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An Excellent Opportunity to Definitively Turn a Difficult Page in European History

An Excellent Opportunity to Definitively Turn a Difficult Page in European History

On the eve of celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Victory against Nazi Germany, assembling « one of the largest gatherings of World leaders in years in what became part of the Kremlin's efforts to resurrect a sense of a great and powerful Russia » as Steven Lee Myers and Elisabeth Bumiller put it in The New York Times (1), Russian President Vladimir Putin granted an exclusive interview  to Christian Malar, Editor-in-Chief of France 3 Television. Russian Presidency Transcript of the Interview given in the datcha of Vladimir Putin in Novo Ogariovo. Source: Web Portal of the Russian Presidency, Moscow, Russia, May 7, 2005. Photo (©) Presidential Press Service. Courtesy Christian Malar.

Photo (©) Courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press Service.

President Vladimir Putin with Christian Malar

Christian Malar: Mr President, first of all, thank you for receiving us here in Moscow on the eve of the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of victory against Nazism, a victory to which the Red Army made a decisive contribution. What significance do you give these celebrations ?

President Vladimir Putin: Above all, any war is a tragedy, and a big war is a great tragedy. May 9 is above all a day for remembering those who died, and our country, as you know, suffered immense losses in this war. It is also, of course, a day for giving tribute to those who survived and vanquished Nazism. It is an ideal moment for all of us to remember just what political extremism and hate-filled theories embodied in practical policies can lead to. Finally, it is an excellent opportunity to definitively turn a difficult page in European history and build a new foundation based on concord and reconciliation and formulate clear, comprehensible and transparent democratic principles for international dialogue in the long-term perspective.  

Christian Malar: Sixty years after the end of World War II, what vector, in your opinion, are international events taking: are they moving towards the reconciliation you mentioned or, on the contrary, is there a movement towards confrontation ? 

Vladimir Putin: It seems to me that the main movement is towards reconciliation and cooperation. The world has not become any simpler. Moreover, new threats have appeared and are now taking on a global nature, but the main vector is nonetheless still one in which I think reconciliation and cooperation are the defining factors.

  • France and Germany provide us with a very good example in this respect.

We know everything that happened in the relations between these two countries, these two peoples, leading up to and during the war. But the French and the Germans were able to overcome this past and not just make peace but also establish a whole system of relations that has become one of the driving forces for integration in Europe and has an influence on the situation in the world in general. I know how much attention politicians past and present in both France and Germany have given and continue to give to this. Now that the Cold War is over, we should certainly make use of this good example to build up similar relations, this time on a global level.

Christian Malar: If you were to note some of the lessons that humanity has learned from the last sixty years, what would you have to share ?  

Vladimir Putin: I think I would note the division of Europe. Division, whether in Europe or in the world in general, the separation of humanity into blocs – something that several times brought the world to the brink of total annihilation -- is completely unacceptable.

Christian Malar: Mr President, you will sign a Joint Action Plan with the European Union on May 10. Would you like greater integration into Europe for your country or are you happy with what is currently being proposed ?

Vladimir Putin: We need to be realists and base ourselves on the extent to which both sides are ready for integration and on the pace that is acceptable to both sides. This goes for the economy, legal systems, the humanitarian sphere in the broad sense of the term, and the social sphere.

We are realists. We want to cooperate with the European Union. As I said in my response to your previous question, any new division of Europe is something we would consider absolutely unacceptable. It would be awful if a new Berlin Wall were erected, one that would be invisible but no less terrible for the peoples of Europe.

I think it possible that at some point our cooperation could become so close and developed as to be little different from membership for Russia in the European Union. We are working on constructing the four common spaces in the areas of the economy, internal and external security and in the humanitarian sphere. Some European countries, Norway, for example, do not make it their goal to join the European Union. It cannot be ruled out that at some point in our cooperation with the European Union, tomorrow’s or today’s partners could set themselves the objective of uniting within a singe framework. This is not our objective at the moment. But I do think that at some future point our cooperation could reach such a level that it would be almost akin to actual membership in the EU.

Christian Malar: Mr President, I understand that you cannot, of course, intervene in French internal affairs, but my question nonetheless is, would a French “no” in the upcoming referendum on the draft European constitution, create problems for your own interests in Europe?

Vladimir Putin: This really is not our affair.

  • We do have certain problems in our relations with the European Union.

I think that these are current issues to be resolved rather than problems of a systemic nature. But one of the main problems we face is that we often quite simply do not have anyone to talk to. The European Union presidency changes every six months. This is democratic, of course, but from a management point of view it is very ineffective. I believe that if Europe wants to be a strong political centre in the world and effectively resolve economic and social issues, it should, of course, be compact and manageable in the good democratic sense of the word, in accordance with the norms worked out by the union’s members. If this happens, I think it would become easier for us to work with the European Union. If not, it is not the end of the world and we will continue to work as we do today. 

Christian Malar: Mr President, some in the West say that you use overly authoritarian methods in the way you run the country. What kind of Russia are you seeking to create?

Vladimir Putin: As you know, we faced a difficult internal situation at the beginning of the 1990s, but we nonetheless laid the foundations of a democratic society. We created a real system of division of the powers – something that did not exist in the Soviet Union within the context of a totalitarian system. We have executive, legislative and judicial branches of power, and they are separate and independent from each other. 

Unfortunately, during the early and mid-1990s, the threat emerged that Russia would follow an oligarchic path of development. This happened after different groups, using their influence in the corridors of power, managed to get their hands on billions of dollars worth of state property and media outlets, and then, using state institutions, made these assets work in their own interests. This was all linked to the ineffectiveness of the state institutions following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The new institutions, as we know, had not yet had the chance to build up enough strength, influence and effectiveness. At that time, many of our partners in the West warned us about the negative consequences of such a development of events in Russia and criticised us actively for the situation.

Today when we are making our state institutions more effective, on a democratic basis, there are also people inside and outside our country who do not like what we are doing. The criminal case against one of our oil companies, for example, has caught the attention of the entire world and of your colleagues, in the United States, in France and in other countries in Europe. Everyone has rushed to the defence of this one oil company. Of course, these “poor people” are in need of defence. Making personal fortunes of $6billion-$7billion in a space of five years suggests that they are talented people who know how to defend themselves. But there are criminal cases being pursued against the heads of Enron and Worldcom in the United States, and against Parmalat in Italy, and in several other countries. In those cases, the company bosses involved face possible sentences of up to several decades in prison. Spain has now arrested up to 40 people, I think, including some Russians said to be involved.

It is my firm belief that democracy does not mean anarchy and everything being permitted. And the market economy, as I see it, should not mean that billions of dollars and huge flows of money are concentrated in the hands of just two or three people and then not in accordance with the laws in force. But we will continue to support our businesspeople, continue to develop a market economy and its corresponding legal framework in our country, defend private property, develop a multiparty system and strengthen the independence of the media, above all through ensuring they are not economically dependent. We have 3,200 radio and television companies operating in Russia and only 10 percent of them are controlled by the state. There are 46,000 print media outlets in our country and I doubt that even 1 percent of them are under state control. So, the rumours that democracy is over in Russia are highly exaggerated. 

Christian Malar: Mr President, does it irritate you that NATO is seeking to expand its influence among your neighbours and partners, in Ukraine and Georgia, for example?

Vladimir Putin:  I think that NATO already has influence in many of our partners, including in Ukraine and Georgia. This does not irritate us. Russia is itself in the process of developing its relations with NATO and we have established the Russia-NATO Council within which we work together and are doing so quite successfully.

If NATO wants to expand to take in these countries as members, that, of course, is another question. If you are interested in my view on that question, I am ready to answer.

We think that simple expansion of NATO is a technical process that does not bring greater security to the world. There are modern threats we are all aware of – threats such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I do not really understand exactly how a purely technical move such as the expansion of NATO to take in our Baltic neighbours, can bring greater security. If other former Soviet republics want to join NATO, our attitude will remain the same. 

But I want to stress that we will respect their choice because it is their sovereign right to decide their own defence policy and this will not worsen relations between our countries. As I said, we are ourselves building up our relations with NATO. But certain problems of a technical nature could arise.

To give you an example, we work closely and have a great amount of military-technical cooperation with Ukraine. This is understandable because our defence industries worked, until recently, as part of a single country. We hope that our relations with NATO will continue to develop and that we will be able to establish a greater degree of trust. For the moment, however, our relations with NATO are at a level that would not make it possible for us to maintain certain defence production activities and keep certain sensitive technologies in a NATO country, in Ukraine, for example, should it join this organisation. This would require us to find additional state resources to organise the departure of these technologies and production activities to Russian territory. Our colleagues at home would be delighted by this, of course, but for the state it would be an additional burden to carry. This would also mean possible problems for Ukraine, as it could entail the complete winding up of certain production facilities’ activities and the end of work in some scientific areas. We don’t know yet, maybe this would not happen. But we have to talk about all these issues in good time, talk with each other frankly, honestly and openly. That is what we are doing.   

Christian Malar: Mr President, five years ago, you said to me that, “I cannot allow rebel leaders, supported by Islamic fundamentalists, to create an Islamic republic in Chechnya and the Caucasus, in Russia’s underbelly”. Do you hold by these same words today, and what, in your opinion, is the solution to the Chechen problem?

Vladimir Putin: Of course. The question was not one of establishing an Islamic republic in Chechnya itself, after all. They had other objectives – that of creating a fundamentalist state that would stretch from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Essentially, they were presenting one thing as another. For the outside world they were talking about the need to fight for Chechnya’s independence, while in reality they were attacking their neighbours in the aim of carrying out their plans to break off further parts of Russia’s territory and create this fundamentalist state. I think it is now clear to everyone, and to them above all, that this mad idea is impossible; certainly, it is not going to happen at Russia’s expense.

But they still continue to deal us blows, committing terrible crimes on our territory. There can only be one solution here and that is to continue our work in Chechnya itself, continue the political process that is underway there now. I remind you that we organised a referendum there on the republic’s constitution, which has now been adopted. We helped to organise presidential elections there. Now we are working on an agreement setting out the division of powers between the federal authorities and the authorities in Chechnya. Finally, the Chechens want to hold parliamentary elections in the republic in autumn and we, of course, will do everything we can to help. Local authorities and institutions have been set up there and are run exclusively by local people, and this includes the law enforcement agencies. We have held three amnesties there.

We will continue to follow the road of political settlement and we seek to involve everyone in this process who wants a normal and peaceful life and wants the normal development that is natural for the Chechen people and the republic. At the same time, we will continue to fight determinedly against those who take up arms and try to carry out criminal plans, those who, under the cover of Islam and political slogans, use terror as a means to pursue their objectives.

Christian Malar: Two more quick questions, Mr President. It looks today as if the Roadmap for a Middle East peace settlement is in danger. How do you see the situation, what is your feeling after your recent meeting with Ariel Sharon in Israel?

Vladimir Putin:  I would not say that the Roadmap is in danger. Of course, it is a complex plan that aims at reaching an all-encompassing settlement. Its goal is to create a situation in which two states, Israel and the future Palestinian state, would be able to live in peace with each other within internationally recognised borders. This plan has been approved by both sides, by Israel and by Palestine, and it has the seal of the international community’s authority in the form of the United Nations. 

Of course, the Palestinians are concerned that their negotiating partners, the Israelis, will fulfil only a part of this plan and forget about the rest. But, as I said, this is a complex process. I think that the Palestinians and, importantly, the Israelis, as it seemed to me from my talks with Ariel Sharon, are both committed to taking constructive steps forward. That is the main thing. 

Incidentally, France and President Chirac have great authority in the Middle East and in the Arab world, as I can confirm from my recent visit to the Middle East.

I think it is very important to constantly keep our finger on the pulse, as it were, keep up constant contact between the negotiating parties and the mediators in the form of the international Quartet. The Quartet foreign ministers are due to hold a meeting here in Moscow in just two days time. We also hope to organise an expert-level meeting this autumn. Overall, even with this Roadmap, the road is not an easy one to follow, but, as the saying goes here,  keep moving forward, and you will reach your destination.

Christian Malar: One last question, Mr President. Practically everyone in the West now has their attention focused on Iran and its nuclear programme. Are you sure that Iran will not use its nuclear programme for military purposes?

Vladimir Putin: I certainly hope that it will not. In any case, our cooperation with Iran is under stringent international control, under the control of the IAEA, and this is a purely civilian nuclear programme. We cannot and do not have the right to deprive the Iranian people of the chance to make use of modern technology and the achievements of science. But we also do not have the right to ignore what kind of world we live in, what region Iran is in and how relations between countries are developing.  We therefore call on Iran to put all its programmes under the full control of the IAEA and we support the decision to freeze all work aimed at mastering the full nuclear fuel cycle, that is, work on creating weapons-grade enriched uranium that could be used for military purposes. In this respect we are working very actively with our European partners, with the European Troika and the United States. We all share practically the same position on this issue. 

Christian Malar: Thank you, Mr President. I wish you success in all your work.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.

(1) Honoring the Soviet sacrifices

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).