Interview granted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the French newspaper Le Figaro
13 september 2008
Sochi, September 13, 2008
Question (as translated): Good morning, Mr Prime Minister. Thank you for receiving Le Figaro here today. The question is very urgent. In light of the signing in Moscow on Monday of the agreement calling for the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia within a month, do you believe anything can happen that could impede or prevent the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia?
Vladimir Putin: Russia always fulfils its obligations, and we are determined to do so in the future. First of all I would like to say that the current situation did not arise through the fault of the Russian Federation, but through the fault of the incumbent Georgian leadership, which launched this bloody adventure, an attack on South Ossetia.
I would like to reiterate that the actions of the Russian army were forced. They were a response to an armed provocation on the part of the Georgian leadership and to the killing of our peacekeepers and civilians in South Ossetia. If we crossed a border it was only because we had to suppress the control points that were used to organise military actions against South Ossetia and against our peacekeepers beyond the peacekeeping zone.
We had to destroy these control points, the radar stations that were used to combat our aviation, we had to put down the prepared positions for artillery fire, for long-range artillery that was used, among other things, against the civilian refugees leaving Tskhinvali.
After the Georgian army in its previous state ceased to exist under the blows of the Russian Armed Forces, our armed units, the peacekeepers reinforced with Russian army units, stayed only within the security zone determined under former international agreements.
The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world in terms of territory, and we all understand very well - I am sure your readers understand - that Russia does not need any additional territory at Georgia's expense.
What objectives did Russia pursue in staying within the security zone? Only one: to ensure security, to prevent fresh attacks on the part of Georgia against South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
We consider the agreements reached with the European Union to be extremely important. I think that much of the credit for this goes personally to the French President, Mr Sarkozy, who currently heads united Europe.
We expect that the agreements reached with the "European troika" will be honoured by our European partners too.
We expect also that observers from the OSCE, the UN, and the European Union will assume responsibility in the security zone where the Russian peacekeepers are today. If that is done Russia will unconditionally fulfil all its obligations and withdraw its peacekeepers even from the security zone. But both sides, and not only the Russian side, have obligations. Our European partners are also under an obligation. They must assume the responsibility for ensuring security in that zone. We would welcome cooperation with our European partners in this region.
Question: One more question about the additional observers to be sent to Georgia. Why do you deny these observers' access to the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Vladimir Putin: We do not deny them, but these are independent states, we have recognised their sovereignty and independence; and for any foreign observers to be allowed into their territories, one has to talk with the governments of these countries, above all with them, and not with Russia.
Question: You have stressed the role Mr Sarkozy has played in bringing about agreements on a peaceful settlement. How would you describe your relations with the French President?
Vladimir Putin: They are very businesslike and constructive. But of late, I think there has appeared a personal element in our relationship. We have very good comradely and trusting personal relations. Like me, he also used to be into wrestling and we have agreed to have a work-out together one day.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, in your interview with CNN on August 28, you suggested that American soldiers stood behind the Georgian soldiers. Have you received any confirmation of what was only a hypothesis at the time of the interview?
Vladimir Putin: I did not refer to American soldiers. I referred to American citizens.
That the Georgian army has been armed by our American partners is an established fact, nobody challenges it. That American instructors tried to train the Georgian army is also a fact that nobody challenges.
I think even the former Georgian Foreign Minister, Ms Zurabishvili, who is a French citizen, has said it publicly.
I said that from our data there were American citizens in the zone of military actions. I said that from our data they were within the security zone defined under former international agreements. And under the agreements only three categories of citizens had the right to be in that zone: local citizens, peacekeepers and OSCE observers.
We have received documentary proof that American citizens who do not belong to any of these three categories were in the zone. The Deputy Chief of the Russian Army General Staff showed a copy of the passport of one of these American citizens to the press.
Of course we would like to know what that citizen and other citizens of the United States were doing in that zone.
So, in reply to your question I can say that yes, my suppositions have been confirmed.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, over the past several days the relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated seriously. What do you expect from the new US administration?
Vladimir Putin: I expect relations to improve. They have spoiled them and it is up to them to improve them.
You know, in Lincoln's time an American politician, the Secretary of State of the time, said that Americans preferred relations with Russia to those with any other European countries if only because Russia always wished them well.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Our relations over the years have waxed and waned. But whenever global crises arose in the world, Russia and the US have always been together.
That is a telltale fact. It shows that in a global crisis mutual interests outweigh whatever contradictions we may have. This was the case during the First World War and this was the case during the Second World War. We in Russia never forget it. We would like our American partners to remember it too.
Question: What is your attitude to the situation in Afghanistan and do you approve of the actions of the international community in the fight against the Taliban?
Vladimir Putin: We approve of the actions of the international community in the fight against terror. But we believe that these actions are not very effective and by far not always professional.
Think of the recurring air raids on the terrorist infrastructure in which many civilians have died.
Or take the efforts of the international coalition in combating drug trafficking. The results are zero, indeed probably negative because the production of heroin keeps growing.
It is bad in itself because the main market for Afghan heroin is Western Europe, and it is bad from the point of view of the fight against terror because the drug money is to a large extent used to finance terrorist activities.
It should give us cause to think. And in general, in terms of effectively combating terrorism we should cooperate with one another more, we should pool our efforts if we are to achieve effective joint work.
Question: The relations between Russia and China have markedly improved of late. Are you disappointed that China has not openly supported Russia's actions in Ossetia and Abkhazia?
Vladimir Putin: Not at all. Moreover, we are well aware of the foreign and domestic policy priorities of the People's Republic of China and we do not want to put them in an embarrassing position.
We said this to our Chinese partners in so many words. I spoke about it myself when I attended the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. We relieved them of that burden of responsibility in Russian-Chinese relations in advance.
In general, regarding the recognition of South Ossetia or Abkhazia as independent states we have not asked anyone and are not going to ask anyone about anything. From the point of view of international law, recognition by one country is enough for a new entity to emerge.
Question: Attacks on free speech in Russia and the murder of several journalists in your country are a particular matter of concern in Europe, including France. What steps are you prepared to take to avoid such precedents being repeated?
Vladimir Putin: I find the questions about freedom of speech in Russia, freedom of the press more and more surprising, especially so in the wake of events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
An interested observer couldn't help noticing a conspiracy of silence in the free press of our Western partners when some quarters laboured under a false impression that a Georgian aggression had a chance to succeed. For two days when the outcome was unclear everyone was silent, as if under some command, and then, again as if in response to a command - and I think there was a command - they started accusing Russia of disproportionate use of force. That is as true of the European press as of the American press.
As for our media, their number is growing. I think there are already 3,500 electronic media outlets and tens of thousands - 40,000 if I am not mistaken - printed periodicals. Even if we wanted to, it is impossible to control them all. And I am not speaking about the Internet, which is a totally free forum.
I have already mentioned it, you know, it would have been funny if it weren't so sad. Our media have run many times an interview given to the US company Fox News with a 12-year-old girl and her aunt who were eye-witnesses of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia. They had been invited to Fox News studio for a live broadcast, but when they started speaking about what they had actually seen, they were practically cut short. And we are told that we do not have a free press and the West has it? Well, this is not funny.
Regarding criminal acts perpetrated against specific individuals, including journalists, they are being investigated and we will follow these investigations through. There should be no doubt about it.
Question: I understand your answer. But on the other hand, it is hard to imagine that all the media would spread one and the same version with one voice. You have cited the example of Fox News. But there were other channels which did bring an alternative point of view to the audience.
Vladimir Putin: They didn't. On the first day - for eight hours - all the media were silent as if nothing was happening. And I can tell you why. Because they awaited the results of that aggression and thought that the adventurers who had launched it might be successful. And then, when the Russian army went into action the whole propaganda machine was let loose: "disproportionate use of force", "strikes on civilian targets", "refugees", "Russia's imperial ambitions". The root cause was simply forgotten, the "author" of that situation who provoked it, who built up arms and attacked South Ossetia was forgotten. And you are telling me that this is an unbiased coverage of events? Forget it.
Question: The situation in the Russian stock markets has been growing worse and worse recently. There is a sense that we see foreign capital flowing out of Russia. Do you think that this will continue or that Russia will leave the group of developing counties and things will improve?
Vladimir Putin: Russia is developing at a rapid pace. In 2003 I said that doubling our gross domestic product was our medium-term goal. And we are moving towards that goal: the goal will be achieved in late 2009 or, according to some other estimates, in the first quarter of 2010.
Last year the Russian economy grew by 8.1%. The growth in the first quarter of this year is 8%. We have some problems connected with inflation. But note that it is a problem in many European countries as well.
Of course, the rate of inflation differs greatly. But it is not the rate of inflation but the fact that some European countries have crossed a certain barrier.
For a long time we saw an absolute outflow of capital from Russia in the amount of 15-20-25 billion dollars every year. Last year we registered a net inflow of foreign capital in the amount of $81 billion. Not an outflow, but an inflow. This year too we see an inflow of foreign capital. It is not as massive as last year, but frankly, we don't need as much capital as last year because it creates additional problems with inflation and increases the money supply in the economy. The trend over the first six months has been erratic: outflow, followed by inflow followed by outflow.
We observed some outflow of foreign capital from our economy even before the events in the Caucasus. This is not connected with the problems of the Russian economy but with the problems of the Western economy and insufficient liquidity on the Western financial markets. The money that came into our economy from the West has been taken off. This is true not only of the Russian market, but of many other developing markets where the same processes have been taking place.
We have had no liquidity crisis and no mortgage loan crisis of a kind that some European and American markets experience. We did not have it, we have avoided it. You have it. Not France, perhaps, but some European countries and the US. The crisis continues. We do not have it and I hope won't have it.
What gives me confidence is the performance of the Russian economy and common sense in pursuing economic policy.
We have a double surplus, the budget surplus and the foreign trade surplus. Our gold and currency reserves are constantly growing and have reached 500-odd billion dollars, Russia is third on that count after China and Japan.
Despite our modest record in addressing social problems we still see rising incomes. Real incomes grew by over 7% in the first six months and real wages by almost 13% (12.7%-12.8%).
In spite of some fluctuations of the so-called speculative capital, overall investments in basic assets in the first half of the year increased by 14.5-14.6%. That is a good record. In that sense the Russian economy is a "haven" for foreign capital and we will do everything to support that process.
I don't remember if I told you that in the first six months foreign investments amounted to $46.5 billion.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, the relations between our countries have traditionally been good. In a few days' time a meeting of the inter-governmental commission in which you and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will take part is going to be held in Sochi.
What will be the future pace of our relations and how will you go about improving and speeding up the growth of our cooperation, notably in the economic field?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, France is undoubtedly a privileged partner of Russia. That is why we have made some strategic decisions to allow French companies into the Russian energy sector, into the extraction of hydrocarbons.
Our relations in space programmes and even in the military-technical sphere are making good headway.
I would very much like to see broader interaction in high technology.
We have Gaz de France and Total working at our Shtokman field. You know that the decision was taken some time ago. I believe it sends a very good signal to the European consumers of our energy. That is very important.
But work in high technology is at least as important. I hope we will have much common ground there.
We have a lot of untapped reserves. France, unfortunately, is still behind our other European partners in terms of trade and economic cooperation with Russia.
These problems can be solved. In fact, there are no problems. We should just look for additional opportunities, and we have them.
We look forward to meeting Mr Fillon and his colleagues in Russia, and we are sure that it will be a constructive and highly fruitful dialogue.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, on a more personal note, with your permission: how are the relations between the new head of the Government and the new Russian head of state shaping up?
Vladimir Putin: Our relations with President Medvedev shaped up long ago. We have been working with him for 17 years. He is a very decent man and he has a good professional background.
I am saying it with full responsibility because for a long time he was the head of the Presidential Executive Office when I was the President of Russia. He was immersed in dealing with many problems, the preparation of many issues of both domestic and foreign policy.
The Prime Minister has to do a large amount of work. These are issues of the economy and the social sphere, public health and education. And also the long-term economic development plans through the year 2020. Mr Medvedev and I knew all along that one of the lines of attack on him would be to suggest that he is not an independent figure. We both knew it very well and spoke about it a year ago. We were right.
But I assure you that both President Medvedev and I were morally prepared for it in advance. One could easily have predicted it a year ago, six months ago.
All the speculations on the theme that we hear are groundless. The Prime Minister has his own sphere of competence, which is fairly large. The President has his competence under the Constitution. The President is the key figure in the Russian political system. President Medvedev is coping with his job.
This does not prevent him from taking counsel with the country's Parliament and with the members of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. But the President of the Russian Federation has the final say on key issues in the development of the country and on international affairs.
Voice: Thank you, Mr Prime Minister.