Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club
Vladimir Putin took part in the final plenary meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. The theme of the club’s anniversary session is Russia’s Diversity for the Modern World.
PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Good afternoon, friends, ladies and gentlemen,
I hope that the place for your discussions, for our meetings is well chosen and that the timing is good. We are in the centre of Russia – not a geographical centre, but a spiritual one. [Novgorod Region] is a cradle of Russian statehood. Our outstanding historians believe and have analysed how the elements of Russian statehood came together right here. This is in the light of the fact that two great rivers – the Volkhov and Neva – acted as natural means of communication, providing a natural linkage at the time. And it was here that Russian statehood gradually began to emerge.
As has already been pointed out, this year the [Valdai] club has brought together an unprecedented list of participants: more than 200 Russian and foreign politicians, public and spiritual leaders, philosophers and cultural figures, people with very different, original and sometimes opposing views.
You have already been conferring here for a few days now, and I’ll try not to bore you unduly. But nevertheless, I will allow myself to state my views on subjects that you have touched on during these discussions in one way or another. I am not only thinking about analysing Russian historical, cultural, and governance experiences. First and foremost, I am thinking of general debates, conversations about the future, strategies, and values, about the values underpinning our country’s development, how global processes will affect our national identity, what kind of twenty-first-century world we want to see, and what Russia, our country, can contribute to this world together with its partners.
Today we need new strategies to preserve our identity in a rapidly changing world, a world that has become more open, transparent and interdependent. This fact confronts virtually all countries and all peoples in one form or another: Russian, European, Chinese and American – the societies of virtually all countries. And naturally, including here in Valdai, we strive to better understand how our partners are attempting to meet this challenge, because we are meeting here with experts on Russia. But we proceed from the fact that our guests will state their views on the interaction and relationship between Russia and the countries that you represent.
For us (and I am talking about Russians and Russia), questions about who we are and who we want to be are increasingly prominent in our society. We have left behind Soviet ideology, and there will be no return. Proponents of fundamental conservatism who idealise pre-1917 Russia seem to be similarly far from reality, as are supporters of an extreme, western-style liberalism.
It is evident that it is impossible to move forward without spiritual, cultural and national self-determination. Without this we will not be able to withstand internal and external challenges, nor we will succeed in global competitions. And today we see a new round of such competitions. Today their main focuses are economic-technological and ideological-informational. Military-political problems and general conditions are worsening. The world is becoming more rigid, and sometimes forgoes not merely international law, but also basic decency.
[Every country] has to have military, technological and economic strength, but nevertheless the main thing that will determine success is the quality of citizens, the quality of society: their intellectual, spiritual and moral strength. After all, in the end economic growth, prosperity and geopolitical influence are all derived from societal conditions. They depend on whether the citizens of a given country consider themselves a nation, to what extent they identify with their own history, values and traditions, and whether they are united by common goals and responsibilities. In this sense, the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia.
Meanwhile, today Russia’s national identity is experiencing not only objective pressures stemming from globalisation, but also the consequences of the national catastrophes of the twentieth century, when we experienced the collapse of our state two different times. The result was a devastating blow to our nation’s cultural and spiritual codes; we were faced with the disruption of traditions and the consonance of history, with the demoralisation of society, with a deficit of trust and responsibility. These are the root causes of many pressing problems we face. After all, the question of responsibility for oneself, before society and the law, is something fundamental for both legal and everyday life.
After 1991 there was the illusion that a new national ideology, a development ideology, would simply appear by itself. The state, authorities, intellectual and political classes virtually rejected engaging in this work, all the more so since previous, semi-official ideology was hard to swallow. And in fact they were all simply afraid to even broach the subject. In addition, the lack of a national idea stemming from a national identity profited the quasi-colonial element of the elite – those determined to steal and remove capital, and who did not link their future to that of the country, the place where they earned their money.
Practice has shown that a new national idea does not simply appear, nor does it develop according to market rules. A spontaneously constructed state and society does not work, and neither does mechanically copying other countries’ experiences. Such primitive borrowing and attempts to civilize Russia from abroad were not accepted by an absolute majority of our people. This is because the desire for independence and sovereignty in spiritual, ideological and foreign policy spheres is an integral part of our national character. Incidentally, such approaches have often failed in other nations too. The time when ready-made lifestyle models could be installed in foreign states like computer programmes has passed.
We also understand that identity and a national idea cannot be imposed from above, cannot be established on an ideological monopoly. Such a construction is very unstable and vulnerable; we know this from personal experience. It has no future in the modern world. We need historical creativity, a synthesis of the best national practices and ideas, an understanding of our cultural, spiritual and political traditions from different points of view, and to understand that [national identity] is not a rigid thing that will last forever, but rather a living organism. Only then will our identity be based on a solid foundation, be directed towards the future and not the past. This is the main argument demonstrating that a development ideology must be discussed by people who hold different views, and have different opinions about how and what to do to solve given problems.
All of us – so-called Neo-Slavophiles and Neo-Westernisers, statists and so-called liberals – all of society must work together to create common development goals. We need to break the habit of only listening to like-minded people, angrily – and even with hatred – rejecting any other point of view from the outset. You can’t flip or even kick the country’s future like a football, plunging into unbridled nihilism, consumerism, criticism of anything and everything, or gloomy pessimism.
This means that liberals have to learn to talk with representatives of the left-wing and, conversely, that nationalists must remember that Russia was formed specifically as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country from its very inception. Nationalists must remember that by calling into question our multi-ethnic character, and exploiting the issue of Russian, Tatar, Caucasian, Siberian or any other nationalism or separatism, means that we are starting to destroy our genetic code. In effect, we will begin to destroy ourselves.
Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are unconditional. These are red lines no one is allowed to cross. For all the differences in our views, debates about identity and about our national future are impossible unless their participants are patriotic. Of course I mean patriotism in the purest sense of the word.
Too often in our nation’s history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself. I have already mentioned this; Pushkin also talked about it. And we know how it ended, with the demolition of the [Russian] state as such. There is virtually no Russian family that completely escaped the troubles of the past century. Questions about how to assess certain historical events still divide our country and society.
We need to heal these wounds, and repair the tissues of our historic fabric. We can no longer engage in self-deception, striking out unsightly or ideologically uncomfortable pages of our history, breaking links between generations, rushing to extremes, creating or debunking idols. It’s time to stop only taking note of the bad in our history, and berating ourselves more than even our opponents would do. [Self-]criticism is necessary, but without a sense of self-worth, or love for our Fatherland, such criticism becomes humiliating and counterproductive.
We must be proud of our history, and we have things to be proud of. Our entire, uncensored history must be a part of Russian identity. Without recognising this it is impossible to establish mutual trust and allow society to move forward.
Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
What else but the loss of the ability to self-reproduce could act as the greatest testimony of the moral crisis facing a human society? Today almost all developed nations are no longer able to reproduce themselves, even with the help of migration. Without the values embedded in Christianity and other world religions, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend these values. One must respect every minority’s right to be different, but the rights of the majority must not be put into question.
At the same time we see attempts to somehow revive a standardised model of a unipolar world and to blur the institutions of international law and national sovereignty. Such a unipolar, standardised world does not require sovereign states; it requires vassals. In a historical sense this amounts to a rejection of one’s own identity, of the God-given diversity of the world.
Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply. And we believe that every country, every nation is not exceptional, but unique, original and benefits from equal rights, including the right to independently choose their own development path.
This is our conceptual outlook, and it follows from our own historical destiny and Russia’s role in global politics. Our present position has deep historical roots. Russia itself has evolved on the basis of diversity, harmony and balance, and brings such a balance to the international stage.
I want to remind you that the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the agreements made at Yalta in 1945, taken with Russia’s very active participation, secured a lasting peace. Russia’s strength, the strength of a winning nation at those critical junctures, manifested itself as generosity and justice. And let us remember [the Treaty of] Versailles, concluded without Russia’s participation. Many experts, and I absolutely agree with them, believe that Versailles laid the foundation for the Second World War because the Treaty of Versailles was unfair to the German people: it imposed restrictions with which they could not cope, and the course of the next century became clear.
There is one more fundamental aspect to which I want to draw your attention. In Europe and some other countries so-called multiculturalism is in many respects a transplanted, artificial model that is now being questioned, for understandable reasons. This is because it is based on paying for the colonial past. It is no accident that today European politicians and public figures are increasingly talking about the failures of multiculturalism, and that they are not able to integrate foreign languages or foreign cultural elements into their societies.
Over the past centuries in Russia, which some have tried to label as the «prison of nations», not even the smallest ethnic group has disappeared. And they have retained not only their internal autonomy and cultural identity, but also their historical space. You know, I was interested to learn (I did not even know this) that in Soviet times [authorities] paid such careful attention to this that virtually every small ethnic group had its own print publication, support for its language, and for its national literature. We should bring back and take on board much of what has been done in this respect.
Along with this the different cultures in Russia have the unique experience of mutual influence, mutual enrichment and mutual respect. This multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity lives in our historical consciousness, in our spirit and in our historical makeup. Our state was built in the course of a millennium on this organic model.
Russia – as philosopher Konstantin Leontyev vividly put it – has always evolved in «blossoming complexity» as a state-civilisation, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions. It is precisely the state-civilisation model that has shaped our state polity. It has always sought to flexibly accommodate the ethnic and religious specificity of particular territories, ensuring diversity in unity.
Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are an integral part of Russia’s identity, its historical heritage and the present-day lives of its citizens. The main task of the state, as enshrined in the Constitution, is to ensure equal rights for members of traditional religions and atheists, and the right to freedom of conscience for all citizens.
However, it is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion in such a large nation with a multi-ethnic population. In order to maintain the nation’s unity, people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity, respect for the law, and a sense of responsibility for their homeland’s fate, without losing touch with their ethnic or religious roots.
There are broad discussions on how the ideology of national development will be structured politically and conceptually – including with your participation, colleagues. But I deeply believe that individuals’ personal, moral, intellectual and physical development must remain at the heart of our philosophy. Back at the start of the 1990s, Solzhenitsyn stated that the nation’s main goal should be to preserve the population after a very difficult 20thcentury. Today, we must admit that we have not yet fully overcome the negative demographic trends, although we have veered away from a dangerous decline in the national potential.
Unfortunately, throughout our nation’s history, little value was given at times to individual human lives. Too often, people were seen simply as a means, rather than a goal and a mission for development. We no longer have that right and we cannot throw millions of human lives into the fire for the sake of development. We must treasure every individual. Russia’s main strength in this and future centuries will lie in its educated, creative, physically and spiritually healthy people, rather than natural resources.
The role of education is all the more important because in order to educate an individual, a patriot, we must restore the role of great Russian culture and literature. They must serve as the foundation for people’s personal identity, the source of their uniqueness and their basis for understanding the national idea. Here, a great deal depends on the teaching community, which has been and remains a highly important guardian of nationwide values, ideas and philosophies. This community speaks the same language – the language of science, knowledge and education, despite the fact that it is spread out over an enormous territory, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. In this way, the community of teachers, the educational community overall, in the broad sense of the word, binds the nation together. Supporting this community is one of the most important steps on the path toward a strong, flourishing Russia.
I want to stress again that without focussing our efforts on people’s education and health, creating mutual responsibility between the authorities and each individual, and establishing trust within society, we will be losers in the competition of history. Russia’s citizens must feel that they are the responsible owners of their country, region, hometown, property, belongings and their lives. A citizen is someone who is capable of independently managing his or her own affairs, freely cooperating with equals.
Local governments and self-regulated citizens’ organisations serve as the best school for civic consciousness. Of course, I’m referring to non-profits. Incidentally, one of the best Russian political traditions, the country council tradition, was also built on the principles of local government. A true civil society and a true, nationally-focused political elite, including the opposition with its own ideology, values and standards for good and evil – their own, rather than those dictated by the media or from abroad – can only grow through effective self-governing mechanisms. The government is prepared to trust self-regulating and self-governing associations, but we must know whom we are trusting. This is absolutely normal global practice, which is precisely why we have passed new legislation to increase the transparency of nongovernmental organisations.
Speaking of any kind of reforms, it is important to bear in mind that there is more to our nation than just Moscow and St Petersburg. In developing Russian federalism, we must rely on our own historical experience, using flexible and diverse models. The Russian model of federalism has a great deal of potential built into it. It is imperative that we learn to use it competently, not forgetting its most important aspect: the development of the regions and their independence should create equal opportunities for all of our nation’s citizens, regardless of where they live, to eliminate inequalities in the economic and social development of Russia’s territory, thereby strengthening the nation’s unity. Ultimately, this is a huge challenge because these territories’ development has been very unbalanced over the course of decades and even centuries.
I would like to touch on another topic. The 21st century promises to become the century of major changes, the era of the formation of major geopolitical zones, as well as financial and economic, cultural, civilisational, and military and political areas. That is why integrating with our neighbours is our absolute priority. The future Eurasian Economic Union, which we have declared and which we have discussed extensively as of late, is not just a collection of mutually beneficial agreements. The Eurasian Union is a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space in a new century and in a new world. Eurasian integration is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.
I want to stress that Eurasian integration will also be built on the principle of diversity. This is a union where everyone maintains their identity, their distinctive character and their political independence. Together with our partners, we will gradually implement this project, step by step. We expect that it will become our common input into maintaining diversity and stable global development.
Colleagues, the years after 1991 are often referred to as the post-Soviet era. We have lived through and overcome that turbulent, dramatic period. Russia has passed through these trials and tribulations and is returning to itself, to its own history, just as it did at other points in its history. After consolidating our national identity, strengthening our roots, and remaining open and receptive to the best ideas and practices of the East and the West, we must and will move forward.
Thank you very much for your attention.
MEMBER OF THE VALDAI DISCUSSION CLUB ADVISORY BOARD PIOTR DUTKIEWICZ: Mr President, this is the tenth year that we are meeting with you here.
This is a unique platform and a unique format – there is nothing like it in the world. Thank you for these ten years of warm support for our club.
I have a two-part question concerning your article in The New York Times. It was an excellent idea and a brilliant article. Indeed, you are personally responsible for stopping the expansion and deepening of the Syrian conflict, which is an enormous achievement.
Question: who came up with this idea? Was it Lavrov, Shoigu, Peskov or someone else? And when did you discuss it for the first time with President Obama?
The second part of the question: it seems to me that you put yourself in a rather awkward position with this brilliant idea, this brilliant article, because you became a kind of hostage. You and Russia have taken on the burden of responsibility for the success of this agreement. You already have many detractors because they do not want to see major global policy to develop as a Putin and Obama duet. What happens if it doesn’t work?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you for your kind words.
My colleagues and I have always been pleased that there are people in the world interested in Russia, its history and its culture. Ten years ago, when I was told that these people would like to come to Russia, talk with us, engage in debate, and want to learn about our point of view on key issues in the development of the nation itself and its place in the world, well, naturally, we supported it immediately; I supported it and my colleagues supported it. I am very happy that over the last ten years, this platform has become even more prestigious compared to the first steps taken a decade ago. The interest in our nation is not waning; on the contrary, it is increasing and growing.
I want to respond to your words of gratitude in kind. I would like to thank all the experts on Russia who remain faithful to their love of our nation and their interest in our nation.
Now, regarding the article. I had this idea completely by chance. I saw that President Obama took the discussion on the possibility of attacking Syria to the Congress and Senate. I followed the course of that discussion and I just wanted to convey our position, my own position, to the people who will be forming their opinions on this issue, and to clarify it. Because unfortunately, the media often present various problems very one-sidedly, or simply stay completely silent.
So this was my idea; I called one of my aides and said that I would like to publish an article in an American newspaper – it didn’t matter which one, but one of the leading ones – so that this information would reach the readers, and dictated what I wanted to see written. You may have noticed that it does not contain anything I have not stated earlier, in various places in public. I have already talked about all of it in one way or another. So I just dictated it, and then when my colleagues put it together, I took a look. I didn’t like everything, so I rewrote and added a few things, gave it back to them, they worked on it some more and brought it to me again. I made some more changes and felt it was ready for publishing. We arranged through our partners that it would be in The New York Times; we came to an agreement with this respected publication that the article would be published without any cuts. If they didn’t like it, we could give it to another newspaper.
But I must give credit to the New York Times editors: they completely abided by our agreements and published everything as I wrote it. They even waived their usual requirements on the number of characters and words in the article; it was a little bit over the limit. They were going to submit it, but then one of my aides said, “President Obama is going to address the nation tomorrow. What if he announces that there won’t be any strikes, that they changed their minds? It’s better to wait.” I said, “Very well.” We waited, and the next morning, I was getting ready for work and I was given President Obama’s speech. I began to read it and realised that nothing had changed fundamentally, so I laid it aside without finishing it. But then I thought, “No, I need to read it to the end.” And when I read all of it, it became clear that my article was incomplete. As you understand, the matter at hand was America’s exceptionalism. So I picked up the article, and right then and there, I hand-wrote the last paragraph. I gave it to my colleagues, they passed it on to The New York Times, and there it was.
Now, concerning responsibility. You know, you are all very experienced, smart and clever people. Here is what I will say about Russia’s special responsibility. We have equal rights and equal responsibilities with all our colleagues involved in the discussion on Syria. This is not the first time I hear that I now carry a special responsibility. We all carry a special responsibility; we all carry it equally. If the attempt to resolve the problem by peaceful means is unsuccessful, that will be a tragedy. But we must investigate before we do take any other steps. My good friend Francois Fillon – we have known each other for a long time and have become friends during our years of working together – talked about how after the report was released by UN experts, it became clear that chemical weapons had been used. But this was clear to us from the very beginning, and our experts agreed. The only thing that is unclear is who used it.
We are constantly talking about responsibility on the part of Assad’s government, whether he used chemical weapons or not. But what if they were used by the opposition? Nobody is saying what we would then do with the opposition – but this, too, is an important question. We have every reason to believe that this was a provocation. You know, it was clever and smart, but at the same time, the execution was primitive. They used an ancient, Soviet-made projectile, taken from the Syrian army’s armaments from a long time ago – it even had “Made in the USSR” printed on it. But this was not the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Why didn’t they investigate the previous instances?
This matter should be investigated as thoroughly as possible. If we finally get an answer, despite all obstacles, to the question of who did this, who committed this crime – and there is no question that it was a crime – then we will take the next step; we will then work with other UN Security Council colleagues to determine the culpability of those who committed this crime, together and in solidarity.
MODERATOR SVETLANA MIRONYUK: They say that Senator McCain followed your example and published an article of his own in Pravda newspaper. He probably remembers from the Soviet years that Pravda was a well-known publication and the most popular newspaper in the country. True, a lot of time has passed and things have changed a bit since then, so it’s no longer true. I don’t know if you heard about this or not, Mr President.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, I didn’t know about it. I have met the senator before. He was in Munich when I made the speech there that went on to become so famous. Actually, there was nothing anti-American in that speech. I simply stated our position frankly and honestly, and there was nothing aggressive in what I said, if you only take a closer look. What I said then was that we were promised at one point that NATO would not expand beyond the former Federal Republic of Germany’s eastern border. That was a promise directly made to Gorbachev. True, it was not actually set out and written down. But where is NATO today, where is the border? We got cheated, to put it quite simply. That’s the whole story. But there’s nothing aggressive here. It’s more just a reluctance to admit to what I just said. But I didn’t say those words to offend anyone. I said them so that we would be able to lay everything before each other plain and clear and discuss the problems in an honest, open fashion. It’s easier to reach agreements this way. You shouldn’t keep things hidden.
The senator has his own views. I do think though that he is lacking information about our country. The fact that he chose to publish his article in Pravda – and he wanted after all to publish it in the most influential and widely read newspaper – suggests that he is lacking information. Pravda is a respected publication of the Communist Party, which is now in opposition, but it does not have very wide circulation around the country now. He wants to get his views across to as many people as possible, and so his choice simply suggests that he is not well-informed about our country.
Actually, I would have been happy to see him here at the Valdai Club say, taking part in the discussions. As far as I know, our big television channels, the national channels, proposed that he come and take part in an open and honest discussion. There you have it, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. He is welcome to share his point of view with the whole country and discuss things with his equals, with political analysts and politicians, members of the State Duma or the Federation Council.
In this respect, I can only express my regret that our American colleagues did not react to our parliamentarians’ proposal and refused to receive them in Washington for a discussion on Syria. Why did they do this? To be honest, I don’t see anything so bad about this proposal, which, on the contrary, seems to me of interest and the right thing to do. The more we actually discuss things directly with each other, the easier it will be to find solutions.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Are there more questions from the floor?
Let’s stick to the subjects if we can, so as not to jump from one topic to another.
Bridget Kendall, go ahead.
DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT FOR THE BBC BRIDGET KENDALL: Thank you.
Again about Syria, Russia has been lauded for its achievement for bringing about a deal which looks as though it could lead to the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, all the more an achievement given that the Syrian government didn’t admit it had them until very recently. Would you have been able to persuade President Assad to do this if there hadn’t been a threat of American military strikes? In other words, did the threat of US military strikes actually play a rather useful role?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Am I right in understanding that you are asking about whether it is the threat of military strikes that plays a part in Syria’s agreeing to have its weapons placed under control?
First, I’d like to ask you all to address your questions to everyone taking part in today’s discussion, so as not to turn this into a boring dialogue. If you permit, I will redirect your question to my colleagues and ask them to share their points of view on this issue.
The threat of the use of force and actual use of force are far from being a cure-all for international problems. Look at what we are actually talking about after all. We are forgetting the heart of the matter. We are talking about using force outside the framework of current international law. We’ve just been saying how the US Congress and Senate are discussing whether to use force or not. But it is not there that this matter should be discussed. It should be discussed in the UN Security Council. That is the heart of the issue. That is my first point.
Second, on whether we will manage to convince Assad or not, I don’t know. So far it looks as though Syria has fully agreed to our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that the international community is putting together, working through the UN. Russia and the USA, in the persons of Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have already practically drafted the outlines of this plan. There is a special organisation that will work together with the UN on this matter of eliminating chemical weapons. Syria has declared that it will join and that it indeed already considers itself to have joined the International Chemical Weapons Convention. These are practical steps that the Syrian government has already taken. Will we succeed in taking the process through to completion? I cannot give a 100% guarantee. But what we have seen just lately, over these last few days, gives us hope that this is possible and will be done.
Let me just remind you about how these chemical weapons came about. Syria got itself chemical weapons as an alternative to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, as we know. What can be done about the various issues associated with proliferation and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a very relevant question today, perhaps the most important issue of our time. If this situation gets out of control, like it once happened with gunpowder, the consequences will be unimaginable. We therefore need to strive towards nuclear-free status in particular parts of the world, especially in such volatile regions as the Middle East.
We need to be very careful in our action so as to give unconditional security guarantees for all participants in this process. After all, there are people in Israel itself who categorically oppose nuclear weapons. You remember the well-known case when a nuclear physicist was sent to prison, served his sentence and still continues to think that his position was right. Why? There is nothing anti-Israeli in his position. He is a Jew himself and a citizen of his country, but he simply believes that Israel’s technological superiority is such that the country does not need nuclear weapons. Israel is already technologically and militarily a long way ahead of the region’s other countries. But nuclear weapons only turn the country into a target and create foreign policy problems. In this respect, there is sense in the position of this nuclear physicist, who disclosed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But to come back to your question about whether the plan will succeed or not, we hope that it will.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Mr President, I suggest that since we have veered away from defence and security issues, we should give Mr Rühe a chance to reply, ask a question, and express his opinion.
Mr Rühe, you have the floor.
FORMER DEFENCE MINISTER OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY VOLKER RÜHE: Well, I wanted to speak about the young generation in this country.
First, I would like to begin – because I’ve been here from the beginning – to also compliment our Russian friends on the format of Valdai, the architects – because it would not be enough to call them organisers. What we have seen here, I call the culture of inclusiveness and a love of pluralism. And I can tell you, Mr President, we are quite fascinated by the pluralistic voices from Russia, including very powerful statements by people that are in opposition to your politics, and I think this shows the strength of the country, that it was organised in this way.
I’ve never looked at Russia with the somewhat narrow eyes of a defence minister, you know this. I was first here in 1971, and Sergei Karaganov is a friend of mine since the late 1970s. We don’t look it, but it’s a fact of life. We have lived through SS-20 and Pershing.
And what I would like to say is, I came here as Defence Minister in 1995 and I went to St Petersburg. And I said, I don’t want to see any tanks or artillery, or any generals. I want to see the Mayor, Sobchak. And I got to know you also, you were part of his team. Why? He was a lighthouse for me, as a young member of parliament in West Germany, still in the divided Germany, and I think what he was doing was much more important than tanks and artillery, and it has proved to be this way. So it’s a lifelong interest in a neighbour. And we all, I believe, on this continent, are interested in a successful, modern Russia.
Now, the young generation. What I’ve seen – and of course it was very interesting for me to listen to his daughter, who is a powerful voice for the young generation, two days ago.
So what I’ve seen here, what I’ve seen in Russia is you have really an asset to the country, your young generation. They are very intelligent. They want to have a good education. They want to be more internationally connected. And they want to have a bigger say in the politics of your country. They are knocking at the doors of the Kremlin.
The young generation in my country, they also want to build their private lives, they are very much internationally connected. The doors to our Kremlins, which is the parliament and the government, are very open, but they don’t knock at it. They leave it to politicians because they think things have been arranged very well. And we are very sad that some of the very best just want to have a successful private life, but don’t engage in public life.
So my message really is, Russia can be proud of a young generation, even if there are political opponents that want to engage in public life, which is not the case in many of the west European countries. And I’ve said earlier in Russia also, we should give up this visa regime in the West, because that would enable hundreds of thousands of young Russians to come and see our life and our political system. But I must say, it would also change Russia, because once they have studied in Rome or in London or in Washington, because they’ll be forces of change, the necessary change in this country. But I think it would make the country also more competitive.
Now what has that to do with security? I think this is the best way to ensure security and to develop common points of view. And I’m very glad that this culture of Valdai, I don’t think there’s anything – I have been to many conferences, and also to Munich, but Munich is very narrow security-wise, there’s no conference like this in the world.
And also when we listen for four hours to your people about ideas and politics – we very often just talk from Monday to Thursday about our politics. It was very fascinating to see that the Russian speakers are much more interested in fundamental questions of society than we are, which is very much on the surface, what we are debating. So I think this is something to start from, but the real message is, I think it would be a great project of your third term to integrate this young generation when they’re knocking at the door of the Kremlin, because don’t forget, we want more people to knock at the doors of political power in the West, and you can be proud of these people. That’s my message.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you, Mr Rühe.
Other questions, please.
PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER OF THE CENTER ON GLOBAL INTERESTS IN WASHINGTON NIKOLAI ZLOBIN:Good afternoon.
Everyone seems to be expecting me to ask you about 2018 and whether you will run for a new term. But I’m not going to ask that question. Everyone else I have put this question to so far have all said no though, so you might have to run anyway in the end, or else there won’t be anyone at all.
But I want to come back to a question we have already discussed. Unlike you, I did read McCain’s article. It should be said that it is not exactly a reply to your article, because it is really quite a personal article and not related to Syria. I think it is not very politically correct really, but that is my personal view.
Actually, he says there that no criticism of Putin is allowed in Russia. I’m here as a living example of someone who is always criticising you. Even here at Valdai I have often argued with you, but I’m still here as you can see, alive and well. To be honest, I do not entirely agree with the things you said today either. But McCain says that the government Russia has today does not adequately represent Russian society, and that Russia deserves a different government.
In this respect I have a question. I know that relations between the public and the authorities is indeed one of Russia’s big problems, an old, historical problem. Before last year’s election, I recall that you said that there is perhaps a need to change the Constitution, change the relations between government and society, change the mutual responsibility, develop local government and so on. There was the very good idea too of bringing more young people into government. Sometimes I hear voices among the opposition saying that this government should be swept aside and that a new government is needed. You are now serving your third term as President. How do you view today the relations between government and society in Russia? Are you happy with these relations? What should be changed? Is the Constitution really the issue, or is McCain perhaps right in a way? I do not think his argument is correct. But what is your vision now, in the twenty-first century, of the relations between Russia’s highest authorities and society?
Thank you, Mr President.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: You recall the words of one of the world’s outstanding political leaders, a former British Prime Minister, who said of democracy that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Probably then – not probably, but for certain – Russia does deserve a better quality of government. Is there an ideal form of government in other countries, including the one that you and Mr McCain represent? This is a big question, a very big question, if we are talking about democracy.
It has happened twice in US history that the President of the United States was chosen by a majority in the electoral colleges, but with a minority of the actual voters. This is an obvious flaw in the electoral procedure, that is to say, a flaw at the very heart of American democracy. In other words, everyone has their own problems.
We perhaps have no fewer problems than you, and maybe even more, though this would only be natural. Russia has gone through the experience of rule under the tsars, then communism, then the disintegration of the 1990s. This has been a period of very difficult and complicated rebuilding. But it is very clear that Russia is on the road to democracy and is looking for its own ways to strengthen these democratic foundations. There is this very fact that for ten years now we have been getting together, debating, openly discussing, even when we used to meet behind closed doors, it all became public anyway. And this is not to mention the other aspects of our life.
As for what kind of government Russia should have, this is something for our citizens to decide, and not for our colleagues from abroad. We held an election a year ago, not so long ago, and the majority of Russia’s citizens voted for me. I base myself on this decision. That does not mean we can now sit on our laurels. I have to work on myself, and our institutions need to improve too. This is just what we are all doing.
Note that we have returned to holding gubernatorial elections in the regions. This practice is not so widespread in the world. Such elections are the practice in the United States, but India say, has a completely different procedure. Many countries do things very much their own way. Germany has its system, France has its way of doing things, and in Russia we have decided to elect regional governors by direct secret ballot.
We have liberalised political parties’ activity. As a specialist on Russia, you know just how many new political parties took part in the regional elections. In many cases they achieved victory, and as far as I know, the winners of elections from these new political parties are here at Valdai too. The improvement process is therefore going ahead. I think it will never stop, because government organisation, the political organisation of society, and democratic procedures need to keep up more or less with a society’s current needs and demands, and society is developing and changing. The political system will change and develop with it.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Any other questions?
FOUNDER DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR EUROPEAN REFORM CHARLES GRANT: Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform, London.
I have a question for the President, but if other panellists wish to comment, I would be grateful, because it’s about Ukraine. I know Mr Prodi has a special interest in Ukraine.
I’d like the President to tell us whether he sees Ukraine as a normal, sovereign, independent country or a country that’s a bit different. I ask that because we have a question now – Ukraine has to choose whether to join the Customs Union with Russia and other countries, or to reach a closer agreement with the EU. And we’ve heard from participants here in the last few days that some people in Ukraine find Russia’s heavy-armed tactics – closing the borders, blocking exports from Ukraine – counterproductive. They have told us this is pushing public opinion in Ukraine to be a little more critical of Russia and perhaps closer to the EU. So could you explain what your strategy is with regard to Ukraine and what kind of country you believe it is.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: My good, long-time friend Romano headed the European Commission for many years. So let’s ask him to open the discussion. I have an answer, and I’m ready to reply to you, but I would like to hear his opinion.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ITALY ROMANO PRODI: First of all, you remember that I was President of the European Commission. And I remember that in our last common press conference, when I was asked about the relation between the European Union and Russia, I said, they must be like vodka and caviar – I don’t know which is which – but we are so strict, and things are not going in this direction. There is something that we have to move or to change, because really – well, maybe my vision is influenced by the fact I am by education an economist – but I see such a complementarity, such a necessity of working together, that I think we have to work in this direction.
And clearly, it’s not only a Russian problem. Europe is fairly divided. In this case, you have countries that are much more inclined to deal with Russia, some others are not confident in that. We also have a different vision in very simple problems like the visa. And I agree that the first step is to have free circulation of young people. The Erasmus project in Europe, which is a very simple circulation of students, is changing the mentality of a generation. We must do the same with Russia.
And clearly, in the case of Ukraine, I think it’s going in the same direction. There is now a double proposal that says, one is the association agreement that will be signed probably in Vilnius at the end of November, and then there is the proposal of, let’s say, the Eurasian economy.
First of all, I am not a technical expert of trade, but all my consultants say, “Look, the two proposals are not incompatible. They are incompatible taken as a picture, as static, but if we sit around the table, with good will, we can make very few changes and then make them compatible.” And so, as I answer to Mr Grant, reinforce the identity of Ukraine – not as a dividing country, but as a bridge between Russia and Europe, because we need bridges, and Ukraine must and can be a bridge between us. This is, I think, my position. And I’m working in this direction because Ukraine is a great country. Forty-five million people, even if the decreasing population is, geopolitically, very important. And it must be an exercise in cooperation between Russia and European Union.
Vladimir, on this point, clearly, why I am so warm about that? Because I think that if we create two divided trade areas, we’ll be, for the future, damaging the structure. Because clearly, Europe is going in the direction of transatlantic trade investment partnership with such a big area.
Russia, with this Customs Union, will have a dimension that is not comparable to the other one. So I think – well, I don’t want to judge Russia, because I do not have the right to do it – but the dimensions of the country, the characteristics of the country, are such that the great change that you are working for, modernisation and technology, needs a strong link with you. From this point of view, really, we are like vodka and caviar. I think the complementarity is so high that you cannot do without us and we cannot do without you. So you have to be very prudent following your doctrine, your diversity cooperation, very prudent to create a structure that then will diverge in the future.
This is the moment in which we must stay around the table, as you did with Syria. Your proposal with Syria is a masterpiece, because first of all, it has avoided the war, and even the American president was not so happy with this war. And second, it was giving the possibility to the Americans to set the big principles of being against the chemical weapons. So they could get a proposal that could be accepted by you.
I think this is the moment in the relations between Europe and Russia to use the same methodology as has been done with Syria. Because if we start to diverge, Russia will be more alone, Europe will be worse off, and the future relations cannot help us in the direction that we both tried to explore in the past.
I agree that to dance, we need to be two. One cannot dance alone. But I think this is the moment in which we have to make these proposals.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: You see what a good idea it was to gave the floor to Mr Prodi.
Yes, Romano and I have been working together for a long time, and we do have a very good personal relationship. That’s how things have played out. In Italy, I have always had good relations with him, and with Mr Berlusconi, with whom he is in constant conflict in the political arena. And Berlusconi is currently on trial for living with women, but nobody would lay a finger on him if he were gay. (Laughter.)
Anyway, I want to talk about Mr Romano’s words. Please note that he is not just an intellectual, although he is indeed a professor, a scientist, a true European intellectual. But he is also a European bureaucrat, down to his core. Just look at what he said: relations between Russia and Europe are like caviar and vodka. But both caviar and vodka are Russian products, products of Russian origin. (Laughter.)
After all, Europe is used to the well-known principle of eating from one’s neighbours’ plate before eating from one’s own.
ROMANO PRODI: Let it be whisky and soda.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Well, whisky and soda is a bad drink to begin with; why ruin the whisky? You should be drinking it straight.
Regarding Ukraine. Ukraine, without a doubt, is an independent state. That is how history has unfolded. But let’s not forget that today’s Russian statehood has roots in the Dnieper; as we say, we have a common Dnieper baptistery. Kievan Rus started out as the foundation of the enormous future Russian state. We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.
Of course, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language have wonderful features that make up the identity of the Ukrainian nation. And we not only respect it, but moreover, I, for one, really love it, I like all of it. It is part of our greater Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian, world. But history has unfolded in such a way thattoday, this territory is an independent state, and we respect that.
By the way, Ukraine had a long and difficult path to reach its current state today. It was part of one state, then another state, and in each, a part of Ukraine’s public entities were not privileged. The Ukrainian people had a very difficult destiny, but when we united into one Rus, that part of the nation began to develop rapidly, began developing infrastructure and trade. After World War II, the Soviet government allotted somewhere around 1.5 trillion rubles to restore certain companies – very large companies. One third of that funding went to Ukraine.
Let me reiterate: today, Ukraine is an independent state, and we respect that fact. Naturally, selecting priorities and selecting allies is the national, sovereign right of the Ukrainian people and the legitimate Ukrainian government.
How do we see this process of [Ukraine] joining the EU or signing a Customs Union agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus? After all, Russia is also going to sign a new framework agreement. We have already discussed signing [an agreement on] some form of a free trade zone with the European Union, and Romano and I have talked about this as well. This is all possible.
You know what the difference is? The fact that during negotiations on Russia’s WTO accession we agreed on a certain level of tariff protection. This is hard for us because our competition has cheap and – we can say frankly – quite high-quality agricultural products, agricultural machinery. Things are very difficult for us in several other sectors, for our industries. But the level of customs protection in Russia is higher than in Ukraine; I think it is twice as high, or near that.
Why are we marking time in negotiation processes with our European partners? It’s true what I said earlier about them earlier that before eating what’s on their plate, they first eat the neighbours’ food. They are very nice guys, very friendly, polite, pleasant to talk with, we can eat caviar and drink vodka, good German beer or Italian or French wines, but they are very tough negotiators.
At present we can’t even move forward and conclude a new framework agreement, much less a further agreement about free trade. That is because we believe our partners are making excessive demands and, in fact, imposing on us an agreement that we refer to as WTO Plus. That is, it comprises the WTO requirements with regards to open markets and several other things, particularly regarding standards, plus some additional demands.
But first of all we need to digest WTO accession; we cannot go too fast. And we believe that if Ukraine joined the Customs Union and we coordinated our efforts and negotiated with the Europeans, we would have more chances to negotiate better terms of trade with our main economic and trade partner. Europe remains our major trading partner; 50% of our trade is with the European Union.
In this sense, we believe that [joining the Customs Union] serves both our and Ukrainian interests. All the more so since during the negotiation process we would lower energy prices and open Russian markets. According to our calculations, and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences confirms this, Ukraine would receive an additional $9 billion. Not a minus, but a plus.
How would Ukraine benefit from joining the EU? Open markets? Well, this would make the economy more liberal. But I have no idea whether Ukraine’s economy can cope with such liberalism. It’s none of our business really, our Ukrainian partners must decide this for themselves.
But what is our problem? If import duties are further reduced in Ukraine, then good quality and cheap European goods will make their way there. They will squeeze products of Ukrainian origin out of the domestic market, pushing them where? Towards us. This creates problems. We are therefore warning in advance and saying: we understand all this, it’s your choice, go ahead if you want to, but keep in mind that we will somehow have to protect our market and introduce protectionist measures. We are saying this openly and in advance, so that afterwards you will not accuse us of interfering with anyone or questioning another country’s sovereign right to decide in favour of the EU.
You understand that we will simply need to consider how many goods can access our market and what protectionist measures we will have to take, that’s all. After all, look at the share of agricultural products that Ukraine imports and which end up on the Russian market. I think probably about 70 to 80% of all food imports. And what will they do with their pipes and other products? There’s a whole range of issues, we engage in massive internal cooperation, and some businesses cannot exist without their counterparts. And if we introduce such limitations, these companies – and perhaps whole industries –will then face severe problems. That’s what we’re talking about, that’s what we’re warning about. We are doing so in good faith and in advance, without in any way encroaching on [Ukraine’s] sovereign right to take a foreign policy decision.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you very much, Mr President.
I want to give Mr Simes the chance to reply.
PRESIDENT OF THE US CENTRE FOR THE NATIONAL INTEREST DIMITRI SIMES: I enjoyed listening to this whole conversation and the President’s speech. I feel a little uncomfortable, like the honest old man who said: “Mr President, I am an honest old man, I have nothing to lose, and you are a genius.” I do not want to speak like that and won’t do so here.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: That’s a pity. It’s not hard – just say it. (Laughter.)
DIMITRI SIMES: Maybe you’ll like [what I have to say], we’ll see.
I found our previous conversation a little perturbing because it seemed like “all is well, my beautiful marchioness”, except for a tiny trifle. Yes, of course there are problems between Russia and the European Union, there are disagreements between Russia and the United States, but on the whole everything is done with goodwill and mutual understanding. I had the feeling while listening to the conversation earlier that all we have to do is show some goodwill and common sense, and everything will go smoothly.
Friends, we have not yet recovered from, and have only just begun to seek a way out of one of the most serious international crises since World War II. We have not yet emerged from this crisis. Apart from the technical aspects of the situation with Syria’s chemical weapons, there is also a fundamental difference of views. As the President said, Russia’s position is that there should be no use of force.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Without UN Security Council approval.
DIMITRI SIMES: Without UN Security Council approval.
In addition, as the President said, there is no proof that chemical weapons were used by Assad’s government, which in the United States and in Europe is usually referred to only as the regime. The American position and that of leading European powers is fundamentally different.
Why was President Obama forced to take on President Putin’s initiative? As I understand it, not because he fundamentally rejected the idea of a military strike on Syria. As Mr President just said, Mr had Obama addressed the Congress and was clearly preparing the country for a military strike, but he failed. First he was let down by the British Parliament, and then suddenly by American public opinion.
I have never seen anything like what has just happened in the United States. I emigrated there forty years ago, in 1973, and what I have seen in that time is that the majority of Americans are political realists who do not like any foreign humanitarian interventions, and who do not want to spread democracy by using force.
Public opinion does not matter much, because for most people it wasn’t an important issue; that is not why they voted the way they did. And then suddenly, for the first time a real protest hurricane developed very fast, and took on momentum like a snowball. When it began the Administration was certain that they had the support of the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. And after the Senate’s vote, it would be possible to pressure the House [of Representatives], which has a Republican majority.
And suddenly I saw on American television – and I’m sure my American colleagues did too – how at these meetings of congressional representatives, senators and voters, including Senator John McCain, the voters shouted: “How dare you?! What are you doing?!” And the more the Administration and President Obama talked about needing to attack Syria, the greater was the public opposition.
Then your initiative appeared, Mr President, one that allowed President Obama to save face and to recognise the inevitable, that strikes won’t work. But the main motives remain: removing Assad, demonstrating that if the United States and President Obama personally set some kind of red line, in this case the use of chemical weapons, then it cannot be crossed. And if it does happen, then America won’t tolerate that the perpetrator remains in power, or for evil not to be punished, as Washington said. All these points remain valid.
The problem is much broader than Syria. When you talk about Russia’s national identity, I remembered how I was in Russia in 1991 with former President Nixon, and how he spoke at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He surprised everyone there by saying that Russia is a part of Western civilisation and that naturally Russia must understand that there are some common democratic mechanisms and free market principles.
He said that Russia should never simply follow along behind US foreign policy, nor should it adopt American Western values. Not only is it unnatural for Russia, because it is simply dressing-up the country as something it isn’t, but it will have a boomerang effect. Russian public opinion, Russian policy will never support this in the long term. As a result, there will be some resentment of the United States and the West, and they will have to pay for this.
In conclusion, Winston Churchill, who President Putin referred to earlier, said a very interesting and wise thing about the United States: He said that “you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – but only after they’ve tried everything else.” I hope that we are coming to the end of trying everything else, and that this will open up a real opportunity for Russian-American relations.
I fully support President Putin’s tough stance, not because I’m not an American patriot, but because I believe that baby talk among great powers is not the way to reach an agreement. One has to understand what to expect from the other country, and what their mettle is.
My question to the President is as follows. I think you showed in your Munich speech and in your highly effective article in The New York Times what Russia will not allow, and the red lines that Russia is laying down. But if you talk one-on-one with President Obama (and I understand that an audience such as this is a different format), what does Russia disagree with in addition to what you said in The New York Times? What would you tell him if the United States saw a window of opportunity and tried to use it? How would you see the possibilities for cooperation with Russia? What concessions could you offer? Is it possible, for example that Russia’s position on some important issues might change?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: First of all, I do not think that the initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under [international] supervision contributed, as you said, to saving President Obama’s face. It has nothing to do with saving anyone’s face. It was his decision, based on an empirical analysis of the situation, and I’m very pleased that our positions on this issue coincided. That’s the first point.
Secondly, what would I say? You know, there is no secret here. After all, I spoke to President Obama one-on-one, including last time we met in St Petersburg, we talked on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and at previous meetings in Los Cabos [in 2012]. You know, I always have the same question. After all, the vast majority of people sitting here are experts and I can ask them all, and you too, one of the most respected experts on Russia and international politics, the same question: what is it the purpose? You know, I always ask: what are you trying to achieve? If evil must be punished, what is evil there? The fact that President Assad’s family has been in power for 40 years? Is that evil? The fact that there is no democracy there? Indeed, perhaps there is none as the American establishment defines it.
REMARK: There is no democracy in Saudi Arabia either, but for some reason no one is bombing it.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: See, they say there is no democracy in Saudi Arabia either, and it’s difficult to disagree with that. Nobody is getting ready to bomb Saudi Arabia.
The issue is that we establish a trusting dialogue with Americans and Europeans so that we can listen to each other and hear our respective arguments.
“Evil must be punished. There must be a democracy.” Look at what happened in Egypt: there was a state of emergency there for forty years, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground. Then they were allowed to come out into the open, elections were held and they were elected. Now everything is back like it was before. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed underground, and there’s a state of emergency. Is this good or bad? You know, we need to realise that there are probably countries and even entire regions that cannot function according to universal templates, reproducing the patterns of American or European democracy. Just try to understand that there is another society there and other traditions. Everything in Egypt has come full circle, came back to what they started with.
Apparently, those who committed the now famous military actions in Libya were also inspired by noble motives. But what was the outcome? There too they fought for democracy. And where is that democracy? The country is divided into several parts which are run by different tribes. Everybody is fighting against everybody else. Where is democracy? They killed the US ambassador. Do you understand that this is also the result of the current policy? This is a direct outcome.
I don’t say this now to criticise or attack anyone. I just want to encourage all of our partners to listen to each other, and to each other’s arguments. Russia has not special interests in Syria, and that is not what we are trying to protect by supporting the current government. Of course not. In my article, I think I wrote something like “We are fighting to preserve the principles of international law.” After all, it was at the initiative of the American founding fathers that when the statutes of the United Nations and its Security Council were signed – and I would stress that this was at American initiative – that they contained a provision that decisions pertaining to war and peace must be made unanimously. This holds profound meaning. No matter how hard or how difficult this may be.
After all, you understand that if any country feels invulnerable and strikes unilaterally wherever it deems necessary, then the international order and the very meaning of the UN and the Security Council will be reduced to zero. This would be a blow to the world order, not simply to Syria. That’s what I’m talking about, do you understand? That’s what I’d like to say to you and this audience, and to our partners in the United States.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Mr Fillon wants to speak.
FORMER FRENCH PRIME MINISTER, DEPUTY OF THE FRENCH NATIONAL ASSEMBLY FRANCOIS FILLON(translated from Russian): I have great respect for President Putin for two reasons.
First, because he is the president of a great country, a vast land with a centuries-old culture, and so dialogue with him is essential. But I respect him for another reason too. He is someone who keeps his promises and with whom dialogue is possible. It is not always an easy dialogue, but it is always possible.
Over the five years that I headed the government, I often saw formal discussions in international relations, sometimes rather tedious events, where the participants would all simply read out documents prepared by their assistants. I can say that with Vladimir Putin the discussions were also a lot lengthier and more spontaneous and alive, and of course more constructive too. This brings me to two moments.
First, of course we cannot simply export our political system. I believe that every people has the right choose how they want to live in accordance with their own culture and way of life. But at the same time, we, whether in Russia or Europe, cannot be completely indifferent to a situation in which mass murder has been taking place for two years now.
One country intervening in another’s affairs in an attempt to impose its model is not the same thing as attempting to stop mass killing. In this context, if we had not intervened in the situation in Libya, as Vladimir Putin knows very well, the Libyan army would have wiped the city of Benghazi from the face of the earth.
Vladimir Putin has made several references to Christianity, to which he, like I, is deeply committed. But it is in Christianity that we find values that oblige us not to be just silent witnesses to these mass killings. Of course we must respect international law in the actions we take. France therefore opposes airstrikes at this moment, because I think that airstrikes carried out outside international law would only worsen the situation in Syria.
I call for building relations of trust in the Security Council. We can build these relations of trust if we take steps towards each other. We might have doubts about the UN experts’ report, but it is better to have this report than not to have it. Now that we have it, we need to work together to build between Russia, Europe, the USA and the Security Council members the relations of trust that will allow us to avoid war and will push the conflicting parties in Syria towards a political solution.
Vladimir Putin took my words about responsibility as if they were addressed to him alone. What I meant was that Russia of course has particular responsibilities through its ties with Bashar Assad’s regime, and we in Europe also have our responsibilities through the ties that we have with the opposition. This responsibility should impel us towards one and the same result – to get the two sides to stop the fighting. We are not talking about imposing Western-style democracy there, but about stopping the mass killing, which is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that it should have gone on for so long.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let me just make one remark in this respect.
Of course we cannot simply watch calmly as mass murder takes place, but at the same time, let’s be honest with each other. Yes, an internal conflict began there, but it immediately started being fuelled from abroad. Weapons began flowing in, fighters began arriving in Syria. They started coming right from the outset, maybe even earlier. This is a clear and well-known fact.
Where did Al-Nusra, an organisation linked to Al-Qaeda, come from? And there’s another group there too, also linked to Al-Qaeda. The State Department recognises this, recognises these groups’ links. They have admitted after all that groups that are part of Al-Qaeda are fighting there. What do we make of this?
In my discussions on this matter with my colleagues, I say, “Ok, you’re essentially wanting to take their side and help them come to power, but what will you do next? Just grab a newspaper and chase them away from the power they’ve taken?” It doesn’t happen that way. We know it’s not possible. It doesn’t work that way. So I ask them, “What will you do?” They say, “We don’t know.” That’s a direct discussion, no secrets to hide. But if you don’t know what you’re going to do next, what’s the point in rushing in and bombing away when you don’t know the outcome? That’s the big question.
You know what the main difference in our approaches is? If we try to intervene in favour of one of the parties to the conflict, give them our support, it will ultimately make it impossible to establish an internal balance of power in the country. Everything will start to come apart and then collapse. Difficult though it may be, we need to force them to look for common ground, force them to reach agreements among themselves and find a balance of interests, and then it might be possible to bring longer-lasting stability to the country and eventually even have things level out. But if we lend our full force to one or the other conflicting party no balance will be possible.
People in the US recognise now that the operations in Iraq were a mistake. We said this would be the case, but no one wanted to listen. I remember my discussions with the former President, and with the former British prime minister. I won’t repeat the details, but we spoke about precisely these things. And yet no one wanted to listen. As for the result, I’m sure this audience is already fully aware of the result.
You say that Benghazi would have been destroyed. I don’t know. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps not. But is today’s situation better, when a civil war is underway and people are being killed every day? To this day we are still seeing dozens of people dying every day in Iraq. Every single day! The number of people killed since the end of the military operations is already greater than the number of people killed during the military action itself. And what is the result? It is exactly the opposite to what was hoped for, and that is what we are trying to get across, and why we seek a constructive dialogue with our partners in Europe and in the USA.
In Libya, living standards were a lot higher before. What is the fighting there all about? The fighting today is about different tribes trying to get control of the oil resources. I am not saying that Libya had a good or balanced regime. Gaddafi thought up some political theory of his own. This does not mean that things should have continued unchanged there for another 100 years. But to resolve the problem the way they tried, in the end they failed to resolve it at all, and are unlikely to do so any time soon.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Mr President, Mr Rühe wants to respond.
Mr Rühe, please go ahead.
VOLKER RÜHE: President Putin, I go along with you, what you said on Iraq. And we were as critical; the French were, also. It was not a NATO – it was an American decision.
But Libya was different. And I would like to remind you that in the first decade of this century, the United Nations created a new development in international law called Responsibility to Protect.
What does this mean? Every state has a responsibility to protect its own population. And if it doesn’t do this, then there’s a right of the international community to intervene, once there’s a decision in the Security Council.
Russia abstained and made it possible to have this attack. And I would just like to say, I’m very grateful to the French forces who saved the lives of thousands of people in Benghazi. This was not to create democracy and it will take a long time and will always be different from us. But how many people can you kill in your own country by saying, “This doesn’t concern the outside community”? The international law says this is no longer possible.
And coming to Syria, it’s a different case. There is no international basis for intervention. But when you remember how it started, and we had a very interesting debate last night, it was in Daraa in the south that young people demonstrated like we do in the streets, like young Russians do in the streets. And they were shot.
And later on, we all see the pictures of a president sending out his air force to kill people who are queuing to buy a piece of bread. I can tell you, a president who kills people with his air force who want to buy a piece of bread, he has no future. He has no future. And this is nothing we just can look at. We have to come to an agreement what to do, and I’m very much grateful for what has been established between you and the United States. It’s very precious. And I hope it will lead to results and it will help both of you. It’s a win-win situation for all of us.
But we must also understand that in the world of today, you cannot just go at states that attack other states. That was the case in the 20th century. But what do you do with states that don’t protect their own population? You don’t have the right just to intervene, but on the basis of the UN decision, this makes sense. Because everybody, every president of every country, also has a responsibility to protect his own people.
That’s my position.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I fully agree that the use of force is possible only through a decision by the UN Security Council. Otherwise, of course, I completely concur.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Dimitri Simes. We promised a degree of debate, and here we have it.
DIMITRI SIMES: Responsibility to protect is a very good principle. I know that in the West, we follow it to the letter. For example, I heard that Germany broke off diplomatic relations with Egypt when they killed one thousand mostly peaceful demonstrators supporting their lawfully elected president. I’m joking of course; Germany did not break off relations. The United States did not impose any sanctions, and did not even stop supplying arms. And I must say honestly, I have no problem with this, because I am a political realist: that’s how the world works.
Indeed, I think it would be a mistake for the United States to let Egypt fend for itself. But we must be honest with ourselves. I will never forget when I read about 1862, that France and England, particularly France, were giving Alexander II lectures regarding so-called Russian soldiers in Poland. At the same time, England and France were colonising Africa, using the most brutal methods imaginable.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, let’s take a swing at the Europeans, with their double standards…
DIMITRI SIMES: This double standard exists. And I must tell you honestly, as President Putin’s friend and admirer Henry Kissinger says, it’s a well-known double standard in international relations when you differentiate between friends and adversaries; this double standard is normal, but you must know when to stop.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, it is too bad that Henry is not here. He would add some very interesting insight to the discussion. You know, I say this sincerely, because there are people in the world who, in spite of patriotism and international interests, have learned to say what they think. He is one of them.
I think the President of Israel is like that as well; he states his position freely. I mean, he is the acting President, he certainly has limitations, but in personal discussions, he is very open, and I am sometimes amazed by how free he is with his words. And Kissinger – he is not even in government service and can speak sincerely.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Mr President, we have about ten to fifteen more minutes for questions.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Ryzhkov, you have the floor.
MEMBER OF THE VALDAI DISCUSSION CLUB VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Mr President, I have also been a member of this club for ten years and can confirm that this is a first-rate platform, with no censorship, with open discussions and the hardest-hitting questions. I think this 10th Valdai meeting is, in my view, the most incisive and interesting. We have been working productively for ten hours every day.
If you will allow, I would like to return to domestic policy, because we already spent a lot of time discussing foreign policy. Especially since, as you know, we have been working here for three days, and I think that Russian domestic policy is currently of enormous interest. This is because we see a kind of incredible societal awakening over the last several years; I think you see it as well. In some places, it is happening very intensely, and in other places, less so, but society is awakening very actively.
It is hard to disagree with what you said, that a strong nation cannot be built without dialogue, without taking into account all opinions, through violence, force and coercion. This is equally true of Syria, Russia and Libya.
If you allow, I want to ask you some fairly topical questions about something that troubles me personally, which I know to be troubling to other people present here and an enormous number of people throughout the nation.
The first of these questions has to do with the events of May 6, 2012. There was a demonstration in Moscow, which, unfortunately for all of us, ended with a few clashes between some of the demonstrators and the law enforcement agencies. Currently, the so-called Bolotnaya Case is underway; if I’m not mistaken, 28 people are on trial. Some of them, about twelve of them, have already been under investigation, under arrest, for eighteen months. One of them wasn’t even able to say goodbye to his mother, who died. Today, another defendant’s grandmother died; we don’t know whether he will be able to go to her funeral. I know for a fact that for a large part of society, the Bolotnaya Case – the criminal case against participants in the demonstration – evokes strong emotions and serious tensions.
Mr President, I have studied this issue very carefully and looked into our Criminal Code. It says that mass disturbances are defined as involving explosives, arms, health risks, property damage and large-scale unmotivated violence. Fortunately for us, there were no explosives, no arms, no large-scale violence or health risks on May 6; there were individual confrontations. But the charges are very severe. And I’m afraid that if it comes to severe, stiff sentences, this will become an issue that creates a lot of tension within the society. So perhaps – I understand that the judicial authorities are working independently – it would be good to consider amnesty for participants in these events, to mollify the enormous anxiety on the part of many citizens?
And my second concern, Mr President. We spent two days discussing the September 8 elections. We had a very intense discussion, by the way, there were participants from two of the most noteworthy campaigns: Sergei Sobyanin spoke for the Moscow campaign, and Yevgeny Roizman spoke for Yekaterinburg. Many regions saw truly bright, passionate, competitive electoral campaigns. But unfortunately, Mr President, a dozen regions – and maybe more – once again saw large-scale falsifications. The observers say this, the experts say this, and the people living in those regions say this. What does this lead to?
Society is awakening; society wants to participate in running the government, it wants to participate in the elections, and it wants to have legitimate power, but certain individuals in the regions are used to throwing in extra ballots, rewriting them and falsifying them. This leads to apathy, it leads to disappointment, and it ultimately leads to undermining trust in the government – a government that both those in power and those in the opposition wish to see succeed.
So perhaps, Mr President, it could be worthwhile to consider some sort of additional steps, taking into account that a year from now, there will be many more electoral campaigns, in order to guarantee fair, open, competitive elections – not just in the major cities where elections were competitive, but throughout the nation overall? This would release an enormous amount of tension that exists in many regions and I am sure that an entire generation of bright, talented, proactive, patriotically-minded politicians would enter the political arena.
Thank you very much.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you.
As for the so-called Bolotnaya Case [in 2011, for which 12 people are facing trial], I don’t want to make any juridical pronouncements as to whether a form of riot took place there or not. I don’t doubt your competences as a lawyer, but all the same it is the investigative and judicial authorities that must take such decisions.
What is it I want to say in this regard? Whatever happens we must not forget the lessons recent history has taught us and our neighbours. We remember the London riots that took place just recently, three years ago, when cars were overturned. Thanks to the CCTV cameras that are everywhere in London, the police and British intelligence services spent a year looking for all the participants in the riots. They found almost every one, and all were convicted. And I think that the English did the right thing, because no one should entertain the illusion that such behaviour is permissible.
I don’t know whether there were signs of riots [in Bolotnaya Square] or not. Let’s leave that to the law enforcement and judicial authorities. I do not want to intervene in this debate. But there’s one thing I can say, and I would like to once again publicly articulate my position regarding this kind of situation. If people behave and express themselves in a way that violates other citizens’ rights and interests, and break the law, then the state must react accordingly.
You cannot call for beatings or bodily injuries of the police, try to gouge out eyes, call for hitting people on the head, or rip off their epaulettes. And do you know what outcome this would have in any country, and in Russia in particular? Such acts must be repressed in accordance with applicable law. This should be clear to everyone. And there is no need to blackmail authorities with the fact that they will be labelled undemocratic. The authorities must respond accordingly.
Can we consider granting amnesty in this case? I do not exclude it. But we have to deal with this case in an extremely responsible way. I do not exclude it. We need to give [the authorities] the opportunity to see all necessary legal procedures through to their logical conclusion.
About whether or not the elections were dishonest. I don’t know, there probably was some fraud. You drew our attention to and mentioned the elections in Yekaterinburg. Here I think a candidate [Yevgeny Roizman] ran for, spoke at and won the mayoral elections. A non-aligned person, a representative of the so-called non-systemic opposition. And he went out and won.
In Moscow, our largest city, elections were free and fair, and people even expected that the mayor [Sergei Sobyanin] would win in the first round. But they expected he would win by a large margin. Actually, his main rival [Alexei Navalny] had almost half as many votes. This also speaks to the level of support among Muscovites. But I cannot say that elections in Moscow were fraudulent. I think that both you and your colleagues were probably present at polling stations. I can’t even imagine what else we could do to make them more transparent. If you have any suggestions or ideas, let’s discuss them, and we will integrate them into existing legislation. Do such negative phenomena occur in some Russian regions? I would not exclude it. I would urge you to join with the authorities and law enforcement agencies to detect such infringements and take corresponding measures.
Finally, in answer to your question, I would like to express my hope that your assumptions are correct. I would also very much like – and I think about this every day – smart, patriotic young people to enter Russian politics, people with a clear vision and understanding of what needs to be done for the good of their country, for their Motherland. I myself truly want this and will contribute in every way possible to making it happen, including through informal channels.
You yourself have been in politics a long time now. You were a [State Duma] deputy, and you know it is possible to use a protest mood to achieve electoral success. But this does not directly translate into the positive, effective development of a given region, municipality or the entire country. We need really qualified people, competent, effective managers with a clear understanding and vision of how the country will develop.