15 december 2011

Television networks Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, RTR-Planet and radio stations Mayak, Vesti FM, and Radio Rossii completed broadcasting the live Q&A session, A Conversation with Vladimir Putin: Continued

The prime minister answered over 90 questions on key socio-political issues. The programme lasted a record 4 hours 32 minutes.

Transcript of the live question and answer session, A Conversation with Vladimir Putin: Continued

Maria Sittel: Good afternoon, I am Maria Sittel. We are live on air with the special programme A Conversation with Vladimir Putin: Continued. Today’s programme is rather special. This is the tenth time we are broadcasting this session.

Ernest Mackevicius: It is barely 15 days to New Year’s Eve but it does not feel like the political year is over. On the contrary, the past two weeks have been truly event-packed. State Duma elections were held on December 4 and the presidential campaign has begun. People across Russia are now wondering what direction the country will move in.

I am Ernest Mackevicius. My colleagues, Tatiana Remezova, Ivan Kudryavtsev, Maria Kitayeva, Dmitry Shchugorev and Maria Morgun are working alongside Maria Sittel to bring this programme to you.

Maria Sittel: The call centre has been up and running for three days now. Tens of thousands of calls, e-mails and text messages to the session’s website have come in. For the first time ever, public opinion leaders, people Russians respect, have been involved in selecting questions and helping with preparations for this broadcast.

Maria Morgun: Taking part in our programme today we have Leonid Roshal, President of the National Medical Chamber and famous paediatrician; actress Olga Budina, founder of the charitable foundation for children Protect the Future; and Alexander Karelin, famous Russian athlete, public figure and politician.

Dmitry Shchugorev: Also in the studio here today we have politician Vladimir Vasilyev, deputy of the Fifth State Duma, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, political analyst Andranik Migranyan and French writer and public figure Marek Halter.

Ivan Kudryavtsev: We have also invited People’s Artist Alexander Kalyagin; Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, rector of the Moscow State University Church of St. Tatiana; writer Tatyana Ustinova; chairman of the Russian Union of Filmmakers Nikita Mikhalkov; actor of stage and screen Yevgeny Mironov; actor, film director and producer Fyodor Bondarchuk; musician Igor Butman and Boris Titov, head of the Delovaya Rossiya business association.

Maria Kitayeva: General Aslambek Aslakhanov, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiyev, lawyer Andrei Makarov, my colleague Vladimir Solovyov and writer and journalist Alexander Prokhanov are also here with us today.

Tatiana Remezova: And lastly, our honoured guests, also here today, are Academician Yevgeny Primakov, Children's Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov, as well as political analysts Natalya Narochnitskaya, Nikolai Zlobin and Alexander Rahr.

Ernest Mackevicius: There are many more studio guests, including representatives of dozens of organisations that have joined the Russian Popular Front, workers, business people, scientists and young people. We will get a chance to hear what everyone has to say.

So, live on air, on the Rossiya network, we now have Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Maria Sittel: I’d like to remind you that you can ask questions while we are on air by calling us on 8-800-200-40-40, you can also text us on 04040, and if you are online you can email us via our website at www.moskva-putinu.ru or москва-путину.рф, where you will also find this programme broadcast live online.

We will also be going live to our mobile TV broadcast teams in regions, cities and towns across Russia, including Vladivostok, the Stavropol Territory, Ufa, Sochi, Nizhny Tagil and other cities. We will be going live to them during this programme.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, shall we begin?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, let’s begin. Good afternoon, hello, thank you for coming.

Ernest Mackevicius: I think we should start with a question about the State Duma elections, which have provoked such diverse reactions from the public

To date you have not made any comment on the events of recent days. What do you think of them, personally? Why did people who do not consider themselves your political opponents attend the Bolotnaya Square meeting? Does that mean that they are not satisfied with the way the authorities are treating them?

Vladimir Putin: The fact that people speak out, express their views on the processes underway in the economy and the social and political spheres is all absolutely normal – so long they abide by the law.

I hope that this is how it will be. The people I saw on TV, mainly young people, active, who make their case in a clear and lucid manner. This is good to see.

If this is a result of “Putin’s rule,” then that’s all to the good. I don’t see anything excessive here.

I want to state once more – the main thing is that everyone involved and all political forces stay within the constraints of the law.

Ernest Mackevicius: A question sent to our web site.

The recent State Duma elections have sparked expected sentiments of discontent, culminating in protests in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities. People were outraged by what they perceived as fraud on the part of the authorities. Do you think the elections were honest and their results are fair?

Vladimir Putin: You know this talk of falsification, and the opposition’s dissatisfaction with the election results are nothing new, it has always been like this and always will be. This is what the opposition is for. It fights for power. And it therefore seeks out any available opportunity to approach the powers that be, seeking to squeeze the incumbents out, making accusations about them and pointing out their mistakes. This is also, overall, entirely normal.

If you are asking whether or not these elections were objective and honest, I think – and I have said this publicly – that the election results clearly reflect the lineup of powers in the country. And it is nothing extraordinary that the ruling force – United Russia – has ceded ground to an extent.

Well, we have just weathered a very difficult phase of the crisis. Look at what is happening in other countries. This has clearly had a negative impact on people. Living standards have fallen and many have lost their jobs, making the opposition’s role – recruiting the dissatisfied – much easier. And yet United Russia has retained its leading positions, which is a very good result.

As for whether the elections were honest or not, the opposition will always claim that they were dishonest, always. And this happens everywhere, in all countries. The only difference is in the form this dissatisfaction takes. This is an issue of political culture.

It is clear to me that the attacks on the elections are a secondary matter. The main goal is the upcoming presidential elections. I have a proposal that will help us to preclude problems during these elections, to minimise opportunities for levelling these allegations at us that these or any future elections are dishonest and cutting the ground out from under the feet of those who aim to de-legitimise the authorities in the country.

You know I travelled a great deal around the affected regions during last summer’s forest fires in central Russia, seeking to help people rebuild their homes. We took a number of highly unusual decisions then. No other country in the world has ever implemented such programmes. What we did is quickly rebuild homes, including thanks to the fact that I asked for web cameras to be installed at all construction sites, which worked around the clock, so that I could click a button to see what was going on at any site at any time of day, whether I was at home or in the office.

I suggest and request that the Central Election Commission install web cameras at all 90,000 plus voting stations in Russia. They should be on 24/7, so that the whole nation could watch what’s going on at each particular ballot box. That would preclude any possibility of fabrications on this account.

Ernest Mackevicius: I know that there are people in the audience who are ready to continue discussing the subject of elections.

Vladimir Putin: I would like to make another point. I believe that the opposition should be able to monitor absolutely everything that happens at voting stations. The web cameras can do this. All political forces that are represented in the parliament should also be represented at the district voting stations in accordance with the law.

I would also like to address those who are ready to vote, including for me as a presidential candidate. Please don’t think that no matter how you vote the authorities will manipulate things the way they want them to be, and you can go about your business instead of going to a voting station. No one will do anything for you. You are the ones to determine who will implement Russia’s foreign policy and represent our country on the international arena, who will guarantee internal and external security, who will address social issues and who will promote the economy. Only you and no one but you.

Ernest Mackevicius: Let’s continue with elections. I know we have people in the audience who have questions about this subject. Alexei Venediktov is one of them, and I would like to ask Maria Kitayeva to pass him the microphone.

Marina Kitayeva: Editor-in-Chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station. By the way, he was at the Bolotnaya Square rally as an observer.

Alexei Venediktov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. You are talking about the opposition, but trust me there was more to it than just an opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square. You are now responding to the opposition but what are you going to say to the new disgruntled, the new offended who believe that their votes had been stolen? What are you going to do about the elections that they don’t trust? They are going to stage legally another rally on December 24. They had demands and requests; they were looking for justice, which is also very important. I would like you to address your answer to these people, not the opposition.

Vladimir Putin: First, I have already made my point clear. I said that different kinds of people gathered there, and I was pleased to see fresh, healthy, intelligent and energetic faces of the people who were actively expressing their views. I can say it again that if this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m truly pleased that we have such people in our country now.

As for the dispute settlement procedure, it is clearly set out in the law. In some cases, before the election results are summed up, election commissions may recount the votes, and they have actually been recounted in St Petersburg at the request of the opposition parties. However, after the bottom line has been drawn, such disputes should be taken to court, and we should certainly expect our courts to act in an objective and decisive manner.

Maria Kitayeva: There are different opinions about the protest on Bolotnaya Square, including one that’s opposite to Alexei Venediktov’s position. Here in the audience we have Valery Yakushev, a veteran worker at Uralvagonzavod.

Valery Yakushev: Good afternoon.

Vladimir Putin: Give the man a microphone, he won’t run off with it.

Valery Yakushev: To put it simply, I believe that no matter how good things are in a given family or household, there are always certain imperfections and someone is always unhappy with the way things are. I’m talking about the elections. About 100 people gathered on the main square in Nizhny Tagil. Why? The Uralvagonzavod plant has work orders up to the neck. We have pre-placed orders for the next year already, so we will work and do so like never before. Back in the Soviet times, we used to make 20,000 – 21,000 train cars. Currently, we are making 24,000 train cars, which is well above target. In other words, people are confident about their future. Certainly, there are some people who are dissatisfied. People aren’t happy about the performance of the housing and public utilities sector. They keep getting multiple utilities bills covering the same services and being cheated. They’ve been talking about this for six months now to no avail. These issues should be dealt with immediately. More than that, those found responsible should be punished. People should be able to see that the perpetrators are punished.

People believe in better life. All political parties have one goal, which is to improve people’s lives. Red tape should be made extinct, so that people become the focus of the bureaucracy and sleazebags don’t hide behind parliamentary immunity, be it municipal, district, regional councils, or even the State Duma. We have such people.

We should focus on agriculture, and do so in practical terms, so that our tourists going to Egypt bring their own potatoes with them, not the other way round.

I wish to address all Russians now. Don’t invite trouble to Russia. We have lived through a lot of trouble already. We don’t need any more great revolutions.

I am a deputy of the State Duma. I will do my best to fight for justice, and I believe that we will be able to make people happy, and have all leaders, from the prime minister to production foreman, work for the benefit of the people.

Ernest Mackevicius: Will you like to ask the prime minister a question?

Valery Yakushev: I believe that the things I said may well become reality with the help of the prime minister. Here’s a directive instead of a request: burn out red tape and cheating of people with a red-hot iron. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: As for agriculture, I’m sure we’ll get back to it today. I’m sure there will be questions connected with agriculture during our conversation.

As far as bringing potatoes from Egypt, I haven’t heard anything about it. This sounds exotic. As you may know, Egypt is a major importer of Russian grain. One couldn’t even think about it a few decades back. We imported all of our grain. We bought grain from Canada, the United States and Australia. Today Russia is the world’s third largest grain exporter. This never happened before. Certainly, this is due to the hard work and dedication of our agricultural workers, but I believe that state support has also played its part. We have restored our export potential this year.

Ernest Mackevicius: We have another question about elections that came to our website. People put on white ribbons during the rally in downtown Moscow. These ribbons look like a symbol of a future colour revolution. Do you agree with such an assessment?

Vladimir Putin: I have already said what I think about these events in general. I think we should change the subject. I’m sure there are many other interesting questions.

Ernest Mackevicius: I’m afraid we will keep coming back to it.

Vladimir Putin: By all means, if it really is so interesting, I’m ready to discuss it.

As for ribbons and colour revolutions, I think that things are very clear here. This is a proved scheme to destabilise society. I believe that this scheme didn’t come into being all by itself. We know about the orange revolution in Ukraine. Certain members of the Russian opposition went to Ukraine back then and served as official advisors to President Yushchenko. Naturally, they are bringing these practices back here to Russia.

Frankly speaking, when I saw on TV what some of them were wearing on their chests, I'll tell you, though it might be somewhat inappropriate, I thought they were some weird symbols for the fight against AIDS – condoms, if you'll excuse me. It struck me as odd that they would unpack them first, but upon a closer look, I saw that they weren’t condoms after all. But at first, I thought, good, they are promoting a healthy lifestyle, Doctor Roshal would approve. This is a major issue for young people.

Ernest Mackevicius: Incidentally, all Just Russia members wore the ribbons at their conference.

Vladimir Putin: Great. Well done.

Protests are a good thing as long as they are lawful. People have a right to express their discontent with what the government is doing, since the government is not behaving as it should or is not adequately responding to the challenges of the day. People often experience injustice, and it is natural and appropriate that they would react to it. But I do not think it is right or appropriate to let oneself be dragged into any schemes aimed at destabilising society.

Moreover, you just pointed out that a lot of people attended these rallies, the Moscow rally, to express their discontent with how the government is treating them. But look at what we saw on TV. Did you hear what some of the opposition leaders were saying who called upon these people to protest? Do you know what they said to urge the people forward? “Go, you sheep!” What's that all about? Is it right to treat people like cattle? People are discontent with the government. But are these the people that they want in the government instead?

I don’t think that those who joined in the protest shouldn’t have – well I know that the organisers even paid some students (a good idea, giving university students an opportunity to earn a little cash) – they still shouldn’t have let themselves be humiliated by those leaders. It's unacceptable.

Ernest Mackevicius: I would like to give the floor to another studio moderated by my colleague, Dmitry Shchugorev. Please Dmitry, go ahead.

Dmitry Shchugorev: As I said, we have been joined by Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and member of the Public Chamber. Please pose your question.

Anatoly Kucherena: Good afternoon Mr Putin.

We began this discussion with the events at Bolotnaya Square, and I understand how important this issue is. But still, Mr Putin, concerning relations between the government and society, between the government and each citizen, you too have come across a number of facts indicating the failure to find common ground at this point.

After a few hours of taking your calls at the telephone hotline yesterday, I can say that all of the people whom I spoke with personally complain that they are unable to reach an agreement with their local governments.

I spoke with Natalia Khorkova from the village of Novosokolniki in the Pskov Region. She said that she, along with other villagers, have been trying to get their homes hooked up to the gas distribution grids since 2005. They have tried on several occasions to see the mayor, the local administration head. They say that the mayor laughed in their faces and said there was nothing he could do, that he needed an executive who could deal with the problem.

As I see it, in this situation – which is not unique to the Pskov Region, I have had calls to a similar effect from the Moscow Region as well – we should probably think about changing the format of interaction itself between regional/municipal authorities and the people.

Why is it that we have failed to resolve this problem? You often meet with people when you travel around the country putting out fires. As prime minister, you do what you can. But why is it that we cannot convince local authorities even to hear what people have to say?

People often complain about this when they call – that they want to see their mayor in order to discuss their problems, that they want to take part in decisions about where to build bridges and other facilities, that they do not want these decisions to be imposed upon them. It appears as though the governments are working “for the people” but without the people. I don’t think this is right. The times are gone when this was the norm. I think now is the time to think about this.

We receive a lot of complaints addressed to you or to the Public Chamber. And we always ask ourselves why they are writing to us. It's because their local authorities won’t listen.

I would like to hear what you think about the format of interaction. The people who are joining the protests are discontent. So they protest. I attended the event at Bolotnaya Square as a public observer and talked to the people, as did Alexei Venediktov.

People came to support some slogans that they didn’t even hear. They stood there discussing other matters and other problems. They came for a reason.

That is why I'm saying it is high time we change the format of interaction. It seems we must try to do things for the people and with the people. I think we have to listen to what people are saying, ordinary people, and then sit down and really think how we could improve. I was thinking about your idea of using web cameras at polling stations – well perhaps not just at polling stations, but at city halls and regional government premises, to keep an eye on how governors and municipal leaders….

Thank you.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Kucherena, you have made yourself very clear, so let's try to save time.

Vladimir Putin: There, do you see how authority reacts? He’s the authority here today, and that was his response to the public opinion.

Ernest Mackevicius: And I have my own authority and format. An implacable stopwatch authority.

Vladimir Putin: This is unacceptable. We need to give people the opportunity to speak.

Anatoly Kucherena: You see Mr Putin, they won’t let me continue freely.

Vladimir Putin: I certainly support you.

Anatoly Kucherena: Mr Putin, this is truly important. I know how much time you are devoting to this. But it is not your job to travel and resolve all problems personally. We need to think about changing the administrative model. I understand that it is not easy and that it will concern the federal government, along with other issues as well, but we have to think about how we can be closer to the people and how to work together to address their everyday concerns.

Vladimir Putin: I will answer your question in a moment. I glanced over at the crawl line while you were talking. “Will you reintroduce daylight-saving time?” We’ll talk about this later. There was a serious question about single mothers and about raising veterans’ pensions.

Veterans’ pensions are currently higher than the benefits received by other retired people across the country. The average pension will be 8,350 roubles this year, but we will certainly index it further, also for the veterans next year, and we are planning a significant increase for retired military – by an average of 60%. I wanted to mention this briefly.

Now back to your question. This is a very important issue. I would like to cite another idea of Solzhenitsyn’s. He gave a lot of attention to the municipal level of government. When we met, I remember him describing in detail his ideas for strengthening the municipal level of government. I truly believe that he was right. The municipal authorities are the closest to the people, and logically, they should be the most accessible. Therefore, this is the most important level because people’s daily lives directly depend on the efficiency of the work of municipal agencies. This is my first point.

Second. It is important that municipal authorities are effective and independent enough to carry out the functions entrusted to them. Honestly, the level of financing and the sources of funding are not enough for the municipalities to meet their goals. This level is too low, and this significantly reduces the effectiveness of municipal governments.

A working group has been formed for this reason in the federal government, led by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, to redistribute authority and funding. This is going to be done.

At the same time, even with sufficient resources and possibilities, we still often come up against a lack of concern. “Thieves and the others should be sent to jail more often,” – I’m reading from the crawler again. This is true, but we shouldn’t turn it into a witch-hunt.

What’s important is that municipal authorities are elected directly. Voters should be careful about whom they elect. They shouldn’t simply sell their votes to some local quasi-oligarch or their proxies; they should elect people who are well known and respected in their village or town, who can make a difference, meet their goals and talk to people directly.

I have already told this story. It’s an old story in fact. [Sergei] Shoigu went to one of the regions (Nikolai is nodding because he's familiar with the story) in winter because there was an emergency – the heating broke down in one of the towns because the pipes burst. So Shoigu urgently flew to the region, met with the local leadership, and asked one of the local officials to accompany him to that town. The official says he won't go. Why not? They’ll beat me there, honestly. Shoigu says, what do you mean you won’t go, the people there are freezing. He still refuses. So Shoigu grabs him and drives to the airfield, where they are to board a plane or a helicopter. They go into a building to wait. The local official says, I’ll be back in a minute, I need to use the bathroom. He never came back. He escaped through the back door. Escaped, how do you like that? A local government official, imagine.

What can I add here? They should certainly be given more opportunities and stricter requirements. But at the same time, voters should take a little more responsibility during local elections. We need a comprehensive approach to strengthening the municipal level of government, which is a very important segment of the country’s administration.

Ernest Mackevicius: There are some more questions about the elections that we cannot omit, Mr Putin, but they are brief.

Russia has started a presidential election campaign. Like other candidates, you have submitted documents to the Central Election Committee for registration. Here is a question from our programme’s website: “You were President for eight years; you have achieved a lot as Russian Prime Minister.

The question is: If elected, how do you see the mission of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012?”

Vladimir Putin: First of all, thank you for your positive comments on what has been achieved.

We may have a lot of unresolved issues left but there are still things that I believe are hallmark achievements of the previous years. I actually thought we would start with it, and I even made a few notes on this year’s results, so let me tell you about it.

What we managed to do in the previous years in the social sphere is crucial, I believe. In 2000, the share of our population living below the poverty line even under Russian standards – which are far more modest than, say, in European countries – was 29%. Almost one third of the country languished in poverty. Can you imagine the state the society was in?

Over the course of these ten years we have reduced the number of people living below the poverty line by half, and today their share is 12.5%. It is still very high, higher than in European countries. Nevertheless, this is a trend, and an obviously positive one.

In 2000, the average monthly wage in the country was 2,232 roubles. Adjusted to inflation accrued over these years, the average wage today should be 7,400 roubles. This is what we would have come to naturally, if we had developed.

Today, the average monthly wage in the country is not very high, but still it is 23,400 and not 7,400. And this is despite the economic crisis and a certain decline in the population’s incomes, a decline in wages. This is the most important thing. I am now not talking about strengthening our statehood, about strengthening of our positions on the international stage, etc. I believe these are obvious things.

But even if we look back at the crisis, we managed to get over it thanks to our accrued potential – and we have almost doubled the size of the country’s economy over these years; thanks to the fact that the economy had expanded, it became more stable and its financial element became more secure. As I have already said,  the 2009-2010 crisis did not hit Russia as hard as other countries. Even then, the real incomes of our population were growing a little, the real income minus inflation, I’d like to emphasise.

What do we have this year? The economy will grow by 4.2%-4.5%, while in Europe it will be 1%-1.2%. Next year, many leading European economies and the United States expect a zero growth, and some European countries even project a recession. These are official figures. The economy will be down. We are not happy about it. There is nothing to be happy about, because it can affect us, too. But nevertheless, our performance is much better and more stable.

An important target we have been working towards for many years is lowering the inflation rate. Let me recall that in the early 2000s, inflation was 30%, and earlier it had sometimes exceeded 100%. Now we have an all-time low inflation rate. Russia has never had such results in its recent history. This year, it will be just above 6%. We are reaching the level of European countries: Britain has an inflation rate of 5% today. This is a very good result for Russia. Of course, we will have to maintain this trend towards lowering and targeting inflation.

Finally, a very important economic indicator is the unemployment rate. We have brought the unemployment rate to below the pre-crisis level. Under the ILO methodology, we now have 6%. This is a crucial indicator of the economy’s health. How about debt? Do you remember what it was to begin with? We had 120 billion of debt and 12 billion in international reserves. Everything was very unsteady and shaky.

I remember how Mr Primakov made the first step towards the recovery of the system as he became prime minister. We did not simply maintain that trend, but strengthened it manifold. Today, we have the world’s third biggest international reserves. We have practically restored them to the pre-crisis level. We haven’t reached this target completely but we are close. And we have the smallest foreign debt of all developed economies: 10%.

Let me point out that in Italy, for example, the debt is 145% of the country’s GDP; in Greece, it is 162% and in Japan, over 200% of GDP. Our debt is 10%, out of which foreign debt accounts for mere 2.5%; it is almost nothing. We have a healthy economy and we can use this foundation to successfully develop the social sphere; we should tread carefully here, however, in order not to tip the balance. But this year’s results are nevertheless positive.

As I have said, GDP will grow by 4.2%-4.5%, industrial production by 5.1%. Wages in real terms are not growing as fast as we would like them to but still, there will be a real growth of 2.9%.

We have indexed all pensions, even though last year we raised them simultaneously by over 40% - something no one was doing during the crisis, as I have repeatedly said. Others acted very differently: they lowered and froze pensions and raised the retirement age, but we chose a different path. This is what has been done. The challenges that remain are completely different. They are far more difficult than the ones we have been dealing with until now.

We need to strengthen our political system, first of all. We need to expand the foundations of democracy in the country so that people begin to feel their direct connection with the authorities at the municipal, regional and federal levels, so that trust in the authorities grows and the political system becomes self-sufficient and resistant to external shocks and to all kinds of impostors that are trying to get in here from the outside and to influence our domestic political processes. This should be stopped completely.

We need, of course, to diversify the economy, to modernise and renew it. We need innovation and modernisation to penetrate the brain of every citizen, for innovation to become part of our general policy. And, of course, we need to improve and develop our social sphere, so that no one feels neglected by the government.

These are the tasks that we will need to address. Of course, if people decide to trust me with this work, I will be glad to continue putting in as much effort as I have done so far.

Ernest Mackevicius: Our studio audience is gradually joining the conversation. I am giving the floor to Maria Kitayeva and her guests.

I would like to ask our distinguished guests to make their questions brief so that everyone has an opportunity to address the prime minister.

Maria Kitayeva: As I said at the beginning of our programme, we have with us today lawyer Andrei Makarov, a State Duma deputy. I am giving the floor to him.

Andrei Makarov: That’s OK, I can hold the microphone myself. Mr Putin, they won’t let me hold the microphone.

Maria Kitayeva: Promise me you will be brief, and I’ll let you.

Ernest Mackevicius: This is a journalist’s only weapon. Don’t take it away, please.

Andrei Makarov: ... in my own hands, that’s what it is called.

Vladimir Putin: The microphone is power here. Seize it.

Andrei Makarov: Thank you.

Mr Putin, I would like to follow up on what you have just said.

President Putin’s super task was clear at the time you were talking about now – the country was on the brink of a civil war and it had to be saved. This task has been successfully completed.

You have said how much has already been accomplished, however, the business community has some doubts about, as a matter of fact, the unprecedented growth of social expenses. They want to know how they can pay the taxes that they have to pay in order to fund improved living standards for the underprivileged. Quite often, the very word “stability” now has a negative connotation.

More importantly, a lot of people are saying this was a decade of high crude oil prices and, consequently, a decade of lost opportunities.

As a matter of fact, I would like to ask a question they asked you 12 years ago. The question was in English, and it sounded like this: “Who is Mr Putin?” I would like to translate it into understandable Russian and ask: “What is the top priority of presidential candidate, not president, Vladimir Putin at a time when everything you mentioned has been resolved?” And whom do you represent?” And for many people it would sound like this: “Strictly speaking, why do you want to run for president?”

Vladimir Putin: I cannot completely agree that the goal of strengthening the country has been fully achieved. Yes, the most essential things have been accomplished. Separatism and terrorism have been suppressed. But look at the way things still are in the Caucasus – at how people there still suffer as a result of these issues. If we let go of it for just a bit, then many people would realise what “today’s difficulties” are all about. They would realise this when, instead of going to a square, they would have to brave gunfire and fight terrorists, when they would have to think about growing unemployment, like that now plaguing the United States or some Western European countries, rather than about how much their pensions, wages, and salaries are going to increase. They would realise this when they would have to debate retirement age increases, rather than pension raises.

Virtually all countries around us have done this, not to mention countries with a longer average life expectancy. It appears that their actions are justified and are motivated by demographic problems and by the fact that the ratio between the economically active population and retirees continues to diminish. Even a country like Ukraine, which has just about the same or even shorter life expectancy, was forced to do this. This was done under the pressure of international financial institutions, which said the country would not receive any funds for pension payments, as well as for wages and salaries of public-sector employees, unless the pension age was raised. So, they were forced to do this.

So I would not say that everything has been resolved, and that everything is so stable. Yes, much has been accomplished. I said that. But much remains to be accomplished in order to strengthen the system. This is the first thing.

Now I would like to say a few words about stability, and the fact that this word is acquiring a sort of negative connotation. Stability does not imply that we are standing idle and marking time. Stability implies sustained development. This is my idea of stability. And this has been our approach. This must also be our approach in the future.

As I said to Ernest, in the near future – in the mid term, as well as with a longer-term strategic view – we must take on entirely new tasks. We must build society in line with different patterns, strengthen the political system, and expand the basis of democratic institutions. Certainly, we must modernise all aspects of our life, including political life, the economy, and the social sphere. In some respects, these must become the profound transformations of Russian society, so that the country can be stable, and so that the laws governing its development are irreversible, and so that it can attain new frontiers. Can we do this or not? Of course, we can. I think this is what we must strive to accomplish. This precisely will be my highest priority, if the people entrust me with this work.  

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, we have discussed the fact that the country dealt successfully with the 2008 crisis. This was largely due to the Stabilisation Fund playing the part of a safety net. The Stabilisation Fund was conceived by former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin.

Mr Kudrin said just the other day that a second wave of the crisis is starting. By the way, he also said that you and he are not like-minded people. If you win, will you invite him to rejoin your team?

Vladimir Putin: As you know, Alexei Kudrin never left my team. He is my long-time compañero, and I would even say that he is my friend.

The developments inside the government were the result of many factors. I don’t want to discuss them now. But he has not gone far. I met with him only the day before yesterday, and we discussed all these issues.

I understand his stance on many issues. Moreover, he has done a lot to stabilise the Russian economy. It is not surprising to me that the international expert community has twice named him the world’s best minister of finance, and I’m proud of the fact that such a person worked in my government.

I repeat, we met the day before yesterday, discussed the economy and the future. Indeed we are divided on many issues; we don’t have the same opinions on some issues, but these issues are not of a principled nature.

They are talking about a time of lost opportunities, including … Where does this come from? I would like to provide you with some insider information on what is being discussed.

Ernest Mackevicius: Yes, please.

Vladimir Putin: For example, we decided to raise pensions by 42% and 45% during crisis conditions. At that time, the liberal economists told me that this should not be done during the crisis, that we must economise, that if this was to be done then we should simultaneously pursue other essential measures which will inevitably have to be done anyway. They were referring to the very same pension system. What are these measures? For example, quite a few people are eligible for early retirement. Just imagine, how much is that – thirty-four per cent of the total number of pensioners are on early retirement. They told me that this must be done today, and that pension support would be raised drastically. And this step needs to be taken.

The same concerns some other issues. Speaking of healthcare, if we are moving to allocate an additional 460 billion for the healthcare sector, and if we are taking some other steps in education, then we must take other related steps to reduce the number of facilities and to reduce the number of employees, and to make the system more flexible and efficient. Do we need so many hospital cots being used by elderly people only to while away the hard winter months? Hospitals must treat patients and discharge them after a few days, the way they do it at Western clinics. In this respect, we may not need so many cots.

Quite possibly, we don’t need this. But, first, we must establish a modern healthcare system with modern equipment that makes it possible to effectively treat patients within a few days. Second, what should be done about the employees? There is nothing we can do here. We will have to lay off the personnel – who must receive jobs before that.

So, does this amount to a period of lost opportunities or not? As you know, politics is the art of the possible. I have always listened attentively and respectfully to those who advocated such actions, and I have agreed quite often when I thought it was possible. But I have never forgotten, nor will I forget the impact on individuals, the consequences of our actions, and the moods it creates in society. Redundancies are essential, new equipment needs to be purchased in any area, not just the healthcare system, but the people need jobs. Or should we lay off additional personnel in conditions of crisis? And then what would we have to do about this?

So, is this a period of lost opportunities or not? I don’t think so. We need to work carefully. So, returning to your question, I would like to say once again: Yes, we have some disagreements, but, on the whole, and in principle, people like Alexei Kudrin think big and have a strategic foresight of the future. And, of course, the incumbent government and future government need such people.

Ernest Mackevicius: There will be a job for him.

Vladimir Putin: There will.

Ernest Mackevicius: I would like to remind you that my colleague Maria Sittel is at our information centre collecting and receiving messages.

Maria, please, you have the floor.

Maria Sittel: Thank you.

We have received quite a few questions, messages, and appeals. In all, the data collection and processing centre has received about 1.5 million queries, including 1.09 million telephone calls. This year, there are also lots of text messages. As compared to 2010, more people are interested in state and domestic policy issues.

 Should we move on to the questions? Tyumen is on the line. Good afternoon! You are on the air. Please introduce yourself.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Dolores. During the previous Q&A session, you said that the housing and public amenities rates would not rise by over 15% and you personally would take charge of this issue. However, the rates increased even more in some regions. Don’t you think the officials are so used to you that they are not afraid, and do whatever they want? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Is that a thank you to me, or to them? In terms of housing and public amenities, we have already mentioned it today and it is one of the most important, sensitive issues for the people. And, unfortunately, I have to admit that there is so much injustice and cheating in this area.

I will remind you – not because I would like to take the blame off myself and place it on someone else – but there is a law and it must be enacted. There are local and regional officials who are responsible for housing and public amenities. So, when we started to face problems in this area recently I began discussing them with the government.

I admit that I was told that I should not take charge of what is not my responsibility. This problem is tough and outside our authority. You are aware that I work in a completely different manner. I know that people do not care about which authority an issue belongs to. People do not see the difference. As a result, we started working on this at the government level as well.

To increase the level of responsibility, we delegated some issues from the municipalities to the regional officials and empowered the municipal and regional officials with tasks such as setting consumption standards, searching for management companies and setting rates for certain services – but not all of them.

Now the situation is… Yes, and cancelling cross-subsiding and cross-payments. I will explain this briefly.

In terms of consumption standards, I should say that when local officials define the standards they could be lower or higher. Rates depend a great deal on these standards. This is the loophole in tariff regulation.

In regards to management companies, there are providers that are in a “partnership” with local officials. I regret admitting this, but it is true. Our primary goal here is to exclude monopoly in this market.

And now in terms of cross-subsidising. Cross-subsidising implies that some payers pay for other people. What was supposed to be done regularly in previous years in this regard? They were supposed to increase tariffs gradually, according to economic conditions and inflation rates, in order for this rise to be natural.

Last year, we said that the housing and public amenities fund would support only those regions that meet all the requirements, which includes cancelling cross-subsidising. What happened in those municipalities and regions that did not take timely decisions on gradual increases? They inflated prices and tariffs by 70%, 100% and even more to receive federal support. Of course, we had to interfere and stop the increase at last year’s 25%. As far as I know, everything was done based on instructions.

If, however, we overlooked something, please tell us where it happened. I will ask the call operator to tell me later where you are calling from.

This year, we set the increase at 15% and this is the maximum. As of today, the average increase is, I think, 13.5%. It may be true that the rates soared somewhere. Then again, tell us where this happened.

I should say that the number of municipalities where tariffs surged so high was not large even last year. They distorted the statistics, but there were only one thousand of them, I think, in the entire country. This is a small number compared to the total figure.

For next year, we decided to limit the increase to the inflation rate. It will be around six percent. It is a conscious decision. This will not be done for political reasons, and not because of the elections, but rather because if we increase the rates early in the year it will speed up inflation. Thus, we decided to allow any increase from mid-year. This means that the rates will increase from July. I would like to repeat once more that the annual increase will amount to 6-6.5%, but the first increase will be larger because there will be no increase in the first half of the year.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin. But now I would like to give the floor to Tatyana Remezova. Or do we have any questions from the call centre with Maria Sittel?

Maria Sittel: We have many questions and messages. We will read them as soon as you give us the floor.

Ernest Mackevicius: Please.

Maria Sittel: I suggest that we address education now because there are numerous questions in this regard. We received the first in a text message. Is it true that Tina Kandelaki might become the minister of education?

Vladimir Putin: I can see that the audience supports this idea. Tina is perhaps very talented – I don’t know all of her talents – and she is an interesting and conspicuous woman. But for a ministerial position – especially in such an important ministry – management experience and work experience in the field are certainly required. I doubt that Tina has this experience, but everyone who wants to work and who can work will find their place.

Ernest Mackevicius: Now, should we address some questions from the audience? Maria Morgun, please.

Maria Morgun: There are some students from the Academy of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. They have a question about uniformed staff. I am giving the floor to them. Please introduce yourself.

Lada Komarova: My name is Lada Komarova, I am a student at the Civil Defence Academy of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Mr Putin, good afternoon! Don’t you think that the Ministry of Interior's reform was superficial? Is there any sense in changing the title if everything else remains the same?

Vladimir Putin: Frankly speaking, I was not involved in this law enforcement reform from the start, but I think that a positive development was the substantial increase in the allowances and payments of the military from the Ministry of Defence, the law enforcement and the militia, which is now called the police.

I think that this will undoubtedly have an impact because this reform will attract decent people. Wage is a significant aspect when it comes to choosing a job. Again, this is what we have heard and discussed so many times. What do you want from the militia if their wages are just miserable? This was a common problem. Now, we are increasing the payment for police personnel and the Ministry of Defence. Next year, we will increase salaries for all other law enforcement agencies. People know that this cannot be done in the blink of an eye. Generally, though, the heads of these services understand this very well. But this will be done in a year – from January 1, 2013. Of course, there are different people in any organisation, including quasi-military and military institutions. They are part of our society. There are people who are known for honest service and people who are not.

And then there are people who behave improperly or even commit crimes. Naturally, we need to keep an eye on all of this, while acting as openly as possible and taking into account the specifics of this service. Its activity should be open and comprehensible to society, and should be controlled by it.

But our attitude towards people in uniform, including in the Interior Ministry system, also needs to change. If we want them to work efficiently, we need to respect them, not simply increase their salaries.

Ernest Mackevicius: A question from our website, once again about elections. I’m not doing this on purpose, there are simply a lot of these questions.

Vladimir Putin: I’ve had enough of these elections. All right, go ahead.

Ernest Mackevicius: This issue is running all the way through our hotline. Here it is:

“You did not take part in the Duma election or head any list, yet the blame is still being put at your feet. You are not being treated well at all, as is clear from the scandal with Vlast magazine, which ran a photograph of you holding a ballot paper with a caption reading – I don’t dare repeat it here…”

Vladimir Putin: And why not, go ahead and say it. Let the people know.

Ernest Mackevicius: It said, “Putin, f…” I can’t say it out loud because this is a live broadcast. What do you think about this attitude?

Vladimir Putin: I saw that caption, and I found it rather amusing. I was even pleased by it, and here's why. First, this attitude is nothing new to me. In the early 2000s, when we were fighting a war on terror in the North Caucasus, I heard far worse things said about me and saw worse pictures. Our Western partners worked particularly hard on that. I saw a great deal of nasty cartoons. But I have always been confident that I was acting correctly, and likewise, I am sure now that I am doing the right thing.

As for these statements and captions, as far as I can tell, the words were written on a ballot paper in London, where people went to the embassy in order to vote. We know who these people are and why they are not returning to Russia.

And them telling me to go to hell can be explained by their desire to return home, which they cannot do as long as I'm around – I understand this perfectly well. So I am not angry with them, I have no hard feelings. Moreover, I had called upon all Russian citizens to vote, and they did, they heeded my appeal. I thank them for that.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you.

More questions are emerging from Maria Morgun’s area of responsibility. Maria?

Maria Morgun: I'd like to say that here in the studio is the famous paediatrician Leonid Roshal, head of the Moscow Institute of Emergency Children's Surgery and President of the National Medical Chamber. Mr Roshal, you have the floor.

Vladimir Putin: I was hoping it would not come to this today, but here he is again…

Ernest Mackevicius: Just like the elections.

Leonid Roshal: Mr Putin, Maria has asked me not to take the microphone from her, and I will do it. First a few thoughts concerning the Bolotnaya meeting, which are not directly related to medicine.

Vladimir Putin: Please.

Leonid Roshal: I did not go to Bolotnaya Square because our institute is located nearby and we did not know how it would end. So we instructed specialists – brain and trauma surgeons and ER doctors to be in attendance. They came to the institute, but thank God, there were no problems.

And then I spoke with business people who were in Bolotnaya and who live well, have houses abroad and so onПожалуйста.

А потом я поговорил с бизнесменами, которые были на Болотной площади, и которые до этого. I asked them why they were there. They told me that they have business problems, that their businesses are being strangled by kickbacks. This is the first problem. And it happens at all levels.

Vladimir Putin: Surely they have enough for kickbacks.

Leonid Roshal: Many companies are going bankrupt. And they have problems with loans. It is very difficult for small businesses to take out loans, which is why these people took to the square. This is the main reason.

I didn’t want to ask this question – I wanted to ask about Takhchidi first, but then I decided against it, because I believe that this is the matter for the prosecutor’s office, so we can leave it to them to decide what is good and what is bad. There are too many rumours surrounding that case. For example, I heard today that Takhchidi’s people went to the President’s Executive Office and bribed officials there to let him… I believe there should be an internal investigation. Personally, I think that this is complete nonsense. It concerns specific people; let them prove that they did it…

I have spoken with my assistants, and they told me what I should ask Mr Putin. I have aired their questions on central TV. The first question has to do with direct-pay medicine. On the one hand, we say that people are guaranteed medical assistance, and that everything else should be paid for. But the executive authorities are now increasing pressure, quite forcefully, to increase direct pay for state and municipal healthcare services. Mr Kostyushov, is that right?

Yevgeny Kostyushov: Yes.

Leonid Roshal: This is very important. How can we strike a balance in this case? This is the first question.

And the second. People are worried – I am not referring to the quality of services, which is a matter for professional organisations to think about how to improve quality – they are worried about the long lines at outpatient clinics, especially for specialists. The situation with healthcare personnel is nearly catastrophic, but what can we do about the lack of specialists? Their salaries have been raised a little – it was a mistake not to do this earlier – but will this help resolve this problem? What can we do to shorten these lines?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I will take a note of this so I don't forget.

With regard to loans for small businesses, and loans in general, I'll say just a few words about this. Of course, loan accessibility is a vital element and one of the key instruments for encouraging economic activity and economic growth. The credit level is constantly being monitored, and we should tread lightly in this area. The volume of loans to the economy that are issued in Russia is, generally speaking, the same as in any other country, with the possible exception of China, where it is somewhat larger.

Excessive lending is dangerous too. Why? Because when the economy is indiscriminately injected with money, this leads to economic bubbles. When money is issued without good reason, companies overproduce, and then they cannot find markets for their goods. This is not a simple economic category.

In the United States, loans are issued with a down payment of close to zero, and trust me, all the experts worry about how and when this will end. It is a threat to the global economy, because it encourages inflation and has other negative consequences as well. Sooner or later, US financial authorities will have to cut the amount of support for this cheap or free money in the economy. What effect will this have? Will the economy implode? And what effect will this have on the United States and the global economy as a whole? No one knows. This is one of the threats facing the global economy, alongside excessive growth of debts in the eurozone.

This is why I think our Central Bank has been acting cautiously. We have maintained an acceptable level of lending, without being too excessive. I repeat that on the whole, I think, the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry have been acting carefully and correctly.

As for support to small business, assistance has been provided to them through several channels, including through the regions and directly from the federal budget. I believe these allocations have been approved at 10 billion roubles this year, and later we increased them a little. We are supporting small businesses through relevant agencies in the regions, including by cutting the tax burden on small and medium-sized enterprises, but primarily for small enterprises. We will certainly continue to do this in future, acting carefully so as not to undermine the economy as a whole.

As for direct-pay medicine and lines, this is certainly an important question, one that is of great concern to nearly all citizens of Russia.

Direct-pay or subsidised medicine? You were part of the group that drafted the new law on the guidelines for the medical business in Russia, which clearly specifies the direct-pay and subsidised services. That's the first thing.

Second, about distortions. Mr Roshal, you should know about this. I believe it was in 1993 that a decision was made to transfer all issues relating to healthcare, in the broad sense, to the regions.

We had a reason for doing this. We did it because the federal centre could not finance these services, so they handed them over to the regions with almost no funds. This is a tragedy. The regional and municipal authorities began financing their healthcare services based on their [financial] capabilities, which differ from region to region.

Worse still, this has led to a situation where the funding of healthcare services in some regions is more than 20 times greater than in others!

This is why our task, yours and mine, was to concentrate part of the funds centrally, just as in the publicly funded sphere, to be subsequently redistributed throughout the system of mandatory medical insurance in order to balance the funding system. But we cannot do this directly by withdrawing funds from regions that are better off, thereby lowering the healthcare standards there, in order to transfer them to regions in which the situation is more drastic. No, we need to approach this carefully.

We will go about this in accordance with the new law on mandatory medical insurance, which has been adopted and went into effect on January 1 of this year, if memory serves, and also in accordance with the adoption of the law on the guidelines for the medical business, which you drafted jointly with your colleagues and which will go into effect on January 1 of next year. We will balance the system gradually, in stages. The first stage will last until 2013, I think. And then we will proceed to the next stage.

Now, regarding lines in outpatient clinics: this is an important issue. I have drawn the attention of my colleagues to this issue, and have even sent people out to shoot videos of these lines. They exist because of a shortage of specialists in some regions – again, due to underfunding. But this is precisely why we have approved the next stage: modernisation of the healthcare system.

In 2006 we made a decision and implemented a number of national projects, including in healthcare, in order to determine problematic areas, after which we drafted a new law on mandatory medical insurance and also a new law, which we prepared with your help, on the guidelines for the medical business. We will use these laws to redistribute resources. We have also launched a new healthcare modernisation programme. I have said more than once, and you are well aware, that this implies the use of huge funds, an additional 460 billion roubles, which I hope will be spent, as everyone knows, on the upgrading of healthcare establishments in Russia’s regions. We have launched this programme; it is being implemented, and I hope that people will feel the effects of it.

Leonid Roshal: Mr Putin, I don’t think that the rising number of paid healthcare services will be linked to my name.

Vladimir Putin: No, it will not.

Leonid Roshal: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Everyone knows that Dr Roshal flatly opposes fees for healthcare services. I do not know if we will be able to move away from paid services, but the current laws state what is free and what is to be paid for. I believe that this clarity is very important. Basic things in general have to be free, and public healthcare in Russia must be free. 

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, Dr Roshal mentioned something about kickbacks.

Vladimir Putin: Kickbacks? Oh, the ones paid by businesses.

Ernest Mackevicius: Exactly.

Vladimir Putin: You know, this is the very corruption that we are talking about and that we have to fight. This certainly is a huge problem, and this is a problem in any transitional economy where businesses are forced to pay bribes to bureaucrats. This is a real problem and it has to be rooted out, there is nothing more to say.  

Ernest Mackevicius: We are receiving thousands of calls, and many people are sending text messages. Here is one of them: “Your friend, US Senator John McCain, warned on Twitter that Muammar Gaddafi’s fate could befall you. Is this just an idle threat or an actual plan of the West?

Vladimir Putin: You exaggerate greatly when you say he is my friend.

Ernest Mackevicius: The person who asked the question exaggerates.

Vladimir Putin: Well, he exaggerated, though I do know Mr McCain. I met with him once in Munich at the well-known security conference, as far as I remember. I heard these statements, of course, I read them. Well, what can I say? These statements are not addressed to me but to Russia as a whole. They want to move our country to the side, so that it won’t be in the way and won’t interfere in their global domination.

They are still afraid of Russia’s nuclear capabilities, because Russia is in their line of sight, their attention, and so it is an irritant. Also, we have our own views and we conduct an independent foreign policy, and, I hope will continue conducting it. This surely bothers someone. That’s the first thing.

Second, the West is not homogenous, and we have more friends than enemies. Third, Mr McCain, as is known, fought in Vietnam. I think he has enough blood of peaceful civilians on his hands. I guess he is very fond of it and can’t live without those horrible and repulsive scenes of Gaddafi’s murder, with the footage of his bloody body broadcast all over the world. Is this democracy? Who did this? First, Gaddafi’s convoy was bombed by drone aircraft, including US drones. Then, so-called opposition members and fighters were summoned by radio by special forces, which weren’t supposed to be there, and Gaddafi was summarily executed. No one says he should have stayed – but this should have been left to the people to decide through democratic procedures. Sure, it is difficult and time-consuming, but it cannot be done in any other way.

As we know, Mr McCain was captured in Vietnam. They did just put him in a prison camp but in a pit, where he remained for several years, and this is enough to drive anyone mad. So there’s nothing unusual about his statements.

Ernest Mackevicius: After such a question and answer, I think it would be logical to move on to international affairs. Ms Tatyana Remezova, go ahead.

Tatyana Remezova: Since the discussion has touched on the events in the Arab world, the floor is given to Yevgeny Primakov, leading international relations expert, former foreign intelligence service chief, former Russian foreign minister and prime minister.

Yevgeny Primakov: Thank you very much. Mr Putin, I would like to ask a couple of questions to segue into international affairs.   

First, I am impressed by your view, which you reaffirmed in your answers today, that the work of governors and mayors should be assessed based on their actual assistance to people. 

That being said, can the percentage of the vote received by the United Russia party in a particular region be taken as criterion by which their work is judged? This is the first question. 

The second question directly concerns international affairs. I am sure you are closely monitoring development in Europe. It appears to me that a major focus of interest for our country is how integration will proceed with Belarus and Kazakhstan, to be followed possibly by other states. But I don’t think it will do any good if they join all at once, as this could slow or complicate the process. Don’t you think that we have to taken important lessons from the turbulent crisis that is happening in Europe right now and apply them to our integration? These are the two questions I would like you to answer.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Primakov, first, I would like to thank you for your words of support, which, as I have seen, you took the initiative to voice in the media as well. Support from such a respected figure is very important to me. Thank you very much.

Second, as regards mayors and governors and whether United Russia’s result in the State Duma elections can have any effect on their official position or be a criterion for assessing their work.

The government has developed a number of criteria for evaluating the performance of governors and none of them are related to the election. These criteria are primarily linked with the economy and social issues. There is a long list of indicators. We worked on this list for some time and it is pretty well balanced. Again, these criteria are primarily related to the socio-economic performance of the regions.

As for the elections, the failure of governors to achieve strong results in those regions where they were active in the campaign still points to a level of support or rather a lack of support on the part of the local people. If I were one of these governors, I’d think about forwarding my resignation to the president.

I’d like to once again be clear that we have worked out strictly industrial criteria and none deal with the elections or the campaign.

Now I’d like to speak about integration – both Europe’s and ours. I know you have always been an active champion of integration for the post-Soviet space and have done much to allow us to rely in our practical activities on the foundations you laid as both the foreign minister and the prime minister.

By and large, we have travelled a long road. The Customs Union and the Common Economic Space are integration associations of an entirely different level and depth. They amount to real integration with a potential transfer of some functions to supranational bodies, and this is extremely important. This is not a rebirth of the Soviet Union. All member states will fully preserve their political independence. We are and will follow this road to be more competitive in the global economy, promote progress and ensure higher living standards.

This is a complicated process of compromise at the negotiating table. The contributions of Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev have been very important. Nazarbayev is the main engine of this integration. I’m not exaggerating – it is Nazarbayev who has enthusiastically supported and promoted this idea. Owing to these leaders and the position of Russia, that is, President Dmitry Medvedev, we are on this road and, I hope, will continue on it.

It goes without saying that we are fully aware of what is happening in Europe. The financial crisis is aggravating there because one indispensable condition has not been observed. There are some macroeconomic indicators, such as the size of foreign and domestic debt or budget shortfalls, that should have been agreed upon in supranational bodies but this was not the case. International bodies simply made Maastricht-style decisions – no more than 3% of the deficit.

In reality many countries have long exceeded these parameters or given inaccurate statistics, thereby creating a predicament for all EU countries. Now France and Germany are trying to correct this mistake and transfer to a supranational level a number of issues to regulate macroeconomic parameters. This is the right way to go. However, this is a prototype for the United States of Europe. We haven’t yet reached this level of integration but we are talking about an opportunity to start forming the Eurasian Union after the launch of our Common Economic Space. I think that as a result of negotiations and compromises we too will reach this level. I hope we will eventually have a common currency and will also be coordinating macroeconomic parameters.

Ernest Mackevicius: We have some experts on security, including international security, where Maria Morgun is moderating. Please, Masha, go ahead.

Maria Morgun: Yes, this is true. Here is a participant in our programme – Viktor Baranets, a retired colonel, journalist and military commentator for the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Viktor Baranets: Good afternoon, Mr Putin!

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, Sir!

Viktor Baranets: Mr Putin, I am here at your tenth conversation with the people, and I often think that those who do not want to save you from mistakes shower you with compliments, but that those who do, tell you merciless “salty truths”. Well, I’m one of those.

Vladimir Putin: A salty truth goes well with beer.

Viktor Baranets: Mr Putin, speaking at a recent United Russia conference, you said words that eclipsed the classics of Marxism-Leninism. I’ll repeat them. These are great words. You said: “Our policy must be based on truth and truth alone.” But now let me explain what I’m driving it.

Addressing the army and the nation, Mr Putin has said many times that the housing problem for discharged service personnel will be resolved by 2010. This problem has not been resolved. Not a single minister has apologised to the dozens of people who have actually been cheated. You haven’t apologised either.

Don’t you think it appropriate to apologise to people and tell them honestly when exactly this problem will be resolved?

And the second point. You just said some good words. You said that the “ministers are appointed by us” and pointed to the audience in the hall. This sounds great. This is an issue of principle, something new for me. But, Mr Putin, let’s be straight about this – it is you who appoints the ministers. Many of them…

Vladimir Putin: …and the president as well.

Viktor Baranets: I’m addressing you as a presidential nominee. Mr Putin, it is abundantly clear that a number of ministers have made a mess of their strategies – the economy, healthcare and the army. Nonetheless, you have not yet lashed out at them. Why are you afraid of replacing them?

Mr Putin, believe me, if you remove poor performers and throw talented and principled ministers into the fray, people will support you and reforms will advance.

Mr Putin, I’m finishing my long speech. I’d like to repeat what you have been asked many times – why don’t you dismiss these mediocre ministers without principles (who are cheating you by the way)? You were let down when you promised that the housing problem for dismissed service people will be resolved. They let you down. This is a crime against the state – not only against you, Mr Putin. You must draw conclusions from this. If you have any problems selecting personnel, feel free to ask us and me personally. We’ll help.

Vladimir Putin: What ministerial position would you claim?

Viktor Baranets: My last job was press secretary for Defence Minister Igor Rodionov. But I’d be pleased to work in your oversight bodies and you wouldn’t make a mistake even a comma and you wouldn’t mislead the people. I’m ready to work, Mr Putin.

Vladimir Putin: This is clear. You talk like we talk. Probably, Mr Roshal has provoked you into talking about the ministers? He also has grievances against some of the ministers. Don’t you, Mr Roshal?

When you said you wanted to tell me the truth I started wondering what you were going to say.

Now about housing for the military: you are bound to know that before we started dealing with this problem nobody had ever dealt with it in earnest. People were simply not given any housing. The waiting list was growing at an astronomical rate and some of those discharged in the 1990s were put on municipal waiting lists and told: “There you go, that’s your lot!” People on municipal waiting lists had been waiting for decades and this was the end of the line – these service people were simply forgotten.

What happened in reality? I said that we will resolve this problem by the end of 2010. I proceeded from the following premise. I was told there were 70,000 discharged service personnel who had to have their housing conditions improved. Proceeding from this figure, the economic and finance ministries were instructed to calculate the budget implications and allocate the funds required for providing 70,000 people with housing in the next few years.

In 2008, 10,000 flats were purchased and given out; the figure for 2009 was 56,000 flats and for 2010 45,000 flats. Put together, there were more than 100,000 flats against the 70,000 on the waiting list. In this sense we not only didn’t cheat anyone but provided more flats than we promised.

So, what went wrong? There were two problems. First, it transpired that the Defence Ministry did a poor accounting job – there were 150,000 service personnel rather than 70,000 that needed better housing. The story with the veterans of the Great Patriotic War was pretty much the same. We promised to provide them with flats and started with 10,000-12,000. Then we said we’ll put everyone on the waiting list, including those who were not registered on it until March 1, 2005. I was told then there would be another 10,000-15,000. But it actually came to more than 100,000! A hundred thousand plus, can you imagine?

This task requires instant use of resources and funds, and, most important, the potential of the construction market. During the first step, even more money was allocated than necessary, but it was simply impossible to buy so many flats from the market. We had to observe certain parameters for the flats to which the military were entitled by law, but the market simply did not have them. It is impossible to build this much housing in one month. This is why the Defence Ministry decided to build new housing. It has launched its construction programme on a large scale. This was the first problem.

The second problem was that in the last few years the Defence Ministry has been carrying out a military reform. These activities are not directly linked with the government. As a result of this reform, the number of discharged service personnel has increased somewhat and the waiting lists have grown accordingly.

All these factors played a role, as well as the crisis that affected the scale of funding although we had allocated all of the budgeted funds despite that. But we will resolve this problem no matter what. I think by 2012 we will resolve all of the problems with permanent housing and somewhere at the end of 2013 we will have resolved the issue of service housing. As the experts put it, we will bring this task to successful completion and provide flats for all service people that are on municipal waiting lists. We did remember after everyone else forgot about them. I said no, this is wrong and unjust. We must go back and fulfil our commitments to these people. We will do this by any means. This is the truth of it. This is how it is.

Now a few words about the ministers: as you know, like many governors, the ministers are always the focus of criticism, and it is very easy to use them as scapegoats. But I too am responsible for what is taking place in these spheres. This is my responsibility as the prime minister. This is the first point.

Now the second point. These are qualified people. The issues they tackle are complex and cannot be solved with black-and-white approaches. We can dispute with them or reproach them for something, but the worst thing we can do is to start shuffling them from position to position. We know how that will turn out from our recent history.

I have some experience with this work, and I know what constant reshuffling means and what it leads to. It is bad enough to replace one top manager with another (without knowing the results) and then watch his or her department stop operating for at least half a year. There will be operational replacements and changes – a nightmare! If people are making the wrong decisions, our task is to organise the work in a way that will avoid these mistakes.

As for rotation, we have discussed this. The time will come for it, no doubt. A new government will require some change, and it will happen.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, I suggest we review the situation in cities and towns before moving on to the regions. The first city we will go to live is Vladivostok.

Just next year, Vladivostok is to host a major international forum: APEC. Our colleague, commentator Pavel Zarubin joins us now. Good afternoon, Pavel.

Pavel Zarubin: Good afternoon, Moscow.

Good afternoon from Vladivostok, the capital of the Primorye Territory that will host the next APEC Leaders’ week, which will take place in about nine months. The bridge over Zolotoi Rog Bay is one of the most ambitious construction projects, and although it is related to APEC Leaders’ week, its primary importance is for Vladivostok residents. The bridge will be included in the list of the world’s top five cable-stayed bridges: it is two kilometres long, and is 64 metres above the water.

To get a better sense of the scale of construction, just look at the site behind me, where we’re all standing, although it is very cold here. This is just one section of the bridge, in total there will be 53 sections like this, each weighing 230 tonnes. These components have to be delivered by water, using barges, which gives you a sense of just how bulky and heavy these bridge parts are. The section we are standing on now will be put in place in the next few days.

According to the schedule, by mid-March the builders will join together the two parts of the bridge that this city needs so much. Construction work will eventually connect the two opposite ends of Vladivostok. At the moment, unfortunately, people have to take a roundabout route, adding up to one, two, to their journey time, or even five hours during snow storms.

And, of course, this Monday, local residents experienced several very unpleasant moments when they learnt that the bridge had caught fire. Apparently, part of the bridge started burning when wooden casing caught fire during welding.

It was a big fire. It could be seen from nearly every part of the city. People gathered in the streets when they heard what was happening. Many were of course shocked, and everyone has a lot of questions now, which is only natural. That is why we will now digress from the usual scenario of these live linkups to put a question to Viktor Grebnev, general director of the company in charge of the bridge’s construction. 

Mr Grebnev, could you give us a sense of the extent of damage, does this mean that the bridge will not be completed on time?

Viktor Grebnev: A fire is an emergency. And emergencies are always unpleasant. But I’d like to say that the bridge’s load-bearing structures are undamaged, the design parameters are fine. Immediate, on the spot investigations conducted within a day of the event revealed only cosmetic damage. Some time will be needed to repair this cosmetic damage, but to say that the bridge will not be completed on time… The bridge will certainly be completed. It will be built in time for the event. This is, of course, a bit of a blow, but I’d like to reassure everyone: the bridge will be ready.

Pavel Zarubin: We are all with you on that. Thanks a lot.

And now let us start taking questions. I will keep what I have to say brief. Our camera crew has been working here on the ground for several days now. We held a lot of meetings with different people from different professions, and with different social groups, to help us understand what issues are important, in first place, for people here in the city, in the territory. The most active have gathered here today to put questions to you that they feel are the most topical and difficult for the region. So, let’s get to it. I know that there is a question from someone about small business.

Andrei Goldobin: Esteemed Mr Putin, I have a question, but I’d like to start with a brief introduction. I am a businessman, my name is Andrei Goldobin.  

It is difficult to conduct business amid powerful corruption existing in this territory. It is no secret for anyone that the local bureaucracy with Governor Darkin at the head are lining their pockets with money from the federal budget and the business community’s earnings. (I am sorry, I feel as cold as ice.)

Mr Putin, for how long will Governor Darkin stay in office? He is to blame for all this outrage from beginning to end, and he is lining his pockets. We are indignant and want to hear the answer. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Goldobin, let me first of all say a couple of words about the bridge. The project manager here says they made a rapid analysis, but I think this is not enough. An in-depth probe is in order, but it should not, of course, interfere with the project. The condition of the framework and other elements must be examined. It’s an important infrastructural facility that brooks no breakdowns or misconceptions. We must be sure that the technological standards are met. First, I ask you to do that. And I will give the necessary instructions to my colleagues.

Second, let us speak about the authorities, corruption and so on. As far as I understand, it is not just the corruption that is involved. There are many problems generated by the crime rate that, I regret to say, is higher than in any other region of the Russian Federation.

I already spoke about the criteria drawn up by the government: the economic efficiency criteria. But there are other criteria that we should mind. As I said, the results of the latest political events at home are a gauge of popular confidence in this or that regional head. I hope the heads themselves will know as much and take appropriate decisions.

Right now I wouldn’t like to rush things, but I will certainly take into consideration what you have said today.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Pavel. Thank you, Vladivostok.

We are coming back to Moscow and our Moscow studio. I see my colleague Ivan Kudryavtsev raise his hand. You, please, Ivan!

Ivan Kudryavtsev: We have in this studio Father Maxim Kozlov of the Moscow University’s Church of St Tatiana the Great Martyr, whom the Orthodox students see as their heavenly patroness. Please, you have the floor.

Maxim Kozlov: Let me step back from politics and economics because we have not yet talked about other things.

Mr Putin, in days of yore our homeland was in good enough shape, when its sovereigns were the doctor, the teacher and the priest. Understandably, it’s a negative demonstration. If a doctor is a butcher, a teacher is a torturer, and a priest is a blockhead, the result is an awful mess. But we can look at the positive side, too: we are contributing to the common cause. We console, we give treatment, and we educate.

Now, where the church-state relations are concerned, the situation is more or less normal. We console and we give treatment [without hindrance]. The day before yesterday I visited some penitentiary camps and similar institutions. These have more than 1,000 churches and prayer rooms, whereas universities and colleges, less than 50.

With all due respect for convicts, our homeland’s future will be in the hands of today’s students. I would like to hope for breakthroughs in the area where we jointly engage in educational and indoctrination work. What do you say?

I have one more question or, to be more precise, a plea. I’d like to intercede for doctors, teachers, librarians and museum workers. We priests are ready to accept scolding and see it as beneficial. The only thing we want is to be given an opportunity for dialogue. Here we have more hopes for the federal agencies. Mr Venediktov (Alexei Venediktov, head of Radio Ekho Moskvy) and his most democratic radio station set aside just four minutes a week for a religious broadcast. I wonder if the public television might prove more generous. Let them give more praise to teachers, doctors, librarians and museum workers. Let the TV give prominence to people who are the backbone of Russia, not to businessmen, bartenders or entertainers. This is what my plea is all about.

Vladimir Putin: People of democratic convictions believe that representatives of our traditional religious denominations should not be allowed to enjoy much air time. I don’t wish to enter into polemics right now, although I have what to say on this score. The situation is what it is because we have a secular state. And we should not forget about that. Personally I want it to be even more secular.

At the same time, we lost certain Soviet values enshrined in the Moral Code of the Builders of Communism. But if we look through this Code, we’ll find excerpts from the Bible. In fact, mankind has invented nothing new.

Our traditional denominations – the Buddhists, the Christians, the Jews and the Moslems – are essentially of the same view as regards these basic moral values. And, certainly, this is what we must jointly promote. We don’t have other value orientations and they are unlikely to appear any time soon.

Where the students and generally the education sphere are concerned, you cannot ignore – you serve at the Moscow State University, don’t you? – that we have an extensive programme in this regard. One might criticise it and there are certainly many elements in it that ought to be criticised, and we must look for ways of improving it. But we do keep an eye on the higher specialised education system, secondary education system, and vocational education system at the level of vocational schools and lyceums. And we will continue to be concerned with how to develop these systems.

Allocations for higher education and science have been increased many times over in recent years. And there are new approaches to this sphere. Two cases in point are the Lomonosov Moscow University and the St Petersburg University that have been consigned to a separate category. Specialised government development programmes involving speedier and heftier funding have been devised for them. We have established a system of federal higher educational establishments and a nationwide network of research universities. And each of them will be in receipt of additional funding.

We have approved a grant allocation programme for talented people, a grant allocation programme for scientists that suggest interesting and promising ideas, strategic ideas. We won’t bankroll educational establishments or scientific centres, we will give grants directly to scientists that have something to propose. And, you know, it promises to be a very interesting programme. So, we will most actively support and develop this sphere. As for what representatives of religious denominations do in the universities, let me reiterate my personal point of view. We must support and retain the secular character of this state. But, of course, the religious denominations’ activities at educational establishments as well as in the army and places of confinement are not banned and will only be welcomed.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, the issue that was just mentioned relates rather to the previous topic, Vladivostok, but given its importance it would be wise to ask it now before we stray too far. 

“The mistakes in the appointment of a number of governors are clear. These governors include Mezentsev, Ipatov, Mikhalchuk, Yurchenko, Nelidov, Brovko, and so on. We Ulyanovsk residents largely voted against United Russia because we wanted Sergei Morozov, our governor, to resign.” Signed by Olga, a resident of Ulyanovsk.

And here is a question from Alexei Shatskov, Volgograd Region: “Is it true that regions failing to support the ruling party will be excluded from Russia’s social development programmes?” 

And the most frequent question: “Isn’t it time to reinstate direct elections of governors?”

Vladimir Putin: This is an important question. As for this idea that [regions] will be excluded [from social programmes] on the basis of election outcomes, it’s utter nonsense.

Just imagine: “If you don’t vote we will cut off your power and block your sewage pipes.” This is nonsense, of course.  No government of sound mind would ever do that, and our government would never do that. It is not a question of political preference, it is a question of the duty of state officials at the federal or regional level to their citizens. These are absolutely fundamental things. Nobody will reduce anything, no one would dare. This is my first point.

Second, the most important issue – the election or appointment of governors. I will not hide the fact, as I have already said and I’ll say again, that I was the one who designed the current way of bringing governors to power. I designed it personally, without any advice, and I’ll tell you why. Let’s return to the circumstance in which it was established in the early 2000s, when a civil war was raging in the Caucasus, when, I’ll be blunt; when many governors came to power in allegedly direct elections, by secret ballot, but with the support of local quasi-criminal elites; and what was especially dangerous and important at that time, they concentrated extensive economic power in their hands, and in addition they were in the Federation Council and so had immunity as a deputy.

But what was especially alarming and what worried me very much, they would stop at nothing to gain power. Not only did they seek support from quasi-criminal organisations, they also relied on nationalist and separatist groups. And it was very easy to foster this separatism in [various] regions of the Russian Federation, given its complicated territorial division, including ethnic areas. And I want those here in the hall as well as the citizens of this country to know what was behind that decision. I had no desire to concentrate more power in my hands. None at all! It was the desire to preserve this country, to gather everyone together, and to prevent turbulence.   

Of course, we have passed through the period of formation and consolidation of our government structures and the state as a whole. And, of course, I heard a lot of claims from Vladivostok. I am familiar with these claims. And I proceeded from [the concept] that if the president puts forth a nomination to a legislative assembly, then the legislative assembly, elected by all citizens of the region, by direct and secret ballot, makes a certain selection and makes a choice [of a candidate]. By the way, this mechanism works partly. I recall that when we proposed, for instance, a Volgograd [candidate for governor], Volgograd deputies said, “No, with all due respect, we will not support this candidate under any circumstances.” And so we agreed and proposed a different candidate. The same thing happened in Nizhny Novgorod, as I recall.

But now I also see that maybe it is not enough. And it is necessary to take the next step in the development of our political system. I have thought about it and I think it is possible, it is necessary to maintain this filter at the presidential level in order to prevent people with the backing of quasi-criminal or, God forbid, separatist forces from coming to power, including in “ethnic” republics. I want everybody to understand this, it is extremely important for Russia.

We could think of an option whereby all parties elected to a regional legislature by secret-ballot direct election propose to the president their candidates for governor – a regional head. These proposals would pass through the presidential filter, then he submits these candidates not to the legislators but to the whole region’s population to be voted by a secret-ballot direct election. This move would be quite possible and justified, I think. 

And, of course, the president should maintain a form of negative control, that is, the right to sack governors in case they commit certain acts in the course of exercising their official powers. The same, in principle, could be done with the formation of the upper chamber of parliament (it is necessary to think through elements of such a scheme).

Ernest Mackevicius: Including direct election?

Vladimir Putin: I said including direct election. Also to pass through the presidential filter the candidates of the winning parties in regional elections and to offer up these candidates to local citizens’ judgment and to form the upper chamber of the parliament, the Federation Council, by secret-ballot direct election.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, to clarify: does this mean that elections of governors will return to some extent?

Vladimir Putin: With the changes that I mentioned. In any case, I think it is possible, it is possible now. We will see later how this mechanism works in general, and so we will pass through this stage. It is also possible to pass directly to a system of self-nomination, but for now candidates should have to pass through the presidential filter, I am sure of this.

Ernest Mackevicius: Presidential specifically?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, presidential. I’ll say it again: the parties elected to regional legislatures would submit their candidates for governor to the president. He could then decide against this or that candidate. Then they would submit a different candidate till it comes up with an adequate candidate, who would then be submitted to the citizens for approval in a secret-ballot direct election. I think this is quite acceptable for a country, and that it would protect us from risks considering the very complicated arrangement of our federation while simultaneously strengthening the influence of citizens on the highest level of government in the region.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin.

I suggest that we take a few steps inside our studio and give the floor to Maria Kitayeva and her guests.

Maria Kitayeva: I would like to go to St Petersburg, where the governor was recently appointed under the old system, and turn the floor over to the Honorary Citizen of St Petersburg Maestro Gergiev.

Valery Georgiyev (Russian conductor): Mr Putin, there is a large map of Russia behind you, and we have listened with great interest about events that happened a long time ago. First of all, I want to thank you for this powerful map, the way we can see it now, its great scale. This is the first thing. I was brought up in Ossetia, so I have reasons to say what I am saying.

Second, I live in St Petersburg and I am heading a major theatre [the Mariinsky Theatre]. I’d like to tell you a short story. The great composer Sergei Prokofiev, the greatest 20th century Russian composer in my view, presented to the Mariinsky Theatre (which was called the Kirov Theatre at that time) his ballet Romeo and Juliet, now his most famous work, and after the successful opening night he was strolling near the theatre and ran into a man who asked him:

“Are you Sergei Prokofiev, the composer?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Your composition is dreadful, I dislike it very much. I’ve listened to it several times already.”

But I’d like to say that after Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev composed a great number of very famous works including his famous military compositions. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was composed in 1937-1938; War and Peace and the Fifth Symphony were composed in 1942 and 1945.

Why am I taking up your time with this information? Because Russia is not only a country of oil and gas, Russia is also the country of great writers, poets and composers. Everybody knows that. I think you should follow your instinct. I am impressed by how we are talking today not about the successes or failures of United Russia but about Russia. I want to thank you for this.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Gergiev, thank you for your appreciation, for your support. We have known each other for a long time and we are friends. You just mentioned Prokofiev, his ballet Romeo and Juliet. It is a very good example of how quickly everything changes and how views change. You probably remember that when this music was premiered some very renowned and authoritative figures said: Never was a tale of greater woe than Prokofiev’s music to Romeo.

At lot has changed since then, and the assessments have changed as well. By the same token, a lot has changed in our life. I believe that much of what we have done recently and are doing today will be assessed objectively in the future – at least, this is what I hope for. Our goal is to improve things.

As for St Petersburg, or Leningrad, I love it as much as you do. I was born there. It is my small motherland. I will certainly do everything I can to support it without neglecting the other regions.

You mentioned people prominent in literature and the arts, and somebody here mentioned librarians and regional culture sector workers. This is a very important subject, because it’s an important part of our life. This has to do with people and their work, which is very important. Of course, they need support, since they are almost at the bottom of the list in terms of salaries.

I spoke with the Finance Ministry regarding this yesterday, and instructed them to look into what else can be done in this sphere. I very much expect that these proposals will be prepared. We will certainly keep moving in this direction and will look for additional reserves in regional and federal budgets in order to support this category of workers. The same applies to supporting preschool employees. This is a different area of life, but it’s also very important.

Ernest Mackevicius: Is there something you've to add?

Valery Gergiev: I'd like to say that a lot has been already accomplished for everyone to see. For instance, St Petersburg is no longer polluting the Baltic Sea. Not that many people know about this. I was in Finland yesterday, and we talked a lot about it. Today, St Petersburg is almost the… it's just, dumping into the Baltic Sea, and this sea is very sick… it’s very important for St Petersburg. Vodokanal and its head Mr Karmazinov managed to accomplish a lot over the past five or six years, and now even Finland envies their success. As we know, Finland is one of the world’s most developed nations.

On the other hand, it occurs to me, for example, that Novosibirsk, a major Russian city, doesn’t have a concert hall. I know that modern stadiums will be built in Russia by 2018. Let's have each of these stadiums be matched with a corresponding concert hall that is just as nice, it doesn't even necessarily have to be in the same city or town. By the way, a concert hall like this cannot cost more than a billion roubles. That’s enough to build a spectacularly beautiful world-class concert hall. If they charge more than that for the construction, you should know right away that they are trying to cheat you. That’s some practical advice.

Vladimir Putin: How is the renovation of the Mariinsky Theatre proceeding?

Valery Gergiev: I believe that in 18 months in St Petersburg, which is among the European cultural capitals, there will be a theatre that will be in no way lacking compared to its counterparts in the United States, China or Japan in terms of size and equipment. We were desperately lagging behind them just ten years ago. In my opinion, it was fantastic when the government and you, then president, supported the idea of building a new theatre, a second theatre, in fact. No city in the world, except Paris, has two completely different theatre buildings run by a single director. I believe that St Petersburg will benefit from this. Thank you for supporting us this time once again.

In truth, I didn’t come here to thank you or pay you compliments. I wasn’t even sure what I would be talking about. I’m very interested in what’s being said here. We shouldn’t forget that Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and many other people in the 20th century, did a lot to create these cultural treasures. This is another reason behind our confidence in the modern world. It's not only because we are a nuclear power, but also because of our cultural heritage, isn't that so?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course.

Valery Gergiev: It’s good that we are evolving in this area. I believe we will be ready soon.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Gergiev, please don’t poach leading actors from the Bolshoi Theatre.

Valery Gergiev: And vice versa, right?

Vladimir Putin: Please don’t poach them.

Valery Gergiev: Some colleague of mine is in the audience. Ballet dancers have left the Bolshoi. I believe they will return there. In fact, the Mariinsky Theatre is self-sufficient. The most important thing, which all Russians should know, is that we perform 530 times a year in St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: I know that you have resumed your tours around Russia.

Valery Gergiev: Yes, we perform in 10 to 12 regions only as part of the Easter Festival. This is arguably the most interesting part of our work.

Vladimir Putin: I remember when you came to South Ossetia with your orchestra and gave a performance amid ruins. Thank you for doing that.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin.

Thank you, Mr Gergiev.

Colleagues, guests, let me remind you that other cities are waiting. There are our journalist colleagues, as well as other people who are, to be frank, freezing. It’s not May, after all, but mid December. So let’s pick up the pace a little, OK? Now we will try to work more intensively to ensure we have enough time for everyone to put their question to Mr Putin.

A question from our website: “The events of December 5 and 6 in Moscow and St Petersburg are said to have caused confusion in the Kremlin, there were even reports that emergency meetings were held there at night. Is it true, Mr Putin?”

Vladimir Putin: I wasn’t called to attend any of these meetings, so I don’t know. Let me tell you frankly that I didn’t notice any confusion. Honestly, I spent the time trying to learn to play ice hockey, and I’m still trying. I am like a cow on ice, still trying to get somewhere. I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on. But I didn’t notice any confusion in the Kremlin. Although I haven’t been there for a while, honestly.

Ernest Mackevicius: I see.

Thank you, Mr Putin.

Maria Kitayeva has a question.

Maria Kitayeva: I know someone who understands the meaning of “time keeping” perfectly.  My colleague Vladimir Solovyov.

Vladimir Solovyov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

Forgive me my harshness, but when people call in and talk, it feels like we are living in a world where the authorities understand how people live and enthusiastically tell people about what they have been doing. Judging from this, it seems that the main areas of corruption in the country are minor bureaucrats and traffic policemen, while the government and presidential administration comprise only paragons of wisdom and honesty. You have called for people to be put behind bars, some tough words were said, but the time of Russian classics is repeating itself: the rhetoric is tough, but somehow, either you don't give your people up or there are different laws for those at the top, and you defend the government every single time, saying that they are true professionals and we are not fit to judge them.

Mr Putin, please, give us some details, name names, are we ever going to see new faces appear? And will we see people being locked up? Although I understand that fight against corruption is kind of national sport in this country and it starts with the person who puts the question.

Ernest Mackevicius: Even though it is brief.

Vladimir Putin: Let’s start with you then. Well, not with you personally, but in general. I know, and various people have told me that the mainstream media use their monopoly in certain segments to settle economic issues, inter alia. They say: do this or we will broadcast that, report that about you.

In general, this is true at municipal level, at the regional and federal levels, in the State Duma, in the government, in mainstream media, in medicine. Aren’t there a lot of complaints about corruption and graft and all that in medicine and about similar things in education? This is the bane of our entire society. Well, the desire to “catch the wave”, to be liked, to nail someone down, to seize and imprison people at any cost just to show how tough you are – this is the easiest approach for a person in my position to take. But we have over 4,000 criminal proceedings launched on cases of bribery and corruption. Nearly 300 have been taken to court. There have been dozens of convictions.

This is a trendy topic, and one that should not be forgotten: the fight against corruption and crime exists, above all it exists within the authorities. And the authorities themselves have an interest in getting clean. But indiscriminately sentencing people to prison would be unacceptable. We know of cases in which governors were jailed and served the entire sentence, without early release. We have examples even from our recent history of deputy ministers being sent to prison. But there is another issue here: they are sent to prison as part of the criminal investigation. It is not about indiscriminately imprisoning people, it is an issue of how well law enforcement structures work.

All this requires a certain balance, a serious approach and consistent efforts in all directions – consistent, tough and coherent – not something that can be used to showcase one’s achievements for the current political situation; we will not do that. But we will definitely fight, we will fight consistently, persistently and toughly.

I don’t know whether over 4,000 cases is a lot or not. Perhaps it is quite a lot. Quality is what matters. In any case, and you know this, you are a tough person and I sometimes see what is happening on the screen when you work, the most important thing is not being tough, but the punishment’s inevitability, and this is what we should strive to achieve.

Ernest Mackevicius: A question from the website, Mr Putin: “It’s been a year since the Manezh Square riots sparked by the murder of football fan Yegor Sviridov. At the time, you went to talk to the fans, and you were accused of playing the trump card of Russian nationalism. Why did you do it and do you regret that meeting now?”

Vladimir Putin: No, of course, I don’t regret it. First of all, it is important to meet and work with these people, to get your message across. If this doesn’t happen at another level, then I sometimes have to do that. Even though I believe that work with fan clubs should be ongoing.

Overall, people’s attitude is positive; of course, there can be different manifestations of this, both here and abroad. Haven’t we seen shops and stadiums being trashed abroad? Do these things not happen there? Are we different from them in this regard? Of course, we are not.

The murder of the fan was a tragedy that both stirred up the country and exposed some problems in our society, but it would be absolutely wrong to claim that anyone was playing the nationalist card. I’ll remind you that I suggested a meeting between representatives of fan clubs from all over Russia, including from the Caucasus, not only from Moscow, I suggested this as a way of commemorating their late friend, and I believe he is their friend irrespective of where these fan clubs were set up or who they support. This is a united community. I suggested that we should all go and take flowers to his grave together.

And everyone, including those who came from other regions of the Caucasus, including from the South, stood up and went with me to the cemetery, to lay flowers by his graveside. I believe this symbolic gesture should serve as an example. And, of course, we should not allow anything like this to happen again. Death is always a tragedy. Thanks God that, under pressure from the public, the law enforcement system completed its work and punished the perpetrators.

As to all those related issues, have a think about it, what kind of chauvinism or Russian nationalism can there be here. There wasn’t a single Russian name among those who called for reprisals, among those who committed murders or were involved in murders. What does it have to do with superpower chauvinism? Look at the names of those convicted. There is not a single Russian name among them. So let’s not provoke the Russian man, or you won’t be able to calm him down again.

Ernest Mackevicius: Over now to the call center, where we have Maria Sittel, and the calls keep coming in.

Over to you, Maria.

Maria Sittel: Thank you, Ernest. We will return to statistics a little later, if you don’t mind, now let’s go to one caller we have on the line, staying on the topic that has just been raised.

We have Alexander from St Petersburg. You are live on air.

Question: Good afternoon.

Mr Putin, isn’t it perhaps time we stopped feeding the Caucasus? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: That’s an argument I’ve often heard.

What is the problem? The problem is that more and more people from the Caucasus have been appearing in the country’s bigger cities in recent years. Not all of them fit the cultural environment they find themselves in. It should be noted that people often arrive unprepared; they are neither educated nor vocationally trained. They are simply looking for a better life, as they say. They are looking for jobs.

What is the solution? This often results in legitimate irritation among those who live in those places. What is the solution? The main thing we need to do is to develop production, and create new jobs in the Caucasus. Not so long ago people would say that it was awful that we hadn’t been able to rebuild Grozny for so many years and that it looked like Stalingrad after the war. Should we have left it as it was?

I know there are a lot of complaints about Kadyrov, but he is rebuilding Chechnya, and he has rebuilt Grozny while no one else has so far been able to.

A lot is said about corruption in general and corruption in the Caucasus in particular. But I am positive that corruption in Chechnya is minimal. Minimal. But we need to develop production, the economy and the social sphere in the Caucasus so that people no longer want to leave, so that they are able to realise their potential locally, and to achieve this, if we want to preserve our country’s integrity, we also need to invest money there.

Of course, this should be rational investment. We now have several federal programmes for the development of the country’s southern regions. One is called Russia’s South, another one is for Chechnya and there is a third for Ingushetia. Yes, we need to invest money there.

Let me repeat: we don’t need to pour infinite volumes of money into it, only for it to be stolen. We need to do this consciously and purposefully, and to ensure that this investment is effective, but investment is needed.

Ernest Mackevicius: Are there any more calls, Maria?

Maria Sittel: Yes, yes. Let me also draw your attention to…

Vladimir Putin: Incidentally, it also has to be done in order to also reduce the number of people who go off and join criminal gangs.

Maria Sittel: Mr Putin, let me draw your attention to another slogan on this topic. It is quite harsh and we received it as a text message, “Stop feeding Moscow!”

Vladimir Putin: I agree. It’s about time.  

As regards Moscow.

Let’s look at how regional needs were financed in the Soviet era: there was the State Planning Committee and the regional officials would go to the Committee’s corresponding structures and pitch for money for the development of their regions.

Dr Roshal and I have already discussed what happened in Russia’s recent history. Take healthcare for example: all functions were transferred to the regions, but their budgets are very different. Why this difference? It was not due to how much was obtained from the State Planning Committee or from the centre, but came from their own tax base. And this tax base is different in different regions, different federal districts and different entities of the Federation due to the uneven development of production across the country. It is very different. And people are not to blame for this. This developed over decades.

So we have a goal of evening this out between territories. And one way of doing this would be the fairer distribution of taxes across the country. For example, our infrastructure monopolies, such as Gazprom, power generating companies (grid companies), Transneft and others, work nationwide, but their profit center and taxpaying center is in Moscow. So the level of Moscow’s fiscal capacity is several times higher than that of certain other regions. And this situation should, of course, gradually change. Infrastructure companies find it easier to work this way. This is not because they prefer “feeding” Moscow, but rather because it is more convenient technologically. However, they will need to rearrange their operations taking into account the need to contribute to regional budgets in areas where they are carrying out commercial operations.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, we will return to the call centre later. I think that we have things to say here in this room in response to the calls. Let’s hear what Maria Kitayeva has to say.

Maria Kitayeva: Yes, as the issue of inter-ethnic relations was raised, General Aslakhanov, who also worked at the call centre, has a statement to make.

Aslambek Aslakhanov: Since you have introduced me as “general”, I cannot just address a presidential candidate while sitting. I will have to stand up.

Honestly, I was outraged after taking calls yesterday. What I heard is nothing less than a violation of people’s constitutional rights – let me stress, the constitutional rights of Russian nationals, especially in terms of the social security system. I am referring to pensions, benefits, apartment building maintenance, and so on.

Mr Putin, after we summarise the requests, I believe that we should provide help to every person who has asked for it, as this is our responsibility. And those officials who refuse to do so should be punished. Tormenting people like this is outrageous!

I have one question for you, Mr Putin.

The questions that we have heard just now show that we used to be very proud – as you have said on many occasions – that Russia is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. We always took pride in coexisting for centuries without succumbing to conflicts. However, they are driving us into our separate ethnic “compartments”. This is an alarming trend. And the fact that we… Well, many countries, even smaller ones that have several ethnic groups, have ministries for nationalities that resolve problems. Russia has many ethnic groups. Maybe it would make sense to restore the Ministry for Nationalities, which would address these issues professionally. We have sound professionals in this area.

And the last point that I would like to make... The day before yesterday, I attended a conference on counterfeit products organised by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The participants asked me to tell you how grateful they are because you were the first leader to crack down on counterfeiting. Thank you for the government resolution, which allowed them to hold the conference. Not only Russians, but also foreign guests showed their approval. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Let me begin with the last issue of counterfeit goods.

This has proved a complicated task. We have heard many complaints – also from our foreign partners. Unfortunately, the problem has spread to some defence sector companies to whom access is limited – even to authorised inspectors, including the Ministry of the Interior. However, we are moving along steadily as part of the WTO – World Trade Organisation – accession process. Today is Dec. 15, so the final decision will be made tomorrow. Our colleagues are now in Brussels – or where-ever they are negotiating – and we will continue working on it.

Yet, I cannot say with certainty that we have entirely succeeded in fighting counterfeit products. Many problems still plague our foreign partners and Russian producers, especially the manufacturers of cultural products, such as video and audio goods, and so on. Mr Gergiyev would agree that this affects writers, composers and producers, film-makers, and other video content producers. They are certainly right to say that we have not eliminated the problem. We will continue working to improve our legal environment and law enforcement practices. This is my first point.

Second, you raised a very important issue when you said that people are driven into separate ethnic “compartments”. This is absolutely inadmissible. However, there is one issue here that we certainly need to address. It has to do with big cities’ infrastructural capacity. This is very important. In the Soviet era, there were strict rules for residence permits, but they were cancelled when the Constitutional Court said that this was illegal. However, there are still problems concerning registration, labour markets in big cities, and the capacity of their healthcare and transport systems.

There is also an issue that must be addressed – as I mentioned while replying to a previous question... We need to ensure the more even distribution and development of productive forces and public services across Russia, so people are able to enjoy the same quality of life in their home region and make plans for the future there.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin. Thank you, Mr Aslakhanov.

Vladimir Putin: Will you participate in more Sambo championships for veterans? Mr Aslakhanov not only participates, but regularly wins combat championships. This is simply amazing. Honestly, I was nothing less than shocked when I saw him fighting. It’s incredible how he does it.

Aslambek Aslakhanov: Well, I must thank you for my return to the sport, and I am fulfilling your instructions.

Mr Putin, I also asked about the need to set up a ministry.

Vladimir Putin: Yes. I have already talked about officials who are unconcerned about people’s needs. There is not much that I can add. We must deal with these officials and create conditions so people can receive a direct response from the various levels of government.

About a ministry for nationalities – ethnic-related issues are presently handled by the Ministry of Regional Development, but you are probably right. This is not sufficient. The Ministry of Regional Development focuses on social and economic issues, while ethnic problems are pushed to the background. As for the development and coexistence of different ethnic groups, these issues simply get neglected. This situation does not seem to meet today's challenges. I think that you are right. We will certainly think about this. Thank you.

Ernest Mackevicius: We continue to discuss this issue. I would like our directors to bring in the North Caucasus.

Our commentator Ilya Kanavin is working in the town of Novotersky in the Stavropol Territory.

Good afternoon, Ilya. 

Ilya Kanavin: Good afternoon, Ernest. Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

This is the town of Novotersky, and we are at a plant where a justly famous brand of mineral water is bottled. Actually, this is the Caucasus Mineral Waters region. We could discuss many interesting and serious things – the fact that many Russian Tsars, many Soviet party functionaries, cosmonauts and millions of Soviet citizens have vacationed here, as well as the region’s future five to ten years from now.

Now that the conversation has taken such a turn, I’ll take the risk of not appearing very polite to those receiving us today, and I’ll give the floor to the people who have come here specially to take part in the conversation. They would like to raise some major, painful and very serious issues of importance to the North Caucasus.


Alexander Syrovatkin: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

My name is Alexander Syrovatkin, and I am a lecturer at Pyatigorsk Linguistic University. I would like to return to the Caucasus issue.

My academic interests include collecting and analyzing data on inter-ethnic and inter-religious problems arising in our region. Relations between the Stavropol Territory’s population and people arriving here from neighbouring republics in order to work, study or to receive treatment have become a very pressing issue. The local population is very much irritated by the defiant behaviour of the new arrivals, their reluctance to abide by local laws, the fact that they brandish their weapons and how they flaunt their affluence. Incidentally, this gives the Stavropol Territory’s residents cause to speak about the inequitable and unfair distribution of funds among the North Caucasus Federal District’s regions. There is even a widespread opinion that the new arrivals want to take our place, not live together with us. So, here is my question, Mr Putin: Does the government plan to rectify this situation, or is there a risk that some forces might take advantage of rising discontent, and that they will trigger an inter-ethnic conflict in the region?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: As a matter of fact, we have already started discussing this issue. Certainly, this is a very acute issue. Many aspects of our future depend on how we handle it.

You surely know that this issue is not limited to Russia alone. This is not a purely Russian problem. Essentially the same thing is happening in Europe. I have repeatedly spoken with my colleagues in European countries about this. You know, my counterpart, a former prime minister from a country I will not name, said there are people there from North Africa who had lived in the country for up to ten years and did not speak the local language. We are all aware of the serious problems linked with people arriving there from Muslim countries, from North Africa.

Moreover, democratically minded people who have been raised on principles such as tolerance have called this policy in Europe a complete disaster.

The difference is that Europe receives the citizens of foreign states, while in Russia we are talking about new arrivals from other regions, including the North Caucasus, who are Russian citizens. We cannot infringe upon their rights.

At the same time, I have just noted in an answer to a question, and I will repeat it now, that we must consider the specifics of every Russian region. Those coming to live, study and work in other Russian territories and living among people with somewhat different cultural and historical roots must respect local customs, the culture and traditions of the local population. Any other behaviour must be met with an adequate response, primarily on the part of local authorities, so as not to irritate the local population and in order to prevent conflicts. We don’t need conflicts. Therefore, everyone must abide by certain norms.

Here is another way to resolve the problem. Yes, the Constitutional Court has told us that residence permits are illegal but that the registration of people at their new place of residence, work or study is legal. Such was the Constitutional Court’s ruling. The question is what we’ve been doing and are doing in connection with violations of this registration procedure.

I repeat that this primarily implies restrictions related to infrastructure and the fact that people arriving in regions in order to live, study and work often face a sufficiently complicated situation because there are not enough jobs in such regions, because there are problems involving employment, the availability of housing, insurance and healthcare because such regions are already at their limit. 

Therefore, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be terrible to stipulate stricter regulations and registration requirements with regard to those violating such regulations. For instance, this implies people who allow 20-30 and even more people to be registered at their place of residence, a ten square metre room, because this is fraud. The same goes for violators, including new arrivals violating such registration regulations.

And we won’t invent anything else here except tougher liability, including criminal liability. The former Soviet Union had stipulated such regulations, and I see nothing reprehensible in this, if we don’t want to trigger conflicts. But we cannot and must not infringe upon those who act in line with the relevant norms and laws and who violate nothing, if we want all our people to feel like full-fledged citizens of the Russian Federation, no matter where they live.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin. Thank you, Stavropol Territory. Thank you, Novotersky.

We’ll now return to the Moscow-based call centre where Maria Sittel is. She has received some important and interesting calls. We have been working here for two and a half hours. Maria, please. 

Maria Sittel: Thank you, Ernest.

And now let’s go from Moscow to Saransk. We have a live call. Oksana, you are on air.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

My name is Oksana. So, here is my question.

Mikhail Prokhorov plans to run for president. What do you think about this?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Mikhail Prokhorov is a citizen of the Russian Federation who meets the age requirement and who has the right to run for president of the Russian Federation.

I know that Mikhail Prokhorov planned and tried to establish a party, a right-wing party in our political lexicon. But some problems arose, as many are aware. However, Mikhail Prokhorov is a consistent person who never backs down. As I understand, he has decided to use a new platform in order to promote the ideas he thinks are right for this country. He acts in line with the law and the Constitution. Just like any other person, he has the right to do this.

I won’t say that I wish him success because I also plan to run for president, but I’m confident that he will be a worthy …  

Ernest Mackevicius: … a strong rival? 

Vladimir Putin: Yes, a strong rival.

Maria Sittel: Let’s take another incoming phone call. Murmansk, you are on air.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

Here is my question. Why does the country lack a real opposition? Why won’t the Ministry of Justice register Mikhail Kasyanov’s Party of People’s Freedom?

Vladimir Putin: You know, judging by what I have recently seen on TV, on the internet, on social networks, and by what I have heard on the radio and read in the numerous media outlets, excerpts from magazines and newspapers already have been quoted here telling your humble servant to go you know where, calling me names, and so on. They are saying that Russia has no opposition at all, and that people are unable to speak their mind. This is an artistic exaggeration.

As far as parties and the registration system are concerned, in the past we proceeded from the premise that the national multi-party system was in the process of formation and that it was necessary to create conditions for a group of people claiming the right to be called a party, that they had to be represented in a certain number of Russian regions and enjoy a certain amount of support from a certain number of Russian citizens. Otherwise this would be a public movement rather than a party. In my opinion, there is nothing terrible here. This is the first thing.

Second, I would like to draw attention to another highly important thing.

With respect to elections, I've already talked about ways of bringing governors into power. Anything can be accomplished. Party registration can be liberalised. The one thing that cannot be done in our country is to create regional parties, including in the ethnic republics, because this would immediately result in some kind of separatism and nationalism from which the people in those regions and the whole country would suffer.

But I repeat, steps can be taken towards liberalisation and some small parties can be registered. But then this should be done in the same manner as in some European countries. Allow me to elaborate. In this country today, all political parties have, under the law, equal access to the media, for example. But in France, as far as I remember – I should look it up, I may be wrong – but it is my understanding that they receive access based on the number of seats they have in the national or regional parliament. That way things are fair. A small party has less access and a big party has more access. We should look into all of this carefully. In general, though, we can and must move towards liberalisation.

Regarding Mikhail Kasyanov himself. He was of course the prime minister of the Russian Federation when I was president. Even then, many liberally-minded members of the Russian government who were highly regarded in liberal circles, for example, German Gref or another recent minister who was mentioned here today, approached me to say that Mikhail Kasyanov should be removed from government. They said, we don’t want to work with that thief, it’s either him or us.

As you know, in his time, before he joined the government, he had the nickname “two percent Misha” because he was allegedly involved in some corrupt affairs. But because there was no proof of that, and because I saw nothing there but personal sympathies and animosities, I allowed him to serve out his term.

Was he a good worker? Well, during the first year or two he tried to accomplish something. In the second two years his level of activity was zero. I believe he was already thinking about becoming president and he was afraid to make any rash moves, because being the head of the government of the Russian Federation comes with constant political exposure. You have to make very many concrete decisions. But anyway, he served out his term.

What can I say? Paraphrasing (the poet) Vladimir Mayakovsky I can say, “I know there will be a city, I know the garden will bloom, as long as such people are in the opposition camp.” We will probably register and we will look into changing the legislation. I repeat, we can liberalise things, and we can move in that direction.

Ernest Mackevicius: Here is one more question on the same topic. “You are a candidate for president. How will you work with the parties, including those that did not make it into the Duma and in general, with those that reject you in principle?”

Vladimir Putin: There is a standard answer to this question, and it holds true. If the citizens trust me with the top job in the country, in the post of president, I will certainly work with everyone. In fact, that is just what I have been doing up until now, with representatives of various parties in parliament and political forces without exception. This is especially true since the president in our country is above any parties. So far I have managed to accomplish this quite easily.

Moreover, the people in the Russian government have so far represented very diverse views. And this is, I wouldn’t say balance, but by choosing the most reasonable proposals, this enables us to act decisively and without mistakes, or with minimal mistakes. If we want the kind of positive stability that is associated with development, as I have said, one has to take into account the ideas and proposals about how to develop a country consisting of people who hold diverse political views. I have acted in this manner and of course I will continue to do so.

As for those who, as you put it, reject me in principle, in general one should treat all our citizens with respect. There are of course people who hold a Russian passport but act in the interests of a foreign state and are paid foreign money, and we will try to reach these people as well, though this is often futile or impossible.

What can one say in this respect? At the end of the day, all you can say is, “Come to me, Bandar-logs.” I’ve loved Rudyard Kipling since childhood.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you. We have another city on the line, Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. Our correspondent Yevgeny Rozhkov is there. Hello, Yevgeny. You are on the line, we are waiting for your questions.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Good day, colleagues. It’s a good day indeed, real Russian winter, snow and minus 15 Celsius since morning. All is well.

Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

This truly is Ufa and this truly is Bashkortostan. Ufa is a city of a million people with a rich tradition and history, a city you know well because you have visited it many times. Our crew has been working here for about a week and we have collected a mass of topical questions, at least a hundred, I think. Among the main themes, of course, are agriculture, bad roads (the eternal Russian curse) and of course the prices of petrol, oil and lubricants, utilities rates, etc. But there are some very pressing and controversial issues that are specific to Bashkortostan. I would like to remind you of one such topic that cropped up recently: it’s about cancelling  days off during Muslim holidays. This is not my issue because I don't live here, I just came here. The topic was raised by Rustem. Your question, please. And could you introduce yourself again?

Rustem Taimasov: Good day, Mr Putin. My name is Rustem Taimasov, from Ufa. This autumn, the Supreme Court of Russia decided to eliminate days off during the celebration of Kurban-bairam and Uraza-bairam, the main Muslim holidays. This decision prompted a negative reaction from the Muslim population in our republic. Based on that logic, January 7 [Orthodox Christmas] should not be a day off either.

So, my question is: why was this decision made, in your opinion? This amounts to a gesture of contempt towards Muslim traditions and culture not only in Bashkortostan, but throughout Russia. How do you view religious policy in the country in the coming years? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I should say that I really have visited Ufa several times. I am aware of the rivalry between Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. Tatarstan has done a lot to develop Kazan, but I must give Bashkortostan its due and say that the former president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov, provided a big impulse for to the development of the republic and of Ufa. The republic, of course, has many problems, but a foundation for economic development has been created and Ufa is burgeoning. In addition, Ufa has always been the centre of Russian Islam. The ban on the holding of these holidays must have been painful. This is what I would like to say to you, and to all our citizens who preach Islam, traditional Islam. In Russia, Islam is constantly developing, and it has always been a pillar of the Russian state. The Russian state will of course support Islam, our traditional Islam.

Here is my message to you and to the other representatives of this religion. You know, especially in other Russian regions, Uraza-bairam is a good holiday. But when performing the sacrificial rites, especially in non-Muslim republics, do not perform them in public, do not shock other citizens who don't understand what it is all about. You should also show tolerance and understanding of the cultural environment in which you live, where you are and where you do it.

As for the ban that you just mentioned and what prompted it, I do not know, I do not work at the Supreme Court. I think it came about from a desire to create common national holidays so that each region of the federation does not establish its own holidays and days off, and so on. But this is not only a legal matter, and you are right in saying that there is also a moral and political aspect to this.

As far as I know, the Supreme Court has suspended its ruling and one can worship and celebrate holidays freely. I very much hope that the Supreme Court, in making its final decision on this issue, will keep this in mind and if necessary, if it perceives some violations of the law, it will ask the government or the president to make some amendments to our legislation so that no representative of any religion on Russian territory should feel that his rights are being infringed upon.

Ernest Mackevicius: Yevgeny, we can take one more question from Ufa.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Yes, one more Bashkir theme and one more question. Karina, please. You wanted to ask a question. But first introduce yourself.

Karina Yakhina: Hello, my name is Karina Yakhina. Mr. Putin, I am very concerned about the cancelling of winter time. This was the first year that we did not switch back to winter time and it has had a very negative impact on people’s biological clocks. Can we expect some changes or are we perpetually stuck in daylight savings time? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: It seems there are some problems. I will relay your question to other agencies. I hope it will be considered. I know that when this live Q&A session was being prepared, oddly enough, there were a lot of questions about this problem. We have made a note of it.

Ernest Mackevicius:  Measures will be taken.

Vladimir Putin: Let's leave it at that for now. I’ve heard your question. I will convey it to my colleagues and we will be sure to discuss it.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Ufa, thank you, Yevgeny. We return to Moscow and I'll turn it over to Tatyana Remezova.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you very much. I suggest that we return to the sphere of big politics. Our guest today is Natalia Narochnitskaya, Doctor of Political Sciences, President of the Historical Perspective (Istoricheskaya Perspektiva) Fund and the head of the Paris branch of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation. The floor is yours.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Mr. Putin, thank you for the opportunity to speak here.

Like the vast majority of people … of the former Soviet Union, the historical Russian state, I was able to identify with your assessment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical calamity. This was unemotional, it was a sober assessment, one that I share, in particular, that the historical Russian state that was destroyed had maintained a balance between civilisations.

The fact that a redrawing of the world map has begun is clear to everyone today. But the Soviet Russian power was declared to be the main threat to international peace, to the advance towards democracy, in short, to all the ideals of progress. As soon as the USSR destroyed itself so that the “poor” West would not feel afraid of the “totalitarian monster”, all the progress was cast overboard: the aggression against Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya. This clearly shows that the struggles of the 20th century have less to do with the much-touted struggle between totalitarianism and democracy than with geopolitical aspirations.

Incidentally, the national catastrophe of the Russian people at the collapse of the USSR has yet to be fully understood, and this is the cause of many current problems in our state. It has been dismembered and it was not our wish to see it raise other state flags overnight.

You very aptly quoted the saying today that “politics is the art of the possible”. This is very true. But Ivan Ilyin followed it up by saying, “But at a minimum that art must include the ability to identify and determine, to detect the true interests and motivations of the other side so as not to expect truth from a slanderer and sympathy and justice from someone who picks apart your land.” In your Munich speech you demonstrated that you identify these things perfectly. But, if you will pardon my directness, if you were in Gorbachev’s place in 1991 what would you have said and done?

Vladimir Putin: You know, Ms Narochnitskaya, that there is no subjunctive mood in politics and I find it difficult to answer your question.

I am aware that there are mixed feelings in our society about Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St Petersburg. He was undoubtedly a man of democratic beliefs. He was a true democrat, a genuine democrat in spirit. I think you may find a lot about his actions that you would not like and for which you would surely criticise him, but even in his time he told me that though he was an adherent of democratic views, when he looked at what was going on in Moscow, he said, what are they doing? Why are they destroying the country?

I remember that Kurkova came to Leningrad bearing a piece of marble from Moscow, and told us that the monument to Dzerzhinsky had been torn down. I was standing nearby and I was struck by Anatoly Sobchak’s reaction at the time. This is something nobody knows, but his reaction surprised me. She said, we have carried out a revolution. He replied, revolution is all well and good, but why smash monuments? You see?

His position was very significant to me, you know, because he was an exceptionally honest and decent man. But after it all happened he shrugged and said: well, perhaps there was no other way, what would I have done?

But of course, economic transformations and reforms in the Soviet Union should have been initiated earlier and they should have been backed up by democratic transformations in the country. We should have fought for the integrity of our state consistently, steadfastly and fearlessly, without sticking one’s head in the sand and leaving one’s rear end exposed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s first Yevgeny Primakov came and started doing this, and then yours truly. Come to think of it, what were we facing? We faced a situation that was if anything far more drastic than on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our economy was in disarray because of the 1998 crisis. Our social programmes were non-existent. The army had ceased to exist. And we faced aggression from international terrorism and separatism; a civil war had begun. What remained of Russia was on the brink of collapse.

So, in answer to your question, I thought I would just recall those times. And you know what we, my colleagues and I, proceeded to do in order to preserve the integrity of the Russian Federation.  

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin.

Let’s go to Tatyana Remezova now.

Tatyana Remezova: Yes, we continue working in our sector. We are receiving lots of questions on children. Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights, is here in the studio today. Mr Astakhov is himself a father of three sons. Go ahead please.

Pavel Astakhov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

You started today’s conversation by mentioning the rally on Bolotnaya Square and the white ribbon used by the demonstrators as their symbol. I should tell you that just a couple of days ago, an international non-governmental organisation contacted me to express their indignation by the fact that the symbol of the struggle against abortion and infant mortality has been used in such an improper manner.     

Vladimir Putin: Really?

Pavel Astakhov: Yes.

The white ribbon also symbolises the protest against suicides by gay teenagers.

My point is that if you choose a certain symbol, you should use it according to its proper meaning. So, if you put on a white ribbon, you should protest against abortion and infant mortality. 

Vladimir Putin: Well, I was not referring to the ribbon. What I meant was something different. I hope you know what I am talking about.

Pavel Astakhov: I do.

Mr Putin, we all know about your sincere love for children. There are lots of issues concerning children and we deal with them on a daily basis. But there are some issues that are very difficult to deal with. They hurt us to the extent that we often feel powerless.      

Speaking of international adoptions, I am personally strongly against them, as we have very few children in our country, and their number is decreasing. And yet, we have allowed about 200,000 children to be adopted by foreign parents in recent years. Most of them live in the United States. And the amount of violence, abuse, and murders that has been taking place in the US… I have lived and studied there, and I know that most children live a happy life there, but there are also many children who have died at the hands of their adoptive parents and have become hostages of sadists and sex traffickers.        

Just recently, a pair of adoptive parents were acquitted in court. The Cravers have essentially gotten away with murder, and I am not afraid of using this word, for murdering Vanya Skorobogatov from Chelyabinsk. Brian Dykstra’s 18-month old foster child Ilya Kargyntsev from Krasnoyarsk died just three months after being adopted. Miles Harrison left his 18-month-old foster child Dima Yakovlev locked in a car for two days, suffocating him to death. But he, too, was acquitted. The courts find them not guilty and set them free. How should we react to this? Maybe we just need to completely discontinue international adoptions, relinquish our obligations, and change our law.

And, if I may, Mr Putin, I also want to say, or to put it more precisely, to request, as there are some issues that can’t be dealt with without a legislative decision. We have Olga Slutsker present in the studio. Her two children have been brazenly kidnapped under false documents. She has been fighting for several years to have them returned. I would like to ask that she is given an opportunity to speak here. 

Vladimir Putin: As I understand, it was not foreigners who kidnapped her children.

Pavel Astakhov: They have been taken abroad, and we can’t get him. He took them to Israel.

Vladimir Putin: As far as international adoptions are concerned, I want to say from the outset that I am not a proponent of adoptions by foreigners.

But there are quite a few people in our country who believe and claim, and I am going to quote them now, that conditions in our orphanages and other institutions are unfavourable for children and that they will be happier living in a better environment with those foreign parents who want to have children and want to bring them up, and that we should not create obstacles for them. You know, it’s a very tough choice to make. But, I want to reiterate that I am not a proponent of foreign adoptions.     

In recent years, the number of Russian families willing to adopt our children has increased. I am sure you know about this. If I am not mistaken, about 72,000 children were adopted last year. The number has increased significantly compared with previous years. This is a positive trend, which we should strive to maintain.   

What needs to be done, in my opinion? I think we should certainly improve the conditions for children in orphanages. Along with improving the conditions in orphanages and resolving other social issues for children without parents (I am first of all referring to providing them with housing), we should reduce the number of foreign adoptions, gradually ending them at some point in the near future. At the same time we should encourage adoptions by Russian parents. This is, in my opinion, the right strategy for dealing with this issue. 

Olga, do you want to say something?

Olga Slutsker: I want to thank Mr Astakhov for his professionalism and concern. I won’t be speaking about myself today.

Unfortunately, the rising divorce rate and the large number of single-parent families have been a common trend not only in our country, but also worldwide. In 2010, there were 150,000 court cases to determine children’s domicile. Unfortunately, isolating a child from one of the parents is not considered a crime in Russia and is not punishable. As a result, mothers and fathers are prevented from seeing their children for years, they can’t find them.     

The police try to help, but they can’t even file a criminal case to start searching for children. In all developed countries, such cases are treated as kidnapping, but under Russia’s obsolete law, the only punishment is a fine of 5,000 roubles. 

Is it possible to somehow bring this area up to date and protect our children, to prevent this? This won’t be a punitive measure. 

Vladimir Putin: That’s clear. You know, since Mr Astakhov has raised this issue and asked to give you an opportunity to speak, and I thank you very much for talking not only about your personal situation but also summarising the issue in general, let’s do the following. Let Mr Astakhov, as someone who deals with this kind of issues professionally… 

In fact, I see how persistent, and I would even say, how tough he is in his advocacy for the interests of our children here in Russia and abroad. He travels frequently to the regions and abroad. I think in some places they are even starting to fear him, which is very good. Please formulate your proposals and we can consider them. This is a rather delicate subject, which certainly requires a broad public discussion, which can then be continued in the State Duma.     

Ernest Mackevicius: We are entering the fourth hour of our conversation. I see Maria Morgun is raising her hand. I believe they want to add something on the subject of children. 

Maria Morgun: Yes, there is a question on child protection and orphanages.

The renowned Russian actress Olga Budina is with us today. I am not sure if many people are aware of this, but Olga is not only a movie and stage actress, but she has been also actively involved in charity work for many years now. Her Protect the Future foundation supports children without parents. Here is Olga Budina with her question.    

Olga Budina: I wanted to ask a different question, but after hearing what Mr Astakhov said, I would like to disagree with him. I am absolutely sure that foreign adoptions are very good for our children, as foreigners have no problem adopting children with disabilities, while our countrymen almost never adopt them. This is just a short comment. 

But today, I would like to talk about Article 77 of the Family Code.

Child protection has been a very popular subject recently. Indeed, various measures are being taken to eradicate social orphanhood. But I can’t help saying that far from all parents who have been deprived of parental rights are negligent parents. 

Here is a specific example. Hooligans threw a stone and broke the window in a single mother’s home. She could not afford to replace the window, and the child protection agency took away her two-year old child and placed him in an orphanage. They acted based on Article 77 of the Family Code, which deals with immediate threats to the life and health of a child.

However, neither the Family Code nor the Criminal Code specify what constitutes a threat to the life and health of child. Furthermore, according to the Family Code, once the child is removed from the family, a case should be immediately filed to revoke or restrict their parental rights. Why? Why have we not amended Article 77? This is the source of social orphanhood. And unless we revise this article, we will never succeed in solving this issue.

As for children’s homes, it is true that a major investment has been made in them. But why can’t we also fund family arrangements, which is no less important? Why is the entire legislative framework in this area aimed at essentially promoting social orphanhood? Why is the government supporting social orphanhood instead of providing for humane and intelligent treatment for children in families, so that they can live in families, in the first place?

Vladimir Putin: Olga, I will now clarify my attitude towards the problem you bring up today. Alongside many other issues to be discussed today, taking children from unfit parents is a very sensitive issue for society because it concerns an individual’s personal life. The fate of the people involved largely depends on our ability to find proper solutions to this issue. 

I am aware of such negative, to put it mildly, cases when parents are deprived of their parental rights without good reason. When things like this happen – for example, when someone had thrown a stone through a window and a child was taken away – it could simply be the case that the child was taken away only because his mother did not have enough money to replace the glass in the window.

You are absolutely right, however, when you start looking deeper into the problem, you find out that, apart from the stone and the shattered window, there have been a dozen other reasons.

I am not defending anyone. I just want to state my opinion. I don’t want to defend the ones who are doing this without proper grounds. If the removal of children from their homes by the state is done mindlessly, on pro forma grounds, this should be prohibited. I would rather have these problems brought to the attention of the local authorities in order to prevent a situation when a child is removed from its family, so that the family is helped instead: i.e. to help replace the glass and support a single mother in this situation, as you’ve said. Generally speaking, the public perception of women bringing up children alone should be changed.

Often it isn’t their sole burden to bear, as they can be victims of misfortune, and society needs to be willing to support them and help them raise their child with its real family, even if it is a single-parent family. It is better than sending a child to a foster home, any way you look at it. 

Now, apropos your words that the government prefers to support foster homes rather than place children with foster families – you are wrong. The government is willing to contribute to the process of placing children with families. I have already said that the number of foster and adoptive families is growing in this country, as well as the number of children taken into care and custody. 

How is this policy translated into life? Through the decision to support adoptive families and put them on an equal footing with families which bring up their own children, making them eligible for the same benefits. And the number of foster homes has started to drop. I might be mistaken, as far as concrete figures are concerned, but quite recently there have been over 120,000 foster homes in the country, while now their number slightly exceeds 88,000. We have a downward trend here.

But things of this magnitude are not done overnight. People have to be ready to assume a responsibility for a child’s upbringing. Therefore, we have made some changes in the legislation. We have introduced a mandatory requirement: families adopting children must undergo appropriate training, including psychological training, whereas previously this was optional. This is the right thing to do. Of course, financial support for families adopting children should be increased.

In closing, I want to say that, regretfully, many adopted children are subsequently abandoned. This problem needs to be addressed by people and society, in general. The likely solution does not only depend on the government’s stance on the issue. It depends on the whole of society. We need to put our heads together – all of us – and think hard how to resolve this problem.

Olga wants to add something. Give her the microphone.

Olga Budina: I would like to present to you on paper our thoughts on how to resolve this issue.

Vladimir Putin: Very well. I shall personally have a look at them.

I want to say that I disagree with Pavel. You’ve said we had a birth rate problem. You are right – the problem still exists.

Pavel Astakhov: I said that we had a demographic problem – while the birth rate has a positive curve, the child population declines by 200,000 every year.

Vladimir Putin: Yes. But this year and last year, for the first time, the number of newborns has exceeded the number of deceased children.

Pavel Astakhov: ...but there are not enough adults.

Vladimir Putin: Agreed. Although it’s coming along very slowly, the demographic situation is improving. I believe this is an important, visible and positive factor in our life and a good trend that must be maintained. Having a larger population is a significant asset  to the work of authorities at all levels.

Ernest Mackevicius: Now let’s listen to questions from Russia’s regions. Sochi, the city hosting the 2014 Olympic Games, is on the line.

Our commentator Igor Kozhevin is working there. Igor, we await your questions.

Igor Kozhevin: Good afternoon, Mr Putin,

Good afternoon, Ernest.

Sochi, the city hosting the 2014 Olympic Games, welcomes Moscow. Here on the Black Sea coast the construction of the Olympic park is in full swing. Six major cutting-edge sporting facilities will be located within walking distance from one another. I think that you can see for yourselves how fabulous the site is. As for us, we are at the Olympic Stadium where the Olympic Games opening ceremony will be held on February 7, 2014. Today, we have invited here those who want to ask Mr Putin questions. We are ready to start.

Please introduce yourself.

Natalya Serdyukova: Good afternoon, Mr Putin,

My name is Natalya Serdyukova. I am the leader of the Popular Oversight in Sochi movement. I often have to contact mid-level functionaries. Some of them are inflated with self-conceit because they have been put at the helm of Russia’s third-most important city, forgetting altogether about their duty to work for the people and not vice versa.

Is there any mechanism that we people in public organisations can use to influence functionaries who have become jaded?  

Vladimir Putin: You said they were inflated with self-conceit. You know, when a balloon is being inflated, it gets bigger and bigger, and then you take a needle and puncture it – and the balloon goes flat. The public always has this needle that it can use. Frankly speaking, I have heard criticisms of this kind before. Of course, at present, infrastructure in Sochi and the seaside infrastructure is undergoing very serious transformations. Incidentally, this must cause an inconvenience to Sochi residents. Therefore, I would ask you to pardon us and I hope that this phase of preparatory work will be completed before long and you will be left with this splendid infrastructure which no other city in this country can claim – it will belong solely to Sochi, and you will have it at your disposal. Sochi will become a year-round resort.

You know the way it was before: the influx of tourists in the summer keeps hotels, restaurants, and other institutions and enterprises in Sochi busy. New jobs are created, keeping the locals employed. The winter is a slow season, but after we launch the Olympic facilities, Sochi will become a year-round resort. People living in Sochi will be provided with a sufficient amount of work and income. I believe this is very important.

Regarding those who need to take care of routine business procedures, if I understand your concern correctly, they should not hide behind the supposed need to resolve problems of a global nature. There are other people whose job this is. I believe that Mr Kozak and the Minister of Regional Development Mr Basargin are still there. He reported to me yesterday and described the facilities he was going to inspect. There are entities that were established specifically to build Olympic facilities.

Of course, local authorities, including the municipal authorities, have their share of responsibility, but they shouldn’t neglect the current concerns of the citizens. We will discuss this with the mayor.

Please note that Sochi is receiving an unprecedented amount of federal funds, not exclusively through the Olympic construction programme. We haven’t cancelled subsidies that have been allocated to Sochi in previous years, before it was announced that Sochi would host the Olympics. These federal funds that go towards supporting Sochi and its residents continue to do so. Certainly, they need to be used wisely and efficiently.

We will look into this more closely in Moscow and Krasnodar.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Sochi.

Let me remind you that our information centre is still very busy, and Maria Sittel is telling me that we have an incoming call.

Maria Sittel: Yes, we have a call. Vasily Petrov from Moscow, you are on the air.

Vasily Petrov: Good afternoon. My name is Vasily Petrov. I live in Moscow. Mr Putin, why do you think you have come under attack recently?

Maria Sittel: I think we lost the call.

Vladimir Putin: Please give it another try and find Vasily.

Maria Sittel: You want us to bring him back on air?

Vladimir Putin: I want him to stand up for me.

Maria Sittel: Good. I think we can do that. (Applause)

Ernest Mackevicius: Maria, please try to get him back on the line, and meanwhile we have a question that came through our website: “Do you think that the main problem facing the authorities today is the fact that the people are no longer afraid of the government? No one fears anything: ministers do not fear Vladimir Putin, governors do not fear the president and so on, because everyone is confident that they can get away with anything. We are not saying that we should bring back Stalinism, but Russia needs fear. Or doesn't it? What do you think, Mr Putin?”

Vladimir Putin: Fear is not the best way to address problems facing our country, just as slave labour is not the most effective kind of labour. What we need is not fear. We need effective laws, the ability to follow them and the ability on the part of the authorities to enforce them. What we need is to make laws fair and the government’s demands commensurate with the tasks faced by the people.

Olga gave us an example of a situation in which everything looks to be quite legal and to conform to Article 77 of the Family Code, but what we see in practice is nothing but a perversion. It’s like Lenin said in his time: the form is correct, but the substance is a mockery. This is exactly what we need to avoid. We don’t need fear.

Ernest Mackevicius: There is no need for fear.

We are getting back to our call centre. Maria, did you manage to get the caller back on the line?

Maria Sittel: Yes. Vasily Petrov is back on the air.

Vasily Petrov: Mr Putin, why do you think you have come under attack recently? I recently found a website run by people from the Caucasus, and they have posted a hit list there. You are at the top of this list. There are protest rallies in Moscow, where people are shouting, “Go away, Putin!” Where do you think this attitude comes from?

Vladimir Putin: There’s nothing new about this, Vasily. This line of attack has been in the making since my first day in office, and it doesn’t surprise me. Those who demonstrate the most extremist behaviour represent different wings that are all run by a single centre. It has to do with financing and with the way work with Russia is organised. Some people who are involved in these processes don’t realise that they are being used to accomplish certain things.

Take, for instance, the terrorist groups that you mentioned. Some of the people who are still part of these gangs sincerely believe that they are fighting for a bright future for their people, when in fact they are being used to rock the boat in Russia, which, ultimately, will have an adverse effect on the entire Islamic community, because Russia has always stood up for the interests of Muslim states. They have always, since Soviet times, been our strategic partners.

The same applies to our domestic situation. However, criticism that comes from people who are genuinely interested in improving the situation in our country should be considered differently: we should listen to them and adjust our work accordingly. I have always tried to follow this rule in the past, and I will continue to do so in the future. (Applause)

Ernest Mackevicius: Any other questions, Maria?

Maria Sittel: Yes. We have an SMS: “Who were these boos and jeers at the Olympiysky stadium really aimed at?”

Vladimir Putin: You know, I went there to see a man fight whom I deeply respect. I even asked our financial authorities to help organise this fight. Fyodor Yemelianenko is a worthy fighter.

When I began talking, there was, indeed, some noise coming from one sector of the stadium. This is true. I didn’t hear any whistles. It wasn’t clear what caused this noise. When I finished my short speech, the audience was applauding. This noise may have been caused by a variety of reasons. One of them is that my face, which people can see enough of on TV, was showing up once again there in the ring. I can readily admit this. There’s nothing unusual about it. And I do not take offence at those who made this noise.

One other possibility is that they weren’t entirely happy with Jeffrey Monson, who was walking past spectators at that particular moment.  

Third, the audience may have been dissatisfied with the fight. Some may have believed that it was an arranged fight, because Fyodor clearly looked fresh and finished the fight in a manner that’s not typical of mixed martial arts. However, I must say that I do not agree with this, because Fyodor used the correct tactics for his fight against Jeffrey Monson, who is an experienced and strong fighter. A week or two before this fight he won a bout with another Russian athlete. Fyodor analysed his ground fighting skills and chose not to engage in it. I'll continue for the specialists – Mr Aslakhanov will understand what I’m talking about – he did so in order to conserve his energy and avoid a situation in which his opponent would have a clear advantage.

So, the tactics he used were absolutely proper, and he emerged with a clear win. Certainly, his opponent deserves as much respect as Fyodor, because he showed a great deal of courage and fighting spirit. This fight may have looked unlike other fights, but we shouldn’t forget that fights in Fyodor’s weight group are very different from those in lighter weight categories, where things happen faster. So, there’s nothing unusual about this fight.

The fact that our opponents, mine in particular, snatched this opportunity and hyped it up is also understandable: that’s their job and they are getting paid for it (Applause)

Ernest Mackevicius: Let's take some questions from the audience.

Ivan Kudryavtsev and his guests. Go ahead, Ivan.

Ivan Kudryavtsev: I would like to pass the microphone to Nikita Mikhalkov, film director, producer and head of the Russian Union of Filmmakers.

Nikita Mikhalkov: Good  afternoon, Mr Putin.

Vladimir Putin: Good  afternoon, Mr Mikhalkov. I haven’t seen you in a while.

Nikita Mikhalkov: Yes, indeed.

While I was listening to you, I realised what one of the previous questions was about, because there’s a huge map of our country behind you, and people certainly want to see political will and strong action. This is very important today.

Getting back to what was just said, it reminded me of a good cowboy saying: “A good word and a good Smith & Wesson work better than just a good word.” I believe that these are words to remember when the issue has to do with defending human dignity.

You travel a lot across the country. Not a single Russian leader of your rank has ever travelled so much. Here’s my question.

You are shown things around the country by people who want you to see the things that they want to show you. Are you sure that these things reflect the true situation in a particular region and the true mindset of local residents? This is my first question.

My second question is: Do you see Russia’s future more strongly associated with the East rather than the West? Our vast country is a real bridge between the East and the West, don't you agree? The Eurasian movement that you are talking about isn’t only about the economy. It has a sacral meaning as well. We are talking about a Eurasian civilisation here. I think that you are referring precisely to this when you talk about Russia’s future.

Here’s my last point. I received a letter, and I would like to read an excerpt from it. It was sent to me personally: “Mr Mikhalkov, My name is Inga Kharitonova, I am the mother of three sons, and a graduate of the State Institute of Cinematography. My middle son, a 19-year-old student named Gleb Kharitonov, was beaten up in the metro when he tried to defend a girl who was being harassed by five men from the Caucasus. No one around stood up for him. It's a good thing someone called the police. He wound up in the Sklifosofsky emergency room with a head injury.

I left Latvia for Russia a few years back. I had an interesting job, a nice apartment and good friends in Latvia. I came to Russia, my Motherland, so that my children could live and study in Russia. I regret this now.

What will become of them here? My children have been raised in the spirit of the Russian Orthodox Church. For them, ideas such as “Motherland”, “honour”, “dignity”, and “justice” are not empty words. What’s happening to Russia? Neither society, school nor family can provide clear reference points for them, or protect them against cynicism, lawlessness and violence. Depression and apathy make up the default state of young people in Russia. The school education system is in ruins. Reforms conducted by Mr Fursenko are destroying the very spirit of education, making school a soulless machine that ignores human nature and refuses to see children as human beings with individual characters.

I am lost and desperate about the things that are happening in my country. I fear for my sons. Gleb says he doesn’t want to stay in Russia anymore. Tell him something to change his mind.” (Applause)

I would like to address this question to you.

Vladimir Putin: The author writes that “she regrets returning to Russia”. I have specifically chosen a message by a man who emigrated to Israel – I will not read it, but take me on my word. He says that it is very hard for him to be away from his Motherland and that he will certainly come back to Russia.

There is the saying: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” I have lived abroad for almost five years, and I know what he is talking about. A person has to know what he wants. You said that five men from the Caucasus harassed a girl, and the young man stood up for her. First of all, I would like to compliment this lady on the way she brought up her son.

Second, trust me, young people from the Caucasus can show the best human qualities as well. As for bullies, they can be everywhere, in the Caucasus, in Moscow and, unfortunately, even in my home city of Leningrad, that is, St Petersburg.

As for Europe, or, Latvia, in this case. Do you think they have fewer problems with street crime there? Do you think that they aren't facing similar problems with people who emigrated from Northern Africa? Crime is rife there, and across the board, for example, in Paris. We are talking primarily about immigrants.

Can we say that everything is fine in Russia? No. Can we say that our country has fully recovered from the drama of the post-Soviet period and is now a strong and healthy nation? No, it’s still sick. They have already mentioned the Russian philosopher Ilyin here. Can you hear the root of the word “motherland”? It’s “mother”, something close to your heart. Yes, our country is still sick, but you do not stray from the sickbed of your mother. (Applause)

Ernest Mackevicius: Let’s bring in our studio. Maria Kitayeva, please go ahead.

Maria Kitayeva: We have been on the air for three and a half hours now, and I’ve been “terrorised” by the author Alexander Prokhanov this whole time. He says that he can remain silent no longer. Shall we give him the floor?

Alexander Prokhanov: I only began talking today, Mr Putin, I was mute before.

Our billionaires who buy English teams, build hotels in Dubai and wire money out of the country thereby promoting foreign civilisations appear abhorrent against the backdrop of popular sufferings. These people will never support the idea of Russia’s prosperity; they are against it.

The great Russian reformers who were at the beginning of Russia’s development as a nation have always been able to muster courage and change the elite. For example, Peter the Great dismissed conceited boyars and bet on the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments. Who are your Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments, Mr Putin?

Vladimir Putin: I wouldn’t say that oligarchs who buy foreign sports teams or invest money abroad are necessarily evil. There is foreign capital being invested in Russia, and Russian money should be invested in foreign economies as well.

Certainly, investing money in foreign fun projects is disappointing; this money would be better off being invested in the development of Russian sports, I agree. However, saying that any investment of Russian capital in foreign economies is bad is not correct either. Today, the modernisation of our economy is the most important task.

In order for us to be able to modernise effectively, Russia needs to win certain positions in high-tech economic sectors of our partners, refrain from stealing innovative technology, instead relocating production facilities to Russia as part of the normal democratic and civilised market process. Our goal is to create 25 million new high-tech jobs.

This is a complicated task and some people may consider it unrealistic, but one of the ways to resolve this issue is to invest Russian money into high-tech production where it is the world’s best and bring some of it here. This is international cooperation, a positive process.

The second part of your question concerned… oh yes, the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration) regiments.

Alexander Prokhanov: Yes, those who you will rely on in your efforts to “transfigure” Russia.

Vladimir Putin: Got you. In the very beginning of the 2000s I said that I consider myself a man the people hire to do a certain job during a certain time. Monarchs relied on definite classes from which they made elite units like the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments. Probably, this was the right thing to do for that period. But today we cannot take that approach. Today we rely on the Russian people, and if they don’t support you, you can do little in power. I can tell you straight – if I don’t feel this support I won’t stay in office for a single day. And this support is determined not on websites and not even on squares – but in a democratic society it is only determined by the results of voting. If I do not feel this support, I will immediately leave my post.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, a question was submitted to the programme online and it continues the subject raised by Mr Prokhanov: “I’m reading a report about court hearings in London and I wonder when the money stolen from the nation will stop being used to enrich the United Kingdom?” I wouldn’t bet on it but I do think this is about the Abramovich versus Berezovsky trial.

Vladimir Putin: What can I say? It would be better if they held this trial in Russia.

Ernest Mackevicius: Would Russian gain from this economically?

Vladimir Putin: This would be more honest – both for them and our country. The money was made and stolen here – let them divide it here, too.

Ernest Mackevicius: We have Nizhny Tagil on the line, the famous Uralvagonzavod. Our correspondent Alexander Khristenko is there. Good afternoon, Alexander!

Alexander Khristenko: Good afternoon, Moscow. Nizhny Tagil welcomes you. We are at one of the biggest companies in the Russian defence industry – Uralvagonzavod. They do build railway carriages here but half of their production is military hardware. During the Great Patriotic War this company built the legendary T-34 tank. Now they are turning out high-tech “flying” T-90S tanks and tank support fighting vehicles under the formidable name Terminator.

Obviously, Uralvagonzavod largely depends on state defence contracts. As far as I understood from my conversation with the workers here, one of the main subjects of interest will be expressed here. Let’s listen to their questions. Who would like to be the first?

Sergei Shabolin: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Sergei Shabolin. I’m an assembly fitter at this company. I’d like to ask you this question. The current defence allocations are unprecedented in their size – but where does the money go? We are buying Mistral ships from France, armoured vehicles from Italy and rifles from Austria. Why are the allocations for national defence spent on foreign military hardware?

Vladimir Putin: I understand that this is a very urgent issue. Here’s my reasoning. Nobody is going to sell us strategic systems that could form the backbone of our national security. This is abundantly clear. Generally our partners don’t even have such arms systems. Only Russia and the United States have them.

As for other systems, conventional arms, the Defence Ministry wants to get some special armaments that do not simply meet world standards but exceed them in fire power, precision and range – only those can allow a country to win an armed conflict.

If the arms are below world standards, it is still possible to win, but only at the expense of a lot of people, like it was in the first years of the Great Patriotic War. To win in an armed conflict today, we must have weapons that would exceed those of a potential enemy in every parameter. The Defence Ministry wants our defence industry to produce these arms for our military. However, in many cases, we simply don’t have domestic competition, and without it, it is difficult to achieve much. Therefore, as a customer, the Defence Ministry says to the defence industry, in what I would describe as a threatening tone of voice: you either do what we need for national defence or we’ll buy it abroad. That said, the fact remains that 90% or even more than 90% of the funds earmarked for defence, will be spent exclusively with Russian defence enterprises. This is my answer.

Ernest Mackevicius: Nizhny Tagil, one more question please.

Alexander Khristenko: Yes, Ernest, we have one more question. Please, ask your question and don’t forget to introduce yourself.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr Putin!

Vladimir Putin: Hello!

Question: Oleg, test driver at Uralvagonzavod.

We want to make better equipment and master new technology but we get the impression that the defence minister does not need any of this. Military personnel keep repairing old equipment but don’t order anything new. It seems clear that Defence Ministry purchases are not handled by experts. In general, it would be right to dismiss this Serdyukov and Makarov for his statements. Please, appoint a competent minister.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I understand. You are irritated by some statements of our top officials from the Defence Ministry, including the Chief of the General Staff because they call into doubt the quality of our armaments. Incidentally, they are causing damage to our military-technical cooperation with other countries.

Needless to say, they are motivated by the considerations I have just mentioned – they want to receive modern equipment that will be better than its foreign counterparts and at affordable prices, which is also very important. It’s important for all of us, including you as a Russian citizen, that the 20 trillion roubles that we allocated to reequip the army and the navy until 2020 are used effectively. We have to use these funds to objectively improve Russia’s defence capability, not just disburse this money, you know – we spent that much money during this year, and that much during that year.

We need to see actual pieces of equipment for this money: missiles, aircraft, submarines, and ships. We need them to be high quality designs. The fact that they are making such public statements is certainly inadmissible, and we have already discussed this with them. I hope they got our message.

Ernest Mackevicius: One more question from Nizhny Tagil. Alexander, please go ahead.

Alexander Khristenko: Great, Ernest. We have time for one more question.

Please introduce yourself and ask your question.

Igor Kholmanskikh: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

My name is Igor Kholmanskikh. I am head of the assembly shop. First, I wanted to ask you about the American missile defence system, but there’s an issue that makes my heart bleed.

Mr Putin, you visited our plant in hard times and helped us. Thank you for doing this. Today, thousands of people at our plant have work, get paid for their work, and have a good outlook for the future. This stability is important to us. We don’t want to return to the past.

I have a point to make about the protest demonstrations. If our ‘militsia’, or what it’s called now – police, can’t deal with this situation, we are ready to go out onto the streets and stand up for stability, of course, within the law.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Please come, but not now, and preferably for other reasons. I believe both the protesters and the law enforcement agencies will remain within the constraints of the law, and we will address other issues, such as your company and the defence industry in general.

Some of the people in the audience who have just spoken expressed certain concerns. I can understand them, and I share them by the way. The Defence Ministry should improve its procurement system, because certain things are unfair – certain requirements from the defence industry are unfair, such as pricing. They refer to the equipment of the 80s and apply the same pricing to modern equipment. There are many things to discuss and to take care of in our day-to-day work. Thank you very much for your support.

Ernest Mackevicius: Thank you, Mr Putin.

Thank you, Nizhny Tagil.

We are returning to the Moscow studio with Ivan Kudryavtsev and his guests.

Ivan Kudryavtsev: I would like to pass the microphone to a filmmaker who is shooting a film about the war that was won to a greater extent by using people rather than modern equipment. I am referring to the Battle of Stalingrad, and the film Stalingrad. The film is directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk.

Importantly, no matter what historical period is covered in a film made by this director, he always focuses on his contemporaries and takes inspiration from life today.

Fyodor, please go ahead with your question.

Fyodor Bondarchuk: Mr Putin, I often go to St Petersburg for filming now. I know that you do quite a lot for your city. Maestro Gergiev also mentioned this today. Nevertheless, most St Petersburg voters cast their votes for the opposition. What do you think about this as someone who was born in this city? This is your home town.

Vladimir Putin: That’s fine. St Petersburg is unlike other Russian cities in this regard. People have different preferences. I am a resident of St Petersburg as well. I can sense people’s attitude. To a great extent, it is determined by things that they encounter in their everyday lives.

The St Petersburg parliament has always been very diverse politically, but this didn’t interfere with its work. No matter what party they belong to, St Petersburg deputies have always been very responsible.

As for our relations with other parties in Russia, we have always strived to maintain a good rapport. I am confident that this will not affect St Petersburg in any way.

Ernest Mackevicius: Another question from the studio by Tatyana Remezova.

Tatyana Remezova: I have an American political scientist, Nikolai Zlobin, in my international sector. He is director of the Russian and Asian programmes at the World Security Institute in Washington, DC. At the same time, he is a prominent participant at the Valdai discussion club. Mr Zlobin, go ahead and please try to make your question short.

Vladimir Putin: An American political scientist by the name of Zlobin. A man who snuck into America and defends Russia’s interests there, I hope.

Nikolai Zlobin: Yes, of course.

But I will disappoint you today. My question will be about foreign policy, not domestic politics. You mentioned “the Putin regime”, so I would like to ask you about the “Putin” foreign policy, which has drastically changed the global picture since it appeared, to tell you the truth. We can discuss whether this influence was positive or negative.

When you speak with Russian politicians, you can’t avoid the impression that they think Russia is surrounded by enemies, those with evil intent, or countries that try to get something from Russia and then turn coat. Something doesn’t work in terms of having allies. There are phrases like “the United States and its allies” or “NATO and its allies”. I have never heard of “Russia and its allies”. Mr Putin, when you left the Kremlin in 2008 with your famous Munich speech, Russia didn’t have many allies, I think. Now you are running for the presidency again. Is permanent opposition to everyone in the world part of the Putin foreign policy? Is this something you need to secure for the survival of the regime or in order to expand the defence industry or something else? Do you have any plans to make allies during the next six-year presidential term if you are elected president? If a country has other countries that it can rely on, its sense of security is much higher. Do you see this coming?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: It’s too early to thank me, because you haven’t heard my answer yet. You are going to hear it, and I’m not sure if you will thank me.

You said that Russia doesn’t have allies. I simply disagree with this. Russia has many allies. When I went to Guatemala to discuss Russia’s bid to host the Olympic Games – I can tell you, absolutely honestly – the majority of IOC members approached me and said openly or whispered in my ear that they would vote for Russia only because Russia has an independent stance on the international arena. All of them are our potential allies; there are more of them than the ex-Soviet republics, because people are tired of a single country’s dominant influence.

You mentioned cooperation with the United States. We would like to be allies with the United States. However, what I’m seeing now and what I was talking about in Munich can hardly be called an alliance. At times, I feel that America doesn’t need allies; it needs vassals.

However, we want to and we will continue to build our relations with the United States, because I see that certain changes are taking place inside the United States as well. American society feels much less inclined to act as global policeman. Your colleagues, researchers from American universities, have been writing about this. They say that the United States is conducting an ineffective and costly foreign policy. I know too well what their so-called European allies think about this policy.

Look what happens in real life, Nikolai. I’m sure you know about it. They have made a unilateral decision about Afghanistan. Have they ever thought about asking the advice of their allies about what needs to be done there? Hell, no. They attacked the country first, and then began to pull in other countries, saying that those who weren’t with them were against them. Is that what you call alliance? Not really. Those who aren’t with us are against us – nicely put. The allies fell away immediately: everything was at six and sevens. Remember, what they say about a quartet of musicians in Krylov’s fable? “And you, my friends, no matter what you wish, will never make it as musicians.” Is that right, Mr Gergiev?

However, we will not live surrounded by just enemies. This will never happen. We have discussed this issue, and many of my colleagues have tried to impose the idea of a unipolar world on me. But this world failed to materialise. Today’s world is much more complex than even the bipolar world, where the Soviet Union tried to impose its will on its quasi-allies; that world fell apart as soon as the Soviet Union lost its might.

However, if the United States continues this policy, it will lose its so-called allies, no matter what they says about this issue.

The same thing happened in Iraq. First, they did what they wanted to do and then forced their allies to deploy troops in Iraq. Is that what allies are for? Is that joint decision-making? Real alliances are built on shared discussions and shared decisions, developing a joint agenda on existing threats, and on ways to hold back these threats.

I can see Mr Primakov and Mr Ivanov sitting right in front of me. Both are very important, among the most important people on the international political arena. This goes without saying for Mr Primakov, and Mr Ivanov is also a prominent figure.

Everything I just said is true. But we will not build a policy in a way that everybody feels like we are surrounded by enemies. This is not the case now, and won’t happen in the future.

Ernest Mackevicius: It’s time for us to get back to our call centre. We have new phone calls and text messages. I give the floor to Maria Sittel.

Maria Sittel: Yes, we do. Thank you, Ernest.

A brief statistical overview, in just 20 seconds: as of 3:30 pm, we had 1.782 million calls and text messages coming in to our website. Leading by a wide margin are issues of social welfare. Second place, as expected, goes to utilities and housing issues. And third place to employment and salary-related issues.

We will now take a call from Bashkortostan.

Rafael Khabibullin: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

My name is Rafael Khabibullin, I am 75 years old and retired.

At the United Russia conference you said that you would introduce a tax on luxury. When will this happen? I would like to live to see it.

Vladimir Putin: We all remember the parable when a man could wish anything and he wished that his neighbour lost an eye.

But generally speaking, this approach is correct. Oddly enough, there haven’t yet been any questions about the individual income tax, which are often raised by our people and are favoured by opposition parties. We have had lengthy discussions on this issue. And we will keep individual income tax at 13%.

By the way, when we had differentiated rates of individual income tax, the sums collected were significantly lower than what we see now. Revenues from individual income tax last year, in 2010 (you know what the situation was), exceeded all federal government revenues in 2000.

On the contrary, when we differentiate the rate, some companies and people move away from legal wages; wages are paid in envelopes, violating employees’ rights for future retirement pensions. Apart from everything else, this impacts the high wages that are earned honestly, including, by the way, in healthcare. After all, we have doctors, surgeons, unique surgeons, who earn 200,000-300,000 roubles a month or more.

Of course, we could cut their wages by hitting them with a 40% tax rate, but we already have a problem of highly qualified professionals in different sectors leaving. So we just won’t have them. So this is not a simple issue, as you can see.

We need social justice, but we need to tread carefully. Otherwise, who will treat us? Who will provide the other services? Even though people in healthcare and other sectors don’t like the word. But of course, the tax on hyper-consumption, the tax on luxury is quite justified, it can and should be introduced, I believe.

As to when this can be done, I didn’t raise it because it sounds good; I was considering the problem in practical terms. To do so, we need a cadastre, first of all, regarding real estate and land. The corresponding services have to prepare this cadastre within the next year, and then in 2013 we will submit a draft law on the tax on hyper-consumption and luxury to the State Duma.

Ernest Mackevicius: Let’s go back to our studio audience and give the floor to our foreign guests.

Dmitry Shchugorev, please.

Dmitry Shchugorev: All the more so since he has come here specially, from Paris. This is Marek Halter, a social commentator and public figure. His Russian is excellent, as everyone knows, because they watch the news and see him there all the time.

Your question, please.

Marek Halter: First. It would be easier for me to speak French, but, my dear man, I know you haven’t yet had time to learn the language of Voltaire. I came prepared and wrote my question down to ensure I don’t make mistakes, and I will also have to put my glasses on in order not to make any more.

As president of the French university colleges in Russia, which I founded together with Andrei Sakharov, there is one issue that concerns me. I understand that today’s generation is very different from mine. Today, like never before, we are in a position to understand the words of Karl Marx: the world is one. The internet allows young people to communicate freely with people all over the world, to unite and organise protests.

Mr Putin, would you be ready, when you become president, to do what General de Gaulle did in his time – to address young people on TV with the words “I understand you”?

Vladimir Putin: Merci for your question. Thank you very much.

You know, in our day-to-day work, we often deal with loose ends, so to speak; we let the situation develop to a particular point and then we say that we have understood, that we will correct the mistakes and faults, make adjustments. This is, of course, also possible, and should be done if we are unable to deal with the problem before it escalates.

I would like us to be able to forecast developments in the country, in the economy, in the social sphere, in politics, in the development of our democratic institutions; to respond in a timely fashion to the challenges of the time and make the necessary adjustments. At the same time, a minority should always be treated with respect. It should not be pushed away to the peripheries of political life and then, perhaps, we wouldn’t have to apologise.

Ernest Mackevicius: We have another question from representatives of the Western school of political thought.

Tatyana Remezova, please.

Tatyana Remezova: This guest has also come here specifically for this programme, but this time, from Germany. Alexander Rahr is the son and grandson of White émigrés. He could, of course, put his question in German, since you know the language, but we will ask him to speak Russian, so that everyone can understand.

Alexander Rahr, director of the Berthold Beitz Centre at the German Foreign Relations Council. Welcome.

Alexander Rahr: Mr Putin, while we are talking with you here, the Russian president is battling the European Commission, the European Union in Brussels.

Vladimir Putin: He will show his worth, I am sure.

Alexander Rahr: Let’s hope he will, but I would say that the battles are difficult.

Vladimir Putin: He is doing well.

Alexander Rahr: And, unfortunately, there are a lot of conflicts. I am referring to the question Nikolai posed.

Antimissile defence isn’t about Europe, of course, but the Europeans don’t support Russia on this issue. There is struggle against Gazprom, which we discussed at a Valdai Club meeting. Everyone is pulling Ukraine in their respective directions.

We still haven’t been able to resolve the visa issue. It just doesn’t make sense that Latin Americans, Americans, and North Africans don’t need visas to come to us, but we cannot go to Russia and Russians can’t come to us without visas. You developed the first proposal in 2002.

My question is: why aren’t we together? What mistakes have been made, perhaps, even by Russia, over the last 20 years? Perhaps in the 1990s, when we failed to build that Europe? I remember it, I sat in the trenches at radio Svoboda (Freedom), and they said that when Russia gave up Communism we would have a common Europe. No other rationale was possible then. So why aren’t we together?

Vladimir Putin: We were taught that radio Svoboda was “a propaganda unit of America’s CIA”.

When I worked for that organisation, as you all know, that is what was written about it. Among other things, it was involved in Humint operations in the Soviet Union – acquiring information sources, hopefully, for good causes. But a great deal has changed since then.

Why aren’t we together? First of all, there are purely technical reasons. One of our emperors used to say, when tutoring his son, “Everyone is afraid of our hugeness.” This is true. And this is still the case. This is one point.

Second, the leading country of the Western world, the United States, is suspicious about our nuclear missile potential. I believe it is making a grave mistake, believing that first it should remove this nuclear potential and only then consider us a potential ally. This is still Cold war-style thinking. But this is critical, and it doesn’t allow Europe to work with us as with a real potential ally.

You know, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I thought there was no longer anything preventing us from all being on the same side. But these suspicions from the past impede the development of our relations. But I still believe that it is inevitable. Life itself demands integration in Europe; I would even say there is demand for integration through our shared Christian values. And if you consider that the traditional world religions are all based on similar moral values, this provides the foundation for overcoming inter-civilisation difficulties.

I have said this repeatedly, and I would like to say it once again. I was greatly impressed by the stance taken by former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who talked of the inevitability of closer relations, virtually integration, between Europe and Russia. He said that if we wanted to survive as one civilisation, we should move in this direction. Does Russia have to do anything? Yes, it should scare its neighbours less; it should work to rid itself of this imperial image which prevents even Europe from cooperating with us, especially as it has integrated a lot of young members who continue to bear, since we have already quoted Marx here, the “birthmarks” of the past. Overall, there are a lot of problems, but integration is possible, and it is needed.

By the way, I would like to object to what Nikita Mikhalkov said about Russia – that it can and should act as a bridge between East and West. Russia is not a bridge. It is an independent and self-sustaining force in this world, not just a link. But, of course, it has elements of a Eurasian nature. They are additional factors in our competitiveness, and we are of course going to use them. This is why we are raising the issue of establishing a Eurasian Union.

Ernest Mackevicius: One more question from our studio audience.

Tatyana, please.

Tatyana Remezova: I know that Igor Ivanov, former foreign minister, secretary of the Russian Security Council, has a question on international integration.

Mr Ivanov.

Igor Ivanov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.

Out of about one million and seven hundred thousand questions that the studio received, I believe an overwhelming majority, 99%, concern domestic politics. This is understandable. Our people are concerned with social and economic issues. If you noticed, even during the broadcast from Vladivostok, they started with the APEC Leaders’ Week, but immediately moved to the problems involving the bridge and governor, even though hosting the APEC meeting is a milestone event and may make a definite contribution to serious development of Siberia and the Far East.

I have two related questions. We live in a globalised world, and the 21st century is the century of globalisation, so external factors will play an increasing role in the life of any country. Today, you have repeatedly addressed the problem of modernisation as the main strategy for the country’s development.

How do you see international cooperation in terms of implementing plans for Russia’s modernisation?

And the other question. We have recently set up the Russian Council for International Affairs, which, in my opinion, comprises this country’s leading experts on international relations. How do you see the future role of the expert community in developing and implementing the country’s foreign policy?

We have heard questions from Nikolai Zlobin and Alexander Rahr, dealing with certain aspects of this, including that sometimes we are not well understood. If we are to be truly understood, official statements are not sufficient, we need the active participation of civil society and the expert community in providing explanations and in advocacy.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: This is a very important question. I will tell you why. It really follows on from what Nikolai Zlobin and Alexander Rahr said. But it is of practical importance.

I have already mentioned that our capital should be channelled into foreign economies to enhance the integration of Russia’s economy into the European and global economies. This is extremely important. Yet what happens? You see, our partners invest a great deal more in the Russian economy than we invest in foreign countries, and partially this is because we are not actually allowed in.

Everyone talks about the need to liberalise the Russian economy, to open the doors. But we are already as open as we can be; soon all we’ll be left with is a massive draught. Do you see? But we are not let into those crucial spheres there. We do let foreigners into crucial sectors here, such as power generation. Our European partners have already invested tens of billions of dollars in power generation. This is serious. In Siberia, in the Far East, and all over the country.

But we are not allowed into crucial sectors in the West. Recently, our companies tried to purchase telecommunications assets in one European country. They kept beating about the bush, even though it was obviously beneficial for our partners, too, and it came to naught, we were not allowed to buy into these assets. Or you might recall the well-known case involving the purchase of a car concern in Germany. The discussions ran and ran, I even met the trade unions, everyone was happy, everyone was willing, but when it came down to it, they didn’t allow it.

Or there is another example, when a private businessman bought a high-tech company in Switzerland. They dragged him through the courts, making it impossible for him to work. Fortunately, these problems have been mostly resolved now.

So the activities of such organisations as yours, which build mutual trust, are, of course, both needed and extremely important. But we will also try to organise our practical work so as to improve trust and work together.

Ernest Mackevicius: A question that was sent to our website: “The majority of your critics are on the internet. What is your attitude to the internet and internet users?”

Vladimir Putin: I would like to say that this environment is highly democratic and I think it is impossible to restrict the internet. That would be technologically difficult and politically wrong.

If the authorities or someone in particular don’t like what is happening on the internet there is only one way to confront it – to propose other ways and approaches to resolving the problems that are discussed on the internet, and to do so in a more creative and interesting way, so as to gather more supporters. This is one thing.

Second, it should be said that, unfortunately, the internet is used for criminal purposes. And law enforcement structures should watch carefully what it is being used for without limiting its freedom, they should know this and work accordingly. I am referring to paedophilia and other problems.

And, third, the culture and lack of culture on the internet is somewhat like what we see on our roads. You know, when a driver curses everyone around, while violating the rules. These are manifestations of our broader culture. And I hope very much that, as our broader culture improves, the situation on the internet will change for the better, too.

Ernest Mackevicius: Do you use the internet often?

Vladimir Putin: No.

Ernest Mackevicius: Consciously?

Vladimir Putin: Yes. I just don’t have time for it. I don’t even have time to watch TV. I only watch some recorded programmes on my way to work.

Ernest Mackevicius: You can now watch TV via the internet, by the way.

Mr Putin, it was internet users who sent in some of the questions that you have selected personally and that are now in this folder. What have you selected?

Vladimir Putin: You know, I believe we have been sitting here long enough already, but there are a lot of interesting questions. By the way, while I was answering, I saw the ticker, “When will we build a bridge – Mainland-Sakhalin?” That’s a good project, interesting, and very important.

Where will you celebrate New Year’s Eve? – At home, of course.

This is an important project. We need to conduct an economic feasibility study. If we do this, then it might expand traffic considerably along the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Mainline because we would be able to forward more cargo traffic from Japan. And we could send more direct traffic into Japan, including this tunnel traffic. We are discussing this issue with our Japanese partners. This large and impressive project could substantially expand our transit potential.

As far as the questions are concerned, there are some important aspects concerning the nationalisation of natural resources. The state continues to own natural resources, and private companies only have the right to extract these resources. In their time – I completely understand and share this approach – many present-day Russian oligarchs had amassed massive fortunes as a result of unfair and inequitable privatisation. This is absolutely true, this is a fact. They admit this themselves now.

But if we start confiscating this property, it could lead to even worse consequences than this unfair privatisation. It could disrupt the operations of these major corporations, deprive people of their wages, and jobs, etc. This is a very complicated process.

Consequently, we should approach this differently. In my opinion, we should not talk about nationalising specific assets. On the contrary, we should talk about restraining these people, forcing them to work within the law and to pay taxes. We should solve social problems, depending on those tax proceeds.

Rural roads are a very important issue. We are moving to establish road funds. I know motorists are not very happy because the transport tax has not been abolished. Their representatives are here, and I have seen some drivers in this auditorium. But this was done at the request of the governors who consider this to be an important component of their revenue. There are plans to raise the excise tax by one rouble, but this is because we have plans to shore up the road construction funds, now being established by us. Part of these funds will also be used to build rural roads. This is an extremely important objective, and we have made a decision. At the end of its session, the previous State Duma passed a law ordering the Russian regions to channel part of their road funds into the construction of rural roads.

“Ban pneumatic weapons nationwide.” You know, this also worries me. I know there are some snags concerning this issue, but I share this attitude.

Tatiana Grachyova sent this one from a hospital in the Tver Region. She writes about problems. Ms Grachyova, I promise you that we will certainly look into the matter. These problems can possibly be solved under the healthcare modernisation programme.

The news ticker has just flashed a question: “When will the healthcare programme provide real protection?” I hope that we will improve the situation with regional healthcare with the healthcare modernisation programme, provided that we manage to allocate more funds for regional healthcare facilities.

Yes, previously, there was a statement that pensions will be increased to 8,125 roubles. I will also look into this. Tamara Manova writes about this. To the best of my knowledge, the average old-age pension now totals something like 8,200 roubles.

“Why are they saying here that pensions fall short of 8,125 roubles?” Maybe, this implies social/welfare pensions. I will also assess this issue. Indeed, those pensions are smaller.

Maternity capital should be used for family needs because wages and salaries are low, and  it’s impossible even to  take out a mortgage. We need to look closely into the matter. This is an important question. I think we need to involve the Housing Construction Agency, so that people with low incomes can use maternity capital. The Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending should provide some guarantees so as to facilitate this opportunity and open up additional mortgage opportunities.

“What does the word ’Motherland’ mean to you?” -- It means the same to me as it does to many Russians. It is everything, it is my life.

A ten-year-old boy named Grisha has asked a very good question: “How can every person be reconciled?” Our future is secure, as long as we have children who think like this.

“What are your negative personality traits?” -- There are enough of them, just like any other person.

Mikhail Zhukov from Ryazan asks this question: “What do you expect from Russians, and what should we expect from you?” You know, in reality, this is a serious question. I expect Russia’s citizens to come together, to work for the development of our Motherland. And I personally will do everything I can to achieve this goal.

“What do you dream of?” -- I dream that these plans are realised.

Yes, here is a curious question: “Mr Putin, I have just read [probably on the Internet] that you might be promoted to Marshal. Doesn’t this remind you of the fact that Leonid Brezhnev had received the title Hero of the Soviet Union six times?” --The current entourage, etc. compromises me.

First of all, no one is promoted to Marshal in this country.

Second, I remember well when Boris Yeltsin offered me the post of Federal Security Service Director, and I agreed. I went to him, and he invited me in and said: “I have decided to promote you to General.” And it’s common knowledge that I’m a Colonel. I told him: “Mr President, I resigned from military service in my time, and I consider it inappropriate to resume military service now. Although I have served with this organisation, please allow me to become the first civilian director of the Federal Security Service. I remember that he was really surprised, and he replied: “Yes? Well, OK.”

So there is no possibility of this, and I assure you that there won’t be.

Here is another online question: “What are your sources of information, and isn’t the information you receive diluted?” -- No, I assure you. I get sufficiently objective information about the situation in this country and worldwide.

“What is your concept of happiness?” This is a very individual thing. I think for me happiness comes down to love.

“What do you think of the slogan: “Stop feeding offshore zones?”I’m absolutely positive. By the way, this is an important issue. It doesn’t just matter that someone hides something in an offshore zone. The thing is that many Russian companies are registered in offshore zones and openly and legally operate in this country as foreign businesses.

Yes, awhile back, many companies withdrew their assets to use them from offshore zones in order to guarantee their interests. Today, this really hinders economic activity, the activity of Russian businesses and foreign investors. Many of them have told me openly that they were willing to cooperate with a company, and that they wanted this to happen, but that they didn’t even know who the end beneficiary was, or who was hiding in an offshore zone. This issue needs to be brought in line with the law.

“Why is the situation so bad in Sarapul?” – I don’t know, we need to look into the matter. As far as I know, this place is located not far from Izhevsk. We will examine the Sarapul issue separately.

“We love you.” – Me, too. The feeling is mutual.

“Stanislav Govorukhin is right: Something must be done about TV programmes.” – Yes, he is certainly right. Unfortunately, our philosophy is based on profits derived from commercials, and it’s hard to take this back, but something has to be done.

“Do you have any leisure time?” – Yes, I do.

“What would you think about holding federal elections in May, a warmer, sunnier, more positive month?”Generally, I like this idea, but I’m afraid that dacha gardeners might criticise this because they need to till their vegetable patches, and  we are forcing them to do something stupid.

Ernest Mackevicius: In that case, we need to put the elections off till June.

Vladimir Putin: Actually, this is a serious question. Indeed, people start tilling their land, and it would probably be inappropriate to distract them.

“What do you think about Russia’s billionaires?” – I have already said that, in principle, privatisation was neither fair nor equitable, but that it is inappropriate to dismantle things now.

“Does happiness exist?” – I have already answered that question.

“They are dividing money at a London court again.” This, too, has been discussed.

“Why do child benefits of a mother of three in the Khabarovsk Territory differ from child benefits in other regions?” – Yes, child benefits are paid from two sources nationwide.

To the best of my knowledge, federal child benefits are something like 13,000-plus roubles. They will be indexed and will total 14,000 next year. Parents with two children are eligible for benefits accounting for 100% of their salary. The maximum benefit in this category totals over 30,000 roubles. The second part includes mothers who have not worked before, so-called “housewives.” We recently introduced benefits for this category as well, although it’s true, that these benefits are not very impressive, totaling over 2,000 roubles for the first child and 4,000 roubles for the second child. But these benefits will also be indexed.

Regional benefits are the second source. Of course, these benefits are pitifully small. In this sense, I would advise regional leaders to prioritise their social requirements. They need to pay more to those who really need such benefits.

There are quite a few wishes and very positive statements here, although very many negative statements have also been voiced. I would like to assure you that I also pay attention to the negative comments, no matter what. I won’t read all the many positive statements. I would simply like to thank people very much for their support.

A news ticker message has also congratulated all of us on New Year’s Eve and the upcoming Christmas season. For my part, I would also like to congratulate everyone on the New Year and Christmas.

Ernest Mackevicius: Mr Putin, here is probably the last question. In the past and again today, you have outlined an ambitious action plan and have set some very impressive goals. Tell me, please, is all this feasible?

Vladimir Putin: You know, I have not said absolutely everything about all the specific goals and tasks being set by us.

In order to accomplish them, we need to boost labour productivity by about three times. Some analysts believe this is simply not feasible. At first glance, we have many extremely difficult tasks. But I think that we can do all this because I believe in Russia.

Ernest Mackevicius: Will we meet here in this studio next year if you win the elections and become president? Will this format of communicating with the people be retained?

Vladimir Putin: You know, I’ll turn into such a big boss, and I’ll become such a bronze monument that I will stop visiting you. Come on, cheer up. We have been meeting with you for ten years. Certainly, we will continue this format.

Ernest Mackevicius: I would like to thank all of our audiences, and our participants in today’s programme, all those who sent in their questions, called us, communicated with us from Russia’s cities, and those who gathered here in this studio today.

This was “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin: Continued.”

Thank you, Mr Putin.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.