Putin’s honest words
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Translated by
Joera Mulders
March 16, 2011
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Original appeared in Kommersant
Author: Andrey Kolesnikov
Images: Dmitriy Azarov/Kommersant
Read the translator's introduction

This interview with prime minister Putin by Andrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant journalist, gives a rare look into the personality of the man, the world press loves to hate. The translation that appeared in JRL was too polished for my taste, so I decided to make a very literal translation in order to retain as much as possible of the subtext.

The interview has yielded several out of the context quotes, the type that is usually paraded by serious newspapers, but most aren’t that revealing, not without the context at least.





I doubt the serious newspapers will quote one of my favorite passages in which Putin admits that he fooled a journalist, when telling him he had no one worthy to talk to after Gandhi died. The idea of being fed nonsense by Putin, just isn’t what a newspaper wants to confront. I understand.

Journalists must know by now that they will be left in the dark about major appointments and events until the final moment and they must hate him for it. Still, they happily accept everything Putin feeds them; from semi nude pictures on a fishing trip to a story about singing patriotic karaoke song with extradited spies. It’s all show. We love it as much as we hate it.

Kolesnikov is one of the few, if not the only journalist who occasionally manages to pierce through Putin’s smokescreens. And I think he may do so so because he describes Putin’s carnivalesque entourage, in which nothing is what it seems, in a way Putin can relate to. The tableau's painted by Kolesnikov are often very fluent, transitory and full of double layers, not at all what a serious journalist in search of a large audience should write, but very similar to the way Putin must look at his surroundings. Kolesnikov’s peculiar style isn’t what comes to to mind immediately when one thinks about serious journalism, but most likely Kolesnikov is one of the few journalists that Putin himself takes seriously.

Then there is the element of machismo and solitude. Note how the two man test each others boundaries, straight from the start. Also closely read Kolesnikov’s remarks printed in italic font style. It’s a daring conclusion, but perhaps after all these years at the pinnacle of power Putin really longs for someone not afraid to tell him the truth, consciously or unconsciously. The man and his mysteries.

I entered Putin’s car at the 350 kilometer mark on the Khabarovsk – Chita motor way and got out at the 530 kilometer mark.

You didn’t mention everything from our conversation in yesterday’s article, he said to welcome me.

How is that? I answered surprised. I wrote everything down truthfully.

Yesterday, with a crossbow he collected a bio sample from a gray whale in the Pacific Ocean and then, when I asked who would be next after the cheetah’s, the white and brown bear, he answered that it would be me. And when I wouldn’t enjoy him shooting at me with a crossbow, he would place a little antenna in me to research to which population I belong and how I move around in Moscow.

I also told you we may implant a “watch dog” in you, just in case, so your wife knows where you are, what you are, he said, friendly opening the door of his canary Lada Kalina Sport. Or don’t you need that?

Can you really do that? I replied in surprise. Then it must be true that there are no former spies. Do you still own special devices? Do you use them often?

There are no special devices, he said dryly. That’s all in the past.

Let’s talk about the present, I proposed.

Let’s do that, he sighed.

As I understand, we will not be driving far.

What is far? Vladimir Putin laughed. Two and half thousand kilometers.

I had in mind the distance to the first stop.

You may count like that, he agreed.

Isn’t it hard to drive and talk about subjects that will later go from mouth to mouth? Self control isn’t … Will you not regret this?

No, he said, laughing again. I am on holiday now. Perhaps for the first time in ten years.

Well, in that case let us work. Tell me. What is more difficult to work with; the economy or politics?

When you you give it all you got, even tending a garden is interesting work, the prime minister replied without revealing a smile. People tell me how big our country is, how tough it must be. But I simply know, I am simply convinced, that this is not important. When I worked in Saint Petersburg, a city with a population of 5 million people, I worked from the early morning to late in the night, every day, and it wasn’t easier. The more concrete a task is, the harder it is. There are either results, or there aren’t. But when we talk in general terms, decisions on the political level affect all aspects of life. So at the political level a decision carries more responsibility. But to whom, who takes those decisions, that is a plus, the prime minister burst out laughing. Economic decisions, by the way, can be corrected later. That’s much more difficult to do with political decisions.

About making mistakes and Russia’s development

Are there decisions you would like to correct? I asked with interest.

No!

And again, like before, you say, you do not regret a thing. I was astonished. No mistakes at all!

I speak to you with honesty! When I look back, of course, I do think about these things, but no.

You know yourself better than I do.

That’s true.

But taking everything into account, you must understand that there have been mistakes. You simply don’t want to admit it to yourself.

Well … – he was clearly thinking – probably some things could have been done better, more effective, wiser. But in general … when it comes to the choice – it was as if he got stuck at this word – of evolution, the choice of the solutions to the problems … No, I didn’t make mistakes. 

Take for example one of the most important questions of our existence! It lays at the foundation of many issues. It is connected to salaries, welfare spending etc.. I have in mind how over the past years they have occasionally scolded us and sometimes very intensely scolded us for our avarice and our decisions to transfer too much money to the reserves, to our gold reserves, to the reserves of the central bank. We even created a reserve bank for the government. Why do you do this? They told us. The infrastructure needs to be developed, the real sector of the economy needs to be developed, the banking system … Give the money to the people. At last, hand it out! What we thought was necessary, we handed out in the form of welfare money and so forth. We developed the national projects. But here comes the important part: Back then, we already acted on the basis that there would be world crises [plural!] and that we would need our reserves. And now the most important advice: Do not flood the economy of the country with money that has not been earned by the real sector of the economy.

(He told this so passionately, that the steering wheel almost escaped from his hands and we nearly crossed into the opposite lane. There wasn’t much to worry about, though. There were no cars driving there. Just to be sure, the traffic police had themselves cleared the road for our canary ride.)

Don’t take the cream of the oil and gas sector entirely and add it to the economy! That would only lead to inflation. It will pump up the sectors of the economy that are oriented on export and not on domestic demand. The Central Bank and the economic bloc within the government have contained this process, but still, as is obvious, not sufficiently. As a result those sectors of the economy have developed that are oriented on external and not internal demand.

That means, there have been mistakes, I said almost with triumph.

When our internal market decreased in totals – he proceeded, not paying attention to me – our producers of steal, fertilizers and metals didn’t know what to do with their products. Their products were to expensive for the internal market, while on the external markets their products weren’t bought at all. It was a double whammy, and in prices, and in totals. When the Central Bank could have contained these processes … there are many such instruments … when we would not have allowed to purchase all the imported goods that were desired … when we would have imposed certain restrictions on export, then the development of our economy would have been more balanced. Do we need to reproach the government for this? Should we? Yes, probably, all the more because I admit it myself.

And was the government reproached?

Yes, but for other reasons. Yes, for other reasons. The government was criticized for not spending as much. However, when we would have spent more during crisis time, it would have been even worse. That’s the crux. In the end we contained it. The policies enacted were right and satisfactory.

Tell me, you have been in power for long. For … for long. Why? What do you think? Are there issues that should be handled by you and by nobody else?

No, I think we need the mechanism of a stable Russian statehood and we need to create it together with the entire world. It needs to be stable amidst internal influences and external problems and we need to be confident that this mechanism is balanced. Balanced in its relation between civil society and the state. We need a real separation of powers, each of which should be independent and competent. What’s more, one branch should not interfere in the decisions of others.

And what concerns the question what I should do or not do. I have no choice, except for two. Either stand on the riverbank watching the water pass bye, or to take part. I prefer to take part.

But everything you say now, you also said ten years ago, when the book ‘conversations with Vladimir Putin’ was published.

Such a process takes a long time! To make this happen, decades are needed. Just like the production of – I don’t know – some ship for multipurpose use. You would wish that we created a completely balanced state in an hour, don’t you? Pooh!

Very much!

Some countries may never succeed. And in others it may take decades and decades. We’re not making pancakes!

But in our country, do you see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps somewhere, where no one else sees it yet?

I see it! – He expressed in a provocative tone. That what we are doing, tells me that we are moving along the right track. Of course, we may never ignore the facts. Our entire financial system developed during the Soviet Union. It’s all socialist. Our economy began to collapse, because it was based on closed production…. The iron curtain, when only as much was consumed as was produced, and even regardless the quality. ..

We have in essence the economy of a transition period. And in turn that economy of a transition period serves a political system of a transition period. And when our economy will become more mature and effective, we, of course, will need other models of political regulation. [Note how it is change in the economy that comes first and not in the other way around. This is where Putin differs from liberals the most]

About Yuri Shevchuk and radical opposition protests

It seems to me that on this road you see too many threats, that do not exist. For example, the story about your meeting with Yuri Shevchuk. It seems to have been forgotten that the meeting was originally about charity. Now everyone treats it as if it was only a meeting with Yuri Shevchuk.

So what? he interrupted. I was told he is a singer. So what? I am very happy for him.

Is that the reason that you asked him to present himself? I asked surprised. Did you really only know that he was a singer?

Well, I didn’t know his first name and surname. Why is that so strange?! It was as if the prime minister begged me to inquire further. But I was mistaken.

You lived in Saint Petersburg and yet you do not know who is Shevchuk? I asked again. How is that possible?

Yes, I didn’t know! There are many talented people in Petersburg, among which mister Shevchuk. Later they – I remember – told me that he was opposition minded. Well, that’s great! Thank God the people of our country have the right to say what they want. I didn’t want to argue with him at all!

But the conversation happened. And about what was necessary.

I do not have the right to pass judgements on such a conversation

Well I do. It was a good conversation. He said it all. You did too. And there were no casualties.

Well, okay. I was invited for a charity concert! It was connected to the need to collect money for children suffering from Leukemia. And that there would be people, that wanted to start some political discussions with me, a bit like a personal PR action, I learned only five minutes before the start of the conversation!

I don’t think that something memorable happened. I think it was pretty normal. Since then many questions have been asked about these supposedly urgent questions, but these are not really urgent issues. And I still don’t see the urgency. Whether they will be dispersed or not dispersed.

The marches of discontent?

Listen, all our opponents speak out for a legal state [Rechtsstaat] But what really is a legal state? It’s the observance of the laws. What do the acting laws say about protest marches? You need to get a permit from the local organs of power. Got it? Go and demonstrate. When you haven’t got it, and you do go out, you will get hit in the head by a bludgeon. That’s all.

Really? Is everything taking place within the limits of the law? Triumphal’naya square has been closed for reconstruction, but this reconstruction isn’t even documented.

Listen. You got to believe me. I don’t know these things. I don’t handle these type of issues! I speak openly and give you the word of an honest party member. And I didn’t know Shevchuk and I didn’t know that they gathered at Triumphal’naya square … uh uh … regularly. Yes, occasionally I have been briefed. Look, they protested at Triumphal’naya square. Look, they have been dispersed. I ask: why were they dispersed? Because they got a permit for one location, but went to a different location. I say: But why did they go to another location? And up till now I don’t understand. They got the permit. They want to say something. Right? London has got a designated place to criticize the authorities, but at places where it is not allowed, they hit people on the head with a bludgeon. Not allowed, but come anyway? You get what you deserve [use of prison slang]. And no one is appalled! When your goal is to say something, there are other methods. Invite Kolesnikov Andrey … what is your patronymic?

Ivanych, of course

You need a few more camera’s: western, eastern, Russian. Get them all together, unfold a flag with bones and skulls, and tell the authorities that as long as you don’t get what you want, you will express your critical opinion. You know what is great about the modern world? You can say something standing behind a public toilet and the whole world can hear it, because there are camera’s there. Speak decently and the knock of a hoof will travel in the direction of the sea!

But with them the goal is somewhat different! To not subject oneself to the acting laws, is to say that one wants a legal state for everyone else, but for oneself, and that one is entitled to do what one wants and that one will continue to provoke until one gets his head hit with a bludgeon. And to cover oneself with read paint, to say that the authorities are against the people, that the authorities act unworthy and suppress human rights. When the goal is provocation, one can achieve all the success one wants. But when one’s goal is to make something public, either to Russia or the world, there is no reason to provoke the authorities and break the law.

But what about the people who as you say got what they deserved.

And did they get what they deserved? – the prime minister asked with clear interest.

They receive beatings, I reassured him. But when they receive beatings, that means there is a threat.

Not again about this please, the prime minister interrupted. I have said it all. They get a permit for square X. But they say: We want square Y. They are told not to go there. And that means, no.

But …

I will say it, but you do not need to ask more suggestive questions. I understand where you want to go. When the goal is force the authorities into concessions and the authorities do so, then other reasons for provocations will be found. That’s it. And it will continue without end.

About his political career and the 2012 elections


But there is one person – I said – with whom you wish to meet and talk. And all within the limits of the law. And without any provocations?

Who is that? The prime minister asked surprised.

Dmitri Anatolevich Medvedev

Ah. That’s very different.

Very different? You said, that the two of you would sit down, talk it over and make the decision together. Many think that decision will determine who will become the next president, but you probably referred to the decision which of you to would run for the presidency. Is that right?

Yes, that is how things are done in the world. In the US the outgoing president always proposes a successor. Why would it be abnormal, when an outgoing person proposes the country some other person, because he knows he is an decent, professional person, who has been working effectively at his current spot?

Yes, but after that, the real political fight begins and he may loose.

Yes, he may loose. In his time Albert Gore lost. Well, what can you do about it. He lost. And later Bush his candidate lost. So what? That’s life. A president proposed to the country his candidate, but the country did not accept him. So what? Another will do the work. And that person will propose his vice-president. That’s how things are done in the world. I don’t understand what is so unusual. Why can they do it over there, but here with us it is considered off limits.

Because there, after such a proposition is made, the fight starts, but with us, when one person proposes the other, that person will become president, and that’s why it is so interesting to us who Dmitri Anatolevich Medvedev will propose for the presidency. Perhaps it will be him. Perhaps it will be you. And when you say that you will sit down and talk about it, the intrigues will only keep mounting for another half year.

It’s not my words that cause this. When I would not have said these words, you would have thought of something else. We’re moving on.

(And we moved on. It was another 70 kilometer to the next stop)

According to the polls of all sociological services, over the past period the ratings of you and the president have fallen. Do you yourself notice a drop in your ratings.

No!

Well perhaps, you are being congratulated less … receive less calls ….

No! I don’t follow them carefully, but I see when they fluctuate. It’s crisis time, after all. Many people experience hard times. I understand them. We do a lot, but our efforts do not reach everyone. I can tell a person that we do such and so, but then that person may tell me to take a hike.

And when our efforts do not reach everyone, that means I am doing a bad job. What can you say about that? Only one thing. That person is right.

Sometimes it seems that our country isn’t capable of anything, that each big project collapses at a certain level, when it for reasons no longer interests the bureaucrats. Don’t you experience such feelings? Do you ever get this impression? A feeling of powerlessness? Of frustration?

I tell you honestly. I set my priorities. When I consider one or another problem to be important, I stop to think about the political or administrative expenses that will await us. I don’t even consider what consequences may follow for me personally. Let them say that I took it on and failed. But when I think that the country needs it, I begin and I mobilize myself. That’s the way it works for me, honestly. There are of course problems that take decades to solve. Think about housing for example. The most easy way, would be to silently tell myself: well the mushroom is turned and turned, let it be like that. Everyone is used to steal in silence. One can always escape saying that there wasn’t enough money for this and that, and talk about the need to raise salaries and so on. But we don’t act like that. We found all veterans and secured housing for them. Now we’re working on housing for the soldiers. It was said, you must understand this, that this was im-pos-si-ble. Simply impossible. But we’re doing it and we will take it to the end.

A firm idea just popped up, and I will try to formulate it. The more a politician worries about his ratings, the sooner they begin to fall. Because that person begins to depend on a wide range of fears and all the time, before making a decision, he thinks about how that decision would reflect on his so called ratings. By then he is no longer being lead by real affairs. That shows in his results and people sense it immediately. That person is wearing a merchant’s kaftan!

So, you do not feel a strong, narcotic dependence on your ratings?

No, not narcotic, nor political.

About journalists and Khodorkovsky

And what you said after the death of Mahatma Gandhi about not being able to talk with anyone anymore [as pure an absolute a democrat as himself]. Was that a joke?

Of course, that was a joke. I thought it up as we went along. I wanted to get rid of one journalist. I believe it was a German.

So you do have someone to talk to, someone to consult?

I consult with you all the time. Just when we were in Kamchatka, I said that according to the local press the benzine prices had risen sharply. He (the governor of Kamchatka Alexei Kuz’mitskii) said that it could not be. I asked him to check. He checked and it was true. Now the prices are down again.

And what do you think of journalists: are they like an inevitable evil that either follows you everywhere or writes about you all the time?

There are journalists and journalists. But when you have in mind that a political journalist is always opposed to the authorities, then I think of such person as a disease. It’s unpleasant, but the organism needs it.

Then I will hurt you even more.

Go on.

Do you remember how you mentioned in your book ‘In first person’ that once as a kid playing in the staircase you had chased a rat in the corner?

Yes, that happened to me once. And then it turned to chase me. And I barely escaped.

And after that you understood never to chase someone into a corner again.

I understood that very well. For the rest of my life.

Tell me then, why you did chase Mikhail Khodorkovsky into a corner?

Why did I chase him into a corner? The prime minister answered surprised. He serves a well deserved prison time, but he will get out, and he will be a free man again. No, I really did not chase him into a corner.

Do you follow the second trial?

The second trial? When I found out about the second trial, I was very surprised and asked what the trial was about. He is after all in prison. What second process? But when there is a second process, that means it must be necessary from the point of view of the law. It’s not me who is in charge of this!

(From time to time it seemed to me that this man with his dark glasses and grey shirt was like a taxi driver, whose car I entered and who talked to me to kill time on his long trip. And that’s probably why he took me along.)

This impression you give, that the problem of 2012 doesn’t exist for you, is that because you have already decided everything for yourselves?

No, it interests me, like .. I would say like anyone else, but actually it interests me more than anyone else. But I do not wish to turn it into a fetish. In general our country develops in a stable, normal manner. I do not see big problems, although the crisis did of course slow us down. On the other hand, it did help us to concentrate on our priorities. It’s important that these problems of the year 2012 will not pull us from the track of that stable development. However, of course, in such periods there will be moments of political struggle, that distract society and the state from the economy, but that’s the price that needs to be paid for society and state to remain competitive.

About international relations

Tell me. In Munich you held that very famous speech. What do you think. Is it still on topic?

I think it was useful, because in essence I told the truth. It was the truth after all!

But when that is the case, the truth didn’t come to you immediately. Several years must have passed, before you grasped it.

You said it just right: I just couldn’t understand it in its full complexity. I did not mention it before not because I decided not to speak out or I thought it untimely to do so. As it turned out, it was all very simple. Like in life. We we’re told one thing, but they acted completely different. We we’re deceived, in the full sense of that word! When we were withdrawing our troops from Eastern Europe, the General Secretary of the NATO told us, that the Soviet Union under all circumstances could be convinced that NATO would not enlarge past the borders of that day. And where is all that now? I asked them so. They didn’t have an answer. We were deceived in a most primitive way. And by the way, unfortunately, I have to take note that – and I will pronounce without hesitation and loudly that what I will tell you now: in big politics you will often meet such elements, at minimal elements of deception. And we have to take that into account.

It was the right decision to speak out. Everyone kept quit. Some knew and understood. Others didn’t.

And look at today. They have taken our citizen, supposedly on charges of drug trade, and taken him to the United States. His american lawyer, speaking for the court formulated the problem perfectly. A Russian citizen is accused of smuggling or drug trade in an African country. What are the interests of the United States in this case? No one can even formulate them! They grabbed the citizen of a foreign country and took him home in secret.
And that suits what?

In that sense, the words I spoke in Munich are still on topic even today.

A terrible question just boiled up. Do you perhaps not believe in the reset?

Hm, hm, You know …. I very much wish to believe in the reset. Second, I really want it to happen. Third, I see that the intention of the current administration of the US to improve relations with Russia is followed up very precisely. But there are other observations. For example, the ongoing rearmament of Georgia. Why? It is real. We can see it. When there would not have been a rearmament two years ago, there would not have been aggression and no blood would have been spilled there. And by the way, we did warn our partners about his, including our European friends. But everyone kept quiet. And how did it end? It lead to war. And even now the rearmament goes on.

Many times we talked about our position in relation to the system of missile defense in Europe. We even sort of agreed that there would not be anti-rocket missiles in Poland and in the Czech republic itself the question of radar deployment was not decided yet. Wonderful! And then, straight out of the blue, they announced that similar projects are planned in other European countries. What kind of reset is that? So in these sectors, we don’t see a reset.

I have the impression that Obama is sincere. I do not know what he can do and cannot do, but I would like to see if he succeeds or not. He wants to. I have such an intuition, that this is what he sincerely wants.

Let’s talk about another president. It’s clear to all, that Lukashenko’s days are over, perhaps not as a person, but clearly as president, taking into account the very strong information campaign enacted against him.

I didn’t see it, but they told me about it.

‘Krestnyi Bat’ka-3’, for example. [The documentaries title is a play on the Godfather series]

I didn’t see it.

Really? Then you should. It is a very strong movie. The bigger part of the country [Russia] now has strong inclinations against mister Lukashenko and in that sense television like before remains a powerful means of propaganda. In your opinion, after mister Lukashenko spoke about you personally, were you hurt as a human being?

I honestly don’t even remember what he said about me, Putin laughed. He kind of tried to provoke me into something, but I didn’t let myself be caught. But this was no reason for personal animosity. I don’t even remember what he said.

At this point, the prime minister stepped on the brake abruptly, seeing a group of people on the road. On this road that is so abnormal, that it must have been the leg itself that came down on the brake.

It seemed to me that he had never had that desire during our conversation.