Direct Line with Vladimir Putin

DIRECT LINE PROGRAMME HOST KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Good afternoon,

We are live with President Vladimir Putin.

(Applause.)

DIRECT LINE PROGRAMME HOST MARIA SITTEL: Mr President, today we have invited to our studio people who are well-known throughout Russia, and some of them are your authorised representatives. Others may not be so familiar to everyone, but they are also true heroes of the day, the people who were portrayed in our television broadcasts. They are neither ministers nor artists, but rather engineers, doctors and paramedics – all real heroes of the day who live in Russia.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: As in previous years our Direct Line will broadcast from both cities and villages. This year we will speak to the settlement of Novoshakhtinsky in Primorye Territory, the legendary Prokhorovka in Belgorod Region, as well as Lipetsk, Sochi, Novosibirsk and St Petersburg.

While preparing for today’s programme we invited certain people to the mobile satellite stations that have been set up. In particular, people who make up their own kind of target groups in order to discuss the most urgent, pressing issues in our lives today. Issues ranging from rising prices, corruption, problems with housing and utilities, to the situation in education, medicine and science.

MARIA SITTEL: And it is our viewers themselves who are going to determine the other topics. So call, send your questions via text message, or post them on our website, and I think we shall start now.

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let me also greet all those who have gathered here in the studio and all Russian citizens who have shown such a keen interest in our meeting today.

This format is well-known. Of course, in some ways it’s a bit formal, but it remains very useful. That’s absolutely true and very obvious. Such direct contacts with people provide a very faithful reflection of what worries and interests our society today. Therefore a direct exchange of views such as this one, direct information, and receiving feedback from the regions are all both extremely important and extremely useful.

MARIA SITTEL: And so Mr Putin, a year ago you took office once again as President of the Russian Federation. And at that time you signed a number of executive orders commonly called the “May executive orders” that contained objectives that Russia must achieve over the next five years.

To what extent are you satisfied with the rate at which these orders are being implemented? If you can, tell us what percentage of the tasks you set have been realised by your subordinates during the first year of your presidency?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I cannot answer with a percentage because this is quite a complex thing. But I can say at once that the tasks that I set immediately after I assumed office as President were extremely difficult to execute. I did this deliberately. I can confess that I deliberately set the bar too high, knowing that the results expected of the executive authorities, not only the federal ones but also the regional ones, were unrealisable. Because if we do not work intensively, results will be much more modest.

What has been done, what has not been done, and am I satisfied? Overall I am and I believe that work is proceeding satisfactorily. There are glitches and I’ll talk about them too. Certainly during our meeting today there will be a lot of questions about existing problems, and that means that glitches exist. But what has been done? First of all I would like to draw your attention to increasing incomes. Salaries are rising in Russia, and we were recently in Sochi with members of the Government and experts too. Many experts rightly warn that salaries are increasing faster than labour productivity, and this warning is also supported by economic theory. In economic terms this is not the best indicator, but from a social justice perspective naturally we are moving in the right direction. Wages and incomes have increased not only because we’ve increased payouts to servicemen and military veterans, but because of general economic growth. That’s the first thing.

We’ve indexed our pensions twice, in February and in April. And the old age pension crossed the threshold of 10,000 rubles [$320] for the first time. As agreed, immediately after May 2012 we made a very important decision in terms of supporting demographic trends. Namely, along with maternity capital, we introduced another payment following the birth of a third child in demographically challenged regions. And these payments are being made; they cover a child’s minimum subsistence level.  Payments differ depending on the region, but on average, the national average is – and I want to emphasise this – about 7,000 rubles [$220]. For families with children this amounts to real support.

In general, the demographic situation is improving. We have record birth rates. Mortality indicators have somewhat deteriorated and I want to point out that this must be addressed. But in general the demographic situation is advancing in a positive direction.

We have increased scholarships, as promised, and made a number of other positive steps in the social sphere.

One of the most important areas is improving the business environment. Here, too, there is a positive trend, and it has been noted, among others, by international organisations. Ratings show, though I do not hold them completely reliable, that on the whole the business community has noticed some progress in improving the business environment. This includes such aspects as business registration and getting connected to infrastructure, although many problems remain in terms of connectivity, say, to the electric grid. That is what the general picture looks like.

The large-scale programme of re-equipping the army and navy with modern weapons is also moving forward.

I want to reiterate: I won’t go into detailed percentages here, but the overall situation is satisfactory.

MARIA SITTEL: Mr President, if you don’t mind, let us go through it point by point. You talked about salaries at the beginning. We have a paramedic here. Let’s hear a question from a healthcare community representative.

DIRECT LINE HOST VALERIYA KORABLEVA: I would like to tell you briefly about Natalya. Natalya Osipova, who is sitting next to me, is a paramedic from Kuzbass and a real hero. She walked three kilometres through a storm to reach a village because the ambulance car got stuck on the road, and in the end she saved from death a whole family.

PARAMEDIC NATALYA OSIPOVA: You have said that wages are going up, but as a healthcare professional I have not seen any pay rises, especially for ambulance workers. I don’t think our wages have gone up at all.

So I have a question. As a paramedic, I work in extreme conditions and am responsible for the life of each patient, yet we get a monthly payment from the federal budget of 3,500 rubles [$110], while a nurse who assists a doctor and is not responsible for patients’ lives gets 5,000 rubles. Why do paramedics earn less than nurses? That is my question.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: In general, wages are going up – that is an obvious fact.

As for healthcare professionals, their national average salary is slightly higher than, say, teachers’ salaries.

You have identified an issue that really seems to exist. Let me try to think it through aloud so that you and I can work out what has caused it.

This is what I think it is: as you may recall, some time ago I ordered the following additional payments to be made from the federal budget: 10,000 plus 5,000 rubles for general practitioners, plus 5,000 rubles for doctors, and 3,000 plus 6,000 for emergency doctors – 3,000 for paramedics and 6,000 for A&E doctors.

On January 1, the Government transferred this responsibility together with the money to the regional level. The amount of funding involved is about 40 billion rubles. All of the money has been transferred to the mandatory health insurance system, through which it reached the regions of the Russian Federation. I think that the problem here is not financial but has to do with poor management. I often get blamed for the fact that I have always had to micromanage many aspects of government activity. I think that in this case there has been a failure in the control system. There has even been an increase in the mandatory health insurance – 61% because this funding came from the federal budget and was transferred to the insurance system and then on to the regions. Again, in absolute terms, the funding amounted to 40 billion rubles. The regions are responsible for paying this money to healthcare professionals, because these were targeted allocations, transferred for this exact purpose.

We must find out what happened there and why the money was not paid. In my view, at a guess, it is the fault of the Government and the relevant ministry. In this case, the Healthcare Ministry, unfortunately, should have monitored whether the money was spent by the regions on the purposes for which it was transferred and whether it reached the final recipients, that is, professionals like you. Obviously, this was not done. This is the first point.

Second, the regions have received the funding but they have a lot of tasks and problems (I have talked about this to my colleagues in the Government), and instead of paying the money to healthcare workers they may have spent it on other purposes. It is also necessary to check where the money went, and if it is gone, it must be returned and paid to you and all your colleagues. We will look into this separately. Let me assure you that healthcare professionals will receive all the money they are entitled to.

MARIA SITTEL: Thank you, Mr President. This issue deserves to be looked into separately because we have a huge number of questions about salaries in the healthcare sector. Personally I don’t understand how the Government and regional authorities have simply overlooked this issue: as usual, the funding has been transferred but has not reached the recipients.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The funding is not always transferred but in this case I know for a fact that it has been: I have even told you the exact amounts.

MARIA SITTEL: So it is sitting somewhere in savings accounts.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The money was transferred for this specific purpose but it has not been paid to the workers in a significant number of regions. I assume that some regions have paid the people.

MARIA SITTEL: The state runs the risk of not fulfilling its social obligations – that is what this is called.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Maybe just to speed up the
process, it would be wise to punish the heads of the regions where people have to live and feed a family on 5,000 rubles a month?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, absolutely. We have to look into this, but especially if the money is sitting in bank accounts while the regional authorities are waiting to see what will happen – that is one type of situation, but if they went so far as to spend the money on other purposes, that is an administrative offence.

MARIA SITTEL: You already mentioned the unprecedented meeting on economic issues that you held in Sochi. What was it? It was like a “meeting of despair” because of the economic crisis and also a “meeting of hope” because participants there were still searching for some sign of growth, of hope, of a resolution and a way out. In your opinion, what was it? And how far does your personal assessment of Russia’s economic situation coincide with those of your colleagues in the Government?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: There was neither despair nor hope. It was simply a working meeting of the heads of relevant ministries, agencies, Central Bank chairperson, and expert community representatives. We were not limited to high-level bureaucrats.

We talked about current problems in the global economy, and about how they affect our domestic economy. But of course warning signs of a slowdown in economic growth in Russia were the impetus behind it. There is nothing unusual nor unexpected here. Experts and we ourselves – and we already became experts long ago – all knew that the downturn we are observing in the global economy, especially in the Eurozone, has quite a serious impact on us, because Europe is our main trading partner.

More than 50 percent of our trade is with Europe. But if there is a severe recession there, a slump, every year over several years then this can’t but affect us. In the end, it affected us directly. So we met to assess the situation once again, to listen to each other, to listen to different opinions, to understand our own share of responsibility in this recession. I say “our” with a generalised meaning referring to authorities at all levels: the Cabinet, the regions, and presidential office. So we met to see whether our own policy has had some negative effect on this downturn or not.

I must say at once that there is no secret here: some members of the Government believe that we have significantly contributed to it. Others don’t believe this, and think that the downturn is solely a result of negative developments in the global economy. They believe that we just should watch carefully what is happening there and have instruments available to respond if the crisis spreads. This dispute is not between the Presidential Executive Office and the Government, but rather within the entire community involved in governing our country.

Expert opinions are also at odds. We have no dividing line between the Government and the President, the Executive Office and the Government. The dividing line concerns fundamental issues, particularly the issue of how to relate to current events.

But I’ll tell you (and here one does not need to be an expert) what is the essence of the problem, of the dispute, or rather the debate. Several colleagues believe that certain factors have arisen.

First, the continuing global economic crisis, including in the Eurozone, affects us too.

The second factor is man-made: too tight monetary policy within the Russian Federation itself. It is largely justified, because our policy has been focused on inflation targeting, suppressing inflation, that is fighting increases in prices. This is done for the benefit of our people and our economy.

But some say that this has excessively suppressed the money supply, that the Central Bank has allowed the currency exchange rate to fluctuate freely and stopped buying foreign currencies in the domestic market, and therefore the money supply has decreased. They believe that we have adhered to the so-called budget rule and thus begun to prevent petrodollars from being injected into the market. This has ultimately resulted in further decline in money supply.

Then, despite the lowering inflation, our banks continue to lend at high rates – 14 to 15 percent – to individuals and legal entities, all economic actors. Yet inflation has fallen: it is now just over seven percent and is expected to reach 5.9 or 6 percent by the end of the year. So some colleagues say no, we are to make some adjustments to our policies. Strictly speaking, this is the essence of the dispute.

It is probably true that adjustments are necessary but I want to emphasise and draw your attention to the following: the fundamentals of our economic policy will remain unchanged. We will continue to focus primarily on macroeconomic indicators and encourage industries to meet social needs of the people.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, in essence are you satisfied with the measures the Government is taking to counteract a possible crisis?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: But there have not yet been any special measures.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: The thing is that we have a lot of questions about the Government; we are receiving them now, as we have over the past days ever since the Direct Line’s call centre began operating. Let me read out one of the questions we received via Internet: “Mr President, don’t you think that in its current composition the Cabinet is not able to fully perform its duties? Therefore, is it not time to replace some of the ministers?” That is Pavel Zakharchenko from Belgorod.

Of course Education Minister Dmitry Livanov is being roundly criticised, and the State Duma has demanded that he be released from his position. Nevertheless, we still want to hear the answer from your lips.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: What is this person’s name?

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Pavel Zakharchenko, from Belgorod.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Good for you Pavel Zakharchenko.

It is necessary that authorities at every level – in presidential Executive Office and the Government – feel and understand that ordinary citizens are closely monitoring the results of our work and evaluating them. We must always be guided by citizens’ opinions.

As for some members of the Cabinet or the Government as a whole, I’ve often heard various calls to dismiss one minister or another, or for the entire Government to resign.

Dear friends and colleagues, I share your view that the expectations of all levels of authorities must be high. However, I would draw your attention to the fact that the Government has not yet been working for a year, no year has yet passed. Even since the presidential inauguration, Maria Sittel said that a year has passed, but it has not been a full year yet. The inauguration took place on May 7 and the Government was formed after that. People have not yet worked for a year. Of course no small amount of grievances have accumulated during that time, but the Cabinet should be allowed enough time to produce results or come to understand that some of its members are unable to ensure such results. That is not something that can be seen in a year. The responsibilities and work of the Government are immense.

Again, there may be many complaints [about the Government performance] but I don’t think there should be hasty reshuffling since it will do more harm than good.

MARIA SITTEL: I am sure we will talk some more about resignations today because there are a lot of questions from the audience.

Returning to the economic crisis, Mr President, we have invited Alexei Kudrin into our studio, let’s give him the opportunity to state his expert opinion.

DIRECT LINE PROGRAMME HOST MARIA MORGUN: Let me remind you that Alexei Kudrin was in charge of Russia’s financial sector for 11 years. He was Finance Minister from 2000.

Mr Kudrin, please.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: There is something else I would like to point out. Yes, he was in charge of the financial sector but he was also twice recognised to be the world’s best finance minister by the international expert community.

ALEXEI KUDRIN: Thank you, Mr President. And thank you for inviting me here.

I would like to continue what you said regarding the factors that in the past year have led to a slowdown in economic growth, which was just 1.1% in the first quarter of 2013. In the general balance of external factors, which have a serious impact on our economy, and internal factors, I would say that this year it was predominately the domestic factors that have impacted the slowdown. The external factors manifest themselves in the high oil prices, which have remained, and as a result we have such slow growth rates despite the high oil prices. We have not seen such high average oil prices even in the period before the economic crisis.

Therefore, what do I think should be at the focus of the Government’s efforts? It should try to free our economy from oil dependence, from dependence on export of natural resources and its impact on all aspects of our lives. I do not believe there has been such a turnaround in our economy. Some measures are taken, but these factors remain much present in our economy.

Second, the Government should be more transparent and it should give clear guidance to business. Today we don’t even know how much the insurance premiums for businesses are going to be. As you know, small businesses have suffered from high insurance premiums last year. Today we must find a solution to improve the situation.

Third, there had been promises that regions will receive more support. I support this decision. Many people believe that the former Cabinet contributed to the centralisation of spending. I could agree with that. We greatly increased spending at the federal level, including on the military, the pension system deficit. We need other measures. Some of the spending and revenues should be transferred to the regions to give them greater freedom, and we will see growth generated in the regions.

I cannot talk about all the factors now, but one that I see as very important is the need to understand the active part of our society, which creates jobs and invests in the economy, to understand the future of our public relations and our political system. We live in a mature country that is able to come to a consensus on key issues, and today this new factor of trust continues to cause concern in society, among the people who are willing to work, invest and create new jobs.

There is one more issue that I would like to take up with you, Mr President. Yes, experts have declared that the wages are growing faster than labour productivity in our country. Of course, we are all pleased about the growing wages. Many people here will probably say that they should grow. But we must understand that such growth has some absolutely objective limitations. As a result, we will invest less and subsequently economic growth will slow down even more. Therefore, the model should be as follows: first a higher rate of labour productivity growth, followed by a high rate of growth of wages. In that sequence.

The meeting you held recently clarified some issues, but it should have been done a year ago.

Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Kudrin and I have known each other for a long time and we argue a lot, but I have always had great respect for his opinions because he was the Finance Minister in two Cabinets. I have already said that he has been recognised the best finance minister in the world by the international expert community twice. It’s true. I am sure that he was indeed the best Finance Minister, but not the best Social Protection Minister.

We often debate different issues. I certainly agree with the view that labour productivity should grow at a faster rate than wages. This positive trend has been achieved in some industries, such as railway transport. I don’t know the latest figures, but that was the case last year.

Naturally, it is vitally important to shift our economy to innovative development. That is not easy to do even with high energy prices, when in general it is easier to achieve a positive result. It is difficult to attract the financial flows to that sector because what is required is more favourable conditions for the development of processing industries. How can this be done? We must introduce benefits and in effect rebuild the tax system. The Finance Ministry, including under Mr Kudrin, has always exercised extreme caution and thoroughness in this sphere because it can lead to the loss of federal revenues, and our national defence, social obligations, pensions, and so on are all dependent on the budget. This is the first point.

Second, the decentralisation of finances and transferring the sources of these revenues to the regions. The Finance Ministry has always been very conservative in this respect but in general that is the right trend. That is the road we must follow. I hope that Mr Kudrin’s successors will gradually move in this direction, with his professional support. I absolutely agree with this.

As for the fact that we have exhausted the extensive growth opportunities created by high energy prices – that is also true. Mr Kudrin hasn’t mentioned this just now but he often tells me about it when we meet privately. I agree with that too. There is just one thing I want to draw your attention to. It is not just the high oil prices. Favourable or unfavourable external conditions also depend on the state of our partners’ economies. For example, oil prices can be high, but metals have fallen because there is reduced demand for metals on the global market. That is a very important factor that triggers a chain reaction. The demand for coal falls as well as a result, and so on. Goods are transported less, transportation companies begin to suffer – there is a whole chain. Therefore, external economic factors may remain favourable, but we cannot say they are optimal. But in general, I keep in touch with Mr Kudrin and his colleagues, his teams. He has been teaching, and very successfully as far as I know. I hope that you will continue to give your expert support to the Ministry to which you gave many years of your life. I know that you feel deeply for it and are in contact with the colleagues at the Ministry.

As for the public trust, that is also true because our overall efficiency and competitiveness depend on how far society trusts the authorities.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, you have been talking about Mr Kudrin’s excellent professional qualities. When will you bring him back into the government?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: He does not want to come back.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Does that mean you have made him an offer?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: That’s right.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: And he refused?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, he did.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Well, I expect that the guests in our studio are ready to follow Alexei Kudrin and join in our discussion.

Valeryia, please.

VALERIYA KORABLEVA: When we were getting ready for air…

VLADIMIR PUTIN: He’s a slacker, he just does not want to do any work. He got away as soon as the going got tough.

VALERIYA KORABLEVA: That is a real problem for many people.

ALEXEI KUDRIN: May I, Mr President?

You know, I served as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy for a long time, but the system of half-measures and half-reforms will not work and Russia will not be freed from its oil dependence in this way.

I’m not saying that my opinion is the most important or correct one, but this programme must be implemented fully. Today we do not have a programme of freeing our economy from its dependence on oil, a programme where every measure would have its proper place: money, institutional and structural reforms, and the role of the regions. That’s the problem, Mr President. I am not ready to be in charge of other, inertial processes and micromanage the economy. I want to do real work.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I don’t know whether this discussion has any interest for the public but it is very important. It is not just bickering between me and Mr Kudrin, whom I highly value.

It was with good reason that I said he was recognised as the best Finance Minister, but not the best Minister of Social Protection. It’s an important point. Is he right in saying that it is harmful for the wages to grow faster than labour productivity? He is right. But how could we have slowed the growth of wages when you know how expensive everything is? You see, military pensions at some point were at a lower level than civilian pensions. We had to raise them, as well as the wages for servicemen. I know Mr Kudrin’s position, it is very well though through.

Some time ago, Mr Kudrin and other officials, who are now sitting on huge money in banks, were the initiators of introducing cash payments instead of benefits. We debated it for a long time, and I told him, “Mr Kudrin, you will not be able to do it right, it won’t work.” He said, “Yes, we will.” We all know what happened in the end. We had to pour money to cover up the problems at a great social and political cost.

Frankly, I thought that was how it would end up from the start. But it is true that if we had done nothing, public transport would have probably come to a standstill because the number of people who had subsidised fares was much greater than the number of passengers who bought tickets at full price. As a result, the public transport system started to fall apart.

Why am I telling you this? Because tough economic measures without regard for the consequences in the social sphere are not always justified, especially in our country where incomes are still very modest.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Thank you Mr President.

I would still like to give the floor to Valeriya Korableva. Please go ahead.

VALERIYA KORABLEVA: While we were preparing for our programme and talking with guests, it became clear that probably one of the most talked about topics today is corruption. Tens of thousands of people phoning our call centre were interested in precisely this issue. In our studio we have the well-known military expert and retired Colonel Viktor Baranets.

MILITARY COLUMNIST FROM KOMSOMOLSKAYA PRAVDA VIKTOR BARANETS: Authorised representative of the President of Russia.

Mr President, I know you sometimes listen to my opinion too, so I’ll speak as long as Mr Kudrin did.

Mr President, over the past six months, Russia and its army have been observing in astonishment as the investigation of a number of criminal cases involving Oboronservis and, looming over it, the former Defence Minister [Anatoly] Serdyukov, unfolds. Mr President, while covering this investigation I was faced with a paradoxical problem: on the one hand, dozens and hundreds of high-level professionals have found facts, evidence, proof and documents that conclusively prove the guilt of these rascals warming the seats at the Defence Ministry. On the other hand, we hear that there is no factual basis on which to bring them to justice, and some of those involved still have the status of witness. That is one side of the issue.

As an expert, a journalist, and a person you trust, another aspect of the question is not clear to me at all. Why do we have double standards in the administration of justice? Many of defendants in criminal cases are already lying in their bunks in Butyrskaya [Prison], some have already served the terms, and others hold some kind of VIP status – they stay at home, and what’s more they manage to mock us by writing poems. Although in general, the best poems are written In the Depths of Siberian Mines [poem by Alexander Pushkin] and in the [prisons in the] forests of Mordovia. (Applause.)

Mr President, I have two small questions for you. The exacting people of Russia have asked me to ask them. People say that some strong, powerful, secret hand is manipulating the investigation into this enormous criminal case and I would simply like to ask you: do you know whose hand it is?

And the second question: Mr President, as the guarantor of our Constitution, do you see your role as ensuring that the investigation of this cluster of criminal cases, involving Oboronservis, [Yevgenia] Vasilyeva and [Anatoly] Serdyukov, is carried out in a normal, honest, transparent and principled fashion, and does not turn into some kind of parody that the nation laughs at?

And in conclusion to my remarks, let me express my confidence that when answering, and in contrast to Serdyukov, you will not hide behind Article 51 of our Constitution [the right to refrain from incriminating oneself or close relatives].

Thank you. (Applause.)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You shouldn’t be a journalist; you should be working in court as a defence lawyer.

VIKTOR BARANETS: I am helping, Mr President.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Baranets, I very much value your support as my trusted subject, and I know you as someone who is anxious about our country and its army.

You talked about how the facts demonstrate the guilt of the parties you listed. In fact, only a court can determine whether these facts prove a person’s guilt or not. With all due respect, neither a newspaper, nor individual media representatives, nor individual citizens can declare a person guilty before trial. In accordance with our Constitution, that you just recalled, this can only be done by a court.

About whose hand it is: I do not know about hands, arms, legs or other body parts involved. But I would draw your attention to the fact that it was not long after I returned to the post of Commander-in-Chief that these criminal cases were instigated. I think that it is abundantly clear that no one tried to stop them being initiated, to say the least, and that law enforcement agencies were instructed to look into the problem. This investigation is proceeding objectively and will continue until its end. And a fair ruling will be reached about who is guilty and who is innocent, if guilt is indeed at stake. And the corresponding punishment provided for by law will be imposed.

Now, about the fairness of having someone writing poetry while someone else serves a prison term in Siberia. Recently, particularly in recent years, we have talked a lot about the humanisation of our criminal legislation. This is not always justified. If people have committed serious crimes, they must receive their due. In economic crimes often pre-trial detention is considered superfluous, because there is no need to determine in advance that people should be taken into custody and charged, people who are not interfering with the investigation.

“Someone is in prison, and Vasilyeva is walking around her posh apartment” and so on. You know, just because some are in prison, especially if they were imprisoned wrongfully, does not mean that Ms Vasilyeva and others like her should be imprisoned too. We mustn’t look at whether or not she is in prison, but whether other people have been rightly convicted. Whether there have been any abuses of power by the authorities and law enforcement bodies. That’s what you should pay attention to.

If the investigation finds that wherever she is, she is in the right place and not interfering with the investigation, well so be it. At the end of the day it’s the investigator’s decision. If it does not disturb him she can be at home in her apartment, and the investigator calls her in for questioning, questions her and her former colleagues and so on, then so be it. But where you’re completely right, and I have absolutely no doubt about this, is that we will see the case through to its proper end. This does not mean that we have political reasons for doing so, want to look good in front of outraged citizens, and will plant them in jail at any cost. We do not need to go back to the dark period of 1937. If they are guilty they will be punished. And if some parties are innocent then this will need to be communicated clearly and understandably. We will have to explain this to people and show it. The fact that there are currently many such cases that resonate within society, as they say, is, I think, no bad thing. People are to know what’s going on. Then perhaps officials at different levels of government will also realise that in the end no one can breach the law with impunity.

As for the judicial system itself, there are many grievances in its regard, but I would draw your attention to the following. Out of all cases only 15 percent of participants appealed to a higher instance for judicial review. All the others were satisfied with the quality of the courts’ performasnce and the results of court proceedings. The courts are sharply criticised but the numbers speak for themselves: only 15 percent complain. In general this is a standard figure compared with other countries. We will see this case through to its conclusion. Finally, the remark that the “army is observing in astonishment…” is, I think, an exaggeration. Our army is engaged in combat training and developing new weapons and equipment.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, there are a lot of questions about the Oboronservis case. I flipped through and found some text messages we received. For example, one asks: “Why did the Commander-in-Chief not know what the Defence Minister was doing?” And another asks if this is not turning into another short term campaign issue.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I have already said that I became Commander-in-Chief on May 7, 2012. Look at when this case was opened. As soon as I started to get acquainted with things, as soon as I was shown certain figures, including the results of audits by the Accounts Chamber, it became clear that it was not possible to resolve this with that agency alone. The Chamber alone was not enough and we needed to involve the law enforcement agencies. Then the case materials were immediately submitted to the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: If I understand you correctly, this case was not opened during the previous period?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Previously there were no audit results from the Accounts Chamber. As those figures appeared I became President and Commander-in-Chief. I was briefed on the issue and I immediately ordered that the affair be transferred to the Investigative Committee.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: And about campaigning?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You know, I think that in general corruption, and in our country in particular, exists everywhere – everywhere, and I can assure you of this. The question is its degree. I will not deny that in Russia everyday corruption is exorbitant and actually represents a threat to society as a whole. Therefore we will fight it no less insistently than inflation, and kill it off as much as possible.

MARIA SITTEL: The fight is already underway. At your initiative, officials in different levels of government are affected by, so to speak, barriers, obstacles and new requirements; foreign bank accounts are banned, officials must declare their income and expenditures. Many people see this as a good, fine, positive start, and many, including for example in the Government, say that the fight against corruption is overzealous. What is it Mr President, excessive or rather insufficient efforts?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We were just talking with Mr Baranets. He believes that our efforts are insufficient, that we should take all of them into custody and prohibit everything. I believe that overzealousness is not present here.

As to whether our efforts are insufficient, let’s look at the results of the fight against corruption that is currently underway. By the way, over the course of 2012 criminal proceedings were opened against more than 800 people who have a special legal status. Namely representatives of law enforcement agencies, deputies from different levels of government, the highest-ranking officials: more than 800 people in total. These are not jut few cases that have caused such a large public outcry, there are many throughout Russia. As I have said before, these efforts will continue.

Are we being excessive? You heard my position on, for example, the Oboronservis case: only a court can determine if a person is guilty or not. For that reason I hope that there will not be any overzealous conclusions. Obviously there are abuses within the law enforcement system itself. This always has been the case and unfortunately still is. And what Mr Baranets said about how some people behind bars were wrongfully accused must also be dealt with case-by-case.

Recently, about a month or a month and a half ago, I was at a meeting of the Prosecutor General’s Office Board and spoke with my colleagues in a lot of detail. My position is well-known: there should be no abuses in the law enforcement system and when they do occur we must identify, detect and respond to them.

MARIA SITTEL: There are all sorts of tricks. We know, for example, that about thirty State Duma deputies divorced (fictitiously) in order to not have to declare marital property.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Maria, with regards to the question you asked, about our move in favour of declaring incomes and expenditures, and ban on holding foreign accounts, some of our liberal economists believe that the ban is bad and amounts to a restriction for some Russian citizens.

I want to emphasise that we allow all citizens of the Russian Federation to place their money where they see fit, including in foreign financial institutions. At the time I not only agreed with this, I supported it. Why? Because all too often our citizens have been faced with problems when they were simply cheated in what I would call a hard and cruel fashion. In the early 1990s they were cheated when their savings were burned up [by inflation], then in 1998 they lost everything again. We have to give people the freedom of choice. But there is a special category of people who consciously choose public service for themselves, and we must let them decide for themselves what is more important: saving money abroad or serving the citizens of the Russian Federation in the high-ranking positions they have achieved through their service.

And there’s another thing that, in my opinion, is extremely important. If a person places a lot of money abroad, he or she is always dependent on the state where the money is held. We are to set people free from this dependence. Every person must choose for himself or herself: if they want to work for the government let the money return here, no one will take it. This is especially true for people who work in economic spheres, in government and for members of both houses of parliament; in the end the state’s economic well-being depends on them. If they do not trust their own economic system, what they are doing here? Let them drag their money back here, and there will be more chances that we will work persistently at strengthening our financial and economic system.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, the big story of recent weeks is the death of Boris Berezovsky in London. We have a lot of questions on this topic. Let us first of all ask you to clarify the story with the letter. Does it exist? Did Berezovsky write a letter to you?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You know, I don’t really want to talk about but it seems rude to dodge the subject.

I received the first letter from him early this year, sometime in February, I think, and the second letter arrived recently, after his death. The text was the same. So it was not one but two letters.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Could you tell us some details about them? First, were they handwritten?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The first letter was completely handwritten, and the second had a handwritten header, the main body was typed, and then a handwritten part at the end. One of his former business partners, a Russian citizen, brought me the first letter, and the second was delivered recently also by a business partner, but one who was a foreign national.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Could you reveal some details of the letter’s content?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Actually, some details have already appeared in the media. Well, he wrote that he had made a lot of mistakes and caused great damage, and asked for forgiveness and the opportunity to return to his homeland.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Why didn’t you make this letter public? As you know, some allegations made in the West…

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You see, these letters were quite personal, although I have never had a close relationship with him. We knew each other, of course, but there wasn’t a close relationship. Still, he turned to me with a request. Some of my colleagues wanted me make the letter public immediately. I am very grateful to the Lord for keeping me from doing that.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: I want to clarify all the same, this is an important point: did you reply to the first letter, which you received in February?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, I didn’t. You see, he asked me to let him return to Russia. Of course, the Head of State has the right to grant a pardon or do some other things, but it would have required a legal analysis (apart from the moral aspect of the case). Perhaps, it would have been necessary to consult the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office. I needed to understand the legal aspect of the case.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Would you have granted permission to bury Berezovsky to Russia if his family had requested this?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Look, let’s… Of course. Is there a need for me to grant special permission? This is a family matter.

MARIA SITTEL: Just one more question. How plausible do you find the version that foreign special services were involved in his death?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I wouldn’t put it past them. I don’t know. Anything is possible, but we have no such information.

MARIA SITTEL: Thank you.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, if we go back to special services, and, indeed, rumours about them circulated in connection with Berezovsky’s death, there have been two huge tragedies in the last few days: the secret services are now investigating the terrorist attack in Boston, and here in Russia a heinous crime is being investigated in Belgorod. We have had a huge number of questions about Belgorod too. The most frequently asked question on this sad subject is, I quote from a message from Alla Ivanina, who asks you, “Why couldn’t the death penalty be brought back for such repeat offenders? After all, there is no assurance that he will not repeat the nightmare again after he serves out his sentence and comes out of prison. It seems there is no real punishment in our country, and such psychos and murderers are not afraid of anything.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The death penalty issue has long been debated in society. You know, sometimes when you hear about such cases, it seems logical to reach for a pen and sign some documents aimed at the return of the death penalty, or to ask State Duma deputies to do it. But you have to talk with criminology experts. They believe that the toughening of punishment in itself does not lead to a decrease in crime.

I have cited an example once – I think it was on Direct Line some years back. In the Roman Empire, the punishment for pickpocketing was death, and the pickpockets were at their most active during these executions because they gathered the biggest crowds. This is a textbook example.

I understand people’s outrage and their desire to see criminals punished. The question is what is the most effective measure. Why do you say that such criminals as this will go free eventually? One type of punishment available to us is life imprisonment. I assure you, prisons are no resorts.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: But there’s an important proviso: that is true if we are taking about life without parole, which criminals can get after they serve 25 years of their sentence.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: That is practically always the case, but it is something to think about and discuss. To be honest, I have thought about it.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: To continue with the American story, I will quote another message that I think is important. It was sent by our compatriot who now lives in the United States, his name is Mikhail Smurygin. “In the wake of the terrorist attack in Boston, many Americans turned against Russia, as the terrorists were from the Caucasus. The Internet is full of anti-Russian comments. Our relationship with the United States is quite strained already and these accusations do not help. How are you going to address this?” This is a question from Mikhail Smurygin.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think that ordinary Americans have absolutely nothing to do with it, they do not understand what is happening. I want to appeal to Russian and American citizens, and to all the people who follow these international events, and to say: Russia is itself a victim of international terrorism, one of the earliest victims.

I have always felt outraged when our Western partners, as well as your colleagues from the Western media, referred to our terrorists who committed brutal, bloody, appalling crimes on the territory of our country, as “insurgents”. They were hardly ever referred to as terrorists. They provided assistance to them, information support, financial and political support – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, but it always accompanied their activities on the territory of the Russian Federation. While we always said that they shouldn’t make empty declarations that terrorism is a common threat, but make real efforts and cooperate with each other more closely. But now these two criminals have provided the best possible proof that we were right.

One can endlessly speculate on the tragedy of the Chechen people during their deportation from Chechnya by the Stalin’s regime. But were Chechens the only victims of repression? The first and the biggest victim was the Russian nation, which suffered the most as a result of repression. This is our common history. You can speculate all you want but does it have to do with the United States? What did they do to deserve this? It’s not about nationality or religion, as we have told them a thousand times – what is at issue here is extremism.

They moved to the United States and they were granted the American citizenship. The younger brother was an American citizen. Some people there are saying now (not the US Administration but they are politicians) that the surviving terrorist suspect should be declared a prisoner of war. They have completely lost their marbles. A prisoner of which war? Has the civil war between the North and the South started again? What complete nonsense. They are talking gibberish.

I am not saying this to accuse anyone of anything. I just want to ensure that this tragedy has prompted us to boost cooperation in addressing common threats, one of which – the most important and dangerous one – is terrorism. If we really join efforts we will not have any more such attacks and we will not bear such losses.

MARIA SITTEL: I suggest that we move on to the topic of housing and utilities. This is an issue that concerns millions of citizens regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status.

The costs of water supply, electricity, gas and rent have risen.

One of our heroes (Aleftina Rapatsevich) lives in a small town of Beregovoy (Omsk Region), but was born in Leningrad. She survived the siege and is now 85 years old.

In spite of her age, she created a management company in the housing and utilities sector. And today, she is here in our studio.

Dmitry, please pass the microphone to Ms Rapatsevich.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: Hello, Mr President.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Hello.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: I come from Omsk, I live in a small town of Beregovoy. Given that our management company was engaged in serious fraud, we appealed to the court, won the case and liquidated it. Granted, I must say that they are still managing several buildings, but I think we will finish this work.

We took into account the fact that you instructed the Prosecutor General’s Office to look into the housing and utilities issues. Together with my action group, I attended an appointment with officials on November 7, 2012, but there were no results.

Now, the question. In order to get an appointment with someone, it is absolutely necessary to go into attack mode; there is no other way. You have to storm in like it’s Berlin. (Applause.)

As for what they stole, in our house alone (I live in a two-story building), they took off with 21 million rubles they charged us for just two services – mopping floors and repairing entrance halls, which we actually do ourselves. That’s four companies taken together. That’s how these management companies rob people.

I have one strong request: to adopt the law currently scheduled for 2014 that would clearly define the management companies’ functions, already in 2013. So that they do not steal, but instead do what they actually charge for. They include many things in the tariffs they set, but do nothing. Our town is growing old, many houses have been dismantled, and there is no new construction. We have 10,500 residents in our village, both young and old, and there haven’t been any jobs since the Beregovoy timber plant was closed – it was a very profitable company, I worked there for 40 years.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Ms Rapatsevich, with whom were you unable to get an appointment?

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: The town mayor.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Shame on him. (Applause.)

MARIA SITTEL: There you go! Just ten thousand residents in Beregovoy, and no way you can get an appointment.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: Ten thousand people. And in order to get an appointment, I had to… they refused to see me (there is a woman working in his office named Loshachenko), they said, “We will not make an appointment for you, you are a very dangerous person.” And after I sent a telegram to Omsk Mayor, Mr Dvorakovsky, they called me every day – this happened on November 22 and the appointment was for December 5 – they called me every day to say, “You have an appointment, you have an appointment.” And the prosecutor’s office wrote that they had violated my constitutional rights. But they told me, “Well, you ultimately got your appointment.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Ms Rapatsevich, there was a very famous figure in world history, a German politician Otto von Bismarck. When he became involved in European politics, unifying  Germany, there was a rumour going around that he was a very dangerous person because he would say what was on his mind. Apparently, judging by this story, you are also a very dangerous person. (Applause.)

Now to the prosecutor’s office, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika is waiting to see you. I am sure he is watching this programme now. (Laughter and applause.) And he is rubbing his hands, thinking about what he can do.

This is Omsk Region, right?

MARIA SITTEL: Yes.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: Yes.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Ok.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: I went to the regional prosecutor’s office; there were two people there. I spoke to the captain.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Ok.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: But nothing happened there! No sympathy, no concern, nothing!

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I see.

They say that she has already been made a lieutenant, but let’s not be too quick. (Laughter.) Let’s not be too quick, let Mr Chaika look into this. But I think the Governor of Omsk Region will also find a common language with the mayor. I promise you that the things will move as fast as you would like them to.

As for the core of your question. This is certainly a very important issue. Why? Because we need such interested and involved people in this sector. You can tell that the old guard is in demand. In Italy, Napolitano, who is 87 years old, has been elected President again. The old guard is needed not only in our nation, but throughout the world overall.

The issue you are dealing with is extremely important and can be fixed only – well, not only, but largely – with active engagement by civil society.

At one of the meetings with my authorised representatives, a suggestion was made by some of my colleagues on organising corresponding public structures to oversee the situation in the housing and utilities sector. And what Ms Rapatsevich is doing is exceedingly important and right. After all, we know what is happening there. I also spoke about this publicly many times.

After making corresponding decisions – overall, they are aimed in the right direction with regard to these management companies, but unfortunately, these management companies are often affiliated with local municipal governments and there are not enough of them on the market. They are micro-quasi-monopolies on the market, and they include in the tariff – the payment, actually – almost everything they can, even if it has nothing to do with what it is being charged for. For example, heated buildings include unheated attics and other similar sections. They make enormous money off of this, sums that are absolutely unmanageable for the public.

Ms Rapatsevich, do not leave Moscow too quickly. In addition to speaking with Mr Chaika, you also mentioned the law going through the Duma, specifying the functions of management companies – I promise you, my colleagues in the State Duma will also be happy to meet with you and discuss all the details. The Cabinet will also give this matter its attention.

ALEFTINA RAPATSEVICH: There was an article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta saying that this law should be adopted in 2014, but that’s too late.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: All right! I will look into it carefully myself, to see what is being revised or updated in this law, and speed up this work as much as possible. My colleagues from the State Duma will certainly meet with you.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: Mr President, we are literally swamped with questions about rising housing and utilities sector bills. I asked viewers to send in copies of their housing and utilities bills before this broadcast. Here is one from St Petersburg. The people live on Belgradskaya St, five people living in a flat of 77 square metres in area, probably a three-room flat. In December 2012, their bill was 3,442 rubles, but the bill for February 2013 came to 8,090 rubles, though we are still talking about exactly the same flat here.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: And you say it was 3,000 rubles before?

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: It was 3,442 rubles. That’s Belgradskaya street in St Petersburg. Then we have this completely absurd case, a bill sent in by our viewers living in Perm, Petropavlovskaya street. The building there is part of the so-called manoeuvrable stock, that is to say, housing for people who have lost their homes in fires and so on. We are not even talking about flats here, just rooms. In any case, this woman, her last name is Morozova, her first name isn’t on the bill’s receipt, paid 1,258 rubles before for her one room, but now she got sent a bill for 6,657 rubles. Her neighbour, Vladimir, who lives two rooms down from her, got a bill for 13,551 rubles. There is supposed to be a rule keeping cost increases within a six-percent limit. The system is totally non-transparent.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is appalling! I already talked about this issue. What’s more, after receiving a bill like this, also from St Petersburg incidentally, I raised the problem with the Government and the regional authorities and said that these kinds of increases are unacceptable. Of course there are a lot of problems in the housing and utilities sector. We know that more than 60 percent of the infrastructure is in unsatisfactory condition and the sector as a whole needs modernisation and investment. But this is no excuse to resort to such barbaric means and place the whole burden on ordinary people. Local authorities did not take timely steps earlier to gradually raise costs and ended up creating a huge gap between needed revenue and the costs people were actually paying, and now they heap all the consequences of this situation overnight on people’s shoulders. This is not right and we cannot let this happen.

Furthermore, the Government issued a regulation making it possible to raise the prices during the heating season and then bring them down again when the heating season is over. But this has led to a situation where we see unprecedented jumps in costs during the heating season. I am not saying that the Government should immediately cancel this decision, but we need to regulate the situation. What do ordinary people know or care about this government regulation? They are not aware that their bills are about to go up suddenly during the heating season, have not put money aside for it, haven’t thought about it. And then they suddenly get these bills and there’s no money to pay them. Any increases in cost need to be lower and better spread over the year.

Regarding the situation in St Petersburg, I spoke about this with Governor Poltavchenko just recently and he said that they have already taken just such a decision and will get everything sorted out. Let’s hope they do get it all sorted out and organised as soon as possible. The same goes for the other regions too.

Even more importantly, we agreed, and the Government promised, that tariffs would rise by no more than six percent on average a year. I stress this point, but I note too, that this is the average, and in some places, in former military garrisons for example, or other closed systems where nothing was indexed for years, the increase might be slightly higher. Mr Poltavchenko said that in St Petersburg, for example, they won’t manage to reach the target of six percent and are looking at an increase of slightly over seven percent. This is within acceptable limits. There are quite a few regions where the increase is slightly below six percent, and in others it is higher, but overall it should be six percent. There shouldn’t be any big jumps. I hope the Government will meet this objective.

Finally, in cases where people have been overcharged, they either need to get their money back or have this money be counted towards future payments. We used just such a scheme a few years ago when I was Prime Minister. There is nothing to stop us from doing this again now.

MARIA SITTEL: Summing up this issue, I’d like to thank Ms Rapatsevich once again for taking an active civic stand on the matter and not being indifferent. You have the President’s solid backing now and can organise a public movement in Omsk Region that could set a good example for other regions too.

Thank you.

(Applause)

We have been on air just over an hour now. Let’s cross now to the main information centre, where they are processing all the questions, and hear from Tatyana on how things are going there.

TATYANA REMEZOVA: Thank you, colleagues. The number of calls coming in is growing all the time. We have crossed the 2-million mark now, with 2.3 million phone calls as of this moment. There are 3,556 calls coming in each minute. You can just imagine the workload our operators are having to cope with.

One of the most frequently asked questions is about the state of our roads. That question is coming in from practically every part of the country. Obviously it’s a real problem in people’s minds. We’ve got a caller with a question in this area on the line right now. They say he’s calling from the city of Izhevsk.

Good afternoon, you’re on air. We’re listening to you.

QUESTION FROM IZHEVSK: Hello, my name is Yevgeny. When the snow melts, our roads melt too. I get the impression the authorities find it more to their advantage to write off funds for road repairs rather than build actual normal roads.

TATYANA REMEZOVA: Mr President, before you answer the question, let me read a few text messages sent in on the same subject.

“The roads in Volgograd remind one of footage from wartime newsreels.” We’ve had a huge number of calls from Volgograd about the road problem, actually.

Here’s another short message: “I pay my taxes. Where are my roads?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, roads have long been known as one of Russia’s traditional problems. This is due to the country’s sheer size, and also because so many of the problems in this area have yet to be properly tackled and resolved.

At the same time however, let me note that we decided a couple of years ago to establish regional road funds. This was an idea that met with active resistance from some of our colleagues. These funds used to exist and then were abolished, but we decided in the end to revive them. The funds are financed by revenue from excise duties and the transport tax.

The interesting thing is that these funds, which are used to finance road construction, are growing steadily. The situation has been a little nuanced this year it is true. The amount of money coming into the federal road funds has increased, but not by much. The federal road funds have grown though and now come to more than 400 billion rubles. The regional road funds have decreased a little, dropping from 543 billion rubles to 445 billion, as far as I know. This is due to a drop in revenue from excise duties on petrol.

I won’t go into all the details of this situation, but to summarise, the oil people used to say that they hadn’t the capabilities for moving over to high-octane petrol such as Euro-4 and Euro-5, but as soon as an incentive was introduced to encourage this move, they suddenly all found the needed capability and have for the most part moved over to high-octane petrol, and the revenue coming in from excise duties has thus gone down. But this does not mean that we are short of funds.

I know this because plenty of regional heads used to come to me, and they come to the new Government now too, asking permission to reallocate the money earmarked for road construction for other uses. Their argument is that although there is plenty of money in the funds they don’t have the needed capabilities right now to actually carry out the road construction. The problem is therefore not financial but organisational and technical. I hope very much that the Government will not go ahead with these requests to reallocate the road funds’ money.

Another aspect of this issue is quality control, which is something our viewers and listeners also mentioned just now. Here, as in the housing and utilities sector, any improvement will be impossible without stringent public oversight.

We know that Pskov, for example, has an excellent public group, The Roads of Pskov, I think it’s called. It started off in the internet and then became real and not just a virtual presence. It’s a youth organisation, and they are quite effective and consistent in monitoring the quality of road construction.

I call on people to develop this kind of work throughout every region in the country.

MARIA SITTEL: Before going back to the information centre, Mr President, am I correct in understanding that we do have the money for building roads?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, if the governors say that they are not even managing to spend all of what they have, it means that there are sufficient funds out there.

MARIA SITTEL: I don’t understand where the problem is coming from then? Who is to blame? A country like Russia cannot afford to be without roads.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We have a vast territory but only a small road network. You know that it was only not so long ago that we built the road connecting Chita and Khabarovsk. We didn’t even have a road connecting the eastern and European parts of the country.

MARIA SITTEL: But this is a real disgrace for the country! And now we have the money but people are saying these funds should be reallocated for whatever other purposes.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, we need to keep developing the road sector, keep on with its expansion, and ensure quality control too.

MARIA SITTEL: Who in the Government is responsible for…

VLADIMIR PUTIN: The Transport Ministry.

KIRILL KLEYMENOV: We also need to fight corruption in the road sector. The roads built for the APEC summit, for example, are already unusable in places.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: That’s a problem not only with the work done for the APEC summit. There are similar problems elsewhere too. I need to take another look at that same Chita-Khabarovsk road that we spoke of just now. People have been writing to say that there are quality problems there too. I doubt I will be able to travel that road again, given the time that takes, but I could use another means of transport, a helicopter or something, to take a look at what is going on there. Of course, I cannot go and inspect all the roads in the country. This is something that the Government and the regional authorities need to organise at their level.

MARIA SITTEL: Unfortunately, it looks like without your personal involvement, Mr President, nothing gets sorted out.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is an age-old problem in Russia. We just need to organise regular on-going work.

MARIA SITTEL: Other countries seem quite good at resolving this problem.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Other countries have tackled it in various different ways, including during crisis periods. In Germany in the 1930s, for example, they built roads there as a way of fighting unemployment. They took extraordinary road construction measures. We have also examined various possibilities for using road construction as an anti-crisis measure and a measure to get people in employment and pump up the economy.

MARIA SITTEL: Thank you.

Let’s go back to the information centre. Tatyana!

TATYANA REMEZOVA: Yes, thank you.

Thousands of people are trying to get through. Let’s take another call. This one is from Perm Territory.

Good afternoon, put your question, you’re on air.

QUESTION FROM PERM TERRITORY: Hello, Mr President!

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Hello!

QUESTION FROM PERM TERRITORY: My name is Maria. I want to know what will happen with the maternity capital payments after 2016?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Maria, you probably know that the maternity capital was one of the programmes I initiated. We started discussing the idea in 2006, and introduced it in 2007 for the period running through to 2016 inclusive. In other words, families, mothers who had a second child during this period through to 2016 would be entitled to take part in the Maternity Capital programme.

We made a conscious and deliberate decision to set this time period because we had to be absolutely certain that the federal budget would be able to meet the maternity capital payment commitments. The payments have been adjusted regularly, as we promised. This year, as far as I know, the maternity capital entitlement comes to 407,000 or 408,000 rubles. I might be slightly wrong in the figures, but it is more than 400,000 rubles, anyway. Overall, this is a solid sum of money that is a substantial support for big families.

We did not know then and still do not know exactly how the demographic situation would develop. We cannot predict exactly how many children will be born but can only make estimates. We know the general trend, but do not know the exact figures, and it is therefore impossible to say exactly how much federal budget money will be needed for meeting our commitments in this area after 2016.

As for what will happen after 2016, I think that we should continue programmes in one form or another to support birth in Russia, but they should be more targeted in nature. I do not yet know exactly what forms these programmes should take, but people who are planning their families and would like to have a second or third child should feel reassured in any case that until 2016 inclusively, the maternity capital programme will continue to function and people who have a second or subsequent child will receive this money, just like Maria Sittel. Maria, how many children do you have?

MARIA SITTEL: Three.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Three, that’s great, Maria.

MARIA SITTEL: But I haven’t received my maternity capital yet.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You will.

MARIA SITTEL: There’s still time before 2016. Thank you.

KIRILL KLEIMENOV: The maternity capital issue is something that interests many of our viewers, especially big families, where every penny really counts. Big families also include foster families, families caring for children who have lost their parents. We have the chance now to visit just such a big family. My colleague Alisa Romanova will introduce them. They are on air now in the village of Novoshakhtinsky in Primorye Territory.

ALISA ROMANOVA: Good afternoon, or good evening rather, since we are here in the Far East, where the time is seven hours ahead of Moscow.

This is the Kuzmenko family’s home. They are raising 15 children – three kids of their own and the others are adopted. Let’s take a look at how they live. This is the girls’ room. This is Galya, and this is little Matvei. Matvei, let’s go to the boys’ room. This is where the Kuzmenkos’ sons, Danila and Fedya, live.

If these children hadn’t been adopted by Yelena and Sergei Kuzmenko, many of them would have had an unhappy fate. Take little Polina for example. She is six now. When she was taken into the family, she was one year old and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. At that moment she weighed only 4 kilos, didn’t speak at all, couldn’t walk and didn’t even crawl. But you would hardly recognise her now. (Applause)

Let me introduce the parents – Sergei and Yelena Kuzmenko, and here is little Polina that I was just telling you about. You’re six years old now?

POLINA KUZMENKO: Yes.

ALISA ROMANOVA: Tell us what you call your dear mum and dad?

POLINA KUZMENKO: Princess, Queen, Cinderella, and I call my daddy a prince.

ALISA ROMANOVA: You can see how big a family this is. We just counted 20 people, and that’s without the oldest son who is away studying in another town at the moment. There are several generations here. This is the oldest daughter’s family, and this is the youngest member of the family, little David, who is just one.

Yelena and Sergei, we see that you have this big family with so many children, and of course you receive some help, but even so, there are still plenty of problems, as we have learned. Now you have the chance to tell us about these problems and ask your questions. Yelena, go ahead.

YELENA KUZMENKO: Hello, Mr President.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Hello.

YELENA KUZMENKO: I have a question about benefits and subsidies for large families. We are a foster family with adopted children but we don’t get these benefits. We don’t get subsidies of any kind.

And a few words about allowances. The subsistence minimum in Primorye Territory is set at 8,000 rubles, and we get a child allowance of 5,400 rubles. It’s impossible to get by on these pennies. The children inevitably end up losing out.

On the matter of family budget too, half of our budget goes on paying for the flat, the phone, water, and electricity. Our bills are high but we don’t qualify for any subsidies.

My husband will tell you about our problems now.

SERGEI KUZMENKO: Yes, of course. The children we take in from the children’s homes have various health problems and we have to spend a lot of money on their care. You know that our pharmacies are full of expensive medicines. But we treat the children no matter what. The day before yesterday, for example, my daughter had a toothache. We don’t have a children’s dentist here in Novoshakhtinsky, so we took her to a private clinic. They treated the tooth but we had to pay 5,000 rubles for it. That is a lot of money for us. It turned out an expensive tooth to fix, but you can’t leave teeth untreated.

YELENA KUZMENKO: Mr President, you see what kinds of problems we have. We hope you can help to settle these problems, because it’s just not possible to live this way. There are many other foster families in Primorye Territory, and they also hope to see these problems resolved, so that we can receive some kind of subsidies and get hospital treatment without having to wait in the queues. We spend a lot of time waiting our turn in hospitals, and nowhere are they willing to take us without making us wait first. They always say that they don’t know anything about our situation and the rules are the rules and we have to queue, and so we spend our time queuing everywhere.

One of the children recently had an epileptic seizure, and I queued for an hour and a half. No one would let us go ahead out of turn.

My daughter also wants to ask you a question.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, of course.

QUESTION: I want to ask on behalf of all the children in our family for a children’s playground, because there are many children in the family, but we don’t have any playground. There’s not been one ever since we moved here. We hope our dream will come true.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Ok. Yelena, when did you move into this house and under what circumstances?

YELENA KUZMENKO: I’m a military servicewoman, a former senior warrant officer. I received a housing purchase certificate that covered my two birth children and my husband, but because we have many children in the family we wanted to buy a separate house. We couldn’t afford to do so in the town, so we bought one here in Novoshakhtinsky, using the certificate, since we didn’t have money of our own.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: So you used the certificate?

YELENA KUZMENKO: Yes.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I see. That’s a start at least. Something is actually getting done.

Regarding child benefits, they were a real pittance before, only 1,200 rubles, and the Presidential Executive Order issued late last year raised them to 5,500 rubles. Regrettably, it’s true, the Government has not yet issued the accompanying regulations setting out the procedures for these benefit payments.

The payments actually started just a few days ago. I draw my Government colleagues’ attention to the fact that a government regulation is required here. This needs to be done. The benefits will be increased in the same way that benefits for children with disabilities are being increased. I also note in passing that the social pension for disabled persons of group I is going up to just over 8,800 rubles.

Furthermore, the State Duma is currently examining a draft law that introduces a new one-off payment of 100,000 rubles for adopting a child. I hope this draft law will be passed as soon as possible.

Finally, the most important that Yelena spoke about is the issue of making foster families equal in entitlements to big families in which the children are birth children. I think this would be fair in every way and I will give the Government this instruction. (Applause) What difference does it make if the children are birth children or adopted? Everyone says that such children become like their own. People like Yelena and Sergei are doing a very important moral and civic job here, and they should get our support.

Yelena, I promise that I will give the Government this instruction, and I hope they will work out the details with the State Duma deputies.

KIRILL KLEIMENOV: And the children’s playground?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: And you will get this too, of course.

The anchors will be taking note and following up everything in this respect.

I promise you that you will get your children’s playground. We will sort out this matter. This is not a problem.

To be continued.