“Reset of US-Russia ties not at expense of links with others”
The Russian president was talking to Kirill Pozdnyakov of Russian TV channel NTV.
Q.: Mister President, a lot of important international events took place in July, among them the Russian-U.S. talks in Moscow and the G8 summit. Ordinary people often watch such events with interest, but have a hard time getting beyond the feeling that these are all lofty matters far removed from everyday life. And then, suddenly, in L’Aquila you talked about foreign policy decisions that have a subsequent impact on decisions affecting the country’s domestic life. This caught many people’s attention. The natural question that follows is which decisions did you have in mind, and what kind of influence can they be expected to have?
D.M.: These were not just chance words spoken for the sake of ending my visit to L’Aquila with a neat turn of phrase. I really do hold this view and think that it reflects the real state of affairs. Why? Because we are all working now to build a modern, developed and competitive country. We will achieve this only if we have normal relations with the outside world. Attempting to build a strong and developed society and economy in isolation from international life is a senseless undertaking. There are examples of countries that have tried to do this, and we know the results.
How well we work and how well integrated we are into the general context of global life will ultimately help to shape the conditions in which we live. In other words, good relations in the high-technology sectors, in finance, in environmental and climate protection, and in international security, including regional security, all have a direct impact on our country’s domestic life. There are some types of technology and services that we cannot obtain on our own, not to mention the general financial context. There are things we cannot create even if we build the most developed society and strongest economy in the world. The economy today is a global economy, and life is global. And so, the way we position ourselves on the international stage, in international life, has a fundamental impact on the situation within our country, ultimately even affecting such basic and perhaps also most important things as living standards and wages. It was this simple message that I was trying to get across in L’Aquila.
Q.: Soon it will be one year since Georgia invaded South Ossetia. You visited Tskhinval just recently, after your meeting with [President] Obama. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden has just visited Kiev and Tbilisi, and said words to the effect that the U.S. is working on ‘resetting’ relations with Russia, but that this will not be at Georgia’s or Ukraine’s expense.
As I understand it, we and the United States have stuck to our positions regarding both the situation in Georgia and NATO’s eastward expansion. Is this the case? Do you see any chance of making progress, of perhaps bringing our positions closer together?
D.M.: I would put it this way. I do not think it right that a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, to use the American terminology, should take place at other countries’ expense. What we need are normal working relations with the United States, friendly and mutually beneficial relations – this is what counts above all, and a lot depends on this. But this does not mean that our relations should result in deterioration of our or the United States’ relations with other countries, whether Ukraine or Georgia. They can sort things out on their side, sort out their relations. As for us, we have our own relations with Ukraine, relations that have not been easy over these last years. But much depends on these relations, because these are our close neighbours, fraternal countries, and our people and economies are very closely bound together. Of course we hope that the future will bring a real improvement in our relations.
Q.: What is the basis for these relations?
D.M.: These relations need a basis, and the basis should be quite simply that of a sense that both sides benefit from them, that our peoples need them. This is something obvious, something without which it is hard to imagine their future.
As for relations with Georgia, this is a more complicated matter. We currently do not have diplomatic relations with Georgia following the aggression launched last year by the Saakashvili regime. In other words, we have practically no intergovernmental relations. But at the same time, we have longstanding warm feelings for each other, warm feelings for the Georgian people, with whom we have gone through fire and ice together. We would like to have the very best kind of relations with Georgia. I have said this before and I say it again now. Regimes such as that of Saakashvili come and go, but feelings between peoples remain. I am sure that the time will come when our relations will be restored on a new basis, taking into account the new situation that has emerged and the tragic episodes our relations have gone through of late. We therefore feel no jealousy when we see other countries building their relations with our partners in the international community, including the important partners such as the United States.
A different matter is the question of countries’ membership in various international alliances and military blocs. This is a matter we are not indifferent to. On this issue our position is straightforward and remains unchanged, and on this we and the United States differ in our views.
Our position is simple: we think it wrong to push this or that country into military-political alliances against the will of their people. In Ukraine’s case the situation is very straightforward – hold a referendum. If the people vote for membership in this or that military-political union it would at least provide a legitimate basis for the decision. There would still be other problems, but the legitimate basis would at least be there.
As for Georgia, the question is one for NATO itself: why should it want a country with so many problems? As I understand it, there has been growing awareness of late that these two esteemed countries are not yet ready for decisions of this kind, and that NATO itself is not ready to take them in. Ultimately, we have no influence on these decisions, but we express our view openly, and I think that this is an honest position.
Q.: We will come back to relations with our close neighbours, but let’s look now at our relations with continents further afield.
Your recent visits to Africa, Latin America and so on have made it possible to say that Russian foreign policy is becoming global in scale for the first time since the Soviet period. But not everyone understands why it is worth our investing money and effort in these far-flung parts of the world. So, why does Russia need this, and what do we hope to gain?
D.M.: You mentioned the Soviet Union. For all its problems and shortcomings, and for all the difficulties it went through over the various periods of its development, the Soviet Union was a strong country. No one can deny this. You can debate the cost at which this was achieved, and whether or not this strength was necessary, but the fact remains that the Soviet Union was a strong country.
We want the Russian Federation to be a strong country too, not so as to flex our muscles for others to see, and not so as to teach others lessons, but in order to ensure the strong foundation needed to give our own people the best conditions for life and development. Weak countries as a rule have weak economies. You can’t have the one without the other. In this situation we therefore need to make efforts in all areas of international life, all the more so as there are opportunities for earning money, to put things in simple terms, not just in Eurasia. There are other continents offering a mass of interesting investment projects. There are places where our past presence is known and remembered, and where people hope to see us now, have not forgotten us, and even love us. What reason do we have for forgetting these continents, for forgetting Africa and Latin America?
There was a time when domestic circumstances forced us to cut back our foreign policy activity in these places simply because we did not have the resources. But now we have new possibilities and so we should build up an active presence on these continents, establish friendly relations with these countries, restore old relations, take part in big investment projects, bid for contracts and tenders, and place our orders there.
Q.: In the end, it is this that will have an impact on ordinary people’s lives?
D.M.: Yes, of course. If we can increase foreign trade earnings we will have more revenue for carrying out our domestic tasks.
What has happened now? Oil prices fell and currency flows into our country also fell as a result, leading to a number of economic problems. But if our foreign trade were more diversified, if it were spread across a wider range of sectors, we would be getting currency flows not just from the countries that buy our oil but also from other countries, where we, say, take part in big contracts, build nuclear reactors, deliver equipment and technology. This is an important part of international cooperation and it has a direct impact on our country’s life. This is to come back to the question you asked at the start.
Q.: I see your point. Turning now to our relations with the CIS countries, our closest neighbours, there is no question that we should seek the very best of relations with these countries. We share very close ties with them. But many Russians see the situation in a somewhat different light, namely, that what they need from us they get, but now and then when we ask for something from them we do not get it. I could cite a large number of examples. What approach do you think we should take to building relations with our closest neighbours?
D.M.: Our relations should be very good and stable, a real partnership. You raised the issue of who is asking for what, but don’t forget the classic line that you should never ask for anything.
Q.: They will give everything of their own accord.
D.M.: Yes, they will give things of their own accord. When it comes to international relations it is better in general not to think in terms of who owes what to whom. Of course we need to keep track of the figures too, but there are some kinds of long-term strategic relations that do not have a direct monetary value. How can you calculate the value of friendship or of the historical ties that bind our peoples? These are things that cannot be expressed in dry figures. The consequences would be very serious if we tried to do this, all the more so as today too we do much of benefit for the countries with whom we live together in the Commonwealth of Independent States and with whom we work together in other integration groups.
Ultimately, this area calls for a different behaviour model. We need to think about who lives in these countries.
The people living there are people who are very close to us, people with whom we share a common language, often in the most direct sense of the term, people with whom we share common historic roots. Many of them have relatives living in Russia, and many of our people have relatives in these countries. We go there to visit them, they come here to earn money, and some of our businesspeople, some of our citizens, are earning money in these countries. We have very close ties. When dealing with these matters, therefore, we need to get away from the primitive who owes what to whom approach. Of course we need to keep in mind Russia’s national priorities. This is something I spoke about not so long ago. But we need to build our relations with our close neighbours in the strategic perspective, with a view to the future, and based on the friendship and goodwill between us. This is the most important thing.
Q.: What kind of image does Russia have in the foreign policy arena today? How does it look in the outside world’s eyes? Is Russia all good and cuddly in others’ eyes, or on the contrary, does it inspire fear?
D.M.: I would like Russia to have the image of a strong and modern country, pragmatic and restrained, but at the same time able to make its voice heard on the international stage. I want others to see in us a country that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a country that plays a decisive part in the global balance of power. It is the lot life has given us to take on greater responsibility for ensuring international security, including as a country with one of the biggest nuclear capabilities. Whether we want it or not, this is a fact of life, and it plays a part in guaranteeing international security.
Our image therefore needs to encompass all of these aspects, but at the same time it needs to be comfortable for others in their dealings with us. We should not be prickly and hard to approach, but at the same time we should be able to make a firm response when circumstances call for it. Sometimes tough measures are called for, a very firm response, but only in cases when our people’s interests are in jeopardy. In all other situations we should be a strong, predictable and comfortable partner for our neighbours.
Q.: You know that Russia is commonly depicted around the world using the image of the Russian bear.
D.M.: It’s an image close to my heart.
Q.: We see it frequently in caricatures, in various forms. It’s an image frequently used in writing too. What do you think we should perhaps change here at home in order to present a different image to the world? Are there any problems getting in the way of giving us a positive image on the international stage?
D.M.: Well, I think certainly not the image of the bear. Anyway, I like this image.
On a serious note, of course, if we want to have a strong image we need to be modern. If we want to present the right image to the world we need to resolve our urgent problems, above all our social and economic problems. If we resolve these problems it will be easier for us to reach our international objectives. This is a reverse of the relation we talked about at the start of our conversation. Just as our foreign policy has a direct impact on living standards here at home, so does our success at home have a direct impact on how others perceive us. This is something we are not indifferent to.
Q.: It seems to me that it is important for people to feel that their country is strong and respected.
D.M.: That goes without saying. Remember the situation in the 1990s, when many of our people, travelling abroad for the first time, complained that others treated them as citizens of some third-rate country. They were not used to such an attitude and it was hard to accept, because the Soviet Union had been a respected country, and when our passport received a different reaction people felt offended, and this sometimes had direct material and moral consequences.
I won’t go into details, but you know that there are a number of strong and developed countries, and it is enough to present their passport…
Q.: For everyone to come running.
D.M.: Yes, it helps people sort out their problems abroad. It should be the same situation here in Russia too.
Q.: How can we achieve this?
D.M.: By carrying out the work we have just been talking about. If we are a strong country it will be enough to show that you are from the Russian Federation to receive respectful treatment even when simply just crossing borders. This is also important. Even with this whole issue of entering and exiting countries, you either get treated with respect, or quite simply benefit from visa-free entry, or you encounter various obstacles and difficulties, and have to stand in humiliating queues to prove that your country is sufficiently prosperous, that you yourself have money, and that you are a law abiding citizen. The strength we build at home will therefore be reflected in Russia’s place in the world too.
Q.: Let’s move away a bit from foreign policy now.
D.M.: Let’s give it a try.
Q.: This is all directly related. You spoke about strength just now. What is stopping us from becoming stronger?
One of Russia’s greatest scourges is corruption. This week, you signed the Law On Anti-Corruption Expert Evaluation of Legal Acts. I am simply curious, say a corruption loophole is found in this or that law, what happens next? What will we do about it?
D.M.: You are absolutely correct in saying that corruption is one of the factors weakening us. So long as others see Russia as a country with an unacceptably high level of corruption we will be treated accordingly. The authorities’ task therefore is to vanquish corruption, no matter how unrealistic this goal might sound right now. This is our task, even if it takes us decades to achieve, but the experience of a number of large countries shows us that it is possible.
Now, regarding the actual measures being taken, we have already approved a whole package of measures and we will not stop here.
Q.: Will there be anything new?
D.M.: You mentioned the law that was just passed. This law on anti-corruption expert evaluation of legislation is the latest step in creating the legal framework for the fight against corruption. It is the case indeed that if evaluation of a draft law or monitoring of the way a law already passed is being implemented shows that their provisions contain possibilities for embezzlement, bribes and kickbacks, such laws need to be changed. But to change them, we first need to work out what is wrong with them, and this is why the anti-corruption evaluation procedure has been introduced. It will be the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and the regional authorities.
As I see it, there are two kinds of problems we could encounter. First is when loopholes are deliberately included in a draft law’s provisions creating potential for subsequent corruption.
Q.: Provisions giving rise to differing interpretations?
D.M.: It’s not even this that is the issue, but deliberately writing into the draft law provisions that can be used later to take illegal decisions. In such cases the response is clear: these provisions must be quite simply removed from the draft law. As for the specific individuals who wrote them into the draft law, it will be possible to have some words with them if of course it is identified who exactly wrote the provisions in question.
The second kind of problem is when the provisions are ambiguous and could be potentially used for corrupt purposes. In such cases these provisions need to be corrected at the least. This is something that the authorities at federal level, the Ministry of Justice and others, and the regional authorities, need to monitor. This is our objective.
The idea of putting legislation through an anti-corruption expert evaluation came up about a year ago. We prepared a draft law, and it has finally been passed, I signed it, and it will now come into effect. Will it solve all our problems? Of course not, but it is a step towards giving us the laws we need in our fight against corruption, and more steps will follow. We will continue to work on improving our legislation. But I think that not just improving our legislation is the most important thing now. We have a national plan. We have a whole package of anti-corruption laws. We have passed bylaws, and I recently signed an amended version of the civil service code of conduct. In other words, all of this system is now in place. The most important thing now is to learn how to use it, not be afraid to implement it all, make sure that these laws actually work, and that those responsible for implementing them can carry out their work without fear of retaliation. This is the hardest part.
Q.: It has been frequently said of late that when the fight against corruption began in earnest, the level of kickbacks and bribes jumped up several-fold.
D.M.: I think this is lies, because they were high enough as it was and it is exaggerating the situation to imagine that all the corrupt elements decided to suck as much blood as they could one last time. We have not yet reached this stage in our fight against corruption. More likely they have the impression that something has gone into motion now, and so they are asking for more money or whatever else, but this in itself is not a bad signal. It shows that we are at least moving in the right direction even if we have only very modest results to speak of so far.
Q.: Mr President, thank you very much for this conversation.
D.M.: Thank you. All the best to you.
Q.: All the best to you too.