Q: How does the Bush administration look at the proposed abolition of direct election of governors in Russia, which is presented in this country as a key measure in fighting international terrorism?
Why do the US authorities do not react to the relentless offensive of the Kremlin on democratic freedoms in Russia? To the liquidation of independent media, the decimation of the opposition in elections through manipulation, the establishment of control over the human rights movement and canceling of elections. Don't you Americans care what it may all lead to?
A: First, we recognize the fact that Russia has lived through horrible tragedies in the past few years, especially in the last few months, the appalling tragedy in Beslan and some other monstrous terrorist acts.
And the American people have expressed sympathy and solidarity because we ourselves have lived through horrible tragedies. We understand that at times of national crisis important decisions are to be taken to protect the country and society against terrorism. And of course, we will follow with keen interest the progress of the reforms, the transformation of the special services and the way Russia fights corruption which, in Putin's words, is the root of the recent events. The political transformations carried out raise questions both among members of the government and Russia's watchers. Although each of these steps may have a rationale in terms of strengthening the state, it does seem that on the whole these measures may result in a weakening of the system of checks and balances as a whole. President Bush pointed to this directly when he said that there is always a balance between branches of government in state systems. So, we still hope that in the course of democratic reforms there will be no weakening of the very democratic institutions which the terrorists seek to destroy.
We continue to support Russia through concrete programs and we render moral support to those Russian activists who seek to build a civil democratic society in Russia. In addition, we have worked very closely with various departments of Russian government to promote the legal reform, to strengthen the rule of law which is the chief guarantee of the preservation of democratic society. One of the questions was: why isn't the US trying to save democracy in Russia? The answer is simple. Only the Russians can save democracy in Russia. But we can, of course, share our experience. We can advise, offer constructive criticism whenever it is necessary.
Q: Is the criticism heeded?
A: We think that our criticism is perceived better by some than by others. I think it is obvious that there are differences inside the Russian government and the political establishment as to what path the country should follow in the light of the recent terrorist acts. Obviously, the discussion is rooted not in Beslan, it began several years ago. The question of the development of democracy in Russia, the free media in Russia and other aspects of building civil society has been discussed to various degrees. We discussed these issues in a constructive way with the representatives of the Russian government, the president's administration and I think that the majority perceived our position not as that of an enemy who wishes ill to Russia, but that of a friend offering friendly advice. They may disagree with us, but the discussion was constructive.
Q: Your Excellency, because the states that have been directly confronted with terrorism (and I mean, above all, the US and Russia) have tended to toughen their internal policy with a potential restriction of democratic and personal freedoms of citizens in order to step up the fight against terrorism, what would you describe as acceptable and unacceptable restrictions (their degree) for the US and Russia?
A: First of all, I would like to note that the Russian media when discussing the events in the US on September 11 greatly exaggerate the degree of restrictions on the freedoms of the US citizens. Often the presentation of events is a caricature. For example, the creation of the Homeland Security Department in the US was interpreted as the creation of a Stalinist KGB. Actually, we were taking urgent measures to strengthen coordination among our security agencies so that they would preempt terrorist actions.
Although under the so-called Patriot Act police got the right to conduct searches and surveillance, both are taking place strictly in accordance with the law. I think the common principle for all democratic countries should be to take all the measures that are necessary to prevent terrorist acts, but on the other hand, only when there is a broad civil consensus can the fight against terrorism be waged. I would also add that total transparency and accountability of government institutions is a necessary condition for keeping the trust of society which is also a key factor in the fight against terrorism.
And if people trust their state, they should know what the mistake was, why the terrorists succeeded in carrying out this or that operation as happened on September 11 or in the Beslan tragedy. And I think that the creation of a commission to investigate the events in Beslan under the Federation Council is a positive move. We are prepared to share the experience of the work of our commission that looked into the events on September 11 so that society could have the full analysis of these results to prevent a repeat of such tragedies.
Q: Many materials of the commission to inquire into the Beslan tragedy would be classified. What do you think about it and how do you assess the degree of freedom of expression in Russia?
A: Our experience shows that such commissions must have access to any confidential information, including intelligence data that cannot be published in order not to disclose the sources. But it is our deep conviction that society has the right to know and have access to the findings of such an analysis. The commission should know as many details as possible so that the conclusions be authentic and convincing. So, we very much hope that Russia will use the same model, that a balance will be observe between the wish of the Russians to know the factual side leading up to the events in Beslan without revealing the secrets that could help the terrorists to stage another act of terror.
As regards freedom of expression in Russia, we do have some fears and concerns, but the overall picture remains mixed. We have repeatedly expressed our concern about the diminished role of independent national TV programs and the growing bias in the coverage of events by the federal state-owned channels. As regards the printed media, we see a much livelier dialogue, with many more different points of view, although there too, we see some worrying trends: elements of pressure on certain editors and elements of self- censorship. We think that to ensure the stability of a strong state needs a strong independent media challenging, wherever relevant the government's point of view, and there needs to be accountability. Such media are a necessary factor to secure a strong state and stability. We continue to watch the situation and express our point of view regarding the trends that we think may steer Russia toward the wrong road. One specific concern we have been expressing is that many journalists were killed in Russia. Apparently, these killings were connected with their activities, the investigation of corruption among officials and the activities of businessmen. So, it is important that the rights of journalists be observed so that they could play an important watchdog role, the role of a person who follows events for the public benefit and could expose what has to be exposed.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, where do the US and Russia agree and disagree on foreign policy?
A: The obvious reason why we are interested in a strong and stable Russia is that geographically Russia is the biggest country in the world. Continued stability in Russia means continued stability in the entire region. In addition, Russia has both huge energy resources and political influence on the neighboring regions. The philosophical aspect of our interest is that only democratic powers can be strong and stable, and democratic powers never fight. This is why I think that it is in our interests to get rid of the remaining elements of mistrust and work on what brings us together in the fight against the new century's threats: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, infectious diseases. And we would be interested in having such a strong and powerful partner as Russia.
I think there is an erroneous view in your country, which was actively discussed during the latest debates, that the US is allegedly interested in weakening Russia and trying to use Russia's difficulties that it has experienced in the course of reforms over the last 15 years. But if Russia could not have coped with its problems and had become a source of instability, this instability would have spread to Russia's neighbors in Central Europe and East Asia. From the US point of view, it would be the biggest stupidity to help events take this course.
Sometimes we have disagreements over how to deal with certain international problems or what would be the best ways to develop democracy, both in Russia or any other country. But on the whole, these are technical disagreements, and our strategic goals are the same. Frankly speaking, this inspires big hope -- the evolution that has taken place over these years: we begin to understand problems more and more the same way.
We did have serious disagreements over the Saddam Hussein problem. But we think more and more the same way as to how to solve the problem of Iraq after the war. We may have tactical disagreements. For example, Russia insists on a dialogue and the tactic of carrot, although we insist more on the use of sanctions in order to convince Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons plans. We have similar goals, but there is a difference in the tactical approach towards problems in the post-Soviet space.
We have more serious disagreements on this matter. We believe that preserving the status quo in such regions Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not a viable option, it's impossible. We believe it necessary to exert efforts in order to push both sides, especially separatist regimes, towards adopting such a scenario that would provide for the reintegration of these territories that belong to some other country, Georgia or Moldova. We fear that an extremely cautious and delicate approach to these issues may only cause more tensions rather than solve them. But even on these matters we have been frank with each other and stated our disagreements, and I think that gradually we will bring our positions closer.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, what is the position of the American administration on the construction by Russia of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran? Does your government consider this nuclear power plant a military facility?
A: We do not consider this nuclear power plant a nuclear facility. But we still have doubts whether it was a wise decision to build this nuclear power plant. Our point of view was heard, but the project is nearing completion, and we insist that Russia meet a condition that spent nuclear fuel should return to Russia and could not be used for potential creation of nuclear weapons. I think Iran's uranium enrichment program is a much bigger concern. It was developed in Iran in secrecy and became known owing to the courage of the Iranian opposition that exposed it. We do not think that Russia was involved in this program.
However, we think this program shows that from our point of view Iran is trying to circumvent nuclear nonproliferation provisions and create nuclear weapons. This is why it is very encouraging that we, with Russia and Europeans, are trying to convince Iran to give up this project. But we think that it is necessary to act tougher because experience shows how well Iranians know the art of deception. This element must be taken into account.
Q: The United States gives all kinds of financial, political and military support to Georgia, which includes the training of military specialists for armed operations against Ossetians. How can you explain such support? Is it because of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline? Or personal sympathy for President Mikhail Saakashvili? Or some other, less obvious, geopolitical interests of the United States?
A: We have no plans or intentions to create military bases in Georgia. This was made very clear by Secretary of State Powell when he was in Moscow at the end of January. Our position has not changed since then. However we believe that the Russian bases that exist in Georgia must be withdrawn in accordance with the obligations that Russia assumed in Istanbul in 1999. We think this step could open up new opportunities for military cooperation between Russia and Georgia that will benefit both Russia and Georgia, and the US, including in suppressing the threat of terrorism. And this takes us to another question: we do not view Georgia as a strategic site near Russia. I think we and Russia are equally interested in having Georgia create an efficient mechanism for protecting its borders to prevent terrorists from penetrating Georgia and using it for their actions. By so doing Georgia would contribute to regional security. The Train and Equip Program, which has ended and during which some of the Georgian army units were equipped, aimed to help Georgia fight common threats that are facing both Georgia and Russia. A concrete result of this program is that Georgia could take effective efforts to prevent terrorists from using their bases in the Pankisi Gorge. We also support Saakashvili in carrying out political and economic reforms, because this will lead to the prosperity of the Georgian people who have lived through hard times since Georgia gained independence. On the whole, this will also facilitate stability in the region.
As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we informed President Saakashvili that we are strongly against a military resolution of these problems and favor a political settlement. When the incident occurred in August, when the column in which Kokoshin was traveling was fired at, we made it clear to Tbilisi that Georgia must de- escalate the conflict and concentrate its efforts on the search for a political solution. But Russia must also contribute to the resolution of this problem by exerting pressure on the leadership of Tskhinvali and Sukhumi so that they didn't think they could preserve their status of unrecongized entities. Finally, we sincerely believe that the development of full-fledged and normal relations between Russia and Georgia would be an important factor in strengthening stability and prosperity in the region. This is why we are against viewing this situation as a triangle. We focus on the converging common interests that could benefit Russia, Georgia, the US and other countries.
Q: What is your opinion about the situation in Belarus?
A: We have watched the developments in Belarus with growing concern, and the latest decision to hold a referendum and new elections has confirmed our view that Belarus is turning into a "black hole" of Europe. It is already obvious that process of elections in Belarus is subject to serious manipulations by authorities, that the most serious opponents have been removed under different pretexts and the results of the referendum cannot be legitimate in the eyes of the international community. Of course this is a very sad situation for the people of Belarus who deserve better life. Ultimately this will also have a bad impact on Belarus's neighbors who will have to deal with an unstable neighbor with an old economic system, which generates all kinds of problems, such as organized crime and other maladies of our century.
Russia has more influence on Belarus than the United States. This is why we hope that Russia will try to influence Belarus and pay it more attention so that the state that is located in the very center of Europe could be stable and democratic. I think it is in the interests of all of us to discuss this issue more openly and see how such institutes as the OSCE could use their influence in order to channel events in the right direction.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, what could be the US presidential administration's possible reaction to further changes in the Russian political system: direct or indirect abolition of the election of the President of Russia in 2008 or the transformation of Russia into a parliamentary republic with the incumbent president taking the post of prime minister? Some politicians who are close to the Kremlin view such a scenario almost as inevitable.
A: I think this question raises a rather hypothetical scenario. It is always dangerous to speculate about what could happen. We absolutely believe in the importance of elections so that the leader could count on public support and regularly account for the decisions he made and the results he achieved. The question what should be a constitutional framework for such processes in Russia and other countries is not for us to decide. This question must be decided only by Russian people, and no one else can dictate decisions to them. These structures may assume different forms: a strong presidential republic, like in the US and Russia, or parliamentary republics, like in many West European and other countries. But I think the discussion of these questions should involve the broad public, because it is necessary to have as much public consensus as possible in making such decisions.
Q: Your Excellency, can you, please, explain the disgusting show called "Democratization of Ukraine" staged by the US? Why does the US ambassador to Ukraine officially declare that the US will ban entry of Ukrainian officials into the US if Viktor Yanukovich wins the election? Why do US officials openly campaign for candidate Yushchenko who has the American PR agency Aristotle Inc. working for him? Perhaps, the US is considering the Yugoslavian version of democratizing Ukraine?
A: I think this question is made up of half truths, distortions and brazen lies. We are categorically in favor of a free election in Ukraine. But we do not by any means back any one candidate, neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovich nor anybody else. We want the Ukrainian people to freely choose between different candidates. Because it is only by holding a free and fair election that Ukraine can develop the foundations of democratic society and thus become a prosperous state. Perhaps, there are some private advisers in Ukraine who are helping this or that candidate. But they do not represent the American government, the US does not support any candidate. Nevertheless, it is known that many political advisers are helping Yanukovich, and there is nothing wrong about that. The main thing is that such activities be transparent. However, the US does not have any concrete plan or scheme for Ukraine. The only thing we are interested in is to see it as a strong European country. The references to the Yugoslavia variant are simply absurd. I think that the crisis Yugoslavia found itself in in the early 1990s was the result of the policy of ethnic cleansing and even genocide which threatened international security. And the civilized world had to interfere. And these actions were based on a series of UN Security Council resolutions for which Russia, too, had voted. But it is impossible to draw any logical parallel with Ukraine, a peaceful multinational state. And we hope it will become a strong democratic state. But I respect people's right to ask absurd questions.
Q: I have never been to the US although I can afford it. I have heard a lot from my friends about long queues and humiliating procedures at the US embassy when receiving an entry visa. At the same time, I know that it is much easier and less humiliating for US citizens to obtain an entry visa to Russia than for Russian citizens to obtain a US visa. Does the Ambassador think that Russia has the right to introduce similar procedures so that US citizens felt for themselves the humiliating nature of the situation? Doesn't the ambassador think that the visa situation undermines mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries?
A: First, I can't deny that the visa problem is cause for concern and sometimes even misunderstandings. In our visa issue policy we proceed from our laws that set tough criteria for the issue of visas. But we are doing all we can in order to simplify at least the procedure of application for and obtaining a visa. So, you no longer see long lines and a huge crowd in front of our consulates in Moscow, or Vladivostok or in Petersburg. We have set up a network of partners who collect documents so that the applicant doesn't have to leave his or her town or region in order to submit a questionnaire and pay the fee. And we are trying, we are exerting efforts to cut the time between the filing of application and the interview to one week and to make it still less if there is any urgency. Unfortunately, we must personally interview each applicant -- this is the policy conducted by the US State Department in all the countries of the world -- everyone has to sit for a personal interview, in any country of the world. We express regret because, considering the vast space of Russia, coming for an interview the trip for an interview may be very long and expensive. But we haven't yet found a way of resolving this problem. That said, the criteria for the issue of visas have not changed since new procedures were introduced after September 11 and the percentage of the people who are granted visas has not changed since that period. But the main provision that forces us to withhold visas is based on an elementary requirement of the law. We are finding out whether the person is going to return to Russia from the US or whether he intends to stay as an illegal worker. The law specifies that a person who files for a visa must prove to the consular representative that he will come back. Sometimes the information filed by an applicant or his own words raise doubts of the consular staff. So, the people wishing to visit their relatives or friends in the US are denied visas -- and we are sorry about it. Another problem that raises doubts is that many applicants for visas are trying to cheat us. They bring faked documents, faked bank accounts and diplomas. And they are trying to mislead us in the most sophisticated ways. One of the latest gimmicks these people have hit on is that when people bring their passports containing faked visas to other countries which suggest that the person has already traveled the world, and then we find out that he has never left Russia. Unfortunately, there are very many travel companies in Russia whose business consists in cheating the US embassy. And our task is to make sure that as many Russians see and travel to the US as possible. I don't think that it is easier for Americans to get visas at Russian consulates. But we are working with our partners to simplify these procedures. Just recently we agreed to cut the pay for the visa for students on a reciprocal basis. Although I know that we will probably reach a situation when all the Russians wishing to travel to the US will be happy, we will try to make the procedure as painless as possible -- provided the Russians give us truthful information. And we would like to Russians to be able to provide all the information about themselves to convince us that they will not break the law during their trip to the US. So, our aim is to make sure that all the people who are going to the US with honest intentions should get visas. So, my advice is, try to steer clear of those travel agencies that may help you to get faked documents. It will merely complicate matters.
Q: Your Excellency, does the US plan to open a consulate in Novosibirsk? Absence of a consulate greatly complicates the already difficult procedure of obtaining a US visa.
A: I wish I could answer that question in the affirmative. I think it would be useful both for us and for the Russian travelers who could go to Novosibirsk to obtain their visas. But you may remember that in the early 1990s, we were thinking hard where to locate our fourth consulate and Novosibirsk was among the candidates. But President Yeltsin managed to prevail upon the then Secretary of State Baker that the consulate should be in Yekaterinburg. Understandably, he comes from that city and so he supported his own people. But at present the State Department's budget and our own resources prevent us from opening yet another consulate. However, I continue to raise this question with Washington. We never say "never."
Q: Are there any talks under way to extend the visas for students? Or, is the US following the principle of reciprocity waiting until Russia changes the duration of student visas for US citizens?
A: I would like to say that we would like the period to be as long as possible, we even issue ten-year multiple visas. We are guided by principles of reciprocity and often it is Russia that limits the duration of the visas for travelers, scientists, businessmen and students. We managed to cut the cost of the visa for students and we intend to prolong visas for students. Although there are restrictions on the contributions we can collect, we are looking at the possibility of cutting fees for other travelers to the US on the basis of reciprocity. When I spoke about restrictions, it means that the State Department rules envisage that consular operations should be financed by contributions.
Q: Your Excellency, I have been an American citizen for five years and I am proud of it. I've recently married a Russian woman. She told me that talk with Russian citizens at the US embassy in St. Petersburg is conducted in a humiliating atmosphere. Here in the United States she could sue them. In Russia, unfortunately, this is impossible. I am aware that the policy of American missions in Russia is aimed at exposing potential immigrants. But it doesn't mean that Russian citizens should be looked down upon as second-rate human beings. America put an end to discrimination inside the country in the 1960s. Isn't it high time it started respecting the citizens of Russia instead of making hollow declarations?
A: I am sorry that these people were not treated politely enough or respectfully enough. I will talk with our consulate in Petersburg. Of course, the consular staff under some stress. They have to work very hard and conduct a lot of interviews. But it cannot justify rudeness.
Perhaps, an element of insult was connected with the fact that our staff did not speak proper Russian. But of course, I will do all I can so that the staff at our consulate in St. Petersburg know all about these complaints. I will make sure that the other members of our consulates are apprised about it. And of course, we would like the Russians to be treated with the same respect as the Americans.
Q: The question should, perhaps, be directed to the consul, but maybe you could answer it. Can I challenge the withholding of a visa in court? If so, is it to be a Russian or American court? Should the claim be presented to the embassy as a government body or the specific official who authorized the refusal? Thanking you in advance.
A: I am not sure that you can challenge a decision to withhold a visa in a law court. But under certain circumstances an applicant for a visa can use the services of a private lawyer to force a revision of the decision. And under law, according to our rules, we are to take into account any new information that may be provided by the seeker of a visa or his counsel. But the final decision as to whether a visa should be issued rests with a member of our staff or the consul general. As ambassador I have no legal powers to overrule the decision taken by the consul. Indeed, if I try to bring pressure on him, I am sure to be punished by our state department. I can only ask a member of our staff to take another look at certain facts and accept some additional information on the person. But the final decision rests with the consular worker. The same happens when we receive pleas from our congressmen speaking on behalf of this or that applicant. We can revisit this or that case, but we state very clearly that political interference cannot influence the decision of our consulate.
Q: If I think that current policy infringes upon my rights and freedoms, can I seek a refugee status in the US?
A: There is no short answer to this question. Although we are concerned about some developments in Russia, we do not consider Russia to be the same state as the USSR was and so we do not grant political asylum to any citizen wishing to leave Russia. And there are other provisions in our law on granting the status of political refugee or offering political asylum. I am not familiar with the details of these laws, but they are based on a well-grounded fear of persecution on political or religious grounds, that is, every case is judged on its merits by an American court. Besides, there are a few ethnic groups or peoples who are victims of serious crimes and then they have the right to gain refugee status in the US. In other words, the questioner must study the possibilities of immigration into the US through traditional immigration channels.
Q: Your Excellency, could you comment on the status of Mr. Akhmed Ilyasov in your country and explain the reasons that led the US to extend its mantle of protection to that man?
A: I think you are referring to Ilyas Akhmadov. He got the status of a political refugee from an independent court in Boston, and it was not a decision of the US government and it does not reflect the viewpoint of the US government. Our courts are truly independent. Even when we do not share a person's political views, the decision is taken by an independent court and not by the federal government. When the court considers the issue of granting political asylum to any person, the onus of providing information on his possible complicity in terrorist activities lies with the country from which he came. In the case of Akhmadov it is up to Russia to provide proof of his links with terrorists. The court looks at such information, compares it with other facts before delivering its judgment.
We do not maintain any official contacts with Mr. Akhmadov, we do not recognize him as a representative of any government, any more than we recognize the status of Maskhadov. In fact, we are even advising the Russian government against holding talks with Maskhadov or any of his representatives. But we do believe that a political decision is needed in Chechnya, a decision that would have popular support in the republic. However, the political process does not envisage talks with terrorists. Moreover, we agree that no talks should be held with terrorists.
Q: Good day. You recently said that the US does not insist on Russia having talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. With whom, in the opinion of the US leadership, should talks be conducted? What do you see as a way out of the situation in the North Caucasus?
A: When we talk about a political process or decision, it doesn't mean we are talking about negotiations. There are many other ways of achieving a political decision. You think that the very concept the Russian government has chosen over the past eighteen months -- a referendum, elections -- is a potential road to political decisions. But we believe that certain opportunities were missed in implementing this approach. For example, many serious candidates were barred from elections, both the last elections and the August elections. And of course, there are questions about how the elections were conducted. Though we do have some doubts about the way these principles are implemented, we believe that the creation of Chechen government structures through elections is one of the ways that does not involve negotiations. Let me repeat that the key element is to create a broad political basis that has the support of the Chechen people and isolation and marginalization of the terrorists. And, of course, such a political process must be accompanied by economic reconstruction, job creation so that people should have a hope for the future and the terrorists be deprived of the attraction that they hold for desperate people today. We believe that Dmitry Kozak and his new commission will succeed where other mechanisms have failed. And if there are ways in which the US can be helpful, we are interested in providing such help.
Q: Your Excellency, what do you think about the Khodorkovsky case? Does the US seek to react in some way to the possible sale of Yukos assets on the cheap? After all, there are some Yukos shareholders, including large foundations, in the US. Thank you.
A: Of course, the Khodorkovsky case and Yukos have prompted many questions in the US regarding the rule of law in Russia, regarding the value of private property. Yes, the US has minority shareholders whose interests may be affected by the resolution of this problem. It is hard to comment on the situation because each day brings new developments or a new interpretation of past events. It is hard to know what the real situation is at the moment. It remains for us to hope that the decision will be fair, including with regard to the shareholders who are in the US. We hope that due procedure will be followed, with full transparency and in compliance with the law, and we hope that Russia is aware that the case may influence the attractiveness of Russia for potential investors.
Q: What can you say about the results of the US investigation into the death of US citizens during the Nord Ost incident? Have the true causes of their death been established? (The official version in Russia still is that the gas used has nothing to do with the death of the hostages).
A: My answer is simple. I do not have and I do not know of any final conclusions regarding the deaths of American hostages at Nord Ost. But one aspect of the investigation is that we are trying to take this tragedy into account in developing our own methods to combat terrorism at home. As regards the use of the gas, we share the opinion of Russian experts that the hostages did not die from the effects of the gas, but because no timely assistance was provided to deal with the consequences of the impact of the gas on people.