan to maintain that in the future, he added.
Asked to provide his opinion on the “political uncertainty” in the country, Putin stressed the high level of trust that the people placed in the president, himself and United Russia.
“I firmly believe that the most important thing for politicians today is not their official rank, but the trust of the people,” he said. “That is the reason I am here today. It is the basis, the foundation that I was able to use to make my work efficient, and I do believe the Russian government’s work was quite efficient over that period, despite the crisis.”
What kind of skirt does Russia need?
Putin then had a humorous exchange with Vladimir Kulistikov of NTV, who suggested that Russia, in preparing for the next crisis, needed “a program that would be like a good skirt on a girl: short and offering an attractive perspective.”
Putin warned against reinforcing self-fulfilling prophecies, saying that “if we keep talking about the fall of stock market indices, they might never recover.”
“Russia will grow by 4 per cent this year, which is satisfactory. China will grow by 9 per cent, which is a good result. We have to push for a 6 to 7 per cent economic growth figure. We managed to deliver that in the pre-crisis years and we will try to do it again, as I have said before,” he said.
Putin then returned to the skirt metaphor: “a short skirt looks good on some women while others are better off wearing something else…”
“A longer skirt,” Kulistikov suggested.
“Yes, other clothes,” Putin said. “From that point of view, I believe we have managed to make ourselves safe from unpleasant surprises as we negotiated on Russia’s WTO accession. Essentially, entire branches of Russia’s economy are going through a long transition period. I will say it again, however: we will only make our final decision when all of the failsafe clauses that we might need to protect our economic interests at one point or another are in place.”
The Russian prime minister reassured his audience, saying he was quite confident that the Russian economy was prepared to handle another economic storm.
“Taking into account the reserves we have and our experience of going through the 2008-2010 crisis,” he said, “I would say I am sure we are ready to handle any problems that might come up.”
Rounding out the question-and-answer session, Putin was asked if the Popular Front “will help United Russia win?”
“You understand, of course, that I want United Russia to win at the elections,” Putin responded candidly. “First of all, the party is headed by the incumbent president. If voters voice their approval of our suggestion on how power should be configured in Russia it would allow us to create a stable and capable government headed by Dmitry Medvedev.”
Putin, however, explained that there are other reasons, mostly connected with strengthening democratic principles in the country, for creating Popular Front aside from making United Russia stronger.
“We need to enable democratic elements, to let people feel they are connected to the administration.” He explained. “The Russian Popular Front, the preliminary elections among most noteworthy people there, these are the instruments that I think should work towards expanding the democratic element in Russia’s governance – it is a real, direct-vote democracy and I think, generally, it will help make Russia’s political system stronger.”
Asked for his predictions on the result of the upcoming parliamentary elections, Putin gave no numbers, but his choice was crystal clear.
“United Russia has to remain the leading political party in the country and the Parliament,” Putin stressed in concluding his remarks. “That would be a good result.”