'We did suspect our neighbour was not fully sound mentally'
Q: Thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity to ask you some questions on the results of the past year. What do you think about 2008? From your point of view, was it mostly positive or negative?
Dmitry Medvedev: Many different things happened this year. Of course, each year is different. On the one hand, this year brought us some happy occasions, some victories – in sports, first and foremost; in arts… There were some significant achievements in the economy and in the social sphere. From this point of view, this year was a normal one; it was the way we expected it to be.
But on the other hand, this year brought us some dramatic events as well. Of course, I mean primarily what happened in the Caucasus – Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia. Also, I must say that throughout the last part of the year we have been doing our best to overcome the consequences of the global financial crisis.
Thus, this year had both many positive things and big problems… serious trials for our country.
Q: Mr. President, let’s go back to one of the main subjects you mentioned: the war in the Caucasus. My colleagues have prepared a short video as a reminder about the events of August 2008. Let’s take a look.
Can you recall how the events unfolded? How did you find out that Georgia had attacked Tskhinval? And how did you make the decision? Did it take you long? Or maybe, on the contrary, it was a quick decision.
Dmitry Medvedev: This picture will stay with me for the rest of my life. Things like this produce such a deep impression that they stay with you forever. To me, this was perhaps one of the most difficult days of my life. I can recall minute by minute what happened on that day.
At about 1 a.m., Defence Minister Serdyukov called me. He said that according to the information they had, Georgia had declared war on South Ossetia. But there was no troop movement at the time. I told him to monitor the situation, to follow the events, and report to me on a regular basis, which is what he did for several hours. Every thirty minutes, he called me and told me what was going on: when the tanks first appeared, when other military vehicles transporting Georgian troops moved in, and so on.
For some time, we still hoped this was a provocation and that Georgia wouldn’t follow through. But once missile launchers and tanks opened fire, and I was told there were casualties among Russian nationals, including our peacekeepers, I didn’t hesitate a single minute and I gave orders to return fire and destroy the attacking forces.
Naturally, when making such a decision, one has to consider all the consequences, including the irreversible nature of the orders. Until you reach a certain point, it is still possible for you to turn back; but once the decision is made, it is impossible to go back to the way things were before. Of course, I realised this. And I hoped that common sense would prevail. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The Georgian leadership started a full-blown, bloody war against its neighbour.
We took all the necessary measures and, on the whole, I believe the military campaign, which lasted only five days, demonstrated the effectiveness of our response, the strength of the Russian Army, and the fighting spirit of our troops. They were able to inflict extensive and, basically, irreparable damage on Georgia’s military without suffering major losses themselves.
As a result of these actions, peace was restored in the Caucasus, and, most importantly, tens of thousands of people who were on the verge of extermination were protected. Thus, that was a very difficult day for me, but I think we had no other option and the events that followed confirm that we made the right decision.
Q: Mr. President, you’ve just mentioned that it was difficult for you to make the decision to send our troops into action. Were you absolutely certain the operation would be successful?
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, of course, we did suspect that our neighbour was not fully sound mentally, although we did not think it was that bad. But we knew about their preparations. I have said this before: at some point, I realised that our Georgian partner had simply ceased to talk to the Russian Federation. In the past, he used to suggest that we meet someplace, in Sochi or somewhere else, and discuss things. But at some point he stopped talking to us.
It was at this point that I began to suspect he might resort to force. So naturally, we took some steps to be prepared. And this preparation made it possible for us to minimize our losses. The Russian Army destroyed Georgia’s military infrastructure, but at the same time it avoided inhumane actions.
But, of course, I could only hope that our Army and our peacekeeping force would fight valiantly. Their training, their morale and courage proved excellent. They were worthy of the Russian Army’s glorious past. And this, of course, is precious.
Q: By the way, while you were still running for president, as you were preparing to become the president of the largest country in the world, did you ever consider that maybe you, Dmitry Medvedev, personally, as the Supreme Commander in Chief, would at some point have to make a decision which would transfer Russia from peace to a state of war? And, in fact, is it possible to foresee such things?
Dmitry Medvedev: That’s a good question. Anybody making a responsible decision to run for the highest office in the country – the office which makes one the Supreme Commander in Chief – must not rule out such a possibility. This is why the President is both the Guarantor of the Constitution and the Supreme Commander in Chief.
Of course, it is very, very difficult for anyone, including myself, to make such a decision. It is one thing to have certain functions defined under the Constitution and other laws as an abstract possibility in case of an armed conflict – and quite another to make an actual decision when a real armed conflict unfolds… when you realize it is enough to say a word and you’ll never be able to go back to the way things were before. This is a genuine ordeal for anyone. I think that under such conditions a responsible leader should think soberly, consider all the pros and cons, and make a balanced decision.
Q: It sounds like you made the decision to send troops to South Ossetia rather quickly. But how do you usually make decisions? And which ones, aside from the decision on South Ossetia, were the most difficult to make?
Dmitry Medvedev: Some decisions really have to be made quickly. Moreover, in some situations, like the decision with regard to South Ossetia, there is no one I can consult. I just have to make a decision, period. Other decisions are also difficult, but they are not so urgent. I mean, you have time to consider all the pros and cons. I often have to make such decisions, but I can tell you frankly they are nowhere near the decisions like those that involve using the Russian Army to protect law and order, to protect Russian citizens.
Some decisions involving the economy are also not easy to make. These include the decisions we make regarding the financial crisis the entire world is battling today. In this case, you have time to consider everything: how the situation is evolving in other countries, what has been done in other countries, both now as well as in the past. Such decisions are made as a result of “brainstorming.” It’s not like you have to decide right then and there. But I repeat, for me, these decisions are easier to make, even though their consequences may be very, very significant as well.
Q: Let’s go back to March. I’m sure you remember the presidential race and its overwhelming outcome. On television, it was rather bright, too.
Still, we have entered a period, by the will of the world events, in which some things do not work, and some things works different than they should. In such moments many may be tempted to act ‘differently,’ too. For instance, local authorities may try to dodge their duties or employers may be tempted to lay off their employees, considering the labour force as mere dead wood, while honest citizens may also be tempted to position themselves above the law. Also, criminals may be tempted to decide their time has come. How will the state react to this? Have you any approach to such things? Or do you rely on improvisation?
Dmitry Medvedev: In such a situation, the state should react wisely but strictly. You mentioned honest people. Well, their distinction from others is that even when there are temptations, their brains work appropriately, and they do not commit crimes. This concerns the overwhelming majority of our citizens.
As for hardships, they may indeed be there, including an increase in unemployment which is now about six percent of the economically active population. But this is not a high figure. It’s less than in the U.S. and Europe.
However, during the crisis, employers may also face problems. Normal and responsible employers should simply behave according to the law, which means that they should try and continue to pay wages or allowances. At the end of the day, what we succeeded in doing in recent years is that we managed to create huge human potential. There used to be much discussion about the lack of a labour force, overproduction of, say, lawyers and managers whereas qualified labour was in short supply. Rural areas have received considerable investment.
The reason I am saying all this is that any sensible employer – either the government or private – should, in this situation, do their best to preserve basic labour force potential for the future because if we consider current developments on the world markets, clearly the crisis is not a pleasant thing, but it will pass eventually, as in the rest of the world. And in time, growth will follow. So, a sensible employer should have the necessary capacity to restore production in order to switch on the conveyor belt that was stopped earlier.
It is very delicate work, and it’s up to all of us, the state and businesses, as well as society in general.
If it is a question of certain infringements, as I have mentioned – the reaction should be prompt. If the labour code is violated, if wages are not paid, if someone is fired unlawfully, the prosecutor’s office should immediately respond and instigate administrative proceedings or, a criminal prosecution, if necessary. Otherwise, these things won’t be suppressed.
And it’s up to all – not only federal officials, but also heads of regions and municipalities. In this situation, nobody will be able to sit on the sidelines – one will have to get involved or let someone else do the job.
Q: Dmitriy Anatolyevich, could you please elaborate on the future in terms of the crisis, as we have countless forecasts of possible scenarios for the future, so different from each other that it’s something close to wild guesses. Do you think the “bottom,” as economists put it, will be reached? When will Russia come out of this hard situation? And, very importantly, what country will Russia be when it is over?
Dmitry Medvedev: I am not an analyst or fortune-teller, so I am not going to present any forecasts which would be irresponsible on my part. At the same time, I can say that, first of all, this crisis has patterns which are not quite clear. And there are some hopes that since it started so unexpectedly, it may, with a consolidated stance by the states outlining a new financial architecture, end even quicker than we hope. But, I repeat, it depends on future research on this subject.
As to what country Russia will be when it comes out of the crisis, this is indeed very important. It is crucial that Russia becomes not weaker but stronger. The crisis is not only about irritating problems like less money, smaller investments and discontinuation of some production, but also about new opportunities.
Our economy is not ideal. And in this situation, we must try and make it more efficient by optimising it, creating new jobs. It is essential to raise productivity, understand what professions may be required. We do have unemployment, but at the same time we have many vacancies, which means unemployment is always peculiar. We need to fill vacancies that are crucial for the development of our country, and continue to create infrastructure and strengthen the non-financial sector of the economy.
It is our immediate task, just as we must reinforce our financial sector. We have to admit that our banking system belongs to an economy in transition. We need banks that are more powerful and more prepared to address domestic problems and, at the same time, the ones that receive state subsidies should be more helpful in resolving problems. This does not mean the problem is insurmountable. We must monitor the situation and, in some cases, help some banks.
At the moment, the government is preparing a list of several hundred companies which will receive state support. We were not going to do so six months ago, but now we have no other choice. We have to directly finance areas which are strategic for our country. We have enterprises in the country which are city-forming. We’re not alone in this. Other countries do the same. This is our current challenge and it is very important.
So, our task is to come out of this crisis with minimal losses and, hopefully, with improved manufacturing capabilities, by diversifying the economy through innovation and thus decreasing the dependency on exported raw materials, the latter being admittedly one of our drawbacks.
Those countries that are export-oriented lose more. Despite rapid development they are now facing problems. It’s not only about us but our neighbours as well.
Therefore we must create an economy that is more balanced and diversified, represented both by high-tech industries and new jobs, with properly developed infrastructure. This is something we have to address.
Q: Dmitriy Anatolyevich, we still have many questions to discuss.
Dmitry Medvedev: All right. There is no rush.
Q: You’ve met many world leaders lately. They come to us and you go to them. Do you feel Russia is comfortable in the world, or not? In particular, how is Russia forcefully asserting its interests?
Dmitry Medvedev: I am fully convinced that Russia’s interests should be met with all means available. First of all, it is about respecting international law and international institutions like the United Nations, as well as regional organisations in which we are involved. It is also about using a military component, if necessary. The world is very contradictory and far from being simple, with a huge number of internal conflicts, a considerable number of threats, including international terrorism and crime. We must be ready to respond to all of these challenges, and, when necessary, in a strong manner – by use of force. Otherwise we will not be able to ensure our state’s security.
Which does not mean we should get carried away. On the contrary, we must try and find compromises and reach agreements with all kinds of forces in the world, unless they are openly aggressive towards the Russian Federation.
In this respect, I feel quite comfortable talking to my counterparts abroad. The problem is that sometimes I feel there is an attempt to put Russia in its place. And some time ago, when Russia was in a different situation, the attempts may have been successful. Now, however, this is unacceptable. We greatly dislike the desire of our partners from NATO to expand their borders without limits. And we openly tell them so, saying it does not strengthen international security. On the contrary, we should act differently and create a new, up-to-date, mechanism. Incidentally, this is what my idea of a pan-European security treaty is aimed at.
Attitudes towards this idea differ. Some of our European partners approve of it, saying it is interesting and that they want it and are ready to take part in it. At the same time, the whole of Europe, let alone the world, is part of NATO. So there must a mechanism to guarantee the security of other countries. As President of the Russian Federation I will always stand on principle on these issues, even if someone does not like it.
There are other situations. We have discussed the conflict in the Caucasus and Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia extensively. When it comes to attempts on the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, Russia’s stance will ultimately be simple and strict. I’ve said this more than once; we will protect the interests of our citizens wherever they are. And there is no violation of international law and order in doing this. It is an obligation of any country and any leader.
So, my relationships with my counterparts are quite good and comfortable. But we absolutely must not forget about our national interests.
Q: Dmitriy Anatolyevich, in this context it is appropriate to ask you a question about our armed forces. In this outgoing year, Russian military officials have often appeared on TV screens – not only in connection with South Ossetia, but also with remote maritime voyages, air flights and missile launches.
What is the essence of the ongoing reforms to the army? Incidentally, will the fixed service term change?
Dmitry Medvedev: The essence is understandable…
Q: Every year the issue of the future of the CIS is raised. And a special topic within this subject is relations between Russia and Ukraine. We are seeing another stage in the gas conflict now. And the phrase ‘Ukrainian gas blackmail’ has become very common. How do you see the coming year in terms of relations with Ukraine in Russian foreign policy?
Dmitry Medvedev: To be honest with you, all this is annoying. Russia and Ukraine should have a special relationship. A brotherly relationship based on a thousand-year history, on common values, close economic ties, genetic ties between people. Unfortunately, there has not been anything positive in this area recently. I will not go into the details of Russian-Ukrainian relations. But the fact that some Ukrainian leaders made the decision to supply weapons to Georgia and send people there, trained to shoot at Russian soldiers, can only be considered a crime against Russian-Ukrainian relations. It will stay in our memory forever.
With regards to economic relations, of course they are affected by events that have transpired in Ukraine in recent years. The problem is that there is no efficient government in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian political establishment is in constant internal conflict. Ukrainian citizens are affected by that. Russian-Ukrainian relations are hurt by that. And what is happening in the area of gas is just another example of how ineffective the Ukrainian government is. Instead of creating more debts, they should put all their efforts into paying them off.
They need to find some efficient method, but instead they keep coming up with strange ideas, taking different stands. It’s just embarrassing! They need to pay all the money down to the last rouble, if they don’t want their economy to face sanctions and demands from the Russian Federation. It is just impossible to go on like this! They must pay all the money. I hope that Ukrainian politicians will make all the necessary decisions in this respect, pay all the debts, and we will enter the New Year with at least this issue cleared of the dust of the past. Regarding relations in general, I will say it again; I don’t think they have been at a lower point in recent years. And that is really sad.
Q: If Ukraine doesn’t pay, are we going to turn off the gas?
Dmitry Medvedev: It is not our goal – to turn something off, our goal is to get the money. And if Ukraine doesn’t pay we will use all available tools, this is for sure. There should be no illusions. Of course, we will fulfil all our obligations towards other customers in other countries, including Europe.
Q: Finishing up the talk about foreign policy, what objective does Russia have for the New Year? And which events in the area of international relations do you consider most important?
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, there are many objectives. We need to secure Russia’s position in foreign relations. I have talked about it many times. But I think today the first objective is to overcome and deal with the consequences of the global financial crisis. So I am hopeful about the measures we are going to take. We will stay in constant contact with our partners in the frame work of the big 20, and G8 world’s largest economies. And of course we will pay very close attention to the development of our relations with the CIS, EurAsEc, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
This will be the main focus, because it is extremely important to us to build relations with our partners. We have already launched a number of international integration mechanisms, signed a lot of papers dealing with uniting our systems, creating a unified customs system. Dozens of documents have been signed recently. I hope that next year, a new customs union and a new system of economic relations between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus will begin to function. It is very important and has a lot of potential. It is a known fact that even in times of crisis, it is better to deal with things collectively. The Collective Security Treaty Organization is also very important. Collective security safeguards our interests and counters international threats such as drug trafficking and terrorism. We look at different problems, including the situation in Afghanistan, another very important area of co-operation in this respect.
The Shanghai Organisation is another regional entity that we have high hopes for. I think it is very important for the leaders of these states to stay in close touch. In the past year, or even less, since the time I took office in May, I have had a significant number of meetings with our CIS, EurAsEc and CSTO partners. I have had 5 or 6 meetings with some of them. And I think it is very good. There have been many meetings with other key partners as well. So the international aspect is very important, even though it requires travelling outside the country to participate in international events. Especially with the global problems we are experiencing now. So our foreign policy will be friendly, comfortable for our partners, and of course, based on our national interests. We will continue to work on this.
Q: I will specify my question. The United States of America has always been a priority in our foreign policy. Next year Barack Obama will be President. What do you foresee in regards to relations with the United States?
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I would like this to be a partnership relationship as well, and nothing else. As far as priorities go – when I had a phone conversation with President-elect Barack Obama, he told me that he considers relations with Russia a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. I agree 100% with that. And I hope that we will be able to build a much stronger and more efficient relationship than before. Because a lot has been done in recent years, but some opportunities for developing normal relations with America were missed. And we think it was not our fault.
Q: Going from the priorities of Barack Obama to the priorities of Dmitry Medvedev. From our interview we can tell that the past year has not been easy. War, economic crisis and Ukraine. So there were quite a few unexpected things. Would you say that even with all the unexpected things combined, you were able to keep your priorities stable? In other words, what are the priorities of President Dmitry Medvedev today?
Dmitry Medvedev: Priorities are called priorities because you can’t change them every month. Priorities stay the same: the development of our state, fulfilment of our plans until 2020, solving social issues, basically, providing a more comfortable, quality of life for our people. That is the top priority, there can be nothing else. And such priorities do not change.
Internationally – and we just discussed that – this means, of course, building friendly relations with other countries and securing our national interests. So priorities do not change, we are still under the same banners. However, sometimes methods of achieving objectives do change.
And of course we need to take into consideration the current situation. Nevertheless, I have said it before and will say it again. Our main objective now, the objective of the government, is to secure the social achievements of recent years, social guarantees that we have worked so hard on. And I think we have the resources for that. Because even though the situation is difficult, we plan to raise pensions by 19% this year. The year after that, pensions will grow by 30% on average. In 2010 we expect a 50% growth. I am saying all this because even with the current economic difficulties, we need to think about fulfilling our social obligations. The same goes for minimum wages, which will now be over 4000 roubles… And fulfilling our obligations in the demographic sphere, our obligations towards small businesses… All these objectives need to be fulfilled, but of course we need to make adjustments to the current situation. The number one priority is the social security of our people. There is nothing more important now.
Q: We will also remember 2008 for Russia’s outstanding sports victories. To be honest, I just want to dwell on these memories. Let’s dwell again!
Dmitry Medvedev: Let’s.
Q: Were you able to watch anything live with the rest of the country? Because the ratings show that practically the whole country watched the historic World Hockey Championship final and the Russia – Holland football match.
Dmitry Medvedev: I watched everything, all the key games, of course I was rooting for our teams, then I called them with congratulations, I just couldn’t help it. I watched the hockey match and the football matche involving Russia and Zenit in the UEFA Cup and many other events.
To be honest, I want to watch them over and over again, because when negative news piles up, it is nice to go back to good news. It is normal. There was, however, a period when I did not watch anything, unfortunately it was the Olympics. I did not see anything the whole time. But there was a reason for that.
Q: Each one of these sporting victories gave people an amazing sense of unity and national pride. And another aspect that I find important is that each one of these victories made sports popular. What do you think we need to do in order to have more moments like this in the future? So that we continue to experience such things over and over again?
Dmitry Medvedev: We need to work on that. Take it seriously like we have been doing in the recent years. We need to build new athletics facilities, open big sports centres, swimming pools as well as smaller football and hockey grounds. That is probably the most important thing that the state can do. The rest is for people themselves to decide. Everywhere I have been lately I have seen that people have started to really focus on developing sporting infrastructure… Every governor I have spoken with… It has become popular – and not only because we have had so much success, but because people want it. So people gladly come, join athletics classes, play sports. It becomes a lifestyle. It means that our nation is becoming healthier.
We understand that a person who is into sports has more opportunities in life. Sports, general fitness. I think a very important thing right now is not to lose what has already been done. WE should follow through with the good initiatives that we have right now. If the construction of some sporting facility has started it needs to be finished. As far as the emotional aspect, I agree with you. These are unforgettable moments. There are moments that contribute to creating a negative emotional setting, and there are others, moments when you feel very proud of your country, the athletes and even the fans that support the teams and exhibit their best qualities. So I also gladly relive these moments.
Q: There is only one week left in 2008. How do you plan to spend the remaining days of the year, is there going to be any personal time? How do you and your family get ready for the New Year?
Dmitry Medvedev: There is not as much personal time as I would like. I really like the week before the holidays. I used to be able to do things with my family during this time… that was nice. I have my usual work schedule. But of course there will be season’s greetings, I can’t do without it. As far as the holidays are concerned, I have not figured out any major new things here. I think New Year’s is supposed to be celebrated with loved ones at home. Maybe some day I will go to someone’s house to celebrate, but for now I prefer to be at home with my family on New Year’s. I think this tradition also has deep roots in each of us. This is certainly part of our national characteristic, because New Year’s is a very positive holiday, a very special one in Russia. Nowhere else it is loved as much as it is loved here. Because elsewhere they have a number of holidays, but for us New Year’s is like a fairytale. It has deep roots in each of us, including me. So that is how I would like to celebrate New Year’s. And after that, if I have a chance, I may go skiing somewhere with my family.
Q: Many families have their own traditions in relation to New Year’s. Do you have any such traditions in your family?
Dmitry Medvedev: Our tradition is to have a good Christmas tree, a real one, of course. Everyone loves decorating the tree – my wife, my son. Like yesterday he said – ‘this tree does not look right, the colours of the lights are all wrong.’ So we like that. I enjoy doing it. And of course the chance to sit at a table with loved ones, wish them joy, wish joy to my mother. I think it is important for anyone. So nothing extraordinary.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President, for answering these questions, which are of great interest to our audience.
Dmitry Medvedev: I would like to wish you again Happy New Year, thank you for the work that you are doing, as journalists, representing the media. It is important in difficult conditions as well as in more simple situations. It is very important work, thank you very much. Pass my thanks and gratitude to your colleagues for everything they are doing. And of course, Happy New Year to all of them.
All: Thank you, Happy New Year.