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TRANSCRIPT: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets in Sochi with the first shift of the construction team made up of winners of the contest "Stroyotryad Avtoradio" as well as with performers participating in the contest

Vladimir PutinTranscript:

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon. Today is your birthday ­ Happy Birthday! Hello!

Remark: Mr Putin, we've just stopped here. They asked us to perform the song "I've been waiting for you for so long, Vova." We'll play it now.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.

The song "I've been waiting for you for so long, Vova" by Uma2rman begins, as the crowd sings along.

Vladimir Putin: I would like to say hello to you and tell you how pleased I am that Avtoradio came up with such an excellent idea. I would also like to congratulate all those who joined this initiative by passing the test, an absolutely democratic test, as far as I understand, and coming here to Sochi. I hope you like it here.

Audience remark: Just a few words about what's going on here. We are now at the onset of a truly great initiative ­ the construction team of Avtoradio. How did it all begin? Let's take a look back... It's very good that we are now meeting regularly. At least, we saw each other last year via teleconference when you were in Sochi and we were in Vancouver...

Audience remark: Some kind of Olympic meetings...

Audience remark: Yes, Olympic meetings. They are all related to the Olympic Games. This year, we are meeting again in the run-up to the Olympic Games. Again, who came up with the idea? Mr Putin did when he said that student construction teams were a good idea. We heard it several months ago. We got together in a small group and realised that Mr Putin had given us a positive impulsen. Why not support it? This initiative is due to that genius, as well as our fond reminiscences of our own student construction teams. We now have people from across Russia in the audience. These are people who answered the call voluntarily; nobody here is paid for anything. Notably, they did some good volunteer work at their apartment buildings and in their cities. Say there was a pit in their courtyard that no one cared about or some profanity written on the wall. These people took care of it and made their way here, to the Avtoradio construction team, after a rather complex selection procedure. Let's do a quick roll call.

Audience remark: I believe we had this positive impulse even before we heard [Mr Putin's] words about the construction team. I think we got it when we heard that holding the Olympic Games in Sochi would be a great idea and that the Olympic Games in Russia are a rare occurrence. Indeed, everyone asked himself why it happens so rarely. Now it's time to hold the Olympic Games in Sochi. We can see a lot of construction cranes already at work here. Today was the first (but not the last) time that the team went to Krasnaya Polyana and Roza Khutor to get an idea of what to expect in terms of the future work, and they will share their impressions with us later. They were among the first ones to see the future venue for the Olympic mountain skiing competitions.

Vladimir Putin: Did you have a chance to look at the facilities here in the Imeretinskaya Valley?

Audience remark: We did, but only as we drove past. The traffic was a bit heavy.

Vladimir Putin: I will have you taken there because it's an impressive sight. I was there again today. It's a formidable structure, and the main arena is five times larger than the Coliseum.

Audience remark: They are only halfway through with the construction.

Vladimir Putin: Yes. Most importantly, it's all very high-tech and very modern. You won't find anything better because we are using the latest technologies.

Question: Mr Putin, in this regard, I have a question about innovative technologies and spending. Our people might ask whether we really need all of this. We only recently recovered from a crisis; Europe is just barely back to normal, and Russia is doing more or less well. But why all this construction? There might be skeptics. Do we really need these Olympic Games in 2014? We have something else coming in 2018...

Audience remark: and 2016 ...

Audience remark: 2016, 2018, 2020, and so on...

Vladimir Putin: First, it's always good to have some reference points and know where you are standing. You must always see things in perspective. We should be able to see a general outlook until 2020. People need to anticipate some joyous and festive events. It inevitably cheers people up and gives them a more positive outlook on life. However, that's not the only rationale. We have said on many occasions that Russia is lagging behind developed economies in terms of sport and physical fitness, which are very important for the nation's health, the availability of sport infrastructure, and the spirit of the nation. Now someone is likely to ask why the Russian teams seem to lose game after game? Why wouldn't they, when we even held certain Russian championships in Germany? We didn't have skating rinks. The USSR collapsed, and the mountains remained nearby in Armenia and Georgia. We lost everything: we didn't have a single training camp in these mountains, and we don't have any now. There's no way to develop modern sport without them. Therefore, my answer to your question is, first, the health of the nation; second, infrastructure development; and third, the mobilisation of the state and society towards achieving something that's important for the entire nation. It's always a good thing. There are skeptics, I know. There are die-hard skeptics who are never happy no matter who runs this country. We need such people, too, because they keep the powers that be in check and don't allow them any slack. There are also people from the political opposition who say that, indeed, these things need to be done, but we would have done them much better if only we were in power. That's also understandable. There are also people who are truly affected by these projects. For instance, people who live in the Imeretinskaya Valley where we are building our major facilities. People used to own houses there ­ not across the entire valley, but, still, some households were affected by the construction. Here's where the state must come in and operate in such a way that these people have something to gain from the construction. I believe that the valley residents did gain from the construction because it's unlikely that they would ever be able to afford the kind of houses they received from the state in compensation for their old homes in the Imeretinskaya Valley.

Audience remark: Yesterday, a driver who met us at the airport said: "Thank God they've finally opened the airport. It's been standing there for ages waiting for its time."

Vladimir Putin: The airport was unlikely ever to open if it were not for the Olympic Games. It would have just sat there, half-ruined and neglected. Sochi is Russia's main resort town, but it didn't have a properly working sewage system or storm drains. There was no proper waste treatment system, and there wasn't enough electric power to expand the resort. Almost each year there were power outages due to icing and downed wires, since the power lines traverse the mountains here. Each winter, entire districts of Sochi would go without power. Things changed once we began the construction. Today, we opened a new Dzhubga ­ Lazarevskoye ­ Sochi gas pipeline that will supply 3.8 billion cubic metres of gas to Sochi yearly. We've built a new power plant and eight substations that will be used to cover the heating and electricity needs of metropolitan Sochi in full. What is it all about? It's about development, the construction of new apartment blocks, new resorts, and hotels, because there's no way to build them without access to power. These are the so-called infrastructural limitations. If there is sufficient energy, we can build. And we have much to build ­ more than 200 kilometres of railways and 220 kilometres of highways, all with interchanges and several dozen bridges and tunnels, some of which will be grand in scale. You can have a look when you get the opportunity. I was greatly impressed with the project. When I came to the construction site for the first time, I saw large international teams working ­ Canadian, Swiss, and Austrian experts and, last but not least, their Russian colleagues. The Russians are making a fine show.

One might say that we could build everything we need, Olympics or no Olympics. But then again, we can never find all the funds we need for our top priorities, and while the Olympics are here, we should allocate our resources and prepare for them in full. Incidentally, government allocations account for 63% of total funding; the rest comes from private investors whom we have attracted to the project.

Question: Can I ask you a question about sport, though you have quit the topic? Our officials say we are preparing for the Sochi Olympics. It all makes sense: we will be Olympic hosts and hope to win as many gold medals as possible. But I have the impression that winter sports are our only concern now, and we don't give a fig about the others. I know what's going on in hockey because I am involved in it, in a way...

Vladimir Putin: In what way?

Answer: I am the press attaché of our national team. That's one of my jobs. And I get the impression that our hockey team has no future after 2014, when the Olympics come together.

Vladimir Putin: But who won the junior hockey championships?

Question: You mean youth teams?

Vladimir Putin: Right.

Answer: Our team.

Vladimir Putin: Why are you so pessimistic then? How old are your boys now?

Answer: 19, or rather 20 now.

Vladimir Putin: No, the boys are below 18! And they are champs... Know what, I have just seen some games of the Golden Puck [national children's hockey] contest.

Remark: It's a pity that Golden Puck teams cannot compete for the World Cup.

Vladimir Putin: But then, the boys come to adult sport later. You know how many young athletes there are now... The Leather Ball children's [football] competition was suspended for some years, and there was a time when the Golden Puck was in the similar situation. Now, on the contrary... Do you know how many kids met in the Golden Puck matches nationwide? Three hundred thousand children.

Remark: So few?

Vladimir Putin: Surely, it isn't enough, when the Leather Ball games involve 600,000 boys. But, regardless, we have every chance to develop Leather Ball and Golden Puck to involve more than a million children. Russia must be like Finland, where 75% of people go in for sport. Mass sports are the only cradle from which champions are born. We must bring back our trainers.

Remark: You're right, but how do we do it?

Vladimir Putin: It's quite simple.

Answer: But all our good trainers are working abroad, with the NHL, for instance.

Vladimir Putin: Not all, of course, but very many. What I'll say now might sound commonplace. It concerns not only trainers but all top experts in any other fields. People look for the best job they can have, and wages matter most to them. We used to have top-notch trainers in many sports ­ suffice it to name figure skating and hockey, I 'll touch this question later on. They have gone abroad now that the Iron Curtain has been lifted because they earn more in other countries ­ more than Russia could afford. Next, we have to say outright that our public is not ready to put up with top experts in sport or any other field who make money that is incomparable with average Russian wages. We think they have more than they deserve ­ it's the public opinion, not my personal view. But everyone must realise that if we want success in sport, science, education and all the other fields, we should pay much more than the national average wage to unique experts. Perhaps we should pay them even more than what they are making in the West. We will be successful sooner or later even if we don't boost expert salaries ­ but it will take much more time and effort if we don't.

Oleg Mityaev: I think that we are leaving inspiration by the wayside. We need inspiration to create a festive and invigorating atmosphere around all of these buildings. We should write verse and music to inspire fans, and they, in their turn, will inspire our athletes to win. I'm afraid we don't pay due attention to atmosphere. I hope the construction teams will catch the mood and work with more zeal. I would like people to write songs and compositions that produce the proper public mood for the Olympics.

Vladimir Putin: That's right.

Oleg Mityaev: I have just been speaking here in Sochi about a festival underway that now has the motto, "The summer is a short life in itself." We are inviting song-writers to create the right atmosphere for the Olympics. Unfortunately, we have too little support. National song festivals can gather 40-50 thousand people, but we have no proper base. What we need is a bard song club with a museum to exhibit Yury Vizbor's guitar and Alexander Galich's lyrics ­ meanwhile, all such mementoes are kept stockpiled in somebody's homes or flats ­ with a large auditorium and music classes. Such a club would cement this popular movement, which remains homeless for now.

I could not but say it today. However, I am getting back now to the beginning of this talk. I think it is very important to support people who volunteer to do something of the sort because it would be very appropriate to write something good for the Olympics. It would be wonderful if the authorities paid attention to it, too, and not only to construction. Construction is wonderful. I also admired it all as I went past the sites and saw how much had been done and how quickly. But it is also a worthy and complicated task to give all that a proper, inspiring atmosphere.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you for paying attention to that. It never occurred to me, to be honest, though it is really a necessary thing. It's a simple thing, besides. All we need is to announce competitions and mobilise creative minds.

Oleg Mityaev: The Olympics might inspire breakthroughs in the arts.

Vladimir Putin: Yes.

Question: What will become of the Olympic projects after the Games? I apologise, I should introduce myself. I am Alyona Glyoza from Dmitrov outside Moscow. Will Olympic facilities just stand idle and become dilapidated?

Vladimir Putin: This is one of the major problems the International Olympic Committee poses to the Games organisers from the beginning. The IOC is very serious about it. It would be pity to have billions of dollars wasted. That was why we thought in advance about what is known as post-Olympic heritage. We considered which facilities could be used for what. The mountain projects can remain sport venues long after the Olympics. A part of the buildings here in the Imeretinskaya Valley, on the contrary, would be better readjusted to other purposes. One, in particular, will become a major exhibition centre. The buildings are sectional, so as to transfer them to other parts of the country. They were built for Southern Russia, and so they will be shipped to nearby regions with the same climate. The rest will host athletic events. We thought about it in due time, and we expect no problems.

Answer: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: It is certainly a very important matter.

I mentioned at the beginning of this talk what matters more than anything else, and I think I should repeat it now to call your attention to it. An impressive 70% of all government and private allocations are earmarked for infrastructure development ­ the construction of railways, highways, tunnels and bridges, electric and gas supply lines, the seaport and the airport you have seen. A runway is being built there now, and another one will later appear. These projects account for 70% of all Olympic construction expenditures, whereas the remaining 30% will go to sport venues, however numerous they might be ­ 225 facilities in total, if I am right.

Question: Mr Putin, I am Kirill Sorokin from St Petersburg. Here we are, gathered in Sochi. You are a vacation fiend, and so are we. Russia has many other resorts ­but why is taking a domestic holiday so expensive? Holidays abroad are much more affordable. Few Russians earn very much, so many of us go to Egypt or other countries instead of admiring our own Russian landscapes.

Vladimir Putin: Which shoes do you prefer ­ Italian or Russian?

Answer: Russian.

Vladimir Putin: And which track shoes? Adidas, am I right? Goods and services follow the same upon the same logic... In the Soviet era, essentially, we paid sufficient attention to only one industry ­ the military. Now, I happen to mention Italian shoes. It's an excellent industry that has been developed over decades. Truth to say, though, the Chinese are now squeezing the Italians out of their own market: there are some Italian towns, I believe, where all the signs are in Chinese. Essentially, it's been decades that these industries have been evolving there, while Russia spent decades developing its defence industry. But then they don't have the rockets we do. Russia still makes more space launches than any other country ­ now for commercial purposes. This industry is very developed in Russia ­ the state invested heavily in it over many decades, however, it didn't invest much or anything at all in the civil sector, or in the services industry, and that's why services in Russia are still very expensive and not too good. There has been some progress however, and it's been fast.

We strive to encourage this at the federal level: for example, there is a targeted federal programme to develop domestic tourism. It was launched this year and is called "The Development of Domestic Tourism". We are also creating special economic zones in Altai and some other Russian regions designed to provide recreational services. We have come up with preferential terms for businesses so that they can develop a network of tourist services. Obviously, it's going to require some time and support. Like I said, we will provide the support. It will take some time, and we definitely need to create infrastructure. You said: "Our country is big, interesting, and beautiful." That is true. I always spend my holidays in Russia. Well, certainly, it's easier for me to get to different out-of-the-way places than it is for an average Russian. Overall, we have the same kind of situation with the services industry as with consumer goods manufacture ­ it's going to take us some time. That doesn't mean that these services are that much more expensive in Russia. No, they are just a bit more expensive. But then air travel, the quality ­ this is what matters most.... And you can spend the same amount of money and get a holiday experience in Turkey, for example, that is that bit better.

Remark: And just a round trip air ticket to Sochi costs as much as a package holiday in Turkey.

Vladimir Putin: These problems do exist, and, strange as it may seem, they are rooted in the peculiarities of our taxation system. There's no VAT on foreign trips, whereas all domestic travel is subject to VAT. This may not seem much at first glance, but it's not easy to tackle, because the taxation system is based on certain principles. The Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Economic Development have drafted the relevant instructions, and I hope they will submit them for consideration.

Question: Dmitry Shatalov, Krasnoyarsk. I am a small operation. I manufacture light diode equipment.

Vladimir Putin: We gathered that from your t-shirt.

Dmitry Shatalov: In fact, I take quite an unusual approach, I mean I don't just buy Chinese-made parts, assemble and sell them, I design, manufacture and sell quality products.

Vladimir Putin: You make unusual LEDs.

Dmitry Shatalov: We make good LEDs. They are more reliable, more efficient and last longer than any Chinese alternative available here, and frankly that's why I am here today. I replaced the standard bulbs in the entrance hall to my block of flats, which use an inordinate amount of electricity, with LEDs, which are also burglar-proof. They will work for a long time. Paradoxically, if you take the amount they charge us each year, it would be enough to buy two LED lamps, install them and pay the electricity bills for the next 20 years.

Vladimir Putin: What do you mean by "the amount they charge us"?

Dmitry Shatalov: They charge us for lighting the entrance hall. This is a common practice: they split the total bill for the block of flats between the various households and it works out at about 600-700 roubles per household per year. Instead of buying standard incandescent light bulbs every year, we could use this money to install LED equipment. The money we spend on standard light bulbs each year will be enough to buy two LED lamps (I put one on each floor), pay for the work, installation and electricity for the next 20 years.

Vladimir Putin: Are your LED lamps more expensive than incandescent lamps?

Dmitry Shatalov: No, you know, I manufacture my LED lamps in small batches; I'm a very small manufacturer. They aren't very expensive, I'll give you some.

Vladimir Putin: But all the same, let's get this straight: are they cheaper than incandescent bulbs?

Dmitry Shatalov: No, they are cheaper than the Chinese alternatives.

Vladimir Putin: Dima, you should promote your products via homeowners' associations.

Dmitry Shatalov: They're not interested.

Vladimir Putin: Why not?

Dmitry Shatalov: Because these mean they won't have any money to collect next year.

Vladimir Putin: Maybe the local residents are interested?

Dmitry Shatalov: The local residents can't do anything.

Vladimir Putin: They could, if you explain to people from different blocks of flats just how your LEDs would benefit them. Teach them how to act within the law to get the managing companies to install your equipment. They will make it happen, and they'll do it easily.

Dmitry Shatalov: I'm sorry, forgive the naïve question: when will I have time to do my actual job if I get involved in all that?

Vladimir Putin: This is part of your job. It is, I am not being sarcastic. You know, people here often think that all we need to do is manufacture something. However, in a free market, a significant part of the work has to do with product promotion.

Dmitry Shatalov: Let me tell you something interesting. I live in Krasnoyarsk, as I've already said, and I have a very large distribution market. I don't make a lot of LEDs but I have a website, and I have customers right across Russia, everywhere except Krasnoyarsk.

Vladimir Putin: You know what? You have quite a practical, progressive governor. I will talk to him, honestly. I mean it. True, he took office only recently but he is a very efficient person. I will definitely raise this matter with him.

Dmitry Shatalov: We have a lot of talented people, as you can see. If we were to get a little help, a nudge, we could do great things. But in reality...

Vladimir Putin: Dima, I promise. I will talk to him tomorrow. Let me have your contact details so I know who I'm talking about tomorrow, all right?

Dmitry Shatalov: Yes, thank you.

Question: My name is Valeria Gnatyuk. I am from Dmitrov. Everyone knows that, in order to get here, they had to effect some kind of positive change in their town or city, and there really is a great need for positive change, because there are many social issues and many people in need. Do you think that being a volunteer is respected?

Vladimir Putin: It certainly is. It has more to do with feeling good about what you are doing that it does with respect. If it doesn't bring you that sense of satisfaction, then you shouldn't do it.

Remark: That's all. I was just curious.

Question: Mr Putin, you say that you feel like a workhorse now, and before that you used to work like a galley slave. Aren't you tired of it all? Honestly?

Vladimir Putin: Do you want to pension me off?

Remark: No, I'm not talking about retiring.

Vladimir Putin: After all, by law, I am too young to retire.

Remark: No, I really feel for you. We see you rushing hither and yon, day after day. Don't you need time to spend with your family? I don't know how often you get a chance to see your family.

Vladimir Putin: I see them.

Question: You make time for them?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I do.

Question: And next year, maybe, you will start doing something different? That's the question. Have you thought about it?

Vladimir Putin: Everyone thinks about their life and about their future. Every single one of us, without exception. I just can't imagine a person who doesn't contemplate their future. I do, too. But the most important thing is to have the chance to express yourself and attain your goals. Excuse me, what's your name?

Answer: Lera.

Vladimir Putin: Lera has just made a very good point: she said that there are people who volunteer to do something useful. I would add that in so doing they also assert themselves and reveal their potential. It is a kind of symbiosis, which helps people get as much satisfaction as they can out of their lives. I have this inner belief that overall I will succeed. And this really does bring me a lot of satisfaction.

Question: How do you relax?

Vladimir Putin: By getting together with you here, singing.

Remark: Well that's a very particular way of relaxing. Probably, people who have a more straightforward job, like us, would have nightmares about not being able broadcast, losing the music or failing microphones. Do you have dreams like that? I am really interested.

Vladimir Putin: No, I don't have dreams like that.

Question: No work-related dreams?

Vladimir Putin: I don't have work-related dreams.

Remark: You're lucky.

Vladimir Putin: Clearly. Varied activities are the key. We have gathered here in the Olympic city ­ Sochi, we should do sport, that's what I try to do. It's also good to get together with friends once in a while.

Question: I really want to ask something. Olga Novikova, St Petersburg. My husband and I have been listening to Avtoradio for over 16 years now. To us, Avtoradio is more than a radio station, it's a way of life. We take part in events they organise, that's how come we ended up here. Do you listen to Avtoradio?

Vladimir Putin: Occasionally.

Remark: Oh you should listen more and participate in their events.

Vladimir Putin: You know, when I am on my way to work, before, when I would go to the Kremlin or now, when I am on my way to the government building, I turn on the radio and listen to it occasionally.

Remark: They run exciting prize draws and great prizes.

Remark: Incidentally, since we are on the subject, do you like comedy?

Vladimir Putin: I like it. You know, I like talent in all areas of life. If a comedian is talented and interesting, then why not? It's great. Remember the stand-up Alexander Ivanov? He was excellent, such a talented man. I can still remember some of his best lines.

Remark: Let me treat you to a bit of comedy then. Some of the audience may know it. This is a song called "Putin Goes to Pikalyovo". Will you join in? Mr Putin, I'm not sure if you've heard it before but I hope you'll like it. Please help us out if we forget the words. Let's go. Not too fast, nice and slow ...

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, this feels a bit awkward, honestly.

Remark: There you go. That's 22 of the 45 songs we sang about you.

Remark: There were 57.

Vladimir Putin: You're having a laugh!

Remark: No. Mr Putin, there's a kind of audio book about Vladimir Putin. We've been keeping an eye on you and singing about you for quite a while.

Vladimir Putin: I didn't know there was that much about me. Oh dear, awful!

Remark: The morning show Murzilki Live, Murzilki International, at Avtoradio turns ten this year. That's what they've been singing about over these 10 years, that's what we've come to with you after all these years.

Vladimir Putin: I can probably qualify as a co-author. Thanks a lot, guys.

Remark: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I'm pleased, but it feels awkward.

Question: My name is Yury Novikov and I am from St Petersburg. Let us come back to earth after this merry interlude. My question concerns everyone but it is particularly relevant for St Petersburg. The city has terrible roads, to put it mildly. The construction of the so-called Western High-Speed Diametre highway began several years ago, and a tiny stretch opened quite recently. It's a good road. You need just 10 to 15 minutes drive through the whole stretch. But it became a toll road as soon as it opened and the fee for a return trip is 60 roubles. Why do they charge a fee for using the only good road in the city? Car owners pay ruinous taxes as it is.

Vladimir Putin: That's an easy question. Toll roads are developing all over the world. They offer an alternative to parallel free roads.

Yury Novikov: But we have no alternative: the parallel road has only one lane each way, there are huge traffic jams at the crossings with Lenin Avenue and other major roads.

Vladimir Putin: I don't remember whether there are parallel routes or not. If there are none, the road should be free. That's the law. In general, it would be better not to have any toll roads at all. But Russia is a vast country with an underdeveloped infrastructure. We had no highway leading to the Far East at all, believe it or not.

Yury Novikov: The city doesn't have a single good road...

Vladimir Putin: Yes, but it used to be simply impossible to drive to the Far East until recently ­ there was no highway at all. We don't have much choice: either we build roads at the government expense and at a snail's pace or we have toll roads. At the same time, a toll must not be charged on all roads. I stress that it is only permitted when there is an alternative route. That's all I can say about it. If the principle is violated in St Petersburg, justice must be reinstated.

Yury Novikov: The stretch I mentioned takes a 10-12 minute drive, while the parallel one takes an hour and a half. Would you call that an alternative?

Vladimir Putin: Now I'm not speaking about that particular road but about the problem in general. A toll road can be opened only where there is an alternative route. That's the basic principle. But then, a 15 minute drive instead of a 90 minute one is what toll roads are made for. The fee is a different matter. It's hard to say just now whether it is fair to charge 60 roubles for a 10 to 15 minute ride. I don't think you would ask the question if it were six roubles, would you? Something has to be done about it, and the city must have an alternative route nearby.

On the whole, however, I think it would be good to develop a toll road network parallel to the free one, to attract investment. I'll talk to Valentina Matviyenko about it. We will decide together whether the fee is reasonable or not.

Question: I am from Dmitrov. My name is Anastasia. Most questions here concern Russia's development. I should like to ask a personal one just to ease the tension. You say you like travelling and you probably travel somewhere with your family at least once a year. You have pets. Do you take them with you or leave them at home? If they accompany you, how do they feel during the trip?

Vladimir Putin: When I go to an official residence ­ for instance, here in Sochi, I take them along because they don't run any danger here, at fenced-off premises. When I go far, let say, to Siberia, the Far East or the North, I cannot have them with me ­ they would feel unhappy and be a nuisance.

Anastasia: How do they feel while travelling?

Vladimir Putin: There are no problems at all. They are used to travelling. I often take them with me when I fly. The well-known Connie was just a puppy when I got her. The first thing I did was take her with me on a helicopter trip. She has become an expert traveller since then.

Anastasia: So she got used to flying and other trips since childhood?

Vladimir Putin: That's right, she is with me wherever I go.

Anastasia: Thank you.

Question: I am from Perm, and I would also like to ask about your vacations. Everybody knows that fishing and hunting are your hobbies, and I think Americans also take inspiration from your snapshots and itineraries. Do you ever find the time to sit quietly by the fire with other hunters or fishermen?

Vladimir Putin: Very rarely.

Question: Is your schedule too busy?

Vladimir Putin: That's right. I usually manage such trips once a year ­ I feel happy when it is twice.

Question: Do you enjoy being in the wild?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, very much so, especially in Russia. There is no other country like it in the whole world. I had no idea of how diverse its landscapes are before I got an opportunity to travel all over Russia. I've been to the Far North, with its boundless snowy expanses roamed by white bears. I visited the Far East last year. Many might have seen that visit on TV. Wild bears were all around like so many stray dogs in Moscow, at an arm's length ­ I had never seen anything like that. They come to brooks and rivers to hunt for fish before getting to their lairs for the winter. I had never seen rivers so rich in fish before. It's no harder to catch a fish there than to pick a pebble out of the water. A bear just gets its paw into the water and catches one. There are scenic spots in Siberia, too. The environs of Krasnoyarsk are inimitable.

Remark: I was born in Siberia. We really have inimitable spots.

Vladimir Putin: Fabulous. Or take the Urals, or the Caspian ­ especially the Volga estuary. It is more than 300 kilometres wide ­ I didn't know that before I came there. I think it is second largest after the Mississippi estuary. You go on and on by helicopter ­ and it's the Volga estuary all around, a boundless, unique world.

And isn't the taiga wonderful! I go to Tuva with Sergei Shoigu almost every year. It is also a place like no other, with mountains and streams cutting through them. It is a very beautiful land, and its beauty is very invigorating. But it takes a long time to get there...

Or take rafting down an Altai stream. I took my daughters with me rafting there once. The people there are incredibly serene. One day, we came by boat to the spot where we were to embark on a raft. There were villagers standing around on the bank. None of them expected to see us because our trip was not publicised. There were three men, if I am not mistaken, each with a huge mug in his hands. As soon as they saw me, they said: "How's life, Mr Putin?" I apologised to them for being in a hurry ­ to which they said: "Okay, we'll drink to your health." The impression was that I went along that river every day or that they had been waiting for me.

Question: I have a question on the same topic. Russian nature is truly inimitable but we are polluting it. Just go to any forest near Moscow ­ it's a rubbish dump. What is our government doing to protect the environment? Why is this country so dirty? We have no one but ourselves to blame for polluting it. I think it's terrible.

Vladimir Putin: Strange as it may seem, every nation pollutes its own land.

Remark: The public must be taught...

Vladimir Putin: That's right.

Remark: Pollution is a global problem. We'll run out of places to dump rubbish in 15 or 20 years.

Vladimir Putin: It depends on a great many things: the regional and municipal authorities' attention and allocations to environmental issues, the federal government's environment policy and the attitude of the public. The awareness of environmental problems is an indicator of the cultural level, just like compliance with traffic rules.

Question: We used to learn the basics of decent behaviour at school: don't throw paper in the street, stop at the red traffic light, look left and right before you cross the street, and so on and so forth. Are such things taught now?

Vladimir Putin: They are.

Remark: It's all somewhere in the background now.

Vladimir Putin: You are right, and just the fact that you mention it is encouraging.

Take this region. As I said, we opened the Dzhubga-Lazarevskoye-Sochi gas pipeline today. It is an ambitious infrastructure project. We could have placed it along the coast to reduce construction costs and speed up the process, but that would have meant cutting down vast areas of the old-growth forests in nature reserves. We chose a more expensive route, with 90% of the line laid along the bottom of the Black Sea at the depth of up to 80 metres, which required sophisticated technology. But we chose it because it is a more environmentally friendly option.

Although several environmental protection organisations have voiced their criticism over the project, we have worked with them throughout . On their insistence, we had three projects shifted after I met with their spokespeople and heard them out following preliminary planning. So the R&D money ­ tens of millions of roubles ­ was wasted but we adopted a friendlier option. The federal authorities never stop at such decisions when it's possible.

All this is closely tied in with economic development. We are currently at the threshold of adopting new environmentally based production rules and standards. They will force manufacturers to shift to new and cleaner technology, which means that they will have to purchase and install new equipment. This implies major long-term investment. If we don't take these resolute steps now, we will have to close down many plants that cannot afford to comply with the new standards. Many companies will close. We should do it gradually to avoid grand-scale unemployment. We have embarked on this road, and we have warned everyone that we will follow it. We inform companies about the deadlines, so they know just where they are.

Russia is also shifting to new fuel standards ­ Euro 4 and 5. We can adopt the decision straight away; in fact; we already have but have had to postpone it several times because our auto industry is not ready. If we accept Euro 5 as our standard, we will have to replace all army vehicles, which we cannot afford to do right now. It is preposterous to demand that Euro 5 is used when Ural lorries and other army vehicles use petrol with octane number of 76. All these things are closely interconnected parts of a system. Your question is very relevant, and you are absolutely right to be concerned. But when we start implementing plans, we suddenly see how many people depend on what we are doing. So we should not do things in one fell swoop ­ but we will certainly do what we must do. Go ahead, please.

Remark: Mr Putin, Vera Brezhneva wants to ask what you think about pretty girls.

Question: My name is Vera Brezhneva and I am from Kiev. I am Ukrainian, and I would like to talk to you about us all.

Vladimir Putin: Would you like to talk in Ukrainian?

Vera Brezhneva: I am a woman, and I cannot but notice how fit you look. Sport is a nation's health. So I would like to ask you what sports you do ­ it is obvious that you are an athlete ­ and what you do to stay fit.

Vladimir Putin: That's very simple. You should just do your exercises every day.

Vera Brezhneva: I mean what sports you do.

Vladimir Putin: I swim and go to the gym. I swim one kilometre after a 30 to 40-minute warm-up. That's all.

Vera Brezhneva: I think the nation should follow your example. Too many people don't exercise at all and are damaging their health at a time when we are preparing for the Olympics.

Vladimir Putin: You are right.

Remark: We are from Kiev, and we are training for the Olympics.

Vladimir Putin: That's good. I meet up with friends occasionally for a judo bout. I don't do it as often as I would like because sometimes I don't have a sparring partner.

Remark: Do you want to wrestle sometimes?

Vladimir Putin: Not just sometimes but always. I go skiing in winter when I have time. I often go to Sochi with Mr Medvedev. I have recently learned to skate. I used to think I'd never learn. I tried to skate once when I was an active wrestler. That was during a winter training session in Medeo, Kazakhstan. We went to the skating rink one day, I put on racing skates, and collapsed on the ice with the very first step. I was like a cow on ice that day. I even sprained an ankle. I thought I wasn't made for skating, and gave it up entirely. But now, I've been watching kids skating and got really envious. I thought I've got to try it again. It took me three months to learn. Not that I feel quite sure on the ice yet.

Question: What sport do you find the most exciting as an Olympic fan?

Vladimir Putin: In winter it's ice hockey.

Remark: I graduated from the Institute of Physical Culture, and I like Mikhail Zhvanetsky's joke: "If sports were really healthy, there would be at least two pull-up bars in every Jewish home."

Vladimir Putin: Know what? My first and second coaches were both Jewish. The second assisted the first before major tournaments. The first Soviet judo wrestler to win a prize (that was in Tokyo, and I think he did not win gold only because the judges were prejudiced) was also Jewish. So I think your joke is wrong.

Question: Mr Putin, do you ever sing in company?

Vladimir Putin: Me? In company?

Remark: Blueberry Hill!

Vladimir Putin: Yes, that was good. I learned that song as part of my English lessons. My teacher made me learn it.

Remark: Mr Putin, a non-question. I think it will be the first non-question this evening. I am Yury from Moscow, president of Avtoradio and a foreman. We all know that our movement started with your initiative to hold the Olympic Games in Sochi, which is why we would like to make you an honorary member of the Avtoradio construction team and to present this wonderful windbreaker to you.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. I will not put it on now, so as not to disturb the microphone.

Remark: Yes, certainly. It is very comfortable and...

Remark: Warm!

Remark: Yes. We have one more question to you. Avtoradio will mark its 20th anniversary in 2013, we will be 20 soon. We are very good at organising major events, including road rallies, and we know that you love them too.

Vladimir Putin: The road rally is a blow struck against sloppy work and bad roads.

Remark: We plan to celebrate Avtoradio's 20th anniversary by holding a road rally from Vladivostok to Moscow, and possibly even Kaliningrad, if we can. I would like to invite you officially to take part in the rally. You can drive a Lada, a Niva or a Harley Davidson, which suits you. The bikers send their regards.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Why do you plan the event for 2013?

Remark: It will be 20 years of Avtoradio.

Vladimir Putin: But you can start now. Really, you can! Thank you for the invitation. [I will join you] some time during the rally...

Remark: On the road between Skovorodino and Chita.

Remark: Yes, where they have built a new road.

Vladimir Putin: And it's a good road, by the way, the stretch that was built recently. Just imagine, it was planned in 1966 but completed only recently.

Question: My name is Tatyana Ivanova and I am from St Petersburg, a mother of two children. My husband works in the First Separate Battalion in St Petersburg. He sends his warm regards.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

Tatyana Ivanova: Can you please tell me when the salaries will be raised? I am bringing up two children; we live on my husband's salary, which is not sufficient.

Remark: First Separate Battalion of the Traffic Police?

Tatyana Ivanova: That's right.

Vladimir Putin: On January 1.

Tatyana Ivanova: Which year?

Vladimir Putin: 2012.

Tatyana Ivanova: How much will be the raise?

Vladimir Putin: High enough. I don't remember exactly, but the salary for an army lieutenant starts from 50,000 roubles a month, whereas salaries for comparable posts in the Interior Ministry are some 35,000-40,000 a month, so the increase will be substantial.

Tatyana Ivanova: How much do you pay for a third child?

Vladimir Putin: Have you received the money you are due for having two children?

Tatyana Ivanova: No, I haven't.

Vladimir Putin: Why is that?

Tatyana Ivanova: I had no time. Well, no, it's because my children were registered in Moscow. And Luzhkov, when he was mayor, paid...

Vladimir Putin: What does Luzhkov have to do with it? It was federal money, not Luzhkov's.

Tatyana Ivanova: Yes, I know. I mean the municipal allocations; we get them in St Petersburg but not in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin: Listen to me. When we considered paying for a third child ­ we really did, I'm serious ­ we wanted to encourage the birth rate...

Tatyana Ivanova: I didn't have my children for the money, honestly. I didn't get anything, just love.

Vladimir Putin: I see.

Tatyana Ivanova: I just wanted to know, that's all. Simply interested.

Vladimir Putin: I will tell you about our goal ­ to stimulate the birth rate in the European part of the country, in Siberia and the Far East...

Question: But not in St Petersburg? Is the birth rate sufficient there?

Vladimir Putin: It is located in European Russia. The birth rate is very high in some regions, for example the North Caucasus. Pragmatically speaking, there is no need to stimulate the birth rate there, because it is high enough. That is why we limited the support to two children; the money is provided to mothers who give birth to two or more children. Of course, you should read the law carefully but you are definitely entitled to maternity capital. On top of that, we have taken decisions on land ownership and several taxation issues, which stipulate privileges. Read the law, it is quite effective.

Tatyana Ivanova: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: As for your desire to have more children, it is great, it is a commendable intention meaning above all that you have a happy family.

Tatyana Ivanova: Yes, thanks you.

Vladimir Putin: My sincere congratulations.

Remark: Mr Putin, thank you for dropping in. Do you think we could pose for a joint photograph?

Vladimir Putin: I thought we have been doing this all the time I am here...

Remark: No, a real joint photograph and not pictures taken from here and there.

Remark: Yes, a really big joint photograph.

Vladimir Putin: Alright, let's do it. The guys will sing something for us, while we...

Remark: Guys, may I sing the same song again? I have sung it before, we rehearsed it with Vera. The thing is that this song is meant to be performed after the Olympic Games, when we have won all the medals and it will be time to leave, and we'll be sitting...

Remark: Very sad...

Remark: We'll learn it by heart.

Remark: Do you know the lyrics?

Remark: Almost.

Vladimir Putin: So, you have rehearsed it. Why then are you telling me that you don't know what to write?

They sing a song.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

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