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“We should respect our history but avoid being its captives” – Medvedev

Ahead of a two-day visit to Poland, President Dmitry Medvedev spoke with the Polish mass media about the development of the two countries’ relations, the Katyn massacre and the state of democracy in Russia.

Tomasz Lis: Good evening, Dmitry Anatolyevich. Very glad to see you, Mr. President.

The relations between Russia and Poland can be best characterized by the fact that this is already the second bilateral Russian-Polish visit. The situation looks similar to that in American-Russian relations when it seemed that a button was pressed, bringing about the improvement in relations. My question is as follows: what do you think about the quality of the relations between our countries, as of today? And why did Russia's leaders take the decision to press this relations-improving reset button?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, we would have had to take this decision, earlier or later. As it has been stressed more than once, both in various writings, in media, as well as at the political level, our relations have their own, rather complicated history that binds our two peoples. This history has both bright pages, and pages of pain and distress. But now it is essential that we leave behind this long-standing, trite historical paradigm of the development of Russian-Polish relations, and try to separate history, whichever it be, from today's life; otherwise we will forever remain captives of things that had been done before us, and for which the current generation of politicians (as well as the populations of Russia and Poland, in general) cannot stand responsible. And yet, we should not forget the lessons taught by history. We should remember the events of the past. The most difficult task is to establish a good balance between holding our history in respect and drawing conclusions from it on the one hand, and avoiding being its captives, on the other. That is why, perhaps, we have been unfortunately failing to achieve this balance until lately.

I am very glad that we have approached, though only in recent months, the point which will enable us to rise to a new level, find a new formula of relations between Russia and Poland. I would not like to use such terms as the "reset", which has become a bit hackneyed of late. We don’t really need to reset anything. We need to pave the way for the future while preserving, of course, all the best that has bound our countries, our peoples, and searching to give an adequate evaluation to the most severe moments of this history. If we succeed in this, Russian-Polish relations will see a bright future. They will develop smoothly. And I believe that it serves the interests of our countries and peoples.

TL: Mr. President, I think that the point you have mentioned – the one about our not remaining captives of history either in Russia or Poland, is a very important statement on the part of Russia with respect to its relations with the West, on the one hand, with Poland, on the other hand, and with the European Union.

Let us recall the last NATO-Russia summit. Your statement on the issue of the Stalin-era crimes was well received in Poland, as well as the last statement on the Katyn crime by the State Duma. However, due to the level of mistrust that has been growing, the millions of Poles ask themselves whether the changes that we are facing now are the strategic, the permanent ones or whether these are only tactical and instantaneous changes.

How could you comment on this situation? What would you say to the Poles who want to believe in these positive changes?

DM: You know I am ready to say this to the Poles who want to believe in positive changes and also to all citizens of our country, because if we want the changes to come we do it not only for the Polish people, but also for the Russian citizens. This is a two-way-road.

So, I would only like to say that today we can make such decisions that will clear log jams of the past and give us an opportunity to develop our relations in a completely different way. It is up to us and, in fact, it should be a strategic choice and not a tactical decision aimed at achieving some goals.

Do you know what I consider to be the problem in Polish-Russian relations and in some aspects of relations of our country with others? The whole set of historical problems and tragedies. One of them (a really terrible tragedy) is the Katyn tragedy. The whole generation was raised who probably do not know too much about this tragedy. I think that our task in the Russian Federation is to tell the truth about it. I had to provide certain assessments. And I can tell you outright that many people in our country agree with these assessments, though some of them do not.

Yesterday, the State Duma adopted a statement on this issue, a very important statement. All this reflects the changes in public opinion. Still, I believe that such changes should take place not only in Russia. In order to move our relations to a new partnership, future-oriented and strategic level, the public opinion in Poland should also change and the new vision of the new Russia should appear. Only in this case will we be able to bring the positions of social groups, politicians and other social forces together, so that contradictions of the past will grow considerably less. And then those changes that are taking place will actually become serious, strategic changes and not just a condition for reaching the goals.

As for my position, it is extremely simple. It is not necessary to consider our relations in a dimension of current considerations. My priorities in the sphere of foreign policy do not include the achievement of some goals for some of today’s ends. And it has nothing to do with Poland, for sure. First, in my opinion we have a really complicated history.

And second, I think that we can really change the future of our relations, having goodwill and confidence from both sides.

TL: Mr. President, your stand on the Katyn crime is absolutely clear. However, another position on the Katyn crime on behalf of the Government of the Russian Federation has been recently submitted to Strasbourg. It was referring to some unknown criminals. I wonder why there is such a difference between your clear stand and this statement.

DM: Frankly, I do not quite understand what position you are talking about, what the position is like and who expressed it? As for the political assessments, I have provided them all, and you know them well. I spoke about them in the Russian Federation. I spoke about them while answering to journalists’ questions when I visited your country in the days of sadness. It is absolutely obvious who committed this crime and why. Yesterday the State Duma raised this issue once again. Stalin and his henchmen are responsible for this crime. I have relevant documents from the so-called "top-secret folder". These documents can be found on the Internet and are available to the public with all the resolutions. The attempts to call these documents into question and to say that they had been falsified are nonsense. It is done by those who try to whitewash the nature of the regime established by Stalin in our country in a certain period of time.

As regards the formal position, the Russian side has never expressed any other formal positions. Therefore, if you speak about some assessments you just have to follow specific statements on specific cases. What are we talking about? Are we talking about those who made the political decision or those who implemented this decision, these are different issues. Go ahead.

TL: Mr. President, I would like to know your sentiment, as President and as a human being. What did you feel and how did you react as President and as a human being when you learned that the Polish President died in a plane crash on 10 April?

DM: Well, I will never forget these minutes. When I heard about the accident (I was in Saint-Petersburg at that time) and when it was reported to me I just could not believe that it might be actually true. First, I thought that there was a mistake. Then, after getting several official reports, I realized that the accident really happened – it is a terrible tragedy. As President and as a Russian citizen I mourned the death of a great number of people. The death of people is always a tragedy. This tragedy was even more grave and symbolic. The plane crashed in a place of sorrow. Frankly, all these factors certainly created a very heavy atmosphere around this tragedy.

Therefore, the first task of the Russian Federation at that time was to demonstrate to our Polish counterparts that we mourn with them and all Polish people. The second one was to say that we are ready to fully cooperate in the investigation of the circumstances of the tragedy, since I knew there will be people who would make the most odd and paradoxical assumptions. It was very important to express our willingness to thoroughly investigate the issue and find out all the circumstances.

You know, it was a very painful day not only for the Polish people, which is perfectly natural, or all those who lost their relatives in this dreadful accident, but also for our country and leadership of our State. It was a trial. Honestly, these moments, these feelings will stay in my memory forever.

TL: Mr. President, I believe that I am speaking for a million of Polish people saying that the sympathy and mourning expressed those days by you and millions of Russian people were perceived and appreciated with great respect. As you said it yourself, everyone in Poland would like to have the whole accident cleared up. By the way, in Poland there has been some speculation that it might have been a plot. And those pushing that idea forward are not very enthusiastic about certain developments of the investigation. For instance, the Russian authorities deny Polish access to the information on mandatory procedures applied in Smolensk Airport. Certainly, it is just a mere detail but it still creates some mistrust.

DM: I have my own view on how we proceed with our cooperation on the accident. I believe this kind of cooperation has pushed our relations forward very much. Indeed, it is a moment of great sorrow, a painful moment that led to this cooperation. But nevertheless it helped to demonstrate Russia’s good intentions.

As I said when that had happened, I naturally had a thought that we should clarify the situation as much as possible to erase every doubt, even the one of victims’ relatives or, say, people who were not very fond of Russia. It should be crystal-clear for everybody in Poland. And, in my view, the cooperation in the field is at a unprecedented high level anyways. It includes cooperation between law enforcement agencies, prosecution departments, our aviation authorities, and cooperation within the International Aviation Committee. Although we have had some technical difficulties – and they usually do exist – which could be interpreted differently by the sides, we have seen no significant contradictions. Certainly, efforts of different authorities could be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances. But I would like to reiterate that our specialists got all the necessary instructions. It does not mean that some minor mistakes are not possible. And if so, we should work together in a friendly way to address them.

When it happened – if we look back – I remember that after coming back to Moscow from Saint Petersburg I gave a call to Marshal of the Sejm, Mr. Komorowski, today’s Polish President, and said that we mourned with the Polish people and were ready to take any efforts to conduct an investigation. Naturally, the investigation of such an accident is traditionally pursued at two levels, i.e. in Russia where the accident or tragedy broke out and at the international level within the efforts of the International Aviation Committee. In my view, both of them are progressing normally.

The International Aviation Committee has already made its conclusions. And I think the whole of them should be brought to the attention of all sides concerned. Those conclusions should be released for the public in meticulous details: events and their timing, records of the air crew communications with ground control and flight operation officers, decisions made and what influenced the decision-making. There are plenty of interpretations of it, as well. Some of them, to be frank, are rather frustrating. Surely, I am not making comment on any of those interpretations. First, I am not conducting the investigation, and second, I have no moral right to do this now.

However, we must build up the complete picture of the accident with all the conclusions for the Polish people and the Russians. as well, and create conditions necessary for this. In my view, in this respect the Russian side has already done its part of the way. And frankly speaking, there was not a single case when someone would call me and ask: "We have no instructions whether to provide this piece to the Poles or not". From the very beginning, it has been stated that all the materials are to be provided to the Polish side, first, for the reason that the Polish people lost their President and most of their elite, which is a national tragedy. Second, if we hold back a mere piece, it will be the source of tensions in our relations for decades. In this respect, I reiterate, we have done all that has been needed.

TL: Mr. President, both the West and the East deemed the Lisbon summit, in which you participated, a crucial turning point in relations between Russia and NATO, as well as between Russia and the West. Do you consider it a milestone meeting or do you believe that, in the long run it might turn out not to be quite so?

DM: It is all in our own hands. This summit can be historic, and so it actually was in the spirit and atmosphere, especially given the situation we were facing two years ago. Yet it can turn out to be a meeting that did not live up to the expectations.

We succeeded in reloading (as it is common to say although, and I am repeating it, the use of this term has become a bit tedious) relations between Russia and NATO. Earlier we did the same in connection with our relations with America. We have established cooperation in addressing some current challenges, such as the Afghanistan issue, anti-drugs fight, terrorism, threat to maritime security (piracy in other words), and the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, apart from these problems there exist some issues that can unite us even more. One of them is the missile defense system in Europe.

I would like to recall the developments of the year 2008. The previous U.S. Administration suggested a well-known idea of deploying missile-defense interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, which was a much-debated issue. In our country this idea was perceived as an idea aimed at weakening the military capabilities of the Russian Federation: according to our experts, the third positioning area was created to respond to launches from the Russian territory and not with regard to some other countries that pose threats to NATO.

We have brought our position to the attention of NATO entities. At some point the situation became so serious that I had to take an unpleasant decision to deploy additional missiles. Consequently, the new Administration abandoned its decision, which was the right thing to do.

The idea of an ABM system has been preserved, though. It was proposed to us to consider the place the Russian Federation occupies in the European ABM system, which is being created on the basis of NATO's capabilities, primarily those of the United States of America. I told President Obama: "Right, O.K. We are ready. But we want such project to be equal so that we could understand the place of the Russian Federation, the threats that are jointly addressed, the nature of these threats, the responsibility we assume."

You know, I am going to say something, which I hope will not offend our friends and my US counterpart. I told President Obama, frankly, that the foundation we were building would be of greater importance for the situation that all of us would face in 10 years when the four-stage missile defense system would have been finally set up by 2020, and not for me and for him as politicians. Thus, this will be either a joint Russia-NATO initiative that will shield us from some potential threats, or, in case Russia fails to find its place in the system, by 2020 the situation can develop in such a way that the corresponding missile defense "umbrella" will be considered to be an element destabilizing nuclear equilibrium and weakening Russia's capabilities of ensuring nuclear parity as long as nuclear weapons exist. The second course of events might cause by 2020 another cycle of the arms race. And we would really loath this. This is why at the Lisbon summit I voiced the idea of sectoral responsibility of states within missile defense in Europe. And I expect my partners, the USA as well as other partners from NATO, to thoroughly study the idea of the Russian Federation.

TL: Mr. President noted a change in the US position on the ABM defense issue, which is true, but Russia too has radically changed its stance in this regard: as recently as 10 months ago the Kremlin made a statement describing NATO as a principal threat. What are the causes of these changes?

DM: You know, as regards our defense doctrine, this citation is not correct. Our defense doctrine does not say that NATO represents a principal threat. It says something different, namely that an uncontrolled NATO expansion could lead to the destabilization of the international situation. You should admit that this is not the same, these are absolutely different things. Therefore, we believe that Russia and NATO can have normal, partner, good-hearted relations. We already maintain good relations in various dimensions. If we come to agreement on the ABM defense this would mark a breakthrough in our relations for the future. I would like to reiterate that I have great hopes in this respect.

As for the position of NATO itself, it should be noted that the strategic concept adopted in Lisbon also states that NATO does not threaten Russia, which, too, represents a shift in the paradigm of our relations.

Certain developments, and you are right in this regard, take place very rapidly but this does not mean that we should not benefit from favorable changes. When we see that changes have accumulated to bring about a jump-like progress in these relations it would be a fault not to take advantage of the situation so that in 2020 we would not feel shame for what has been done earlier.

TL: Mr. President, Prime Minister Putin declared a desire to create a special zone in Vladivostok.

DM: Not a special zone. This is an incorrect translation, I believe. You are referring to an economic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Am I right?

TL: Yes, you are. And it is natural that this was done in Berlin because the German position in this respect is very positive and interested. In the context of this new space, what is your vision of economic relations between Russia and Poland since the Nord Stream project has been considered to be political, rather than economic?

DM: I am looking back to the beginning of the 1990s. I was a young lawyer at that time. Russia and Poland have gone through transformation of their social organization and economic structure. Polish businessmen, not very big as a rule, came to St. Petersburg from time to time in order to develop relations with Russia. I remember how I delivered mini-lectures for these business people on Russian legislation, primarily civil and commercial, for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. At that time, I believed that our economic relations would be bright. But the developments over the past decades have proved not to be as easy as that. And in respect of our economic relations, for example, we have much to do in this field, even if we set aside politics, normalization of relations between the two states, in general, and their future development.

In order to make such relations full-fledged and meaningful, alongside with relations with small and medium businesses, major projects are very important. This is of great significance, too. What are these major projects? They also include power projects.

You know, one could certainly describe the Nord Stream as a political project. But if the diversification of energy supplies in Europe and guaranteed supply of energy resources from Russia means policy, then this project is a political one. However, I believe that in this case we act on the basis of mutual interest. Russia is interested in selling its gas and selling it to as many consumers as possible. European countries are interested in receiving and processing respective energy resources including gas, as well, to heat houses, launch new projects and enterprises. There is no special politics here because this is mutually beneficial. But there is policy here since this is a major project requiring the political consent of many states. It is only natural that the Nord Stream gas pipeline project was declared a Trans-European, special and priority project. And in my relations with European leaders, I proceed exactly from this assumption.

Our task, the task of the Russian Federation, is to shape, on the basis of this project, a new economic environment for relations between our countries, for relations between Russia and the European Union. I would like to recall that the European Union is our major partner. Our trade turnover exceeds 200 billion euros a year and will undoubtedly grow. We are very important partners. But our partnership is based on a whole number of projects. Therefore, certain efforts to describe the Nord Stream or South Stream as an attempt by Moscow to make Europe dependent on Russia's energy look like an unfair and completely unjustified manipulation. Finally, these are mutually beneficial and, in my view, absolutely de-politicized things.

TL: In Europe and Poland they see your presidency in Russia as a serious modernization endeavor, too. This modernization can become a reality if Russia will consistently build a state of law and respect civil liberties. What do you think is the most important, what is absolutely necessary, for the creation of civil society in Russia?

DM: I am deeply convinced that democracy is closely connected with the economic situation. And if we want Russia to become a modern democracy – I mentioned many times that we have just started to create the fundamentals of democratic mechanisms in our country – we have to have a modern, strong, streamlined economy, based not on oil and gas only, while they are very important elements of our economic well-being. Our economy should be based on innovations, new technologies. Fortunately, we have all that is necessary for that – we have abilities, we have the desire to do that.

At the same time, to create a modern economy we need to have in our country a modern political mechanism ensuring, and securing, the fundamental rights and freedoms. That is why the process of modern economy, efficient economy creation as we like to call it, and the process of efficient state creation based on the rule of law, are tightly linked processes.

I have just mentioned that democracy can not be built in a poor state, I am absolutely confident of that. But at the same time, it is impossible to create a modern developed economy in conditions of dictatorship, whatever you may hear sometimes in this connection. From time to time I hear advice: "It is better not to do anything, the economic situation needs to be changed completely and only afterwards one should improve political institutions and ensure freedoms." It is wrong. We can not reform our economy without changes in the political system. For some countries it can be considered as a possible way, but not for Russia. Why? Because a significant portion of our society, of our people, identify themselves with Europe, with values which came to us from Europe – religious, moral, and political values. That is why both those dimensions – building a modern developed economy and a developed political system – should be synchronized. How to achieve that? It is a special and very challenging task. That is what we are doing now.

TL: Mr. President, I have a tough question to ask. It is a litmus test for the Western countries to know where Russia is now in the process of building a rule-of-law state. This question stirs a lot of thoughts. We cannot talk of economic crimes alone. Do you believe it is possible to address common law crimes alone or economic crimes as well, to develop the economy and fight economic crimes at the same time?

DM: The interpretation is not very good. I was trying to get the idea, at least generally, and I will try to give an answer.

Where are we now in the process of building a rule-of-law state? I have no illusions about that. We are still at an early stage of this process. We are not the only country, however, which faces challenges in building a modern rule of law state.

I have repeatedly explained my views regarding the main challenges in turning our country into a rule-of-law state. Today’s economic or political realities are by no means the only problem we are facing; we should not overlook our own history, the so-called legal nihilism that was largely present in our state a century or even two centuries ago. It is true that we have had no democratic tradition at all.

Democracies cannot be built in a few years. Our country enjoyed no democracy until 1991, when the modern Russian state came into being. No democracy, I stress, – either in tsarist Russia or in the Soviet Union. This is a difficult process.

I would put it straight: for various reasons, the democratization process runs more smoothly in smaller countries; smaller in terms of size and territory. And it is much more difficult in countries like Russia. So I have no illusions about the length of the way ahead of us. This does not mean, however, that we have done nothing during the past twenty years or ten years, in particular. In my view, we have considerably strengthened both our government system and our legal system. I hear sometimes, "You have overblown your government, it has become very rigid and cumbersome, and it is in charge of everything." This may be the case in some aspects, and I will not contest this opinion. On the other hand, however, the rule of law is impossible unless the law has its foundation in government.

From a lawyer’s point of view, any legal system is supposed to function through government institutions. However, if these institutions are in a state of collapse, which was the case in Russia in the 1990s, no rule of law is possible. A weak state means a weak system of law. This should be kept in mind especially dealing with such an enormously big country as Russia.

Speaking of criminality, crimes may be of various kinds both in Russia and in other countries, the European Union and Poland. There are other crimes, except for economically motivated ones; there are politically driven crimes or crimes motivated by extremism. I think no one will question that certain crimes are committed in order to achieve political goals and not some personal profit. In fact, attempts to portray all crimes as purely economic ones or political ones are doomed to failure.

I will recall that in the times of Stalin, any economic crime, most of which were actually fabricated, was treated as a political crime, as an offence against the Soviet public order. In fact, the same was true for Poland at a certain period of time. Any bribe, any other illegal act or any theft was considered to be a political crime against the state. This must not be the case; you have to take other criminal assaults into account as well.

We have a lot of problems, and everyone is aware of them. We witness a rather complex situation in the Caucasus; not only economic crimes but also infringements on life and the health of people take place there, motivated by extremist, not domestic, reasons, whereby people’s lives and health fall victim to certain religious or pseudo-religious political attitudes. You cannot turn a blind eye to this. I would like the Russian Federation, our Polish friends and members of the European Union, to apply uniform approaches to the above-mentioned situation.

It is encouraging to see that our voice has become louder in recent times. Let us be honest: a mere eight years ago we were told that those who we dealt with in the Caucasus were actually rebels, guerillas fighting for their independence. After 9-11 and other incidents, our US and European partners acknowledged, however, that those people were terrorists receiving money from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. It has taken some time to arrive at that point. I think that we have to heed each other's opinions in this regard; this is highly important for Russian-European relations in general and Russian Polish relations in particular.

TL: Mr. President, I would like to put a question, even if I am not so optimistic to expect that you will answer it. Do you intend to pursue a second presidential term?

DM: There is no way for me to avoid your question. Still, I suppose you are not so optimistic to expect to hear from me that I intend to announce today my candidacy for president as far as the election process has not been launched yet.

I repeat what I have already said: if the situation in this country is normal and stable, if I enjoy an appropriate support from people, I do not exclude this possibility. However, for so-called superstitious reasons that people refer to sometimes, not to speak of political practice considerations, such things are not divulged in advance. This is to be done at an appropriate time, when it has to be done. Some of my colleagues could also take part in this political process. Therefore, I believe that the most important thing is to preserve in any circumstances the continuity of power and policy. As for me, I do not naturally exclude such a job – it is a normal thing for any politician.

Now let me say another thing. I am looking forward to visiting Poland. It is a long-awaited visit for me. Firstly, because the President of Russia has not visited Poland for a very long time. Second, many new things have emerged in our bilateral relations. We endured hard times, there was a tragedy near Smolensk. At the same time, we witnessed some positive developments. And now, an unprecedented intensity of our consultations, openness in our dialogue and assessments we have made, all this, I believe, create quite a good background for the visit to be a success.

I expect that my colleague, President Komorowski, has the same understanding. Our personal relations are good enough and quite constructive; we met many times and discussed various subjects. Therefore, I would like my visit to transform these quantitative, small but important changes in Russia-Poland relations into qualitative ones. Anyway, from my part I will do everything necessary for that. Thank you.

TL: Thank you very much indeed, Mr. President, and I thank you as well for answering some thorny questions and making time to meet with us.