Putin tackles the toughest issues in Russia today, the brutal war in Chechnya, the conflict in Kosovo, squabbles with NATO, financial scandals, corruption, and the weakness of the Russian judicial system. He discusses people, Yeltsin, Clinton, the people he trusts, the people he doesn't and recreates the moment Yeltsin offered him the reins of power. Was he ready to govern one of the most complex, formidable, and volatile countries in the world? Would he ever be?
Your wife told us that you once gave an impromptu press conference to the French and spent two hours answering tricky political questions. Would you risk doing the same thing with us?
What are we going to talk about?
What you're trying to achieve in Chechnya is more or less clear: a final ousting of the rebels. Do you know what to do in Chechnya after that?
First, we have to finish the military operation. What does that mean? We have to break up the major bandit formations that is, units of ten or more fighters. Simultaneously we need to strengthen the role of law enforcement agencies and restore government agencies. We have to tackle social problems, schools, and hospitals. We must more actively create jobs. Then hold elections. We need to hold a by-election for a parliamentary representative from Chechnya. The republic must have its own deputy in the Russian Duma. Depending on how the situation turns out, the introduction of direct presidential rule may be necessary.
Direct presidential rule? For how long?
For a year or two. During that time, we have to restore all the governmental agencies and transition to other new political procedures: that is, elections to the local governing bodies, and to the post of leader of the republic. And as a necessary precondition, to form a base of reliable people.
Will you appoint them from Moscow? Will they be Russians or Chechens?
Various options are possible, including a mixed leadership. There are many possibilities. That's something we will have to decide. We have to choose people not by their ethnic characteristics but by their abilities. But we've already had all that, although in a different form elections, and the government agencies, and the social assistance. And then the rebels took Grozny back in a heartbeat. There's no guarantee this won't happen again.
You know what the guarantee is?
I repeat: The bandits will be destroyed. Whoever takes up arms will be destroyed. And we're prepared to do business with all the rest. Let them elect a head of the republic. We are prepared to sign an agreement with Chechnya. How many power limitation agreements are there? Humans have developed an enormous number of ways to help different people in one state to live in harmony. Yes, some sort of compromise has to be sought, and we will seek it. But no one will force any sort of decision on us.
But aren't we forcing it on them? Do you really think that no one will seek revenge? Not one person?
Russia was provoked into taking action. After all, the bandits are robbing Chechnya, robbing their own people. For three years, they have been stealing people's pay, pensions, and aid. And the majority of Chechens believe that their rulers are to blame.
But you're intending to establish diktat.
Nothing of the kind. We are using force against the bandits, not the people. The bandits are the ones who are trying to dictate to Chechens how they should live and even how they should pray to Allah. We will establish order. There will be peace and quiet in the republic. And then we'll move on to elections, and we'll make an agreement with the new leadership about the power relationship between Chechnya and the federal center, understanding that we still have to live together.
Do you have any better suggestions? Should we leave again, drop everything, and then wait for them to attack us? Isn't that a crime? Wouldn't it be a crime to abandon ordinary Chechens and to undermine Russia? Or stay in Chechnya and wait to be attacked? What should we do?
I have said what we must do. We must go through the mountain caves and scatter and destroy all those who are armed. Perhaps after the presidential elections, we should introduce direct presidential rule there for a couple of years. We must rebuild the economy and the social services, show the people that normal life is possible. We must pull the young generation out of the environment of violence in which it is living. We must put a program of education in place . . . We must work. We must not abandon Chechnya as we did before. In fact, we did a criminal thing back then, when we abandoned the Chechen people and undermined Russia. Now we must work hard, and then transfer to full fledged political procedures, allowing them and us to decide how we can coexist. It is unavoidable fact: We must live together.
We have no plans to deport Chechens, as Stalin once solved the problem. And Russia has no other choice. Nobody can impose a solution on us by force but we are prepared to take maximum consideration of Chechen interests. We will negotiate and search for a compromise for our coexistence. And when they come to realize that this is an acceptable solution, they won't want to take up arms anymore.
But until they come to realize this, peaceful residents will turn into bandits and attack liberated settlements, and it's not clear whether they will ever understand this. We will destroy those who resort to arms. And we will have to create a local elite, which understands that it is in Chechnya's interests to remain part of Russia. As things stand today, any discussion of any status outside of the framework of Russia is out of the question.
The rebels have already sentenced you to death several times.
One should never fear such threats. It's like with a dog, you know. A dog senses when somebody is afraid of it, and bites. The same applies here. If you become jittery, they will think that they are stronger. Only one thing works in such circumstances to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.
The army will do its business and then go back into its barracks.
Chechnya isn't the whole country. What do you think the country needs above all? What's the main priority?
We must clearly and accurately determine our goals, not just speak about them in passing. These goals must become comprehensible and accessible to every person. Like the Code of the Builder of Communism.
And what would you write in the first line of this Code?
Will we once again search for Russia's special path?
You don't have to search for anything, it's already been found. It's the path of democratic development. Of course, Russia is a very diverse country, but we are part of Western European culture. No matter where our people live, in the Far East or in the south, we are Europeans. All that remains is for Europe to think that, too. We will fight to keep our geographical and spiritual position. And if they push us away, then we'll be forced to find allies and reinforce ourselves. What else can we do?
Bring Babitsky back!*
I think you have to direct that request to the bandits.
* Andrei Babitsky is a Russian journalist who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and has written highly graphic accounts of the horrors of the war in Chechnya from behind rebel lines. Frustrated by his ''unpatriotic" journalism and his coverage of Russian atrocities, the Russian government arrested him in February 2000 and then handed him over to the Chechen rebels, allegedly in exchange for several Russian POWs. Babitsky himself then reported that in fact he had been handed over to pro-Moscow Chechens working for the Russian army. This conversation took place before Babitsky's release in March 2000 under pledge not to leave Moscow pending investigation.
But people doubt that he is really being held by the rebels.
Really? Well, they shouldn't. And Cochetel?* Where is he? And where is General Shpigun?** And they are holding 258 people. Where are they?
Cochetel didn't even manage to photograph anything. He came across the Georgian border and he was seized immediately. Now he is sitting in a basement and writing letters: "I can't endure it any longer. Do anything to set me free." And Maskhadov*** has been saying up until now that he has no idea where the Frenchman is, but he recently called Lord Russell-Johnston**** and offered to swap him.
*So it turns out that Maskhadov does after all, control the situation. He just won't admit it. Which means that he can't be trusted. So when he says he knows nothing about Babitsky's whereabouts and that he doesn't know the field commanders who were interceding on his behalf, we obviously can't believe him.
**Vincent Cochetel is an official from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who was kidnapped and released in 1998 before this interview. Putin may be confusing him with Brice Fleutiaux, a French freelance photojournalist who was kidnapped in October 1999 while working in Chechnya and was still being held hostage by Chechen rebels as of March 2000.
***On March 5, 1999, unidentified persons abducted General Gennady Shpigun at gunpoint at the airport outside Chechnya's capital. General Shpigun, a native of the Caucasus, was the representative in Chechnya of the Russian Interior Ministry and was still being held hostage as of March 2000.
****Aslan Maskhadov is the President of Chechnya, elected in democratic elections in 1996.
Lord Russell-Johnston was elected president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January 1999.
Is Babitsky alive?
Yes, he is alive. I think the rebels even sent a video today. You can see very clearly in the video that he is alive.
When will he show up in Moscow?
He'll show up. And as soon as he shows up, he will be summoned for interrogation.
That's odd. First you release him against a written pledge not to leave Moscow, then you exchange him, and then you summon him for interrogation.
I'll tell you this: Our country is going through a rather complex period of time. You would agree that Russia's defeat in the first Chechen war was due to a large extent due to the state of society's morale. Russians didn't understand what ideals our soldiers were fighting for. Those soldiers gave their lives and in return they were anathematized. They were dying for the interests of their country and they were publicly humiliated.
This time around, fortunately, it's different. Babitsky and his ilk were essentially trying to reverse the situation. He was working directly for the enemy. He was not a neutral source of information. He was working for the bandits.
So you don't like his reports?
Can I please finish? He was working for the bandits. So, when the militants said they were ready to release several of our soldiers in exchange for him, our people asked him, "Do you want to be exchanged?" And he said, "Yes." And in exchange we were offered three of our soldiers who were under death threats if we didn't rescue them. These were our soldiers. They were fighting for Russia. If we didn't get them back, they would be shot. But the bandits wouldn't do anything to Babitsky because they thought of him as one of their own.
And then they told us: if you give us back Babitsky, then as soon as he gets to our camp in the mountains, we'll let go another two POWs. And they did release them. So, in sum, it was one of Babitsky versus five of our soldiers. It would have been worth exchanging him for just one Russian soldier.
So now he's a hero of Russia? Or a traitor?
It's not good to collaborate with bandits and to write that they are cutting off the heads of our soldiers in order to portray the whole horror of war. And the fact that they were cutting off peoples' heads alive before the start of hostilities, and the fact that they took the hundred hostages for criminal motives in order to get ransom how do you account for that? Babitsky was justifying the decapitation of people.
What he said exactly was . . .
I have read it. He went there. He went in. And he came out carrying maps of routes that showed how to skirt around our checkpoints. What authority did he have to stick his nose in there without official accreditation?
Then perhaps he should have been brought to Moscow to sort the whole matter out here?
He was arrested and an investigation was started. He said: "I don't trust you. I trust the Chechens. They asked that I be handed over to them, so hand me over." And our people said to him, "The hell with you."
And what if it is all untrue?
You may ask me some other time to tell you the truth about the war. What really happens to people when they fight on the side of the enemy . . . Journalists don't fight. What Babitsky did is much more dangerous than firing a machine gun.
And what about freedom of expression?
We interpret freedom of expression in different ways. If you mean direct complicity in crimes, I will never agree with that. Let us repeat the sentence about decapitation.
Please, you can speak your mind, but you have no right to determine his fate.
We didn't stick him in there. He went himself.
Are you sure?
That's the truth. What I say is confirmed by his own words and what you say isn't confirmed by anything. And the tape, where you can see quite clearly just how much he wants to go there . . . * They took a Russian journalist and gave him to God knows who. He's not a Russian journalist. He's a Russian citizen.*
In a videotape of Babitsky delivered to Radio Liberty after he was said to be turned over to Chechen rebels, he looked pale and tired, spoke slowly, and said he wanted to go home.
Well, you say he's a Russian citizen. Then let him behave according to the laws of his own country, if he wants those same laws to be applied to him. Still, it isn't clear, under what law could you hand him over?
He asked for it himself. And if he had asked for you to execute him, would you? That's impossible. That is prohibited by the internal regulations. I'll tell you this. It's senseless to execute him, but getting five of our soldiers for him, I think that's quite acceptable.
Bring back Babitsky.
We can't bring him back. We will hunt for him and turn him over to the courts. I don't know if this case has any prospect of coming to trial. I'm not certain about that. But he'll have to be interrogated.
What's wrong with our relationship with NATO?
We don't feel like we're full-fledged participants in the process. If we were granted full-fledged participation in decision-making, then things wouldn't be so terrible. The situation with Yugoslavia illustrates that decisions can be made without Russia. That's just the point! We don't need those kinds of relations.
You were secretary of the Security Council, when the events in Yugoslavia began. Was the president or the prime minister interested in your opinion?
The president decided these matters directly with the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Ministry.
But if you had been in Primakov's place, would you have turned the plane around over the Atlantic?*
*In March 1999, then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to the United States to discuss the Balkans crisis with President Clinton. When he learned that the Americans had made the decision to bomb Serbia, he turned the plane around and returned to Russia.
Possibly. Primakov was in a very difficult position. Yes, he could have flown to Washington and used his visit as a tribunal to express Russia's position. But the Americans could have turned such a visit around for their own purposes. They could have interpreted the arrival of the Russian prime minister as a sign that Russia agreed with their proposed option for resolving the Yugoslav problem. Their means of resolving the problem in Yugoslavia was predetermined after the fall of the USSR.
Then why these demonstrations, if a weakened Russia could not do anything?
That's not true. Even in its current state, there's a lot that Russia can do. We should have analyzed the situation earlier before the bombing of Yugoslavia to see how we could have influence our partners' decision. We could have worked more actively with the countries that did not agree with the turn of events.
Since we're talking about cooperation with Europe, let's return to Chechnya for a minute. Can you imagine allowing a peacekeeping force into Chechnya?
That's out of the question. If we were to recognize that Chechnya is an independent state, then yes, it would be possible. Then Chechnya could decide to bring any peacekeeping forces it wanted. They said that Kosovo would remain within Yugoslavia, and yet they brought in the troops. That's why we are not agreeing to any options like Kosovo. Nothing analogous to the Kosovo events is possible. And it will never be possible. Everything that the NATO allies actually achieved in Kosovo directly contradicted the goals that NATO had established for itself.
You say, "We are not agreeing." Have they really made such offers?
Let's say that we are being offered mediators to help resolve the Chechen conflict. We don't need any mediators. That is the first step toward internationalizing the conflict first come the mediators, then someone else, then observers, then military observers, and then a limited contingent of troops. And away we go. . . .
But what about OSCE observers?
In Chechnya? After military operations are completed and the bandit formations are totally defeated. They will be allowed in when we tell them, and where we consider it expedient.
With that kind of approach, it looks like integration into Europe isn't on the horizon.
It depends on what kind of Europe you mean. Let's analyze it: Yes, the world has changed, and Europe, too, has changed that's no secret. The UN Charter was signed with a different array of world powers in mind. We were the main victors after World War II. But now, alas, we have become weaker, and the UN Charter remains in effect. Not everybody likes that. They are trying to change it or supplant it for example, with decisions from NATO. We must not agree to that. Many have forgotten, by the way, that when NATO was created at the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union indicated its intention to enter this bloc. But we weren't let in.
In response, together with the countries of Eastern Europe, we formed the Warsaw Pact, which no longer exists. The Pact was a direct response to the formation of the NATO alliance.
So should we reconsider joining NATO?
We can consider it, but not at this moment. It's a question of what kind of NATO we're talking about. If we're talking about the NATO that acted in Kosovo in direct violation of UN decisions, that's not even of theoretical interest for us to discuss. If we're talking about a serious transformation of this bloc into a political organization prepared to have constructive interactions with Russia, then there is a topic for discussion.
In sum, I don't see any reason why cooperation between Russia and NATO shouldn't develop further; but I repeat that it will happen only if Russia is treated as an equal partner.
In any case, even when you are making suppositions, you have to think of the long term. There are a lot of political, economic, military problems. For example, any bloc and NATO is no exception, sets weapons standards that substantially affect the interests of the defense industry.
But what do the members of NATO think about this?
I think they fear the destruction of NATO from within. I understand them perfectly well. We are too powerful a dominant theme. There is one single power, the USA. Say a second one appears, albeit one not as powerful as the first. Yet the balance of power could be ruined. The founding fathers of NATO fear that their organization would change drastically. From our perspective, it would change for the better, and from theirs, possibly for the worse.
Still, it doesn't make sense. It seems as though Russia criticized NATO because we weren't allowed into the Yugoslavia resolution process as full-fledged partners. But what if we had been allowed in?
Well, that's just the point. If we had been allowed in, that decision never would have been made. We never would have agreed to that type of interference in the internal affairs of another country. That sort of behavior simply cannot be justified, even for so-called humanitarian reasons. I believe that the operation itself was a major mistake in international relations and a violation of the founding principles of international law.
And the invasion of Hungary by Warsaw Pact troops in 1956, and of Czechoslovakia in 1968? Were they major mistakes?
You forget that we used force in Germany in 1953, too. In my view, these were major mistakes. And the Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes.
But look: We began talking about Russia's relationship with Europe, and we have narrowed it down to our relations with NATO. Even with the North Atlantic orientation of today's European policy, we cannot forget that NATO and Europe are not one and the same thing. And I've already said that Russia is a country of European culture not NATO culture.
We're always hearing that Russia has grown weak, and that a whole slew of problems are ensuing from that weakness, both at home and abroad. Your thesis is that Russia's statehood must be restored a strong state is needed. That's understandable. Does that mean that state property also has to be restored?
No, of course not. But we have to have state property on a limited scale, where it is necessary. For example, in the defense industry.
Does that mean that the private sector should be expanded?
First, we need to guarantee property rights. I believe that one of the main purposes of the state is to create rules universal, rules in the form of laws, instructions, and regulations. And secondly, to comply with these rules, and guarantee their compliance.
But we've already had lots of these instructions and rules, regulations, and laws, and where have they gotten us?
You're right. And that is why the people do not trust the government. Look at all the types of laws that have been passed in the social sphere for example, free transportation for members of the military. They may have passed the law, but in reality, the military pays for transportation. There are lots of other examples. In order to change this situation, the government will have to take some unpopular measures.
What unpopular measures?
We will have to review all the social guarantees that the state has taken upon itself in recent years and that are completely unfounded and not backed up. We have no choice.
Can you be more specific? Maybe you could use the example of free rides for military personnel?
Wouldn't it be better to raise the salaries of some citizens, including military people?
If you gave them just a little bit more money, they could pay their own fares and wouldn't be put in such a humiliating position. But if the government does say that it will compensate those citizens for example, for their fares then it must do so.
I'm sure the leftist opposition will jump on me, saying that people are losing their benefits and that this is a blow against the helpless working people, who already have it so hard. But a government that doesn't fulfill its obligations is not a government. And that's why there's such a lack of trust in the government now.
So you are entering into a deal with the leftists because you'll need them when you have to make some unpopular decisions? Is that why you needed Seleznev as speaker of the House?
Do I need them? On the contrary, I told both Seleznev and Zyuganov to find a fresh face, even if it's a person from their own camp.
But a Communist! You really wound up with a fresh face, didn't you?! . . .
Listen, there has always been cooperation with the Communists in our Duma. Not a single law passes without support from the Communists. It seems to me that there is more than one way to deal with the Communists. They have every opportunity to become a modern parliamentary party in the European sense of the word. We have very many parties, groups, grouplets, and associations without any real social base. And then there are the Communists, the only large-scale, really a big party with a strong social base, albeit one infested with ideological ''roaches."
Name the "roaches" for us.
For example, the demands to confiscate and nationalize property.
That's not going to happen?
That's definitely not going to happen. We will not have another major tragedy. And we will not have a partnership with the Communists while they maintain that position. If some sort of unlawful actions in previous years were established and proven in court, that would be another matter. But nationalization and confiscation of property for their own sakes, without a judicial procedure is a catastrophe. If for no other reason than because they would clear the way for arbitrary rule.
Communists can either change their programmatic goals, and become a major left-wing party of the European type, or they can take the other path and lose their social base through natural attrition. If they choose the latter, they will gradually exit the political stage.
They themselves hardly believe that.
As surprising as it may sound, their leaders do understand. And they are prepared to change their ways. But right now they can't do it, they're afraid that their constituency will feel betrayed. And on that score, it's pretty important not to miss the moment when and to what extent they can change internally.
For many people, "strong authority" is associated with dictatorship. I prefer another phrase not "strong," but "effective" authority. You can call it what you like.
But how will that authority become effective? How will it enforce the rules it establishes?
The courts must work as must the law enforcement agencies and the courts of arbitration. The role of these agencies has changed, and we refuse to understand that. Their role has begun to correspond to what is written in the law.
Why don't we pay judges and law enforcement agents the money that they deserve?
Because Soviet ideology governs our consciousness to this day. Remember how we used to think: "Well, a court, what's that? Nothing special. The district Party committee is the body that makes all the decisions. It's important. But what do the judges do? They will do what they are told."
To this day, people think that judges are not important, and that they shouldn't be paid more than the average civil servant. Or take the notary publics. In the French system, if a notary public stamps a document, it is ironclad law. If a notary public makes a mistake, he is obliged to pay compensation. Two mistakes, and he is ruined. Our society must understand that a minority, a certain category of people must be paid very well by the state, so that they can secure the interests of the majority. When will we finally begin to understand this? Our people aren't stupid. It's just that it hasn't been explained the right way.
But the role of the courts has been explained. They've been explaining it for ten years! But until the courts change for the better, the attitudes toward them won't change either. How else can you explain it?
More persistently. Without that, nothing will change. And we have to raise judges' salaries. Now, the governors are hardly going to line up behind your ideas about "effective" authority and the governability of the state. They're all going to be afraid that you will cut off their independence. I think that we have to preserve both local self-government and a system of election for governors. But all of these connections have to be more balanced. While preserving the system of electing governors, for instance, we should consider applying sanctions against them. To remove them from office, for example. That is, elect some and remove others. We can develop systems to link them more closely to the center. They cannot have complete independence.
Do you mean a system of oversight?
Oversight and influence. All members of the Russian Federation should be placed under equal economic conditions vis A vis the federal center. We have signed a huge number of agreements on the separation of powers, but some federation members have unjustified privileges that others don't.
Tatarstan, for example?
Tatarstan, for example. Shaimiev* may not understand you.
*Shaimiev is the president of Tatarstan.
You're wrong. He does understand. I recently discussed the problem with him in general terms. Shaimiev generally agreed with me. Everyone understands what is eroding the overall economic and political sphere. And that is one of our priorities.
The next step is science and education. Without modern managers, without a contemporary understanding of what needs to be done, and without carriers of this understanding, it will be impossible to achieve results.
But those "carriers" have already left the country.
Not all of them. And we've preserved the most important thing, fundamental science and education. If we lose that, of course, it's the end.
Where are you going to get the money for all of this?
You know, we don't need that much money. The problem is not money. The problem is understanding.
Well what, for example, would you pay to young specialists, taking into account their understanding?
Let's say they are offered about $5,000 a month in the West. What if we were to pay them, theoretically speaking, $2,000 a month?
Yes. And I bet the majority would not leave the country under those terms. To live in your own country, surrounded by your own language and people close to you, your friends, your relatives, your acquaintances and receive a little more money than others for that, it's very advantageous.
Still, it doesn't make sense. You intend to pay higher salaries to judges, the state bureaucracy, and the army, and you will also need more money for education and science. Where are you going to get it? What if America decides tomorrow to sell its strategic oil reserves? The prices will fall, and then . . .
We have money, but it has been slipping through our fingers. Until there is a strong state, we will remain dependent on someone's strategic reserves.
You're a specialist in law. Is the law immutable?
The law has to be observed, but if it becomes outdated, it must be altered. One of the postulates of legal theory is that the law always lags behind life.
What about our Constitution? Is it lagging behind life?
The Constitution should enshrine the most general principles. Therefore it lives longer than ordinary law. This is natural, since the Constitution guarantees society certain rules for the long term. But amendments can be made to it.
Should amendments be made to the section in the Constitution about the powers of the president? Should they be limited? In fact, another type of amendment is being contemplated now, increasing the term of office of the president to seven years.
I don't know, maybe four years is enough time to get things done. But four years is a short term. The technical experts we're working with are mapping out a year-by-year program of action. During the first, the agenda is to form goals and teams; during the second and part of the third, to gradually achieve concrete results; during the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, to present our results and to begin the next election campaign. If that cycle is broken and everything is scattered, we won't be able to get anything done, and we won't be able to prepare for the next elections.
What about the powers of the president?
I can't rule it, out amendments are possible. We must look carefully at how things are formulated and whether they correspond with the interests of the state and the society as a whole. If there are exceptional rights in the section on the powers of the president, then we should think about reviewing them. I believe this should be the subject of a broad discussion. But from the very beginning, Russia was created as a super centralized state. That's practically laid down in its genetic code, its traditions, and the mentality of its people.
If you want to take a historical approach to these issues, then monarchy is also embedded in Russian tradition. Does that mean we should restore it?
I think that is not very likely. But in general . . . in certain periods of time . . . in a certain place . . . under certain conditions . . . monarchy has played and continues to this day to play a positive role. In Spain, for instance. I think the monarchy played a decisive role in releasing the country from despotism and totalitarianism. The monarchy was clearly the stabilizing factor. The monarch doesn't have to worry about whether or not he will be elected, or about petty political interests, or about how to influence the electorate. He can think about the destiny of the people and not become distracted with trivialities.
And the prime minister will think about everything else.
Yes, the government.
But in Russia, that's not possible. You know, there's a lot that seems impossible and incredible and then bang! Look what happened to the Soviet Union. Who could have imagined that it would simply collapse? No one saw that coming, even in their worst nightmares.
Were you present at the burial of the remains of the czar's family in St. Petersburg?
What do you think? Was burying them the right thing to do?
I think so.
Should the state have relations with big business?
Definitely, because a lot depends on big business. But relations between the state and business should be defined by the law and by general rules. Businesses want this sort of regulation too, so
that the state can't play favorites and so that they're all competing under equal conditions.
So you don't rule out dealing with big businessmen?
Of course not. I think the state has to listen to both workers and trade unions as well as to the representatives of big business and associations of entrepreneurs. Much depends on the policies of firms and major companies. How can I pretend that this doesn't matter to me? That would be a mistake. But the state should not command business.
On the question of favorites: in an interview, Boris Berezovsky* said that he meets with you once a month. Is that true?
*Boris Berezovsky is a prominent and influential Russian businessman. He is part-owner of ORT, a pro-government television station, and has taken an active role in the Chechen conflicts. He was former deputy secretary of the National Security Council in the Yeltsin administration.
It's probably less often.
On whose initiative?
On his. He has such a lively mind. Most of his ideas are connected to the Caucasus to Chechnya and Karachay-Cherkessia. He was, after all, deputy secretary of the Security Council, and worked on these issues. Incidentally, in my view, his proposals on Chechnya are not realistic or effective. Frankly speaking, that is why nothing that he has proposed is being implemented. From time to time, I not only meet with Berezovsky but also with other businessmen for example Petr Aven, Potanin, and Alekperov.
Your wife said that you don't like to discuss your work colleagues. But we're interested in people. In Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, for example. . . .
Do you want me to give you an evaluation of his role in history?
Well, you did have a relationship with him, including a personal one.
I did not have a particularly close relationship with Boris Nikolayevich, just a good working relationship. He treats me very well and I am grateful to him for that. I hardly ever meet him in regular life.
And you don't play tennis?
And I don't play tennis. Before his retirement, I visited Yeltsin at home only on work-related matters. Moreover, I can say that only when he began to discuss the question of his resignation with me did I sense a certain warmth in him.
Do you call him?
Yes. He and I talk more now than we did before his retirement. Before, I wouldn't have dreamed of calling him. . . . That is, I did pick up the phone and call him a few times, but only for work matters. Now our relationship is different. Now I can just call him and chat.
But do you visit him?
Yes, I visit him. Recently I went to his house on business. Boris Nikolayevich said to me, "Please stay for dinner. We're going to have sushi." Apparently he once tried sushi in a restaurant and he liked it. So his wife and daughter decided to put together a Japanese meal at home. Of course I stayed. Afterward we sat for a long time drinking beer and talking.
Does Yeltsin call you himself?
Yes, he has called several times. He was interested to find out how things were going in the Caucasus. And then he once asked how our internal troops were doing. He called about the CIS summit, and we met at his initiative to discuss how to raise certain issues during the meeting with the CIS leaders. And we discussed the leadership of the Commonwealth. His experience in this regard is very helpful.
Everyone is wondering whether you are going to lock horns with Luzhkov* like you did before?
*Yuri Luzhkov has been the mayor of Moscow since the Yeltsin era. Luzhkov was accused of embezzlement during his rebuilding of the Ring Road around Moscow.
Lock horns? But I never had any fight with him.
Alright, then. Will you try to break him, or will you work with him as with any other member of the Federation Council?**
**The upper chamber of Parliament, where the mayor of Moscow has a seat.
Of course I'll work with him. I'm prepared to rely on him as someone with great influence in the largest region of the country, the capital, but his own actions must be directed at strengthening the state.
What were they directed at before? Until now, to a large extent, they have been aimed at satisfying his political ambitions. When a regional leader is so ambitious, I think it is destructive for the country. Actually, the fault lies not so much with the individual as with the central authority. As soon as the regional leaders sense that the government is strong and effective, they will return to the role prescribed for them by the Constitution, and begin to take care of business.
Like the Ring Road?
Yes, the Ring Road. They say a lot of money was stolen on that project. Whenever I hear someone accused of theft or something like that, I want to ask: Do we still presume people to be innocent? If a crime is not proven, no one can be accused of it.
Of course, there is also a peculiarly Russian feature that is known to all. Remember that joke from the Soviet era? Brezhnev comes to visit Carter. Carter says, ''Do you see that beautiful bridge there?""Yes," says Brezhnev. Carter tells him: "It has five lanes running one way and five lines running in the opposite direction. But the plans called for 10 lanes one way and 10 lanes the other way." "Well, where are the missing lanes?" asks Brezhnev. "They're all here!" says Carter, and points to the furniture in the White House. Brezhnev thinks, "Well, alright!" Then Carter comes to visit him in Russia. Brezhnev says, "See the Moscow River?" "I see it," says Carter. "Do you see the bridge across it?" "No, I don't." "Because it's all right here!" says Brezhnev and he points to the furniture in the Kremlin.
Of course you can assume that somebody siphoned off funds from the construction of the Ring Road; but at least that road is out there, isn't it? And you can be proud of it. And if somebody thinks that somebody stole something, let him go and prove it.
How do you think Luzhkov is going to treat you?
I think he will behave constructively. I don't think he will really have a choice
What are you implying?
Nothing. I'm not implying any forcible actions. You know, I think that many people believe that the president had ceased to be the center of power. Before, they behaved quite loyally. If need be, I will simply act in such a way as to guarantee that no one has such illusions anymore.
The most famous Petersburger is Anatoly Chubais. Do you have a close relationship with him? Weren't you acquainted with him in Peter?
When I came to work for Sobchak, Chubais was the deputy chair of the Leningrad City Council executive committee. I never had any direct interaction with Chubais. I never dealt with him closely.
How did you react to his voucher plan?
What did you do with your own voucher?
I lost it, at first, and then I found it and bought something with it, something stupid. About a year before the privatization, I spoke with Vasily Leontiev, the Nobel Prize winner, and he told me,
"Give the property away to whomever you wish. In two or three years it will end up in the right hands anyway. Give it away free if you have to." And Chubais did give it away. I think that was his exact approach although, of course, you should ask him about it yourself.
Two or three years? Do you think that's inevitable?
I don't know whether it's inevitable. What's important is that the property be in the hands of an effective owner.
But it wound up in the hands of a different owner. That's just it. Weren't you offended when Chubais came to work in the presidential administration, and the first thing he did was eliminate the position that had been promised to you?
No, I wasn't offended. I know his technocratic approach to the solution of problems. He had decided that the existing staff structure did not correspond to the challenges that faced the administration.
There was nothing personal about it?
There is no question of intrigue here. He is not the sort of person who is guided by sentiments. Of course I can't say that I was overjoyed at the time, but I didn't feel angry at him. Quite frankly, I wasn't particularly hurt.
So when did you establish more or less regular contact with Chubais?
But he comes and visits you at your dacha on occasion?
Yes, he sometimes comes to visit.
Were you surprised that Chubais supported the operation in Chechnya?
I thought that he lived in a world of illusions. But it turned out that he's more of a pragmatist, that he's capable of grasping the realities of life and is not guided by ephemeral ideas.
And when he said that he supported your candidacy in the presidential elections?
That didn't surprise me either, because he knows perfectly well that I am not a dictator and don't intend to return the country to an administrative economy ruled by directives. Chubais, by the way, is a very good administrator. I've watched him run the Commission on Operations, and I've seen him in action at government meetings. He is able to grasp the main point, and as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin used to say, pull out the whole chain. But of course, he is so hard-nosed, like a Bolshevik . . . yes, that's the right word to describe him. Unfortunately, he has a bad credit record. I mean his public credit the public's trust in him is low.
What political leaders do you find most interesting?
Napoleon Bonaparte. [Laughs.]
De Gaulle, most likely. And I also like Erhard. He was a very pragmatic person. He was the one who built the new Germany after the war. In fact, his entire conception for the reconstruction of the country began with the creation of new moral values for society. For Germany, this was particularly important, after the collapse of Nazi ideology.
Why have you postponed all your trips abroad until after the elections?
It was a logistical problem: The president and the prime minister do not have the right to travel abroad at the same time, and I am simultaneously the acting president and the prime minister.
Any other reason? Were you afraid that you would be pecked apart over Chechnya?
I'd like to peck them all apart myself. But they didn't really want to meet with us because of Chechnya. Or if they were prepared to meet, it was in a format and at a level of discussion that did not suit us. They would meet with us on our terms, they said, if we agreed to change our position on the Caucasus. That suited us even less, as it would have cost more than my trips abroad.
But when you were still a "traveling" prime minister, you managed to meet with Clinton in New Zealand.
Yes, I liked him.
What did you like about him?
He's a very charming person. I liked talking to him. You evidently share a mutual admiration for each other. He recently supported you on the Internet. In that first meeting, he also paid special attention to me. When we were in New Zealand I don't recall whether it was at lunch or dinner, he made a point of coming up to me. We had been seated at different tables. We talked about something for a while, and then he said, "Well, shall we go?" Everyone lined up in a corridor the leaders of other states, guests and he and I walked together along that corridor. We exited the hall to the sound of applause. I appreciated this sign of special regard. Maybe that's why he made such a good impression on me. No, I'm just kidding around. In conversation, he just seems like a sincere person, open and friendly, and that's very important.
He has a natural charm.
Probably. If you don't have natural charm, it's very hard to learn it. I know that for sure.
Who else have you met personally?
Kohl, Thatcher, Major.
Was that back when you were working in Petersburg? Yes.
Did you speak German with Kohl?
He met with Sobchak for about 30 minutes. I translated. They were the most general kind of remarks, about nothing really. We were at lunch. He had said, "Let's not talk about anything serious. Come to Bonn in about three weeks, and we'll talk about everything." Later, Sobchak took him up on the offer, and took me along with him. It was a business trip. You know what surprised me the most? I didn't expect any major European political figure would know Russia so well and so deeply. That simply amazed me.
Now I can't recall everything that he said, but I do remember my own feelings. I was impressed by Kohl's deep knowledge of Russian history and contemporary life. He understood the essence of the events taking place. And it was especially gratifying to hear him say that he couldn't imagine a Europe without Russia. He said that the Germans were not only interested in the Russian market but in becoming worthy partners with Russia.
But maybe he was just using polite phrases.
No, I don't think so. These were not just the protocol phrases. I was convinced that he really felt what he said.
Such a strong leader, and such a scandal after his resignation! It's strange.
There's nothing strange about it. In fact, the Christian Democratic Union had grown weak and it was defeated. Obviously, the leadership made mistakes. But after 16 years, any people including the stable Germans get tired of a leader, even a leader as strong as Kohl. It just took them a while to realize it.
Now you've arrived in the Kremlin, which in recent times has been linked to scandal after scandal of its own Borodin and Mabetex,* the "Family" money**. . . You've been strangely silent about all this, and people are conjecturing that it's because the "Family" brought you in and that, in gratitude, you are putting out all the fires.
*Borodin was accused of providing kickbacks to Yeltsin and his family through the Swiss construction firm, Mabetex.
**The "Family" refers to Yeltsin, his family, and his entourage.
I never had any special relations with the people close to the president. And it would be very risky to trust such a serious matter as "putting out fires" to a little-known person.
It can't be that risky if you appointed Borodin to the post of state secretary for Belarus and Russia.
I didn't appoint him. I proposed him, and he was selected.
Even though he has a trail of scandalous accusations behind him? You don't believe that you should have investigated the scandals first, before nominating him for an official post?
I believe what is written in the law. There is a golden rule, the fundamental principle of any democratic system, and it is called "the presumption of innocence."
But nothing was proven in court in the case of Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov,* and that didn't prevent him from being dismissed. Skuratov was removed from his position in full compliance with the law, which states that during the period of investigation of a case opened against the prosecutor general, he must be removed. That's what happened.
*A newspaper published photos purportedly showing Skuratov with prostitutes, which unleashed a scandal leading to his suspension as prosecutor general.
Do you suppose that if the investigation doesn't find anything, he'll be reinstated?
Theoretically, yes. But there is more at stake here than just the criminal and legal aspects. There is a moral aspect as well. I am clear on the moral side of the story. I know the facts exactly. He and I spoke about this.
Then why did he later deny the story again?
Because he didn't want to be compromised, that's all.
A newspaper reported that Skuratov wrote his second letter of resignation after you worked him over. They also said that compared to you, the cellars of the FSB headquarters in Lubyanka seemed like paradise.
This is all nonsense.
But what happened?
The four of us met: Boris Nikolayevich, Prime Minister Primakov, myself, then director of the FSB, and Skuratov. Boris Nikolayevich took out the videotape and the photographs made from the videotape. He just put them on the table and said, "I don't think that you should work as the prosecutor general any longer."
Primakov agreed: "Yes, Yuri Ilyich, I think that you had better write a letter of resignation." Yuri Ilyich thought for a while. Then he took out a piece of paper and wrote that he was resigning.
If you were in a similar situation, how would you have acted?
If I thought that my personal behavior was incompatible with my professional duties, of course I would leave. I am certain that the position of prosecutor general, for example, is incompatible with a scandal like this.
And the position of prime minister?
Prime minister? Strange as it may sound, it would be less serious. A prosecutor is different. A prosecutor should be a model of morality and scruples, because he is the one who ensures that all citizens comply with the law, the prime minister, the president, and everyone else.
Another question this one, related to the heroines of this story. Should we fight prostitution?
Through social and economic means.
We need for people to live normally. After World War II, prostitution flourished in Western Europe because people were poor. Talk to the veterans of World War II and they will tell you that women gave themselves away for a chunk of bread. Prostitution arises out of poverty and desperation. If you live a normal life, if the economy develops, if the standard of living rises. . .
In Germany there is already a high standard of living, and there's plenty of prostitution. It's even legalized. But there are only foreign women in the brothels. There aren't any Germans.
How would you know?
So I've been told . . . by people like yourselves from the licentious professions. Alright.
So maybe there are no Germans, but there's prostitution.
There is prostitution. I'm talking now about the nationality of the participants. They're all operating openly. And there are no Germans among them, because the standard of living in the country is
So are you for or against the legalization of prostitution?
I don't think that prostitution should be legalized. You have to combat it with social and economic methods. Then no one will want to go into prostitution.
Why are you in favor of legalization?
Well, you could have doctors in the brothels, then. And the girls would not be ripped off, or mistreated.
You have a kind heart. Whose proposals do you listen to, and who do you trust?
You said that your goal in the first year is to formulate a team.
Who is on your team? Trust?
Sergei Ivanov, Secretary of the Security Council.
Have you known each other for a long time?
I've known him for a long time, but not very well. We began working together in the Leningrad Directorate of the KGB. At that time I only knew that he existed. Then he went to Moscow, and did several long stints abroad. We had many friends in common.
I heard stuff about him from all different people, and it was positive. He knows several languages: English, Swedish, and Finnish, I think. And I think that he is in the right job. He recently returned from the States, where things went very well. He met with Clinton, Albright, and Berger. I'm happy with his work.
But there isn't anyone you've spent a lot of time with.
Of course, it is always better to have had the benefit of direct experience working together. But let's agree that there is such a thing as comradeship. I get that feeling with Ivanov and with Nikolai Patrushev and also with Dima Medvedev.
Medvedev is heading your election campaign. Is he also from Peter?
He taught civil law at Leningrad University. He has a doctoral degree in jurisprudence and is a fine expert. I needed some people when I worked with Sobchak in the mayor's office. I went to the law faculty for help, and they suggested Dima. When I was deputy mayor, Dima was my adviser, and he worked with me for about a year and a half.
Then, after our unsuccessful elections, he left the mayor's office and went back to the university.
Did you recently invited him to Moscow?
Just this year. Actually, I had originally planned for Dima to head up the Federal Securities Commission. He is a specialist in the securities market. He seems like working on our team, but we haven't yet decided specifically where to use him.
I trust Aleksei Kudrin. He is now first deputy minister of finances. I think that he's a decent and professional guy. We both worked for Sobchak and we were both his deputies. In years of working together, you can learn a lot about a person.
And where did Igor Sechin come from?
Sechin also worked with us in Petersburg, in the protocol department. He is a philologist by training. He knows Portuguese, French, and Spanish. He worked abroad, in Mozambique and Angola.
Was he in combat?
Yes. Then he landed on the executive committee of the Leningrad City Council. When I became deputy mayor and was choosing my staff, I considered a lot of people, and I liked Sechin. I suggested that he comes to work for me. This was in 1992-1993. And when I went to work in Moscow, he asked to come along, so I brought him with me.
Now what will happen with the old guard in the Kremlin? Everyone says, just wait, Putin will win the elections and he'll be free of them. In the best case, he'll fire them.
You know, that kind of logic is characteristic of people with totalitarian mentalities. That's how they expect a person to behave if he wants to remain in his post the rest of
his life. But I don't want that.
But there are some figures that the public has a uniformly negative reaction to, such as Pavel Borodin. Then there's also the chief of the presidential administration, Aleksandr
Voloshin. He's not beloved by the public.
Voloshin is not well liked by the public, or by a part of the establishment. As groups and clans fought among themselves, a negative feeling emerged. Voloshin was not immune to it. And these clans fought dirty. I don't think that's a basis for firing someone. Voloshin suits me just fine for today. The work he is doing is rather particular. We discussed who could be put in his place, and we considered Dima Medvedev. Voloshin himself said, ''Let Dima work as my deputy, and then, when he grows into the job, let him be considered as my replacement." There's no sense in second-guessing it now.
But it does make sense to respond to the public's criticism of officials in the Kremlin and the entourage of the former president.
I, too, have worked for the state for a long time. Am I in the entourage, or not? These questions are all about appearances. The individual, with his knowledge, his professional abilities, and his talents, is worth far more. I will be guided by whether a person fits the post he occupies or not. That's the most important thing.
In any event, I'm not president yet. First I have to win the elections. And to be honest, I'm a superstitious person, so I try not to think about these things ahead of time. Do you think I should?
You thought you might have to pay for this war with your career, but you became acting president instead.
It probably helped that I didn't want the president's job.
And when Yeltsin said that he planned to resign before the end of his term, you didn't say, "No, what are you doing, Boris Nikolayevich?!"
No, I didn't try to talk him out of it; but I also didn't dance with joy and thank him and assure him that I would justify his faith in me. My first reaction was "I'm not ready for this."
When I was appointed prime minister, it was interesting and it was an honor. I thought, "Well, I'll work for a year, and that's fine. If I can help save Russia from collapse, then I'll have something to be proud of." It was a while stage in my life. And then I'll move onto the next thing. About two or three weeks before New Year's Eve,
Boris Nikolayevich invited me into his office and said that he had made the decision to resign. I would become the acting president. He looked at me and waited to see what I would say.
I sat in silence. He started to explain it in more detail that he wanted to announce his resignation before New Year's . . . When he stopped talking, I said, "You know, Boris Nikolayevich, to be honest, I don't know if I'm ready for this or whether I want it, because it's a rather difficult fate."
I wasn't sure I wanted such a fate. . . . And then he replied, "When I came here, I also had other plans. Life turned out this way. I, too, didn't strive for this, but in the end, circumstances forced me to fight for the post of president. Well, I think your fate is forcing you into a decision. Our country isn't so huge. You'll manage."
He paused and became lost in thought. I realized this was hard for him. On the whole, it was a depressing conversation. I had never thought seriously that I might become his successor, so when Boris Nikolayevich told me about his decision, I wasn't really prepared for it.
But I would have to respond one way or the other. The question had been put to me: yes or no? When the conversation went off on a tangent for a while, I thought I was off the hook. I thought that it was all forgotten. But then Boris Nikolayevich looked me in the eye and said: "You haven't answered me."
On the one hand, there were my own internal arguments. But there was also another logic. My fate was allowing me to work at the highest level in the country and for the country. And it would be stupid to say, "No, I'd rather sell seeds" or "No, I'm going into private law practice." I could always do those things later. So I decided I would do it.
I flipped out when I heard that Papa was going to become acting president. When Mama told me this, I thought she was joking. Then I realized that she wouldn't joke about such a thing. Then the phone kept ringing, and everyone was congratulating us.
Our classmates, and even the school principal. She teaches us English. At midnight we turned on the TV and saw Papa shaking people's hands. I liked that. He was so serious . . . or calm. Really, just like always. Papa is Papa. On the one hand, I want him to become president. On the other, I don't.
On the one hand, I don't want him to become president, and then on the other, I do want it. We also listened to Boris Nikolayevich speak that day. My throat started to hurt. Not like when you have a cold, but a different way. He really got to me.
I learned about Boris Nikolayevich's resignation on the afternoon of the 31st. My girlfriend called me and said, "Have you heard?" I said, "What is it?" So I learned it from her. I cried for a whole day because I realized that our private life was over for at least three months, until the presidential elections, or perhaps for four years.
So, do you want to be president or not?
When I began to work as the acting president I felt . . . a satisfaction perhaps that's not the best word in making decisions independently, knowing that I was the last resort and that a lot depended on me. The responsibility was on me. Yes, I took pleasure in feeling responsible.
I have some rules of my own. One of them is never to regret anything. Over time, I came to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do. As soon as you start regretting and looking back, you start to sour. You always have to think about the future. You always have to look ahead. Of course you have to analyze your past mistakes, but only so that you can learn and correct the course of your life.
Do you like that kind of life?
You have to gain satisfaction from the process. We live each second, and we can never live that second all over again.
You say that so seriously, as if you've never committed any thoughtless stupidities, or wasted time on trivia.
I have done stupid things and wasted my time.
Okay. Once I was driving with my senior coach from Trud to a base outside Leningrad. I was in university at the time. A truck with a load of hay was coming from the other direction. My window was open, and the hay smelled delicious. As I drove past the truck on a curve, I reached out the window to grab some straw. The car suddenly swerved . . . Whoops! The steering wheel turned, and we were headed toward the rear wheel of the truck. I turned the wheel sharply in the other direction, and my rickety Zaporozhets went up on two wheels. I almost lost control of the car. We really should have ended up in a ditch, but fortunately, we landed back on all four wheels.
My coach sat there, frozen speechless. Not until we pulled up at the hotel and he got out of the car did he look at me and say, "You take risks." Then he walked away. There is some stupid stuff like that. What drew me to that truck? It must have been the sweet smell of the hay.