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David Johnson's Informal Notes on the Meeting with President Putin on September 6
Warning: All that follows is based on my incomplete information and not entirely reliable notes. Reader beware. I would suggest that nothing here is worthy of further quotation. It's more useful in giving an impression of what was said than as an accurate record of details. ACTUALLY: DON'T QUOTE FROM THIS!
The meeting with President Putin was arranged by Svetlana Mironyuk, the head of RIA Novosti and the moving spirit behind the Valdai Discussion Club. It was planned some time before the recent terror events in Russia and was a direct follow-on to the Valdai Discussion Club conference held September 3-4 in Veliky Novgorod. The conference was organized primarily by RIA Novosti and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. For more information on the Valdai Discussion Club and the participants go to: http://valdai2004.rian.ru/eng
RIA Novosti is preparing material on the conference, including a DVD of the proceedings.
There were about 35 people present at the meeting with President Putin, held at his country residence in Novo-Ogarevo. Most of the Westerners were academic or think-tank experts on Russia with perhaps five working journalists. (Let me observe that in my opinion Putin was not thinking of the event as a press conference. It was more of a thoughtful discussion with long-time Russia-watchers, not a news-generating event.) The only Russians present (other than two interpreters and some other staff) were Svetlana Mironyuk, Sergei Karaganov, and Aleksei Gromov who I believe is Putin's press secretary. (Of course, Nikolai Zlobin is also Russian.) The actual residence of Putin is likely not the building we were in which seems more likely the place for meetings. We initially gathered in a pool room (not swimming) for snacks, non-alcoholic drinks and a big TV where we all watched the evening news featuring sobering Beslan events. We also went outside to the front of the building to look at the gardens and take pictures of ourselves. After about an hour we were invited upstairs to a large meeting room. Putin entered the room at about 8:45 pm and immediately gave a warm welcome to the group, thanking them for their many years of interest in Russia. "I show my respect for you and will do my best to answer your questions." I think its important to note that Putin did not start with some prepared remarks. Although some may think he had talking points in mind I believe everything that occurred was generated from the spur of the moment.
The meeting went on until about 12:15 am. There were about a dozen questions
and comments from the invitees, most of which resulted in rather lengthy
responses from Putin. Although Chechnya- and Beslan-related matters were the
dominant subject there were other subjects raised. After the meeting Putin shook
hands with all the participants. He autographed at least one book about himself
(commenting "I hope you didn't write too many bad things about me"). We all sat
around a table in alphabetical order (Russian alphabet) with our names in
Russian on one side of a small sign and English on the other.
Question: Asks for comments on the global terror threat and Russia's policy toward Chechnya.
Putin: The Soviet Union was no angel. It was the source of the idea of global revolution. The genie of terror was let loose from that bottle. With the breakup of the USSR many conflicts were exacerbated. Many of these conflicts are in a dormant state that could flare up if we don't do something about it. There were a lot of injustices in Soviet times. Violations of human rights, including in Chechnya. We should remember that at the battle of Brest in World War II that many Chechens were present. Stalin cruelly exiled the Chechens. I have visited these camps. All these injustices could not help but bring about separatist trends. Errors were made by Russian leaders vis-a-vis Chechnya in the early 1990s. Errors that led to the first Chechen war. When Russia finally fled from Chechnya in 1996 a vacuum was created that was filled by radicals of the worst type. We attempted to change the status of Chechnya, tried to coexist with them. Then came their attack in Dagestan. There is no connection between the policies of Russia and the subsequent events. We have here international fundamentalism in its ugliest form. They are trying to take away the Caucasus. They introduced Sharia, firing squads, trade in slaves, taking hostages. The criminal use of religious trends. Maskhadov had no control. Warlords and chieftains in charge. More than 80% of Chechens voted to remain in Russia. People tired of lawlessness. Nobody can blame us for not exercising flexibility in dealing with the people of Chechnya. We gave them de facto independence in 1996 . What they made out of independence is violence and chaos. We tried to find a counterpart. Kadyrov. We held a referendum. (I was the only one in the leadership who felt we should do that.) They voted for Chechnya in the Russian Federation. Let me ask you a question: Would you want that anywhere people should be in power who shoot children?
Question: Asks about possibilities for anti-terror cooperation.
Putin: Russia today is a different country from the USSR. Others sympathize with us and want to deal with us. Fundamentalism in Russia could expand. Had a conversation with people from the US Congress. Invited them to come as observers of the referendum in Chechnya. They said they should come but then found pretexts for not coming. Some people want Russia to remain internally focused. We can't allow such an evaluation of the events. There are sincere partners in the fight against international terrorism. But there are Western contacts with some people. Unreliable partners. We have proven facts. The identity of people who contact people who fight against us.
Question: Policy toward Georgia. Ukraine election. Possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and EU.
Putin: Poland should deal with its own economic problems. Large debts. Ukraine's economic issues. France and Germany are cutting back on social programs. 50 million people in Ukraine. Joining EU is OK. We encourage cooperation with the EU. The idea of a common space. NATO is not an enemy organization. It is not efficient from the military point of view. Tool of politics. But NATO is a serious factor in global stability. But does Baltic states joining NATO help with modern threats? No. There have been fighter aircraft along our borders. We don't object to Ukraine in NATO. But not in a bullying way. Regarding Georgia: It was put together artificially like others in Soviet days. Ethnic problems. Abkhazia and Ossetia resentment against Georgia. They argue that Georgia could quit the USSR so why can't they quit Georgia. We want Georgia to be stable and friendly. Shakashvilli's idea of a security belt re Ossetia. Georgia may use force. Our partners do see a special role for Russia.
Question: What is your vision of the future?
Putin: Each country has its own character and values. European values and Christianity. America is referred to as a melting pot. In Russia there have been hundreds of years of coexistence of different ethnic group and religions in a very natural manner. For the future of Russia there will be more democracy at all levels. This needs to be efficient rather than destructive. Democracy should be adequate to the level of development of the society and the history of the country. A liberal economy is more efficient than a planned economy. But the mechanical transfer of those ideas turned sour in Russia. People almost discarded it. Reagan and Thatcher had reforms in conditions of an effective state. And even Thatcher was almost voted out of office. Noble ideas turned Russian into the route of oligarchic Latin America. Had conversation with Vasily Leontyev where he said you should give property to everyone. But in the early 1990s privatization could not take its right course. The state authorities could do nothing. There can be elections which exacerbate tensions. Dagestan is an example where there are many ethnic groups. What sets us apart from the melting pot of the US is that in Russia each ethnic group occupies its traditional territory. This is not the US case. Democracy means the choice of the people. Example of the Novgorod gathering. Might ask whether the election of the US president thru delegates is democracy. Democracy is related to each country's traditions, status, history, etc.
Question: Re Yukos.
Putin: I did say that Yukos should not be allowed to go bankrupt. Only Yukos is bringing this up. If you have names of people in the administration who seek Yukos' bankruptcy please let me know. The tax bills. The administration is not trying to control oil companies. We do want to make state companies more efficient. There are different ways to do this. We are not going to take over. Lukoil selling stake. Yukos selling assets to pay taxes does not mean their bankruptcy.
Question: Could you use humanitarian aid?
Question: Request clarification of remarks about US and Western Europe hurting you in opposing terrorism, the idea that they are trying to limit terror to Russia. Also asks about crackdown on the press.
Putin: Not seeing Western countries instigating terrorism. But we have observed incidents. A replay of the mentality of the Cold War. There are people who want us to be focused on our internal problems. I've seen this in my own experience. Pulling strings. A balancing act of supporting Russia on some things and hurting on other matters. "Those jerks who are shooting our children." This is perhaps internal infighting of the middle operational administration. Are they freedom fighters? 10 of Arab descent. Other nationalities. Western articles referring to rebels. Shameful! Let me tell you one episode. The terrorists stopped using the telephone. Using walkie-talkies. We intercepted. Terrorists in different sections of the school. One asked another what he was doing. He said "I'm in the business of shooting some kids here." Would have to storm the building. They would shoot all the children. People who refer to these people as rebels: Do they have any conscience?! People like this could come to power in your country. Put yourself in our shoes. Like Bin Laden in using religious slogans.
The status of governance in Russia at this time, only a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the US case you only have borders with Canada and Mexico. That's it. Borders much better controlled than in Russia. (I do understand problems re the border with Mexico.) "We simply do not have borders." Thousand of kilometers of border with Kazakhstan not guarded. There are many other problems. The task of building the state and the state's efficiency. We are on the right track. The Ministry of Interior is very much corrupted. After 9/11 the US created a ministry of homeland security. We don't have the resources to do that. I reinforced counter-terror units when with the FSB. His father told him stories of actions in World War Two. Today FSB agents live in a world of normalcy, families and children. But they do things when they have little chance to survive. Not a single case of refusing to act in dangerous circumstances.
Regarding the press, it's not easy of define press freedom. Are Murdoch's media free and democratic? There was excessive interests of certain groups. Media belonging to certain individuals.There is Channel One. NTV where there is less government influence. Many other TV stations in private hands. Rossiyskaya Gazeta is government owned. But there are 15,000 newspapers in private hands. Independence of media needs to be based on economic efficiency. There is a phrase from an Italian movie: A gentleman should always try and a real lady should always resist. In some regions of Russia local authorities have interfered with the press. This happens elsewhere too. Media need to develop economic independence.
Question: We visited St. Petersburg. Observed great changes. Happy citizens. Asks re the condition of the economy. Some feel Russia is an oil junky. Also problems of corruption. What are the major problems in the economy.
Putin: Re the idea that the people in St. Petersburg are happy. When Putin was a university student he studied logic. Tell you a story. Passengers got off at a small town station on the Moscow-Leningrad train. Two passengers go looking for cigarettes. They are both black men. Another passenger gets off to get some fresh air. As he walks he sees the black men returning. He concludes that only black men live here. Not everyone is happy in St.Petersburg. Putin was brought up in St.Petersburg. Re energy. Nor much different from Soviet days. Not improved much but not worse. Our task is to diversify. We are taking real decisions. More decisions in January 2005. Reducing the burden of taxation. We will be cautious. Don't want to kill the hen which brings us golden eggs. Consulting with the companies. We have not been voluntaristic and arbitrary in our decisions. Trying cautiously to improve other sectors of the economy. Corruption, yes a real problem. Sometimes I'm horrified to realize how much a businessman must do to get his business off the ground. It's a matter of psychology too. Government officials must understand that they are not the best organizers of business. The more productive and freer business is the better things can be achieved at all levels. We have the legacy of the arm chair economy. Administrative interference. It takes time to deal with these issues. We need to liberalize the economy. Regarding the future of the economy let me quote a famous author: The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated. There are positive dynamics in the economy. We need to exercise some caution. So many reforms in a short period of time.
Question: The importance of the balance of security and freedom. Could you have something like the US 9/11 commission to examine these matters? What international steps would you take re terrorism?
Putin: The US commission was perhaps dictated by the needs of the election campaign, rather than a sincere effort to improve security. I could be wrong; it's none of my business. After the Dubrovka events there was a Duma commission. We will not have something like the 9/11 commission. The Duma could have an investigation. More than anyone I want a thorough and objective inquiry. I want the right people in the right places who can address the problems at hand. Regarding the distribution of sympathies in Russia vis-a-vas the US election. Only 7% may favor Bush but there are influential people in the 7%. We want to preserve the positive relationship with the US. Bush is a man of consistency, predictable and reliable. We have had some differences, for example re Iraq. I can feel him as a human being, a colleague. A good natured human being. Re international activities re terrorism. Getting at the sources of funding. But don't want to unleash intervention. Saudi official called yesterday. Saudi Arabia taking steps re the foundations that fund terrorist activities. Re Iraq Bush has done a lot to normalize things in Iraq. The situation is complex. We will not get involved re law enforcement and the military. But we will in other areas with assistance.
Question: We all thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us at the difficult time. Chechnya has had three years of chaos and more years of war. The war is not ending. Human rights violations. If talks are ruled out the war will go on indefinitely. Won't there have to be talks? The alternative is endless deaths.
Putin: It's difficult to concur that there has not been progress re Chechnya. There are not large scale hostilities like in 1999. A smoldering conflict. You referred to the examples of Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Russia is no Bosnia. We don't want to follow the example of Yugoslavia. Re Northern Ireland or other similar examples--the sides did talk. But in none of these examples was territorial integrity transgressed. The possibility of the dissolution of the United Kingdom was not possible. It was Thatcher who said that the man who has taken to the street to kill should be killed himself. We HAVE engaged in contacts with our opponents. For example, in the law enforcement units in Chechnya half are formed from our former opponents. Kadyrov was fighting the government. We will continue this practice. The parliamentary process. The Chechen constitution provides an enormous amount of autonomy. We have been flexible. Remember that we did provide full de facto independence to Chechnya. Resulted in the assault on Dagestan. This matter is fraught with the disintegration of Russia. Their objective is much bigger than Chechnya. It's about the territorial integrity of Russia. Will be flexible with one and all except for those who shoot children. No one has the right to ask us to talk with those people. I don't counsel you to meet with Bin Laden. You have your limitations on your dealings with those bastards. We will continue our dealings with Chechen society, continuing the political process. Parliamentary elections. Reinforcing the law enforcement agencies. Regarding human rights violations referring to the torture of Iraqi prisoners of war. This did not happen at the direction of the top people. We will punish people
[DJ: There was a little bit more at the end but I do not have notes.]