Armin Wolf: Mr. President, your first trip abroad during your new term takes you to Austria. Is this a kind of reward for the new Austrian government’s pro-Russian stance, which argues for an end to the EU’s sanctions against Russia and which did not expel any Russian diplomats following the Skripal Affair?
Vladimir Putin: I think a respected European country like Austria doesn’t need a reward of any kind from anyone. We’ve had a good, close relationship with Austria for a long time. Austria has traditionally been a reliable partner of ours in Europe. In spite of the difficulties in recent years,we haven’t broken off our dialogue, be that the political dialogue or the dialogue on national security and economic issues. Last year, the trading volume between our countries grew by 40.5 percent. We value Austria’s position and its neutrality. As you know, Russia is one of the guarantors of this neutrality and helped draft the international treaty. We work together with Austria in a wide variety of areas. As mentioned, that includes politics, national security and commerce,for example, in the energy sector. I’ll come back to that later. It also includes aircraft construction, aviation safety and hydropower. Austria is investing more and more in Russia. We see it as a sign of confidence in Russia’s economic policy. We make large-scale projects a reality.Thanks to our cooperation, Baumgarten has become Europe’s largest gas supply hub. We have many mutual and parallel interests. That’s why we were pleased to welcome Chancellor Kurz in February. My visit to Austria is being undertaken in the same spirit. And I hope my visit will be shaped by this spirit.
Russia has a particularly good relationship to a certain party in the Austrian government. Since 2016, United Russia, whose party chairman you were for years, has had a partnership agreement with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) led by Vice Chancellor Strache. Why team up with the FPÖ?
You said that the Russian government maintains close ties to Austria, and then expanded this idea to political parties. I’m one of the founders of the United Russia party, but because I’m now head of state, I’m no longer a party member. The Russian government does, in fact, work closely with its Austrian colleagues on substantive issues, though it does not display political favoritism. In Russia, there’s national consensus on Austrian politics. There aren’t any political forces that would oppose further development of our relationship with Austria. Within political parties, there may, of course, be certain preferences. If United Russia has established a relationship with the party you mentioned, then these are purely party-political contacts. I’m sure United Russia is open to establishing contacts with other political forces.
| RELATIONS WITH NATIONALIST PARTIES IN EUROPE
You led the party for a long time. Now, the party’s leader is Prime Minister Medvedev. Many observers believe that through United Russia, Russian leadership maintains close ties to nationalist and EU-critical parties such as the FPÖ, France’s National Front, Lega Nord and Alternative for Germany (AfD), because they want to weaken and split the EU. Time and again, you say that isn’t true, that you want the EU to be a strong partner, but why then these close relationships to parties that are loudly critical of the EU?
You ought to ask the head of government, Mr. Medvedev. He’s the party leader. But I’m pretty sure of the following: We’re not trying to split anything or anyone within the EU. In fact, we’re interested in an EU that’s united and flourishing, because the EU is our most important trade and economic partner. The more problems there are within the EU, the greater the risks and uncertainties for us. It’s telling that our trading volume with EU states is now just under 250 billion. It’s shrunk by half. Before, it was at over 400 billion. What would we stand to gain from another decline? Why should we destabilize the EU and engender further losses instead of benefiting from cooperation? Quite the contrary, we need to expand our cooperation with the EU. We make pragmatic decisions about whether to work with someone politically, and whether we work more closely with them than with others. We try to cooperate with those who publicly express a desire to work with us. That’s where you should be looking for why we establish certain political contacts between parties and movements in Russia and those in Europe, not in the desire to destabilize or hinder anything in the EU. We have no such goals. We never have and never will. We hold 40 percent of our foreign currency reserves in euros. Why should we destabilize European currency? What would happen if we destabilized the EU as a whole? I hope Austria and other EU countries can put this idea out of their minds.
| U.S.-ELECTIONS AND THE „TROLL FACTORY“
There’s still the hefty accusation from Western governments, including Europe and especially the USA that Russia interferes in the domestic politics and election campaigns of other countries via hacker groups. You’ve categorically denied this in every interview and said it isn’t true. But it’s an indisputable fact that for years, St. Petersburg has been home to the famous “Internet Research Agency”, which has tried to influence public debate in the West via millions of fake posts,false identities and Facebook advertising. This company, this so-called „troll factory“ is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom you know very well. His companies garner a lot of government contracts, and he’s known as „Putin’s Cook”, because one of his companies caters for your guests of state. Do you think it’s good that someone with such close ties to Russian leadership is running this troll factory?
You addressed Russia and then started talking about hackers, right? When you said „Russia”, did you mean the Russian state or individual Russian citizens, hackers?
I meant Mr. Prigozhin.
I’ll say something about Prigozhin in a minute. I’d like to ask you to distinguish between the leadership of the Russian Federation, the Russian state and Russian citizens or legal persons. You said Mr. Prigozhin is called „Putin’s cook”. He is indeed active in the hospitality industry. That’s how he makes his money. He owns restaurants in St. Petersburg. But let me ask you something: Do you seriously think that a restaurateur, regardless of whether he has the means to hack and owns a company active in that field… I don’t even know what he does there exactly… Do you think such a man could really influence elections in the USA or any European country? How far would Western media and politics have had to fall for a restaurateur from Russia to have influenced elections in Europe or the USA? Don’t you find that ridiculous?
Mr. President, about Mr. Prigozhin…
Wahrscheinlich ist es gut oder schlecht, aber das ist nicht wahr. (Probably it’s good or bad, but it’s not true.)
But Mr. Prigozhin doesn’t just run restaurants. He has a lot of companies, as well as many contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. He has a lot of Russian government contracts. He spends millions of dollars every month at this troll factory to produce millions of fake posts. Why should a restaurateur do that?
Ask him yourself. The Russian government has nothing to do with it.
You know him very well.
Yes, and? I know many people. In St. Petersburg and in Moscow. In the USA, you’ve got Mr. Soros, who interferes in all sorts of affairs around the world. My American friends often tell me that the US government has nothing to do with it. Right now, there are rumors that Mr. Soros wants to destabilize the euro. It’s already being discussed in expert circles. Ask the US State Department why he does it. The State Department will tell you they have nothing to do with it, that it’s a private matter of Mr. Soros’s. Likewise, we see this as a private matter of Mr. Prigozhin’s. That’s my answer. Are you satisfied with this answer?
| MEETING DONALD TRUMP
Mr. Prigozhin, along with 12 other Russian nationals, has been charged in the USA for interfering in the election campaign. But I’d like to stay on the topic of the USA. You and Donald Trump have good things to say about each other, but something that stands out is that though Trump has been in office for a year and a half, there’s never been a bilateral meeting or summit between the two countries. In contrast, you met with both Bush and Obama within half a year after they assumed office. Why is it taking so long with Mr. Trump?
You’d have to ask our colleagues in the USA. In my opinion, it’s the result of the fierce domestic struggle going on within the USA. First of all, Trump and I have met several times at various international forums. Second of all, we have regular phone conversations. In addition, our field offices and intelligence agencies work well together in matters of common interest, especially in the fight against international terrorism. Our cooperation continues on this front. Whether a personal meeting with Trump is possible, above all depends, in my opinion, on the USA’s current domestic political situation. There, the congressional election campaign is already underway. The presidential elections are also already in sight. The US president continues to be attacked on a number of different issues. I have the impression that it’s because of that. In one of our most recent phone calls, Donald said he was worried about the threat of a new arms race. I completely agree with him. As you know, we weren’t the ones who initiated this development. We weren’t the ones who dropped out of the ABM Treaty, which bans missile defense systems. We only responded to threats that arose against us in that context. But I agree with the US president that we should think about how to prevent a new arms race. We should both give a mandate to our foreign ministries. Experts need to begin addressing the issue. This work is in the interest of both the USA and Russia, indeed in the interest of the entire world, because we’re the largest nuclear powers. I hope this work will begin soon, and that it will also begin between us two presidents personally.
| A POSSIBLE WAR IN NORTH KOREA
Something that greatly worries many people in the world is the situation in North Korea. Your Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, just returned from North Korea. Do you think a war, or even a nuclear war, between the USA and North Korea is possible?
I don’t even want to think about it. The thought of it is scary. If there’s someone who doesn’t want a war, it’s us. North Korea is our neighbor. If I remember correctly, the military testing site that North Korea is currently dismantling, only 190 kilometers from the Russian border. So it’s extremely important to us. We will do everything we can to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. In this regard, we have high hopes for the face-to-face meeting between US President Trump and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, because they’ve both gone too far with their allegations against each other. But in my opinion, North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons should not be one-sided. If the North Korean leader substantiates his intentions by taking practical steps, for example by renouncing further missile or nuclear tests, the other side should also make clear concessions. In this regard, I consider the continuation of military activities and drills counterproductive. I sincerely hope things will move in a positive direction. We are ready to do our part. We’re in contact with the North Korean leadership. We’ve proposed a number of trilateral joint economic projects. Infrastructure projects, a rail connection from Russia through North and South Korea, pipelines, energy projects among the three of us, or together with China among the four of us. By the way, China has done a lot to ease tensions and promote denuclearization. If we pool our resources, within the framework of the Russian-Chinese roadmap, which we’ve jointly proposed to solve the North Korean nuclear problem, I believe we will achieve the necessary results.
| RUSSIA AND FLIGHT MH17
I would like to discuss one of the more difficult issues related to Russia in recent years, Ukraine. In 2014, a passenger plane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. 298 people died. A few days ago, the International Independent Investigation Commission stated that this plane was shot down by a missile system of the Russian army. A convoy from Russia brought it to the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. There is video evidence. Phone calls were intercepted. There are dozens of testimonies. For years you’ve said it’s not true. But nobody in the world believes Russia’s denial. Aren’t you putting Russia’s credibility on the line? After four years, wouldn’t it make more sense to admit that the rebels in Eastern Ukraine made a huge mistake with a Russian missile and apologize to the families of the victims?
Both sides of the conflict, the Ukrainian army, as well as the Ukrainian nationalist battalions, who don’t report to anyone but their direct superiors, as well as the Donbass militia, the armed forces of Donbass, use weapons that were produced in the Soviet Union or in Russia. Everyone uses them. Everyone has every kind of weapon. Firearms, aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons. All made in Russia.
But Mr. President… But we’ve since learned more about the missile that shot the plane down. A Buk missile from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, stationed in Kursk. We know that now. Nevertheless, you deny it. Isn’t it true, that you can’t admit that it was a Russian missile, because you would thereby officially admit that Russia supports rebels in Eastern Ukraine with weapons, something you’ve denied for years?
If you’d have the patience to let me finish speaking, you’d hear my point. OK?
Danke schön! (Thank you!) I already said that both sides use weapons made in Russia. The Russian military also uses the weapon systems, which the experts identified. The exact same ones. They were produced in the former Soviet Union or in Russia. That’s the first point. Second, no Russian experts have been allowed to participate in the investigation. Our side of the story is not taken into account. Nobody in the commission wants to listen to us. But Ukraine, which has an interest in a certain outcome of the investigation, is allowed to participate in the investigation. At the very least, Ukraine is responsible for not banning planes from flying through the conflict zone, which is against the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Additionally, to this day we have not received any answers to some of our questions about the operations of the Ukrainian Air Force at the site at the time the plane was shot down. The tragedy we’re talking about was terrible. We’re very sorry for the people who died and for their families. But the investigation of this tragedy needs to be objective and looked at from all sides… Not so fast. One more second. Let me finish. Otherwise this isn’t an interview. It’s a one-sided monologue from your side. May I finish my sentence? Seien Sie bitte so nett! (Would you be so kind?)
Mr. President, I am afraid your answers, are far longer than my questions – and that’s what I’m here for – but let me just ask: Seeing as we know where the missile came from, what interest could such diverse countries like the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia have in blaming Russia if a Russian missile from the Russian military wasn’t involved?
No, that’s not what we believe. We see it differently. You listed countries that supposedly believe that it was a Russian missile. That Russia is involved in this terrible tragedy. But I have to disappoint you. Recently, Malaysian officials stated that they did not find any Russian involvement in this terrible event, they don’t have any proof. Didn’t you know that? Didn’t you read the statement from the Malaysian officials? This is our position: If we really want to understand how this terrible event happened and bring the truth to light, we have to take all sides of the story into account, including the Russian side. And it would only be fair if Russian experts could also participate in the investigation.
| CRIMEA AND THE „LITTLE GREEN MEN“
The International Independent Investigation Commission has stated they’ve taken everything into account. Another issue is that so many people don’t believe Russia’s denial, because four years ago you said that the famous „little green men“ in Crimea, the troops who fought there in green uniforms without insignias, were local Crimean self-defense forces. But soon afterwards, it was discovered that they were Russian soldiers. And you’ve since admitted it was the Russian military on several occasions, even though Russia initially denied the claims. Why should anyone believe you after that?
So you brought up Crimea. Did you know in Crimea in the mid 2000s, a Russian civilian plane was shot down over the Black Sea? The Ukrainian army did that during a military exercise. Initially, the official reaction of Ukraine was that Ukraine had nothing to do with it. A passenger plane was shot down on its way from Israel to Russia. All passengers were killed, of course, and Ukraine denied its involvement in this terrible incident. Later, they were forced to admit everything. Why should we believe the officials of Ukraine now? That’s my response to your question about Crimea.
But I wasn’t asking about Ukrainian officials, I was asking about you. In 2014, you repeatedly stated: „I’ll be honest, we used our military forces in Crimea to obstruct Ukrainian forces.“ You later admitted there were Russian forces in Crimea, even though you had previously denied it.
I did not deny anything. The Russian military was always present there. You know, I’d like you to really understand what happened. So that you don’t mechanically repeat the same thing over and over again. The Russian military was always present in Crimea. A military contingent was stationed there. Wait a second… Let me finish. Do you want to just keep asking questions, or do you want to hear my answers? The first thing we did after the events in Ukraine started… And what were those events? I’ll explain it to you, and you can say yes or no. An armed coup unconstitutionally seized power. Yes or no?
I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian constitution…
You’re trying to dodge…
Mr. President, it’s not about…
You don’t need to be an expert on Ukraine. You need to be a legal expert, a constitutional expert. The country doesn’t matter. No, wait a second…
Mr. President, I don’t necessarily want to discuss Ukrainian politics with you. I want to discuss Russian politics with you. Let me put it another way. What would need to happen for Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine?
Those conditions don’t exist and can’t exist. And I’ll tell you why. By the way, you interrupted me again. If you’d let me finish, you’d understand what it’s all about. I will say all that must be said, nevertheless. In Ukraine, there was an armed coup d’état and state power was unconstitutionally seized by force. And our military, which was rightfully in Crimea, because of a treaty basis to be there… First, we increased the size of the contingent to protect our military there, our military assets. We saw these assets were about to be attacked. That’s how it all started. I can tell you with complete certainty. No one else was there. It was our military, who was rightfully… Seien Sie bitte so nett, lassen Sie mich etwas sagen… (Please be so kind and let me finish…)
Mr. President, I hate to interrupt you. This isn’t about the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Of course they were there. It’s about the soldiers in uniforms without insignias. You said they were Crimean soldiers. But they weren’t Crimean soldiers, they were Russian soldiers.
I’m explaining that now. Please be patient.
But we have so little time, and I have so many questions.
Nein, nein, wir haben genug. (No, no, we have enough.)
Look. Our military was always there. I’ve always said they were there. They weren’t involved with anything. But when the unconstitutional events in Ukraine continued to spiral out of control, when Crimean people didn’t feel safe anymore, when trains full of nationalists were sent there, when car and bus traffic began to be blocked, people asked for protection. The first thing people demanded was to restore the rights that had been granted under Ukrainian legislation after Crimea was upgraded to the status of an autonomous republic. That’s how it all started. The discussions about Crimea’s independence from Ukraine began in parliament. Listen! Is it against the statutes of the UN? No. Nations have the right to govern themselves. During this time, what did our contingent there, which wasn’t in excess of the legal size, do? They ensured independent and free elections, to allow the free expression of the will of the Crimeans. By the way, the Crimean parliament decided to hold these elections, which was in full accordance with the Ukrainian constitution, even before all of these events. Therefore, there were no illegal… Just a second…
| CRIMEA’S ANNEXATION
I know this much about the Ukrainian constitution that the Crimean parliament was not allowed to make that decision. But I don’t want to discuss the history of Crimea with you again. Let me move on. The annexation of Crimea was the first time in recent decades that a European country annexed a part of a neighboring state against its will. Since then, other countries neighboring Russia have felt threatened, from Poland to the Baltic states. Can you exclude the possibility that Russian minorities will be defended by the Russian military there in the coming years?
You know, if you don’t like my answers, then you shouldn’t ask any questions. But if you want to hear my opinion on the questions raised then you need to have patience and let me finish speaking. So, Crimea did not obtain autonomy thanks to Russian military intervention but rather due to the free expression of the people’s will via a public referendum. You speak of annexation. Can you call a referendum by the people living in a specific territory „annexation?“ Then you’d also have to call the independence of Kosovo „annexation.“ Why don’t you also call that annexation? The independence of Kosovo after the military intervention of NATO. You don’t call that annexation? We talk of the Kosovars‘ right to independence. They declared independence on the basis only of a vote in parliament. But the Crimean people did so via a referendum in which over 90 percent of the inhabitants participated and just as many people voted for integration with Russia. Isn’t that democratic? What else would it be? What is democracy, then?
Mr. President, this referendum was unconstitutional in Ukraine. It was not in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. Western observers say it was not a free referendum. However, since you bring up Kosovo: You called Kosovo’s declaration of independence „illegal and immoral.“ And you still don’t recognize Kosovo now. How does that make sense?
It makes perfect sense. And I’ll tell you why. In the wake of the political and military events in the former Yugoslavia the World Court issued an opinion with regard to Kosovo. I could gladly give you excerpts of it. Read them and share this information with your listeners and viewers. The central government’s consent is not absolutely necessary in the determination of independence. That’s how the World Court commented on the events in Kosovo. And now you say that…
Under… under very specific preconditions, very strict preconditions that were not met in Crimea, as all international observers say.
No one recognizes this referendum. No one recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Your arguments don’t convince me at all. No one needs to recognize the free expression of the will of a people in a specific territory. That’s in writing in a United Nations opinion. It can’t be interpreted ambiguously. Or if so, then only by those determined to interpret it that way.
Can I take you at your word? If that’s the case, can the inhabitants of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia also have a referendum and split off from Russia and found an Islamic caliphate if they want to?
Yes, it’s true that radical elements of al-Qaeda wanted to split these territories off from Russia and found a caliphate. From the Black to the Caspian Sea. I can’t imagine that Austria and Europe would have liked that. It would have led to nothing good. But the Chechen people reached a very different conclusion in their elections. After many discussions, after all the bloodshed, the Chechen people signed a treaty with Russia. And Russia made a very difficult decision. It granted Chechnya and other subject of the Federation a status that gives them great autonomy within the Russian Federation. That was ultimately the decision of the Chechen people. We’re very happy about it and are upholding the agreements made. And one could have done the same thing with the Donbass in Ukraine. Why hasn’t that happened yet? Then the use of minority languages needn’t have been restricted in Ukraine. I don’t just mean Russian, but also Romanian, Hungarian, and Polish. People barely talk about this in Europe even though that’s the reality today.
One last question about Ukraine. Would the Ukraine problem be solved if Ukraine eschewed alliances like Sweden or declared herself neutral like Austria? And agreed not to join NATO?
That’s one of the problems, but not the only one. I’ve already mentioned restrictions on the languages of national minorities. A language law to this effect was passed in Ukraine. It was criticized in Europe and elsewhere. But it has gone into effect. It makes the situation in Ukraine more difficult. Few people know about this, but in the 19th century Ukrainian nationalists already said that a Ukrainian state independent of Russia had to be founded. But many people said that good relations with Russia ought to continue. And that the Ukrainian state should be founded on a federal basis. This was already discussed back then. This is one of the most urgent questions in Ukraine today, in my opinion. But Ukraine itself must decide that, of course. As for neutrality, the Ukrainian people itself must decide. And the Ukrainian government. For Russia, it’s especially important that no military installations get set up in Ukraine that could endanger our security. For example, new missile defense systems that could reduce the effectiveness of our atomic arsenal. Yes, that’s important to us. I make no secret of it. But in the end that’s a decision for the Ukrainian people and its legitimately elected government bodies.
| SYRIA AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS
I’d like to ask a question about Syria before coming to Russia. You say that all reports about the use of chemical weapons on the part of Assad’s military are fictitious because Assad doesn’t have chemical weapons anymore. The UN commission JIM, which studied all chemical weapons attacks in recent years, verified that some of these chemical weapons attacks were carried out by IS terrorists, but others, indeed more, by Assad’s forces. After that, Russia used its veto in the UN to prevent this investigative commission from continuing its work. Why are you doing this? Why are you protecting a regime that uses chemical weapons against its people?
You claim everyone has proven that Assad used chemical weapons. But not everyone has. Our experts say something else. For example, regarding the supposed use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma, which was the reason for a military strike against Syria. Look, Syrian troops liberated this territory. We immediately recommended that a commission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons come. They came to the region and were very close by. In Lebanon, I believe. But instead of waiting one or two days and then letting them work on site a military strike was carried out. Is that the best way to objectively determine what happened? I don’t think so. In my opinion, it rather seems an attempt to make a thorough investigation there impossible. Afterwards, we found people there who admitted to having participated in staging a chemical weapons attack. If you haven’t seen that, it would be very good so that your viewers get an objective view of things. We found children. Their parents…
Mr. President, I saw that…
… who had water poured on them and didn’t understand what was going on. We took them to The Hague, but no one wants to listen to them. And then you tell me everyone confirms chemical weapons were used. No, not everyone. We think it’s fake news, and that it was used as a pretext for a military strike. This military strike violates international law. It’s an attack on a sovereign state. Who permitted this attack on a sovereign state? The UN Security Council? No. What is it, then? An attack.
Mr. President, we don’t have to talk about Douma. The investigation there isn’t done yet. But this international commission verified that before that at least four chemical attacks were carried out by the Syrian regime. And after that you shut the commission down in the UN.
Because it wasn’t allowed to do its work. And instead Syria was bombed. That’s the first reason. Second, there has to be an objective investigation. Then we’ll recognize all the findings. You say it was determined that the rebels used chemical weapons. Who punished them?
The same commission that verified the Syrian government’s attacks: JIM.
No, I asked who punished them. Were they punished in any way for it? Did the coalition immediately carry out military strikes against them? I’m not aware of it, at any rate. I didn’t see anything like that.
| THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY
Russia is flying these attacks. Mr. President, I’m getting a sign that we’re short on time. I still need to talk to you about Russia. I hope you have the time. In the last election campaign… In the 2012 campaign, you promised you would dramatically improve Russians‘ living conditions by 2020. However, economic growth since then has decreased sharply. It’s still very weak, under two percent. And is set to stay that way. Real wages have been decreasing for years. And the number of people beneath the poverty line is higher today than in 2012. Is the point of these constant international confrontations to distract from the poor economic situation in Russia?
I wish everyone who thought like that would just calm down. Russia has had to overcome a series of economic difficulties since 2012. It’s not just related to the so-called sanctions and the limitations they cause. Rather the price of our traditional export good, petroleum, has been cut in half. It’s had an effect on our revenues and ultimately on our citizens‘ earnings. But we’ve done the most important thing, as has been confirmed by the International Monetary Fund. We’ve safeguarded and cemented the country’s macroeconomic stability. Yes, it’s true. Wages have decreased slightly. People’s incomes have sunk a little. But if we look back to the beginning of our journey, since 2000 the number of people beneath the poverty line has been cut in half. In half! From 2012 to 2016/17 this statistic shifted somewhat in an unfavorable direction. But it’s balancing out again at the moment. We had an inflation rate of over 12 percent, almost 13 percent. Today we have the lowest inflation rate ever in recent Russian history. Two and a half percent. Our gold reserves are increasing. Since the recession, the economy has been growing sustainably again. True, growth is still modest: 1.5 percent. But fixed capital investments are at 4.4 percent and that guarantees further growth. Foreign direct investment has nearly doubled. The gold reserves of the Central Bank and the government are growing. We have good conditions to foster further growth and we’re going to do that.
You’ve been president or prime minister for 18 years. Your critics in Russia say you have turned a country that was on the path to democracy into, or back into, an authoritarian system. That you rule like a tsar. Is that totally wrong?
Of course, that’s not the case. It’s not true. Because we have a democratic state and operate within a constitutional framework. Our constitution, just like in Austria, as far as I know, allows a president to serve two consecutive terms, no more. So after I served two legitimate terms as president, in accordance with the constitution I gave up this role and worked as the prime minister of Russia. Then, as everyone knows, I came back in 2012 and won the election. Today the president’s term lasts six years, just like in Austria, as far as I know. Voter participation in the last election was around 70 percent. That’s almost half the population. And international election monitors made practically no serious objections to the results. So there are no doubts at all about democracy in Russia. We care about Russia’s democratic development and we’re going to follow that path. Not to mention the regional, local, and municipal elections. Hundreds of different elections are held in our country and those candidates always prevail who win the trust of the citizens.
| RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY AND ALEXEI NAVALNY
Yet your most prominent opponent in Russia was not allowed to run in the last presidential election due to a controversial court ruling: blogger Alexei Navalny. The striking thing is that you’ve never mentioned Alexei Navalny’s name in public. Why not?
You know, we have lots of rebels in Russia. Just like in Austria. And in the United States. In a recent conversation with one of your colleagues from the U.S. I mentioned that there was once a movement called „Occupy Wall Street“ there. Where is it now? It doesn’t exist anymore. Is there only a handful of people here in Europe, in Austria, with extreme positions and extreme opinions? People who exploit social problems, such as the matter of corruption? In Ukraine, for example, which we talked about, one of the watchwords in the coup d’état was the „fight against corruption“…
Can we talk about Russia? I’d like to talk about Russia, and your aides are getting nervous. I have plenty of time, but your aides are already so nervous. My question was, why have you never mentioned Alexei Navalny’s name in public?
I’ll explain now. You’re not letting me finish my sentence. You’re so impatient. Russia needs people with a positive agenda. We have enough problems, just like Austria and every other country. We don’t need people who inflate those problems and capitalize on them politically. If you don’t offer solutions to the problems then people don’t react to you. You know, voters in Russia are already quite mature. They don’t just listen to attractive political slogans. They want to see proposals for how problems can be solved. If they don’t see such proposals, then the voters aren’t interested. The problem is as follows…
But the voters didn’t get to see the candidate. Navalny was not allowed to run for election.
Voters can see any person they want. The internet is unrestricted in Russia. It hasn’t been blocked. We have free media. People can go out and draw attention to themselves. And various people from various parties do indeed do that. If someone achieves a certain status with voters, then they become someone the government also has to talk to and deal with. But if this or that political force only musters a few percentage points, or only a few hundredths of a percentage point, how does it matter? What are we supposed to do with clowns like that?
Okay, in the mayoral election in Moscow in 2013, Navalny got 27 percent, but…
What percent of the vote do you think yours truly got in Moscow? In the presidential election, not in the mayoral election?
Much more than 27 percent. But still, Navalny didn’t get to run. Now our time is just about up…
Much more! And for that I’m thankful to the people of Moscow. Because voters in Moscow are very mature. And we’re not talking about the mayoral but the presidential election.
| VLADIMIR PUTIN’S POLITICAL FUTURE
Let’s stick with this topic. At the end of this term you’ll be over 70 and will have been in power for a quarter century…
I hope so.
According to the constitution, you can’t run for president again. When this term is over, will you withdraw from politics or will you become prime minister again?
What would you prefer?
That doesn’t matter at all. I want to know what you want.
My term as president has only just begun. This is only the beginning of the journey. Let’s take it one step at a time. I’ve never violated my country’s constitution, nor do I intend to. Much will depend on the work we do. I mean me and my team. What results we achieve. But you’re right. I’ve been dealing with affairs of state for a long time. And I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do when my current term as president is over.
There’s speculation about a referendum that would let you, like Xi Jinping in China recently, be named president for life. Is it conceivable that you’d do it, if the Russian people asked you?
I never comment on speculation. That wouldn’t be worthy of a Russian president.
Now for a final, somewhat unusual question. There are many bare-chested photographs of you. Riding a horse, fishing, on vacation. That’s highly unusual for a president, for a head of state. These pictures aren’t taken by paparazzi or tourists but are released by the Kremlin itself. What are these pictures meant to demonstrate to Russia and the world?
You said „bare-chested”. Thankfully not fully nude! When I’m on vacation, I don’t think it’s necessary to hide behind the bushes. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Mr. President, we know you speak excellent German. You’ve said a few phrases already. Would you like to say anything else to our viewers in German to end our conversation before you start your visit to Austria?
Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit! (Thank you for your attention!)
Thank you for speaking with me.
This interview was recorded on June 1st, 2018 at the Kremlin, Moscow. It was conducted in German (Armin Wolf) and Russian (Vladimir Putin) and simultanously translated by official Kremlin interpreters. The interview was aired in an edited version (38.40 min) on Austrian Public Broadcaster ORF on June 4th, 2018. An unedited version (53.50 min) was made available online.
The German translation for the broadcast was provided by ORF’s Moscow correspondents Carola Schneider and Christian Lininger and authorized by the Kremlin Press Office. This is the transcript of the full unedited version of the interview. The English translation (from the German transcript) was comissioned by ORF and done by Elisabeth Pfister, Benjamin Pfister, Patrick Baker and Heather Kimber.