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BBC Monitoring
Russia's Putin talks media through main domestic, foreign policy issues
Source: RTR Russia TV, Moscow, in Russian 0800 gmt 20 Jun 03

Russian President Vladimir Putin has given a news conference in the Kremlin for domestic and foreign journalists, covering a wide range of domestic and foreign-policy issues. The proceedings, during which Putin responded to questions from the floor, were broadcast live on Russia TV on 20 June. The full text of the news conference which lasted 2 hours 42 minutes will be released and be available as a special section on the BBC Monitoring Select website on Saturday 21 June.

Russia "in its present-day form" needs to be a presidential republic

Putin said that at the moment the only viable kind of government for Russia is a presidential republic. He said: "I believe that for Russia in its present-day form, what with the complex composition of the federation, and Russia's multi-ethnic and multi-faith composition, any system of government other than a presidential republic is unacceptable and, moreover, dangerous. In some countries a parliamentary republic does, of course, function and functions effectively but I do not think this suits Russia. That is the first thing and, secondly, I do not believe we should question the choice of the country's entire population and prevent the population directly electing their head of state."

Putin also said that adding an extra year to the presidential term of office was not worth the constitutional upheaval involved. Asked if he would be looking to extend the presidential term of office from four to five years should he be re-elected next year, Putin said: "All in all, I don't think it is of fundamental importance, whether it's four or five years, there's no great difference. Two terms of five years would provide a more stable situation, I think, but five years is fine.

"Personally, if I do decide to stand for election next year and if I am elected, I would not insist on this, indeed, I believe that in our specific circumstances it should not be done because it involves the need to amend the constitution and the very process of initiating constitutional amendments is a destabilizing factor to some extent. I think that would be worse, very much worse, than having a four-year term. Four or five years, ultimately, is not that important."

Russian prime minister "not doing a bad job"

Putin had muted praise for the work of incumbent Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his government. He said: "As for responsibility for the government, I do, of course, bear responsibility for the work of the government but the government is headed by the prime minister and he's not doing a bad job. There are many questions, many problems, one would like the work to be even better but, on the whole, the actions of the government should be deemed satisfactory."

Russia willing to work with any Chechen leader elected with popular backing

Putin told a Groznyy Inform news agency correspondent that it was more important for the federal authorities to see a leader elected in Chechnya with popular support than to declare their own backing for any particular candidate. He recognized that despite concerns about timing "the faster a legitimate government is formed, the better it will ultimately be for the people ... because it will enable us to complete the process of handing over fully to the republican authorities all the levers of power and administration in Chechnya". As for the outcome of the election, Putin said: "As far as support for specific individuals is concerned, I have talked about this to people respected by the people of Chechnya who have no official position in any governing or administrative authorities. I have talked to the current leader of the republic, the acting president. I have talked to former deputies in the former parliament. And I can reiterate to you that I personally and the federal authorities will be happy with someone who enjoys the support of the people of the republic because without that support he will be unable to pursue an appropriate policy in Chechnya effectively. To us that is the most important thing, the main and fundamental issue. So whoever the Chechens elect will be the leader. We will recognize him and work with him."

Dispute with Turkmenistan over repeal of dual citizenship played down

With Russian residents of Turkmenistan the subject of much media coverage of late following the ending of a bilateral agreement on dual citizenship, Putin told a RIA-Novosti news agency journalist: "We will consistently defend our citizens, wherever they live, in Europe, Africa or in Central Asia. This is the duty of the government of Russia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

He went on to say, however, that any action should be constructive and that "this topic must not be exploited for self-aggrandisement or to boost popularity ratings, especially in the course of electoral campaigns or as part of domestic political events in Russia itself". He said Russia would act and "insistently so, without demolishing the fabric of our inter-state relations with countries where our fellow-countrymen live, but, on the contrary, strengthening our inter-state relations and ties".

As for Turkmenistan itself, Putin acknowledged that Russia's dual citizenship agreement with that country had indeed come to an end but said this did not affect those already holding such citizenship. He said Turkmen President Saparmyrat Nyyazow had given him assurances that "Turkmenistan would not undertake any actions aimed at worsening the situation of the citizens of Russia until the completion of the work of a high-level bilateral working group ... Let me repeat again, quoting what the president of Turkmenistan told me: Until this commission completes its work no changes will be made in the rules and regulations governing the residence, life or border crossing for citizens of Russia living in Turkmenistan."

Russia offers to help Georgia prevent cross-border attacks by Chechen rebels

On another topical issue, Putin offered Georgia any help it likes to stop cross-border attacks on Russian territory by Chechen rebels. Asked by a Georgian journalist how Georgia might remove existing "irritants" in relations with Russia, Putin said: "The answer is very simple and should be totally acceptable to our Georgian partners: They must ensure that attacks launched from Georgian territory on adjacent areas of the Russian Federation are stopped. That's it, we don't need anything else. Stop the activities of the destructive elements, the criminal groups that are unfortunately still present in the areas of Georgia bordering on the Russian Federation, namely the Pankisi Gorge and areas nearby."

Putin expressed his gratitude to the Georgian leadership for action in recent months, such as the elimination of some gang leaders and the capture and extradition to the Russian Federation of those responsible for blowing up blocks of flats in Moscow. He said: "We are ready to help. Just tell us how. We're not imposing any tools for resolving the issue ... If you like, we can help financially, or administratively; if you like, our military can help you with information; if you like, we can work on the border together; if you like, our special units - the Defence Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate and the FSB [Federal Security Service] - can directly participate in joint operations. We're willing to do that too. We're not imposing anything. If Georgia finds anything unacceptable, we're not going to insist on it. But it has to be joint efficient work," Putin said.

Russia confident Iran will not develop nuclear weapons

A number of topical foreign-policy issues were also raised, the first question coming from an NBC correspondent who wanted to know whether Putin had received assurances that Iran did not intend to develop nuclear weapons. Putin said he had indeed received such assurances: "Two days ago I had a telephone conversation with President [Muhammad] Khatami, at his initiative, and yet again he confirmed to me that Iran has no plans to develop nuclear weapons. Moreover, according to our information, Iran's leadership is ready to adhere fully to all protocols and requirements of the IAEA from the point of view of monitoring their nuclear programmes." Putin stressed that Russia is categorically opposed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and favoured strengthening nonproliferation regimes, as did all the signatories of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, one of which is Iran.

He went on to say that a recent IAEA board meeting had resolved to continue working with the Iranian leadership to increase the transparency of the country's nuclear programmes and Russia, along with the international community, would continue to work on this problem. "The only thing we object to is using the nuclear map to develop dishonest competition on the Iranian market. That's all," Putin said.

Conciliatory line adopted on US Middle East policy

In addition, Putin deflected implied criticism of US policy in the Middle East, saying he could see nothing "unconstructive" in President Bush's latest actions. Putin's comment came in answer to a question from an Al-Jazeera TV journalist regarding his reaction to the fact that Bush has organized a summit in Egypt and Jordan to sort out the Palestinian-Israeli problem without reference to Russia, the EU or the UN. He was also asked how he saw the possibilities for resolving the conflict.

Putin began by saying: "Let me say first of all that I do not consider that President Bush's actions with regard to the Middle East contain any element of an unconstructive position. As you know, President Bush flew to Egypt following the Evian meeting at which we discussed in detail the Middle East problem, the problem of a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And this was done not only on a bilateral basis but also on a multilateral one. President Bush set out his position in detail to everyone attending the Evian meeting. In their turn - and I can testify to this as I was present - each of the participants set out their own position. And judging from what I know of the course of the discussion in Egypt and Jordan, the Americans took account of our common position."

Putin went on to say that all the parties are in constant contact at foreign-minister level. He admitted there are differences over details, for instance over the importance of Yasir Arafat, but "on the cardinal features of a settlement the Russian and US positions coincide". He added that he has recently had contact by telephone with several of the leading figures on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and addressing the journalist directly he continued: "I don't need to explain to you - you are probably a greater expert than I am on how a Middle East settlement should be attained - but for the resolution of this problem there is only one way - the road of compromise and of always taking account of the vital interests of everyone who lives in those lands."

Even when asked by an Egyptian journalist about why the world constantly discussed Iran's, Iraq's and North Korea's nuclear weapons, but not Israel's, Putin refused to be drawn, saying: "The fact that a certain country possesses, or does not possess, nuclear weapons is, in my view, no reason for other countries to obtain these weapons too. It is only a good reason to start thinking about what we can do to settle the situation and to get rid of the excessive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including in those countries that, lawfully or unlawfully, possess, or strive to obtain, nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction."

Relations with USA may be good but UN retains leading international role

Putin acknowledged that "the whole Iraq situation was a serious test of Russian-US relations" and said "we came out of this situation with minimum losses". He welcomed "the final resolution on Iraq and the return of a significant portion of this issue to the UN arena". He stressed that while he has discussed this and other major issues such as Iran and North Korea with President Bush, Russia's stance on the mechanism for resolving such issues was already well-known. "Such a mechanism already exists - there is no other universal mechanism like it in the world - I mean the UN and its Security Council. I am convinced that this is the only place where problems of this order can be resolved, through patience and by acting in a coordinated way that takes account of one another's interests, and on the basis of international law."

Principles not pragmatism determined Russian stance in Iraq war

Putin rejected suggestions that Russia was in receipt of anything less than accurate and reliable intelligence reports both prior to and during the Iraq war. He denied claims that predictions of a lengthy war pointed to shortcomings in Russian intelligence, saying: "The experts you have in mind work for the foreign intelligence agencies, the Main Intelligence Directorate [GRU] of the General Staff and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I can tell you that prior to the start of events in Iraq, their analysis was such as to completely coincide - and I want to emphasize this - completely coincide with the way events unfolded, fully, almost to a day.

"I mean - and this will come as no secret to our American partners - our intelligence recorded each and every launch from the territory of the United States, each departure of a plane, each time a missile hit, or failed to hit a target and its possible target. In this sense, our intelligence-gathering services worked very reliably and efficiently.

Such intelligence had enabled him to take decisions about the situation in Iraq, Putin said but he was at pains to stress that such decisions were "not linked to who would win, but to what means we were entitled to use to resolve conflicts of this kind". Nor, he said, were they "connected with the fact that according to the data at our disposal the denouement was to have taken place fairly quickly, bearing in mind the military potential of the United States and its allies and the effective absence of such potential in Iraq".

Russia hopeful of resolving Korean issue peacefully

Putin had nothing new to say about North Korea, merely reiterating Russia's desire for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Asked by a South Korean KBS TV journalist about North Korea's nuclear programme, Putin said: "Our position here is clear and easy to understand: we are against nuclear weapons proliferation and this fully applies to the Korean peninsula. We are in favour of nuclear-free status for the Korean peninsula." He recognized that in moving towards this goal, "under no circumstances should North Korea be driven into a corner or the problem exacerbated. If North Korea has problems and concerns over its security, bearing in mind that no-one actually intends to attack North Korea, it should be given these security guarantees."

He said he believed the foundation and the good will to resolve the problem did exist and noted that Russia was in constant contact with the leadership of the Republic of Korea.

Putin stresses importance of relations with UK ahead of visit

With a visit to Great Britain on his immediate agenda, Putin said the country was a "top priority partner" for Russia. As an example of its importance, he cited Tony Blair's last visit to Moscow, which, Putin believed, "formed part of the basis for the UN Security Council decision taken a little later on Iraq. In fact, the main parameters of the resolution and our positions were agreed during the prime minister's visit to Moscow. We were unable to say this, because it was not known at that time whether there would even be a resolution - this did not only depend on the positions of the Russian Federation and Great Britain, but on all members of the Security Council and there was difficult work still ahead on agreeing positions."

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