Q: You know that the language issue turned up the heat in a number of regions, including our republic, this year. Of course, we are afraid of things becoming worse than they are now. A decision was adopted by the Education Ministry.
However, we would like to hear from you whether in one, two or three years you will raise the ethnic issue again. Do you have any plans to merge regions, as people are saying right now? This is a matter of grave concern for many people.
Vladimir Putin: First, I think there are no serious problems with the ethnic issue, as you put it.
Second, we have only one goal regarding language: to provide the same starting conditions for all children, no matter where they live in Russia.
We are talking about Tatarstan now, which I love and where I have many friends. But Tatars live not only in Tatarstan. About half of them live in other Russian regions. And all of them must have equal starting conditions.
When people know their national language, which is very important, and I will talk about this later, but have a poor knowledge of the dominant spoken language, the Russian language, which is the tuition language at our universities, this is not good for the children who live in Tatarstan. This is how I see it.
What we definitely must do is guarantee an opportunity to study the national language, not only the Tatar language, but also the Mari, Chechen, Yakut or any other language.
Thankfully, we have a huge variety of national languages. They constitute our cultural and language diversity and are our pride and our wealth. We must certainly support this.
…When the Soviet Union fell, the new federation entities were created based on old principles, which is why many of them are unsound economically.
Overall, enlarging regions could be good in terms of economic expediency. However, I want to say this now so that people in Tatarstan and other national republics and autonomous regions will hear me: We will not impose our views on the regions.
I believe this would be very harmful and dangerous to the unity of the Russian Federation. Any people, big or small, must be free to choose an acceptable and the best possible way to coexist with the other Russian peoples.
So, there are no and cannot be any state plans to enlarge or merge regions, at least not while I hold office.
As for the opposition and why there is no competitive opposition in the country, the simplest answer would be that nurturing rivals is not what I need to do.
However, you might be surprised but I do believe that we should have not only economic but also political competition.
Of course, I would be happy if we had a balanced political system. I want this, and I will work towards this. And a balanced political system is unthinkable without competition.
Why do we seem to have vocal and proactive opposition members in this country but they do not really provide any serious competition to the incumbent authorities? You know, Russia’s path in the past decades has been quite remarkable, to put it mildly. Why is that?
Of course, some younger people do not remember or do not even know what was happening here in the 1990s and the early 2000s. So they cannot really compare it to the present situation.
We have many problems. We are here today primarily to discuss those problems, without any whitewashing. However, Russia’s GDP has increased by 75 percent since 2000, industrial production by 60 percent. Processing industries have grown at increased rates, 70 percent accordingly. Actual wages have somewhat declined as a result of the crisis developments of the past three years, and we will discuss this today, too. Still, since the early 2000s, real incomes have gone up by 250 percent, and real pensions by 260 percent.
Infant mortality has decreased 2.6-fold and maternal mortality by 75 percent. Population decline in Russia used to be almost one million a year. We have reversed the demographic situation. There are still some issues and we will most likely mention them today.
However, we have reversed it. We are now facing two declines, a ‘demographic pit.’ Additional measures will be taken, which I will mention today. I am certain we can cope with these challenges. Life expectancy used to be 65 or 65.3 years and now it is almost 73. We lived in conditions of civil war for a long time, for several years, almost six years if not more. More, almost ten years. The country was forced to send 18- and 19-year-old boys, unprepared and untrained, to face bullets because there was no other choice. Now look at our army. Our debt has decreased three-fold and the national reserves have increased 30 times. This is something.
When we talk about the opposition, it is important to not just make noise out there on public squares or behind the scenes, and talk about a regime that is against the people. It is important to offer something, some improvement. Of course, people are dissatisfied with many things today and it is their right to be dissatisfied because our results could have been better. But when they look at what the leaders of the so-called opposition offer, both official and especially unofficial opposition, they start to question it.
Q: The United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then we failed to reach agreement on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. To our dismay, the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles also started swaying from side to side. Speaking of long-term prospects, it is unclear whether the START III Treaty will survive. Supposing that it also becomes destabilised, will this lead to a new arms race, which will require Russia to increase its defence spending? Will this affect current customary social payments, which is a frequent subject of discussion today?
Vladimir Putin: We did not withdraw from fundamental treaties that formed and still form the cornerstone of international security. We did not withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the United States did that unilaterally. We are now hearing talk about problems with the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. It appears that conditions are being created, and the appropriate information is being promoted for a possible US withdrawal from this Treaty, as well, all the more so as Washington has already withdrawn from it de facto. The United States is trying to reproach and accuse us of something, but what exactly has it accomplished? It has deployed systems, allegedly ABM systems, in Romania.
And how did it deploy them? It has removed sea-launched Aegis launchers from warships and deployed them on the ground. But these ABM systems’ missiles can be easily replaced with ordinary medium-range missiles. In effect, this process is already de facto underway. Nothing good will come of this trend if it persists. We have no intention of withdrawing from any document.
The same is true of the START III Treaty. We can hear the United States say that it allegedly considers this treaty unprofitable and inappropriate. There is such talk. If this happens, and if the United States once again unilaterally withdraws from this treaty, then this would spell dire consequences in the context of preserving international stability and security.
And now, I would like to say a few words about our defence spending. We know about these processes, we can see them, and we realise the possible consequences of specific actions. We will ensure our security without getting involved in an arms race.
Our military spending is balanced by several substantive criteria.
First, we must ensure our security. And, second, do this in a way that will not lead to an economic collapse. We take this approach.
Just look: next year, for example we plan to spend 1.4 trillion rubles on purchases and 1.4 trillion rubles on maintenance, which makes 2.8 trillion rubles. This is slightly over 2.8 percent of the GDP. I named the absolute figures – 2.8 trillion. At the current exchange rate, that is slightly over $46 billion.
The United States has signed into law a military spending bill for $700 billion. Compare $46 plus to $700 and feel the difference. Can our country afford that kind of spending? No, it cannot. But the $46 plus is enough for us. You could say that even this amount is too much.
I am sure you know this popular adage: those who do not want to feed their own army will feed someone else’s. It is an old one. But there are newer jokes. I occasionally tell you all sorts of jokes about this. I can tell you another one; it also has a beard, as we say, but it is more modern. A former military officer asks his son, “Son, I had a dagger here. Have you seen my dagger?” The boy replies, “Dad, don’t be mad. I swapped it for a watch with the kid next door.” The officer says, “Let me see the watch.” He looks at it and says, “A good watch, good for you. You know, gangsters and robbers will come to our house tomorrow. They will kill me and your mother and will rape your elder sister, but you will come out to them and say: ‘Good evening, Moscow time is 12.30.’” We do not want anything like that to happen, do we? So we will pay due attention to developing the army and the navy without getting involved in an arms race or ruining our budget.
Terry Moran: Thank you, Mr President. Terry Moran with ABC News.
First, in the United States investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the media have uncovered a very large number of contacts between Russian citizens associated with your government and high officials of the Trump campaign. And some of those officials are now being prosecuted for lying about those contacts. All this is not normal. And many Americans are saying where there is that much smoke there must be fire. How would you explain to Americans the sheer number of contact between the Trump campaign and your government?
And second, if I may. It has almost been a year since Donald Trump has been elected president. You praised Donald Trump during the campaign. What is your assessment of Donald Trump as president after one year? Spasibo.
Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the second part of your question. It is not for me to evaluate Donald Trump’s work. This should be done by his electorate, the American people. But we do see some major achievements, even over the short period he has been in office. Look at the markets, which have grown. This is evidence of investors’ trust in the US economy. This means they trust what President Trump is doing in this area. With all due respect to President Trump’s opposition in the United States, these are objective factors.
There are also things he would probably like to do but has not been able to do so far, such as a healthcare reform and several other areas. By the way, he said his intentions in foreign policy included improving relations with Russia. It is clear that he has been unable to do this because of the obvious constraints, even if he wanted to. In fact, I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people, and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world, including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc. There are many things we can do much more effectively together in the interests of our people than we are doing them now. Actually, we can do everything more effectively together.
Terry Moran: How would you explain the connection between the government, your government, and the Trump campaign? How would you explain it to Americans?
Vladimir Putin: You know that all this was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate. It seems strange to me, and I mean it, that the people who are doing this do not seem to realise that they are damaging the internal political climate in the country, that they are decimating the possibilities of the elected head of state. This means that they do not respect the people who voted for him.
How do you see any election process worldwide? Do we need to ban any contacts at all? Our ambassador has been accused of meeting with someone. But this is standard international practice when a diplomatic representative and even Government members meet with all the candidates, their teams, when they discuss various issues and development prospects, when they want to understand what certain people will do after assuming power and how to respond to this. What kind of extraordinary things did anyone see in this? And why should all this take on the nature of spy mania?
You have watched the investigation on social media. The share of Russian corporate advertising makes up less than 0.01 percent, with that of American companies totaling 100, 200 and 300 percent. It is simply incomparable. But, for some reason, even this is seen as excessive. This is some kind of gibberish.
The same can be said about the situation with our media outlets, including RT and Sputnik. But their share in the overall information volume is negligible, as compared to the share of global US media outlets all over the world and in Russia. And this is seen as a threat. Then what about freedom of the media? This is actually a cornerstone, on which American democracy itself is based.
All of us should realise that someone succeeds and someone does not. We need to draw conclusions from this and move on, instead of pouncing on one another like animals. We need to think about this and draw conclusions.
Ilona Linart, MTRK Mir.
Literally in a few days the Eurasian Economic Union will turn three years old, but our integration began in a difficult time for Russia. In 2014, oil prices collapsed, and the West embarked on the path of a sanctions war.
Many in the Union countries believe such a viscous, even sluggish onset of our integration is somehow linked with the Western sanctions against Russia. Therefore, we could not present the objective benefits of this unification of capital, labour and workforce, which seemed so obvious.
What do you think about this opinion? What has the EAEU achieved, and what remains to be done? And if the US imposes new sanctions against Russia, how will this affect the work of the Eurasian Economic Union?
Vladimir Putin: Regarding the Eurasian Economic Union, this is our common great achievement. All initiatives receive criticism, including the Eurasian Economic Union’s development, but the figures indicate that the decisions were correct and we are moving in the direction we need.
How is this confirmed? This is confirmed by the fact that internal commodity turnover is growing, and so are exports. It just grows; it is obvious from facts, from figures. It has grown, I believe, by 26.9 percent, if I remember correctly. And even with those countries that have recently joined us, there is also a cumulative positive result.
I said that Russia’s GDP grew by 1.6 percent, and the aggregate GDP of the Eurasian Union, by 1.8. This is a good sign. We are changing the structure of mutual trade for the better.
For example, in Belarus, machinery and equipment account for one-third of exports to countries of the Eurasian Economic Union. More than one-third. Agricultural produce also makes up one-third of total exports.
Suppose we give Belarus the right to acquire 24 million tonnes of oil duty-free, export it, and add the revenues to their coffers. We are talking about billions of dollars. Indeed, I repeat, we have reason to say that we are moving in the right direction.
Yet, there are unresolved issues. What issues? These are numerous exemptions from the adopted general resolutions, primarily on energy carriers, and electricity. We have a plan of action, outlined by year, which says when we should move to full liberalisation in these sectors. And we will move along.
There is an issue with customs regulation, which is another sensitive subject. What do we absolutely need to do? We will have to introduce electronic declaration of the goods moving through our countries and tracking of their movement – we have agreed on this with all our colleagues, although we are moving rather slowly and haltingly, but we have agreed, and I hope we will do it. An extremely important and very necessary thing.
Joint checkpoints. Some of my colleagues think that this is wrong. I will try to persuade them all the same. What is wrong with customs officers from Belarus or Kazakhstan appearing at our customs posts and working for some time with their Russian colleagues, or our officers joining them at their customs posts? This does not violate their sovereignty, but simply makes customs work more transparent. But we still need to introduce new technologies for transiting goods across the border.
Kseniya Golovanova: Good afternoon, Mr President. Kseniya Golovanova, Interfax. I would like to ask you about Syria. Mr Peskov, I will try to speak short.
Taking into account the enormous number of contacts you have held lately on the Syrian settlement, what, in your opinion, are the main obstacles or hidden agendas preventing normalisation in the country? Who should assume responsibility for restoring the infrastructure? Should or can?
About our bases and what you have said about the defeat of ISIS in Syria, how do you see the role of these bases? Are you not worried that Western partners may see their presence as a tool to support Bashar al-Assad?
And the last question: about your trip to Syria. It looked really cool. Please, tell us, when you decided to do it, did our Aerospace Forces play any role in making this trip happen? Or Syrian soldiers, maybe? And when will the withdrawal of our troops from Syria be completed? Thank you.
Dmitry Peskov: If I may add, over there they have a Syrian flag with “Our Victory” written on it.
Magomed Magomedov: Thank you. Magomed Magomedov, Daghestan Republican Information Agency. In 1999, you were in Daghestan, where we defeated international terrorists that invaded the republic. Today almost the same thing happened in Syria. But I think that terrorism has not been defeated yet. Today the world sees you as a leader, a head of state who fights terrorism.
Unfortunately, the experience the Americans demonstrate doesn’t lead to anything. What are the chances of finding and taking out the people pulling the strings of these terrorist groups? This time it was ISIS, will there not be a new group tomorrow and so on? Thank you.
Arslan Khasavov: Mr President, of course, it is good to be Andrei Kolesnikov or Sergei Brilyov, because it would be easier to attract attention, but also about Syria, shortly. I represent Uchitelskaya Gazeta, but I work in education and international journalism, in particular, I also visited Khmeimim Air Base this February…
Arslan Khasavov: Arslan Khasavov, Uchitelskaya Gazeta. Yes, I was the first Russian who came to Khmeimim Air Base on foot, as the staff told me…
Vladimir Putin: Where from?
Arslan Khasavov: I was made to get off a bus when trying to reach the Russians on my journey from Latakia to Tartus, to Homs and Damascus – such a detour. I wrote a series of articles about it.
Vladimir Putin: That was dangerous. Where are you from, Daghestan?
Arslan Khasavov: I was born in Chechnya, but that is another story.
Vladimir Putin: Only Chechen people can travel there on foot.
Arslan Khasavov: Mr Putin, I have visited the refugee camp in Homs. There are so many orphans there now. I was also in Istanbul, where I saw Syrian children virtually barefoot outside, begging and so on. And there are Syrian children in these refugee camps. However, there are no educational programs for them. I saw this with my own eyes. Humanitarian aid is being supplied.
What is to become of these children in 10–15 years, no one knows. Maybe, now that you have declared victory over terrorism in Syria, is it time to think of organising a truly humanitarian intervention, an educational one? I remember in Damascus, a Russian cultural centre was working for many years, but now it is closed. And since I am also a graduate of the Institute of Asian and African Studies, just like your Press Secretary … Maybe you need someone like me, from Chechnya, if you ordered me to start and lead this work in Damascus, I would be prepared to live and work there for this purpose.
Vladimir Putin: As far as I know, there is already a man from Chechnya who largely organises this work, a Kadyrov, I think. He is now evacuating children from there, which is the right thing to do.
But you are actually right, and I am not joking now. You are absolutely right – this is a problem, and Turkey certainly suffers the most, because most of the refugees are there, the largest camps are there. Yet, there are such camps in Jordan, and in other countries. We also know about the problem of migrants Europe is facing, and so on.
Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to deal with this problem, and Syria will hardly be able to cope with it on its own. But I am not afraid of using these clichés: all people of goodwill around the world should understand that if we do not resolve this together, it will be their problem as well.
You are absolutely right to raise concerns about these children and what will happen to them in a few years, if they do not receive proper education and grow up in a normal human environment. One of the main sources of terrorism is a low level of education and living standards. This is such an injustice, and one of the main sources of terrorism to date, and of course, we need to do something about it, we need to solve this problem.
But Syria cannot cope with this alone. You know that Russia cannot cope with this alone either. Therefore, we are ready to participate, but only as one of the components of a common international effort. Thank you for your question and for your initiative.
Really, joking aside, I do not rule out the possibility of your working there at some point. Just like our military police from the North Caucasus are working there now. I believe I already mentioned that it was my initiative to send people from the North Caucasus as
policemen there, because they are mostly Sunni, and the local Sunni population trusts them.
The authorities trust them too, because they are Russian servicemen, and the local people, regardless of their political affiliations, also trust them, because they are Sunnis. It is a win-win situation. First, the guys were very brave and disciplined, which is important.
They were aware of their responsibility, and fulfilled their duty with dignity as they represented Russia’s interests. However, this part is extremely important. So, the participation of our experts like you will be sought after.
Now, about the trip. The need for such a trip was clear to me for a long time. The question was whether proper conditions would be in place. When will we be done getting rid of these terrorist gangs? And what will the situation be like there? Well, the situation is there, these bandit groups are being mostly dealt with, and such a decision was made.
With regard to security, it was provided by our servicemen on the ground, too, because the specialists know that the most dangerous moments of such events include landing and take-off, when an airplane may be targeted by a MANPADS.
However, the pilots, I looked, did not just fly side by side, they went below our plane during landing. The nozzles of combat aircraft warm up much more than the engines of a civilian aircraft, and they, in fact, were covering our aircraft. Then, we parted ways. Of course, I am grateful to them for that and I want them to know about it, to hear it. Although, I think, there was no need for that but, nevertheless they did what they did.
What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of a final solution to the problem in Syria and fighting terrorism in general? Fighting terrorism in general is all about improving the level of education and well-being. And rectifying historical injustices in the Middle East and the world in general.
In Syria and elsewhere, it is critical that all the participants in these processes, the global players, do not succumb to a desire or temptation to use various terrorist, quasi-terrorist, or radical groups to achieve their fleeting political goals.
Al-Qaeda was created at some point to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and it ultimately struck New York on September 11. We can see it with our own eyes, our pilots can see it, and drones also show us the militants leaving, say, for Iraq. Our military tell their American partners: the militants went to a particular area. There is no reaction whatsoever. They are leaving, end of story. Why? Because they think that they could use them, probably, in fighting al-Assad. This is the simplest, but also the most dangerous thing to do, including for those who do it.