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Vladimir Putin answers G8 questions in online conference


SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Hello! I am Svetlana Mironiuk from RIA Novosti and we are beginning our interactive webcast with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is taking place in the Kremlin.

Hello Vladimir Vladimirovich!

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Good afternoon!

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Today many millions of Internet users from countries all over the world have the opportunity to ask you their questions.

And I would like to introduce two famous journalists who will ask the President of Russia questions on behalf of Internet users.

Correspondent Bridget Kendall represents the BBC and correspondent of the TV channel Russia Today Aleksandr Gurnov represents the site Yandex.ru.

During this week many questions from Internet users were asked on the Russian Yandex site and the English BBC site. As of today we have received about 150,000 questions.

A few words about the structure of our online webcast.

Mr President will answer three groups of questions.

The first are questions that received the most number of votes on the sites. In other words the questions that Internet users consider to be the most important and the most topical. However, not all of them will be given to the President since the day before the webcast there were flash-mob actions that resulted in an artificial increase in the votes for some questions.

The second group of questions are those that Bridget and Aleksandr will choose.

And finally, Vladimir Vladimirovich, we hope that you will choose some questions and answer them yourself.

We continue to gather questions as they arrive on our websites. For that reason you have the opportunity to send the President a question and to receive a live answer.

Bridget, please go ahead.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Thank you Svetlana. President Putin, thank you very much for taking part in this interactive webcast with the BBC's global audience. There's been an enormous response so far from our international audience and so far we have received over 5,000 separate questions.

Many of them concern foreign affairs and our first question is from Guiseppe from South Korea who is asking about the latest missile launch by North Korea. How dangerous do you consider it is for the region's security and what are you, in Russia, prepared to do about it?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Our official position has been declared by the Foreign Ministry. We are disappointed by what's going on in this sphere. Objectively speaking we understand - we know -- that the Korean People's Democratic Republic is not a party to corresponding international agreements which limit activities in this sphere. That's the judicial, formal side of the matter and when North Korean partners say that, they - whether we like it or not - they are right. At the same time the rights of some cannot be implemented in such a way as to infringe on the rights of others.

I'm not talking now about the situation in the region as a whole but in terms of international security and even in terms of shipping safety. Tests of this kind cannot be considered normal. All civilised countries when they do conduct such tests make it known in good time where and when they will be conducted, the projected place of landing of these objects, and they warn foreign shipping. That's one thing.

Another thing is the information in the media that some of those missiles landed in close proximity to Russia's borders. We have not confirmed that information by our own means. So I wouldn't be inclined to give it too much importance. But then again if we look at the issue in terms of the Northern Korean nuclear programme, of course we recognise that the very presence of nuclear weapons does result in a different kind problem and the problem gets more complicated with these missile tests. And in future we have to concentrate not only on the North Korean nuclear programme but also review the issue in terms of means of delivery that North Korea has.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But what if the North Koreans don’t stop what they're doing now? Another question asks: when will Russia start using its diplomatic clout to help rein in North Korea and when you would agree to sanctions?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I've already said that the missile tests conducted have created concern on our part. And both Russia and the international community would happily do without such gifts - meaning that these tests are conducted in a country that's next to our borders.

At the same time, these developments should not result in emotions that would drown out commonsense. We have to review the issue in all its complexity. I think that we should be aiming at reinstating the negotiation process with North Korea, including with respect to those factors that have just emerged. And we've got to create an atmosphere whereby we could arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise. That is our position today.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Vladimir Vladimirovich, I represent almost a million Russian Internet users who asked questions on Yandex and voted for the most popular questions. Questions continue to arrive. Many questions refer to the Far East. You already answered a question from Anastasia, 30 years old, from the city Bolshoi Kamen who asked: why did the Russian Air Force not do anything to help protect the life of the two million inhabitants living on the coast? But there is another questions from Ivan from Spassk-Dalnii. He asks: Mr President, is Russia able to intercept a missile from North Korea?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We have no reason to believe that North Korea’s missile programme is aimed against Russia. And the capabilities – defense capabilities and military capabilities – of Russia and North Korea are incomparable.

Regarding our capacities to defend against a possible missile attack, we do have such capabilities with our missile defense system. No one should have any doubts on this account. We adopted a suitable programme with a defense strategy in order to develop the Armed Forces, aimed at improving our defense capabilities. No one should have any doubts or fears in this respect. Once again I want to repeat that we did not register any missiles or other objects related to missile testing by North Korea with our national means; we registered them neither in our territorial waters, nor in our economic zone.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Please, your question Aleksandr.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Vladimir Vladimirovich, our organizer has already said that along with the questions that continue to arrive we analyzed the questions that already came in and promised to ask the most popular ones.

One of the most popular questions that you probably noticed when you looked at the site concerns drugs, a theme that is very worrying for Russians and especially with respect to drugs within Russia. A large number of questions, literally thousands refer to this theme. And here is an example from Olga, 29 years old, Moscow: drugs have ruined my family. I suggest that those who use drugs be punished by the law, the addicts be isolated and dealers killed. Others, such as Aleksandr from Kemerovo, Olga from Tula and others share this opinion.

But a number of young people propose a completely different approach. Here is a question that got almost a 100,000 votes: why don’t we legalize soft drugs in Russia like the Netherlands have done? Wouldn’t this be a way to lower crime, vodka consumption and other drugs which are more harmful? Ivan, 20 years old, Nakhodka.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Before we go on to drugs, I want to say one more thing about North Korea because it is worrying for everyone. According to our experts, in order to increase the range of the missiles that North Korea has from 1,000 kilometres to 3,500 or, as some foreign experts consider possible, to 6,000, they need to take those missiles into outer space to a height of 600 kilometres and that is impossible considering the level of the technological development in North Korea - at least for the foreseeable future.

BRIDGET KENDALL: So we don't need to worry about North Korea?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: 6,000 kilometres is practically impossible. We could imagine that the range could increase to 3,000 or 3,500 kilometres. But I believe that this would also be a cause of concern for a great many countries, including the gentleman who asked the question from Japan. For this reason this issue should be, absolutely, included in the agenda of our six-party talks with North Korea.

Now with respect to drugs.

You know that three years ago we established special services for this issue. Measured by the number of staff, this programme is perhaps one of the biggest in the world. Around 40 thousand people work there. And this problem is really very acute, not only in Russia but throughout the world. And for us this problem is especially acute because we were absolutely unprepared to fight against this evil. The most conservative estimates posit that the number of drug users in Russia increased almost 15 times between the end of the 1980s and 2000. According to different estimates there are six million drug users in Russia, not permanent users but occasional users, or people who deal them and so on. Four million is a steady figure and there are about 340,000 people registered with the Ministry of Health. But again according to the same Health Ministry the number of latent drug users, the hidden drug users is much greater -- up to 1,800,000 people.

What has been done recently? I consider that we were justified in establishing this special service because we changed the direction of the struggle against this evil. Before we basically pursued drug users whereas today the whole law enforcement system is first and foremost geared towards the struggle against trafficking drugs and against drug barons. This is a significant change that took place in the last two years.

What results has it brought? Are there any positive developments? There are some small ones. They are reflected first and foremost in the decrease in the number of new drug users. Last year this amount increased, but only by 0,2 percent and in previous years, as I already said, it increased at a frightening and awful rate; over the past 15 years it increased by 15 times.

What other new and positive things can we note here? For the first time in the past two years we have brought to justice people who are involved in money-laundering of funds received from drug trafficking. And there are hundreds of such criminal cases. And before there was not even one criminal case concerning money-laundering received through criminal activities.

Finally, our international cooperation is improving, first and foremost with countries who are involved in drug trafficking but also with others. I hope that all of this will improve the situation with respect to the fight against drugs.

And now about the issue of legalizing so-called soft drugs, including marijuana. In the first place, Russia is party to a number of international agreements which consider it illegal to distribute drugs such as marijuana within the country. And Russia will adhere to its international obligations. That is the first thing.

And the second. The experience that some countries have in legalizing soft drugs bears witness to the fact that their legalization does not lessen the use of so-called hard drugs, and first and foremost heroin. On the contrary, it prepares young people for going on to use hard drugs.

And now with regards to legal measures.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Extremely severe measures.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, extremely severe measures. In our country legislation provides that one can be imprisoned for up to 20 years for drug trafficking.

The question lies not in toughening these rules but in ensuring that the person who engages in these activities be punished – the same as for any other crime. We intend continue along these lines.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Another question about nuclear weapons, this time about Iran. We have a question from Iran: what will Russia's position be on Iran's nuclear program if Iran won't accept the package of incentives that the international community is offering? Will Russia in that case support sanctions?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We believe that any country, including Iran, has a right of access to high technology in order to develop its economy. That of course concerns Iran in full measure. The development of nuclear technology of course should proceed under the control of international bodies and is the first thing. And the second is that it should proceed without creating any threats regarding the development of any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. So we'll be insisting on compromise decisions that would allow us to resolve this two-pronged problem. Russia has formulated a number of suggestions that would allow Iran and some other countries access to modern nuclear technology. What do we propose to do? We would suggest creating a network of international centres dealing with the enrichment and utilisation of nuclear fuel. We hope that our Iranian partners will listen to the proposals our six countries have made. My latest meeting with President Ahmadinejad of Iran showed that Tehran has taken a positive attitude to these proposals. But we'd like their reaction to be quicker. We would like the dialogue based on these proposals to be more constructive. We very much expect this.

BRIDGET KENDALL: You might hope that Iran will agree to a compromise but you could wait and wait for a long time. Isn't there a point at which the UN has to take a strong stand and agree to sanctions?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I agree with you that we cannot wait endlessly - it's counterproductive. But it's even more counterproductive to get the problem into an impasse from where we won't know how to get out. For this reason I wouldn’t want to get ahead of myself and talk about sanctions. At this point I would concentrate my attention on carrying out the proposals that have been formulated by the six countries. In my view they're constructive proposals and Russia has taken an active part in formulating them. And I understand that the Iranian leadership is ready to engage in a dialogue on the basis of these proposals in August. But in our opinion this could happen even sooner. As someone who is hosting the G8 summit in St Petersburg this month, I would have liked to see the dialogue begin before the leaders of G8 countries arrive.

But of course in these circumstances we have to take into account the position of the Iranian authorities. I will repeat again that today I do not think we should get ahead of ourselves and force the situation, we should allow professionals to handle the situation. And finally, I would prefer this problem not to be taken back to the Security Council or to talk about sanctions. I would like this issue to be taken back to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], to professionals. I think this is possible, provided of course that the Iranian authorities react positively to our proposals.

BRIDGET KENDALL: If I understand rightly then, the cut off point for an Iranian response is August, but even then you want discussion to continue in Vienna. At this point we are not talking about sanctions.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is not our position, this is the position of all six countries including the European Three and the United States. And Russia participated in developing this position and will continue to adhere to the common agreement.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Please, Aleksandr, your question. We touched on the theme of the G8. Perhaps it is necessary to talk more about this?

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich, on the Yandex site a large number of questions concern the forthcoming G8 meeting in St Petersburg and many people deplore the fact that the G8 has become a discussion club – I often heard this opinion from people who sent questions. And for example, Ms Ivanova, 22 years old, from Astrakhan asks: why does Russia need to be a member of such a club? What do you personally expect from the St Petersburg summit? And Denis, 22 years old, from Shatur is interested in the summit agenda: Vladimir Vladimirovich, he writes, please explain why you chose energy, education and health care as fundamental themes?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Well, what can I say. The G8 has not become a discussion club, it has always been one. It was never an international organisation and never acted like one. However it is a useful discussion club, not just a club of economically developed countries and countries that bear a special responsibility in international security, but an international forum that allows us to analyse the real state of affairs in the world economy and security, to develop common solutions, and to show the rest of the world the proper approaches for resolving one problem or another.

What I personally see of value in this international forum? After the country that holds the presidency develops and proposes certain themes for discussion and for Russia – I will already answer the second question – these themes are energy security, the fight against infectious diseases and education, after that the experts and ministers of G8 countries start to discuss these themes throughout the year. What does this result in? This allows us to develop common approaches towards resolving certain global problems and so even if we don’t find solutions then we have still developed common approaches and positions in the event that a given international problem becomes more pressing. And in my opinion this is very important and very useful.

Another thing is that we must see the decisions of the G8 through to their completion. And everything that we agree on must be implemented. Incidentally, we talked about this with the leaders of international non-governmental organisations that I met in Moscow and today we talked about this with the leaders of the world’s largest trade union organisations. Precisely about this theme.

But through experience we know that what the G8 members agree on is not always implemented. I said this to my colleagues and can say it without ceremony in front of such a large audience. In Cologne there was a G8 summit several years ago and a decision was made about restructuring the Soviet debt, the debt Russia had to pay off and that Russia has responsibility for. It had not been the best decision. But it was made and now of course we are obliged to implement it. But in Cologne the leaders of the G8 wrote black on white that they would help Russia. And what happened? Nothing.

In connection with Russia’s growing opportunities this theme has been simply forgotten. We can honestly say that today we don’t need this. But if we agree on something then it must be seen through.

This affects both developing countries and countries with a developed economy. Other questions can arise here – why do we need to help them if we have so many of our own problems? Incidentally, it is not only Russia that has a lot of problems.

I would like to once again return to the meeting with the trade union leaders. The representative from an American trade union said: we have many poor people, we have very low salaries and they are stagnating – they are not growing fast enough. This is what the representative from one of the largest American trade unions, from America, said, and America is a country that everyone considers to be very rich. But all countries have such problems. Why do we need to help developing countries? We all understand that the gap between poor countries and countries with a more or less comfortable situation is growing and that this gap has negative consequences. The potential for conflict is increasing, as is the threat of terrorism from certain groups of population in countries that feel that they are deprived and do not benefit from the position they deserve. The number of migrants grows. And in turn this causes problems within our countries where the native population sometimes does not feel protected enough from a large inflow of immigrants and then accuses their government of not protecting their interests and their rights, including on the labour market. It is better to avoid all of this, it is better to think up a system of measures to provide support to developing economies and in due time, a process in which Russia has taken part and will continue to take part.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Did I understand you correctly when you said that you want to develop common approaches among G8 members concerning fundamental issues on the agenda and that you hope that in the future this would result in a shared responsibility on these issues?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Exactly.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: And one more question from St Petersburg. I promised that I am going to choose questions that come up very often.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You are not letting the lady to have her turn.

BRIDGET KENDALL: I wanted to ask a question exactly about America.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Go ahead.

BRIDGET KENDALL: And I just wanted to add that this is the most watched video stream on our website now and it's also being watched by thousands of people on our television channels in Britain and around the world. As far as the United States goes we've had many emails from people who are very interested in your opinion of the United States at the moment and particularly your relations with President George W. Bush.

This question is from Jeff Sterling, Micanopy, USA, who asks: after the first meeting between you and President Bush, he said that he could see into your soul. Well can you see into his, and if so what do you find there?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Today President Bush is sixty; it's his birthday today. I've just had the pleasure of congratulating him on the telephone. We didn’t speak long but used the chance to talk about the Iranian nuclear issue, about the missile tests in North Korea and exchanged opinions on some other issues as well. And soon we're going to have a personal meeting before the G8 summit and at the summit proper.

We in Russia consider that developing our relations with the United States is very important, they are one of our main partners in the world. I have already said many times and I can repeat to your audience that on some issues we consider the United States our principal partner, onthese issues we practically don’t have other partners. First and foremost I am referring to global security and disarmament. This is primarily because in terms of strategic arms the United States and the Russian Federation are the two biggest nations of the world so we have special responsibility for security. One of the global threats today – and one that you've just mentioned – concerns the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And in this issue the United States is our principal partner, just as in combating poverty, disease and so on. The United States is also our biggest trade partner; one of our biggest trade turnovers is with the United States.

And I think that in terms of geopolitical changes in the world, our cooperation in all of these directions is bound to remain natural and necessary. We are going to work further in this direction. I would like to draw attention to just one thing. I've looked through many questions from English speaking countries – the United States, Britain, other countries – and many ask how does Russia feel about the fact that there's a sole superpower in the world that tries to dictate to the world how to behave. I want to talk about this directly and honestly, because that was what was written.

Our position is that the world has to be multilateral because it is so diverse. Of course we have to look for solutions and recipes that would be in the interests of all. I think that this is fully possible. And the G8 forum is called on to resolve these problems.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But as you saw, there have been a lot of questions on our website that ask whether Russia is going to use its political clout in the world to act as a balance to the United States?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think our role is not the same as during the Soviet Union when we wanted to provide a counterbalance to the United States. We won't get into that position again, even if somebody wants us to. I will repeat once again, and look, I kind of foresaw your question because I myself saw that people were interested in it. We will be campaigning for a multilateral world and so that the international environment takes into account the interests of a vast majority of parties to the global dialogue, including such forums as the United Nations, its Security Council and the G8.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But the question about George Bush's soul – what do you see there?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: In the life of any political leader, as we say in Russia, there are light and dark patches, things go up and down, up and down. But regardless of that, regardless of what his rating currently is, the main thing is for a politician to be a decent and honest person. And I believe that President Bush is a decent person and to me he's a very comfortable partner. I can do more than just talk to him, I can reach agreements with him.

I've had more than one chance to see that even if our opinions vary, but we still have come to some common decision on certain problems he will make the efforts to resolve this problem in the way that we agreed upon.

And so I'm quite happy to say that such a person -- and not because he's the President of the United States but simply a human being -- is among the people I consider to be my friends.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Vladimir Vladimirovich, you mentioned the questions that you looked at yourself and if there were some questions that you liked or picked out yourself, perhaps you would like to answer them now?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I cannot say that I liked them but I consider that I must answer some such questions. They are national questions, and refer to Russia. I am not sure how interesting they will be for our foreign audience but they certainly will be for the Russian audience.

Here is one: dear Mr President! We are the same age. This means that next year I will become a pensioner. A woman, 54 years old. Question: could you survive on 2,500 rubles a month?

Of course the question is a tough and topical one. I will not discuss now whether I could survive. I understand that Irina Anatolyevna, from Moscow – her surname is not written here – is interested in the well-being of Russian pensioners. And I would like to say a few words on this account.

We take very responsible approach to resolving the pension problems in the Russian Federation, in our country. Let me remind you that only a few years ago people received extremely low pensions and that they were often late. Over the past few years, from 2002 to 2006, nominally the pensions rose by 2,4 times and in real terms by 1,4 times. We are planning to increase pensions even more.

I do not know whether this is directly of interest to Irina Anatolyevna, but many others will be interested in this. Some time ago we intentionally lowered the unified social tax. This resulted in a certain deficit in the Pension Fund. But the country’s pension system is absolutely balanced. We will and, according to the legislation, we are obliged to allocate the money that we have received from high oil prices, from the government’s Stabilisation Fund, into this Fund. The Pension Fund is unique in this regard. And this deficit is going to disappear entirely.

Pensions are going to keep growing. They are going to increase along with the state’s economic possibilities. We will soon have elections in the State Duma and then presidential elections. I ask that all sensible people pay attention to this and do not listen to those who promise the world but who cannot execute such promises. Either this will simply increase expectations and nothing will be done, or if measures are taken that are incompatible with the principles and opportunities offered by the economy and its growth rate then this will damage the whole economy, and have a negative effect on the lives of pensioners.

Our pensions system is a selective one. There are certain categories of citizens who receive quite substantial amounts of money by our standards. I am referring to first and foremost veterans and invalids of the Great Patriotic War. Their average pension amounts to 9,500 rubles. If we take all the categories of those who have beneficial rates than the average pension is about 4,000. Of course this is not enough.

I repeat that we specially lowered the unified social tax in order to legalize the payment of salaries and to force businessmen and all those engaged in economic activities to legalize their wages so that we can calculate pensions based on bigger sums. For that reason when Irina Anatolyevna says that her pension will be 2,500 rubles this means that her salary was low. We want to force economic actors to pay legally, to leagalize this money and then the pensions will be higher.

In addition, as of 2012, we recognize that the accumulated capital from the pension will also earn money and this will act as a significant addition. In general, I would like to say that the state has paid and will continue to pay a great deal of attention to this sphere and we will improve our support for pensioners and hope that as soon as possible pensioners’ income will reach an amount that reaches and surpasses the necessary minimum that pensioners need to live.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Any other questions?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, if we have time then the second question is also quite direct. I’ll read what it says: Mr President, please comment on these facts: the daily cost for the upkeep of a guard dog is 57 rubles, the upkeep of a prisoner costs more than 50 rubles, and the daily sum for an officer of the Ministry of Defense is 20 rubles. Mikhail, 45 years old, Nizhny Novgorod.

He is 45 years old and I don’t know whether as a serviceman Mikhail has already retired and whether he receives this money as a military pensioner. But this problem of 20 rubles for upkeep mostly affects military pensioners, former servicemen, and this is why. The cost of upkeep of active servicemen is not calculated based on the 20 rubles that he mentioned, but the real cost of products. For average soldiers in the current army, the Russian army, this amounts to somewhere around 60 rubles, depending on the cost of products on the market at the time. And if products cost more then it means that the state will allocate more money. For the navy personnel and for pilots it is already 300-400 rubles per day and for special combat ready troops during missions it is even more.

As a matter of fact, these 20 rubles are an addition to the monetary allowance received by former servicemen. Is this addition justified or not? I think that it is not. And of course this problem must be resolved. How? For example, the Defense Ministry and Finance Ministry believe that we should simply increase the monetary allowance received by military men and add in these 20 rubles. Why? Because these 20 rubles are a holdover from when these sums were not indexed, whereas the money allocated to servicemen is indexed. And in that case the incomes of military pensioners will be indexed as well.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Let me remind you that you are participating in the interactive webcast with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Your questions are arriving on our computers. We are waiting for your questions. You can see our address online. Please send your questions to the BBC and Yandex websites.

Aleksandr, please ask your question.

ALEKSANDR GRUNOV: Vladimir Vladimirovich, another question from the visitors of the Yandex site. You have already touched on the theme of the army and you probably noted that a huge number of questions are not only from servicemen but from young people who are going to be drafted to the military service.

And there are two categories of questions for you. I took the most characteristic ones from either category.

Ruslan, 17 years old, Yuzhno-Sakhlinsk. When will Russia adopt a law to abolish conscription? Many girls often ask about this, including those who wish to serve voluntarily.

And another category of questions on this same theme. Ivan, 21 years old, Moscow. Why can’t we pay off our debt to the Motherland in rubles? Evgenii, 24 years, Kemerovo: why can’t we pay our way out of military service, only give the money to the treasury, not put it in the pockets of military men. Such original proposals. Your comments, Mr President.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We must fight against bribes everywhere, including in the army. And the Defense Ministry said recently that we are decreasing the number of military registration offices and taking measures in this respect. As to “paying your way out of military service”, I think that this is linked to increasing social inequality since it means that whoever has money can buy his way out and whoever doesn’t can’t. And we can’t consider this to be fair. But this is not the most important thing. The most important thing lies elsewhere. It consists in the fact that if we look at our territory and our economic possibilities then it is clear that in the next few years we cannot abolish obligatory military service. We cannot do this for economic reasons. But this is not all. I consider that those who believe that the number of young people called into service should decrease are right. This is correct. All of this is being done and will be done according to the plans for the reform of the military. As of 1 January 2007 military service will decrease from two years to a year and a half, and from 1 January 2008 to 12 months. Weapons specialists consider that it is impossible to conscript young people for any shorter time, I am referring to the fact that military equipment is becoming more complex and during a shorter time period it is simply impossible to learn anything.

Along with this and in the same time frame, two thirds of our Armed Forces will be staffed with professional servicemen, who are there voluntarily, and only one third from conscripts.

And there is one more important factor in all of these measures. Already now the conscript servicemen in the Defense Ministry do not take part in any activities in so-called hot spots. As of 1 January 2007 this will also apply to the Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation. In other words, young people who serve in the army will only be engaged in military testing and preparation. In my opinion, for modern Russia this is an excellent decision and in the future it will depend on how the international situation develops and the economic possibilities that our state has.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: I simply want to finish this theme, Vladimir Vladimirovich.

You mentioned protecting borders. Here Sergei from St Petersburg who is taking military service earnestly asks: who is our potential opponent, except for international terrorism?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: When mankind invented the weapon, the person who did so knew that there was an opponent. We did not invent the atomic bomb, the nuclear bomb, we have never used weapons of mass destruction. But, unfortunately, we know that all this took place in the history of mankind. And while other states continue to have offensive weapons then our state must pay the necessary attention to this and allocate the necessary means. I already said that our defense expenses are about 25 times less then those of, for example, the United States.

We are going to continue to resolve these problems very carefully, we are going to search for asymmetrical answers to any challenges. I am referring to the high level of development of our defense sciences and the high potential of our personnel. We know that we have incurred losses in this sphere over the past few years. However, we kept these opportunities, and we shall use them, just as we shall use the new opportunities that appear. And I am confident that we can responsibly ensure our defensibility and security.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But who is the main enemy of Russia now?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We would like to see, together with all the developed nations, to see among our adversaries only terrorists and drug barons. And in this respect we are working together more and more effectively. The more that we counter them with the cooperation and cohesion on the international arena, and the more we trust each other, the fewer questions we're going to be hearing of the kind that you're asking now.

BRIDGET KENDALL: The next theme is the top subject at the G8 summit in St Petersburg - energy security. Many people in Europe seem very worried about security of supplies from Russia especially after Russian gas was cut off to Ukraine in January of this year. And actually many questions have come in to our site right now on this very topic. Tom McLachlan in London asked: would there ever be a situation where Russia would use its political power to shut off the gas supplies to Western Europe?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Can I ask you a question? How much is your necklace? Approximately.

BRIDGET KENDALL: That's a very unexpected question.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Well you've asked me an unexpected question.

BRIDGET KENDALL: It would be very interesting if a thief overheard our conversation.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I can assure you that thieves can already tell such things. So you can tell me approximately how much.

BRIDGET KENDALL: I am happy to say that it cost several hundred pounds.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Excellent, very good. Would you sell it to me for five kopecks or for one ruble? I don't think you would agree - right?

BRIDGET KENDALL: Well as you're the President of Russia, perhaps I would make an exception.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Maybe to the President of Russia in order to stress the closeness of relations between Russia and Britain. But you wouldn’t give it to the man on the street for nothing. My point is, why should Russia give away its property and natural resources for peanuts to its international partners?

For fifteen years Russia has been supplying its neighbours with gas at prices that were well below market prices. For fifteen years we've been in fact helping our neighbours to the tune of three to five billion dollars per year.

We've been talking to our partners, including in Ukraine, each year about the fact that we must change to market principles. At the beginning of last year we reached this agreement with President Yushchenko. In practice, the discussion was held at his initiative. Unfortunately, as it came to real things we were not able to reach an adequate solution and we were forced to suspend deliveries - not to western Europe mind you - but to Ukraine. And our Ukrainian partners perfectly understood what consequences this could have. And we did not limit the quantity of our supplies that were meant for European consumers, but our Ukrainian partners started to illegally tap into the supplies that were meant for western Europe.

Russia has been supplying gas to Europe for more than 40 years. Despite all our internal political and economic hardships at the beginning and throughout the 1990s, there was never once any disruption to the deliveries to western Europe. Europeans have nothing to fear.

Moreover, our complicated and sometimes dramatic talks with Ukraine have led to what I consider to be a very positive result for our western European consumers. Why? Because, first of all, we have ceased determining the price through negotiations. We now adhere to market principles; the Kremlin, the government – none of them determine prices. We agreed with our Ukrainian partners that we will agree on the price with Ukraine just as we do with any country in western Europe - be it Britain, Germany or another country.

What is the calculation? It’s a very simply one. Today's gas price is determined by the average market price of last year and takes into account the average price of gasoline and the average price of oil. That is a perfect market mechanism to regulate this price. Moscow does not influence this price. This is the first positive result from our negotiations with Ukraine.

And another thing that is very important for western European consumers. In previous years the price of the gas we supplied to western Europe was conditional on the price of the gas we sold to Ukraine, because transporting gas to Europe always allowed our Ukrainian partners to ask for discount on the price they were paying for our gas.

Now, we must give full credit to Ukrainian leadership and President Yushchenko, they have taken a very correct and courageous step. We agreed to separate the issues and that there will be two contracts. One is for the purchase of gas for Ukraine and in this respect we will determine the price as I said before. And the second contract that is completely separate from our agreements with Ukraine concerns transporting gas to western Europe. And this is an additional guarantee that we will be able to provide western European consumers with gas.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But nonetheless, the impression has been created in Europe that this is political pressure on Ukraine. And surely the scandal at the beginning of the year wasn't a very good start to your G8 presidency. So do you regret that with hindsight?

And another question that we've had from our Russian site. Boris, from Stary Oskol, who is worried about Russia's reliance on gas and oil and says: what are you going do when the oil runs out?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I’ll answer the first question. Indeed the hysteria that erupted and was created in the media, primarily in Europe and in North America, was an attempt to exert political pressure. But not on Ukraine, on Russia. Somebody wanted to pressure us, as they have before, into selling gas for peanuts. Well that's over with. Everybody has got to pay a market price. And so if someone wants to give one of their partners a present, the difference between the market price and the amount we paid, a present that amounts to about five billion dollars a year, then they can pay for it. And then if someone wants to pay for this then it would be an honest approach toward one’s partners. But I believe that this is unlikely because to extend economic assistance to some countries their economic policies must be conducive to doing so. At the G8 summit in St Petersburg we’re going to discuss assistance to developing countries, including Africa.

As I said, today I met with trade union leaders and we discussed this issue. Some consider that the Washington Agreements prevent us from helping developing countries. What do they consist in? That the countries who receive economic assistance are those that have good economic policies. That fight against corruption, privatize, and take other measures that are comprehensible to the whole economic community. But if a country embarks on reversing privatisation, if corruption increases and there are other problems, why would we want to extend economic assistance to them? I doubt that someone in their right mind and with a good memory in western countries would engage in large-scale help like Russia has been extending over the past 15 years. That’s the first thing.

The second. Whether I regret that this topic hung over the beginning of our G8 presidency? I am happy for it! We are all happy for it. We've included the question of energy security in the agenda of the G8. Now I've just mentioned that deliveries of gas to western Europe were in fact dependent on Russia's relations with Ukraine, and how much gas we sold to Ukraine. Whether Europeans received their full amount of gas or not depended on this? And now we have decided to separate these issues.

As we agreed with Ukraine, if Ukraine is going to fulfil its obligations then Ukraine will transport our gas to European consumers for a long time. This must make us happy. That would be a step towards energy security for western Europe – security of those supplies of gas – both in the economy and in everyday use. So I think we're getting there - we're getting results and it is for this reason that the issue was put on the G8 summit agenda.

BRIDGET KENDALL: You don't think this has had a bad effect on Russia's image in Europe?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think that we have explained our position poorly and that our meeting today is helping this. But the question is not one of image, but a question of money and improving our deliveries to our main consumers. These decisions improve the deliveries to our consumers in Europe, that is absolutely a fact. And I can tell you that it is not only experts but interested observers who understand that the situation today is better then what it was before. That is the first thing.

And the second. There is one more aspect. Now if you insist that we supply our gas at cheap prices to Ukraine thereby you must understand that with our help you're creating, an non-competitive environment in certain industries in Europe. For instance, Mittal Steel bought the largest metallurgical company in Ukraine, Krivorozhstal. But if they are going to receive gas at 50 USD per 1,000 cubic meters and in Germany a producer such as Arcelor, a company that is active all over Europe, gets gas for 230 USD then what kind of competitiveness are we talking about? And by the way, the European Union is pushing us to increase the price of gas inside the country for our producers and we are doing this. Why we should not do it for our neighbours?

BRIDGET KENDALL: And briefly, about the question from the BBC, about oil…

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Now one of the main issues for us as our economy develops is its diversification. We want our economy to be innovative. It’s for that reason that we’ve created an investment fund from which money will mainly be allocated towards developing infrastructure and innovative activities. And it is also for this reason that we're creating a venture fund and adopting laws on creating special economic zones that are first and foremost oriented towards developing high technology. And it is for this very reason that we are going to establish and are establishing the necessary conditions for the development of, for example, nanotechnology.

But I want to draw your attention to the fact that our budget today is not calculated on the world oil price -- how much is it today? 73 USD on the New York stock exchange and a little less in Europe – we calculate our budget based on 27 USD per 1,000 cubic meters.

We have perfectly learned the hard lessons offered by Holland and the so-called Dutch disease. We will do everything we can not to destroy our economy on the basis of high oil prices but, on the contrary, to help it develop in an innovative way.

SVETLANA MIRONIUK: Sasha, a question from the Russian site.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: Yes, Russian internet users are continuing to follow our discussion and have heard this really interesting discussion on Ukraine. Here is Andrei Valkov, 36 years old, from Ivanov who just asked the question whether there is hope for establishing normal relations between Russia and Georgia? And on this topic there is one more question from Vakhtang, 35 years old, from Tbilisi who asks: on the Internet people are writing that next week, literally during the G8 summit, Tbilisi is planning a military operation in Tskhinvali. This Internet user asks what these rumours are founded on. What can you say about this, Vladimir Vladimirovich?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: There is always hope. And this hope is not groundless. Russian and Georgian peoples have always lived in peace and as good neighbours. And they have always felt an affinity with one another, first of all a spiritual affinity. This was always the case.

To tell you the truth, I was surprised when I heard that there is now a Museum of Occupation in Tbilisi. I said to my colleague Mikhail Nikolaevich about this: what occupation are you talking about? Who occupied who? If we go back to Stalin’s time then the leadership of the Soviet Union was almost entirely composed of people from the Caucasus. All security agencies were headed by people from Georgia. Almost all of them, including those in other national republics. What are we talking about? In my opinion, such decisions do not help us normalize our relations.

Regarding the possibility of carrying out military actions in zones of potential conflict, in zones where there were ethnic conflicts and bloody ones, then if somebody got it into their head to engage in such provocations then this would be an inexcusable mistake. I cannot call it anything but a provocation.

As to Vakhtang, then many of us also remember the other Vakhtang, Vakhtang Kikabidze, who in his time famously said in a film: I want Larisa Ivanovna. I would like, the same as Vakhtang who asked the question, that all of us, including him, had more opportunities to think of the good rather than the bad in Russian-Georgian relations.

ALEKSANDR GURNOV: And if you will allow me, one more thing on the same theme. Many Russian Internet users, both in Tiraspol and the Northern Caucasus are interested in this. I will quote one of the letters from Tiraspol. Vadim Vlasov, 30 years old. Mr President what would Russia do in the event that the unrecognized republics of the CIS, such as Transdniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, vote in a referendum to join the Russian Federation? What will your answer be?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: We respect the fundamental principles of international law, that is the territorial integrity of countries. At the same time, of course we understand that we must respect the wishes of the population of a given territory as for how it wants to live. This is a contradiction that is visible both in life, as well as in UN documents; this contradiction has always existed. We would like, and we are going to insist on this, that such decisions were made according to common principles. So that it is not possible to act according to political expediency and the present political context and apply one approach to certain countries and regions of Europe, such as Kosovo, and a completely different one to others such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This we consider wrong. And I am talking about this openly and frankly and including with Mikhail Nikolaevich. I said to him: what is the difference between Kosovo and Abkhazia? In one instance the Yugoslav empire collapsed and in another, something new is forming or trying to form from the pieces of the Soviet Empire. And incidentally, the population in one region is mainly Muslim and here a significant portion of the population is too. What is the difference? What are the historical approaches to this problem? Certain peoples didn’t want, allegedly, to live together and this is the same problem we face today. These are old problems with historical roots. For that reason we call on all participants in the international dialogue to help us avoid this very dangerous tendency to apply double standards. We would like to work according to common laws and adhere to the basic principles of international law.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Exactly on this theme, this question is from Joseph O'Donnell in Ireland who asks how you reconcile your opposition to separatism within Russia to your apparent sympathy for it in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniester? Shouldn't Chechnya have the same right?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Of course everybody has the same rights. This gentleman should be aware that we have conducted a referendum in the Chechen republic on its constitution and it says, black on white, that Chechnya is an inalienable part of the Russian Federation. The people of Chechnya voted for that - 80% percent of the people not only turned up at the voting stations but they supported that decision. We spoke directly to the people.

Now I can say that at that time - that was several years ago -- I may have been the only one in the Russian leadership who favoured such a step - holding a referendum in Chechnya. Because I believed that in order to avert dramatic events we have to speak directly to the people. I take full responsibility for saying that I was just about the only one who insisted on that and I have no regrets. Because, I repeat, it turned out that the Chechen people did support the constitution that was offered and had been developed inside Chechnya itself. It is true that we took a fairly bold step, we extended to the Chechen Republic extensive rights of autonomy. And we were aware of what we were doing. I think that it was the right decision. So the same thing can be extended to Abkhazia and other places.

And just one more detail, since the question came from Great Britain, is that correct?

BRIDGET KENDALL: The question is from Ireland, another country.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: All right, from Ireland. However we know about the problems of Northern Ireland. We know how some people in Scotland and Wales feel about their identity. So from what I know of history, in 400 years Great Britain has never held any talks on the potential disintegration of its state. And we are not going to do so either.

BRIDGET KENDALL: But nonetheless this referendum and the way it was carried out in Chechnya was quite heavily criticized.

And another question on Chechnya, this time from Youhan Mistry who asks: was the Chechen war worth it? Thousands of Chechen civilians were killed as were Russians, including in the theatre siege and in Beslan. So was it worth it?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: First of all, with respect to criticism about the Chechen referendum. I want to draw your attention to the fact that we invited international observers in order for them to be able to control the way the referendum and the voting took place. Strange, or maybe not, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Organisation of Arab States were the ones who displayed interest. These were the organisations that came to Chechnya. And it's those two organisations that I think would be interested in the Muslim population of the Chechen Republic being able to voluntarily and fully express their opinion on the constitution. And in their reports there were some unfavourable remarks but on the whole they were satisfied with how the referendum proceeded and how the constitution was adopted.

I know that in the western media this process – the voting and adopting the constitution – was criticized. I don't think that was justified. Moreover, I believe that providing political, moral and communications support to people who have taken up an armed struggle to attain political aims is unjustified in today’s world. I already talked about Great Britain but we also know about the Basque country in Spain. And also in France. In France, as we know, there is another territory that occasionally shows separatist tendencies. In Spain, in addition to the Basque country there are also other regions, such as Catalonia. There are other such European countries and this is also true in former Yugoslavia. I suppose you do know about nationalist and separatist tendencies amongst, for example, the Hungarian population in some areas of central Europe. Why should we aggravate this situation in Europe? It is very dangerous and absolutely inadmissible to do so.

And now the question: was it worth it for us to fight the war in Chechnya? Of course it was. Because the war was not only linked to the independence of the Chechen Republic. We realized that we would not be left in peace by these forces who have nothing in common with Chechen people. They would be using the territory as a foothold to construct inroads into the Russian Federation and for attacking other neighbouring Russian regions. There were masses of people who had to flee from certain areas of Russia because it was not possible to live beside the Chechen Republic. Because of bandits, because of kidnappings and other such things that occurred en masse. In five to seven years over two and a half thousand people were openly sold or bought on the Chechen market as slaves. Do you know about that? I am sure you do. And that is not all. We are simply convinced that if we had not acted, and brought the situation to the one that currently prevails, of course Chechnya wouldn’t have just been used as a jumping off point for attacks on Russia, it would have gone further. What was at stake? They were talking about creating a new state from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. A state with a very radical government.

We don't need that in Russia where we have certain compact regions with a Muslim population that they would have tried to incite. And Europe doesn't need that either, because other than destabilizing the situation it would have amounted to nothing.

BRDIGET KENDALL: You say that you would never tolerate the disintegration of Russia. But anyone from Georgia who's listening to our discussion now might very well say that this holds true for us in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We wouldn't to see them leave Georgia.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Fine. Let them hold a referendum among the local population, just as we did in Chechnya.

A. GURNOV: Vladimir Vladimiriovich, at the beginning, we promised that we would keep to the rating of questions on our sites, and since you had a look at these ratings I’m sure you are expecting this question. It is one of the most popular questions on Yandex. The first person to send it in, on the first day when voting was opened, was Roman Ivanov, 28. 15,000 people voted for Roman’s question and the same question was also sent by other people in different versions. I have kept Roman’s formulation of the question: “What motivated you to kiss the boy Nikita on the stomach?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This wasn’t any kind of planned meeting, you know. It’s simply that at the Kremlin people came up in the square and I began talking with them. Among them was this boy you mentioned, I don’t remember his name now…

A. GURNOV: Nikita.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: …Excellent. He seemed to me a very independent, very serious boy, and at the same time, children are always in need of protection. He was a very sweet little boy. To be honest, I just wanted to give him a little hug, like a kitten, and I expressed that feeling in the gesture that you mentioned.

A. GURNOV: So it was just pure emotion?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, there was nothing more to it than that.

A. GURNOV: Let me ask another emotional question then. Andrei Turkov, 28, from Moscow, writes – and this is another very personal question – “I have just become a father! (12 exclamation marks – it seems that his child has just been born).

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Congratulations!

A. GURNOV: “I named my son Matvei. Vladimir Vladimirovich, do you think he is lucky to have been born in Russia? Please give me your honest answer”. That’s Andrei Turkov asking.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Just as we don’t choose our parents, nor do we choose the land of our birth. First of all, I would like to congratulate this Internet user on the birth of his son, and I congratulate his son on being born. This is already a good thing.

The question, as I understand it, is about the future, our future, and the way I see it. I think that if we maintain the current development trend, the economic growth rate and social sector growth rate that we have now, then without doubt in 10-15 years our country will come a lot closer to the living standards of our European partners, and given our immense territory and vast intellectual and natural resources, our country could certainly become a very comfortable home for its citizens. But most important of all, and what I most want to achieve, is that our country should be a place of opportunity for everyone, a place where every citizen can achieve success and realise their goals. It is not easy to create these conditions and it requires more than just intellectual and natural resources. It requires also creating the necessary legal and administrative conditions. We will work on this and I have no doubt that Russia has a good future ahead of it.

S. MIRONYUK: I remind you that the press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing and you can send your questions to the sites of Yandex or the BBC and we will see them on our computer screens. Now to you, Bridget.

B. KENDALL: Our next questions are also about living conditions in Russia. One of the most popular questions on our site is about corruption. This question comes from Keith Malin in Singapore, who said that he worked for four years in St Petersburg and that pervasive corruption was a big obstacle in his work and his everyday life.

“What can be done to resolve this situation?” he asks, “So that you won’t have to be afraid that any policeman can detain you, question you and let you go only in return for a bribe?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: There are actually two problems involved here.

The first is the problem of corruption, and the second is the attitude towards foreigners. Both are very serious issues.

Concerning corruption, corruption flourishes in growing economies and countries going through a transition period. It has become a regrettably serious problem in Russia, I think, not only because our economy has undergone such immense change during this transition from a planned system to a market economy, but also because the old system of moral values that prevailed in the Soviet era has collapsed but the state apparatus has not changed much.

During the Soviet years, and like in any planned economy, practically everything was dependent on the decisions of individual officials. Unfortunately, many officials both in Moscow and in the regions want to preserve this situation, which is in clear contradiction with market development mechanisms and the economic system itself. We place our hopes in the development of civil society – and this will happen not just through direct state support and participation but also, and above all, through objective factors such as the rise of the middle class. A growing middle class and ongoing state support will help develop civil society, and this is the most effective means of controlling the bureaucracy and the best tool for fighting corruption. Of course, the law enforcement agencies also need to be committed to pursuing this work.

As for the problems faced by foreigners in Russia, we know that in other countries too these problems are becoming increasingly relevant. I already said that this situation arises above all from a large inflow of immigrants and the fact that local populations feel defenceless and think that the state is not doing enough to protect their own interests, including on the labour market. And this spills over into unacceptable and sometimes even criminal acts.

The third point is the fight against terrorism. Sometimes here too things can go too far. I agree with the representatives of non-governmental organisations who say that the fight against terrorism must not be used as a pretext to violate fundamental human rights. This is all a complex process of interaction between the state and society in resolving serious problems. We see these problems and we will work on them, of course.

A. GURNOV: Vladimir Vladimirovich, I would like to come back to the subject of terrorism, which we have already touched on today. Unfortunately, this issue is constantly on the agenda these days and I think our colleagues will understand, especially given that the terrorist attacks in London happened a year ago, almost to this very day.

This question comes from Alexander Nizkorodov, 43. To quote his question from Yandex: “The media reported that the President of the Russian Federation gave an instruction to find and punish those responsible for the murder of Russia’s diplomats in Iraq. This is the right thing to do, but what was your exact formulation? Some interpret your words as an order to liquidate the criminals without trial. Doesn’t this contradict the law?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: There has not been any exact formulation as yet because this will be possible only after the Federation Council adopts tomorrow the necessary regulation giving the President the right to use armed forces units and the special services abroad in order to protect the lives, safety and interests of our citizens.

I do not think that this violates the law in any way because Article 51 of the United Nations Charter gives states the collective or individual right to resist aggression. The article does not say that aggression has to be on the part of one state against another state. Aggression is treated as an impersonal concept and is presented as such in the article.

That’s not all. After the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001, the UN Security Council passed a resolution essentially giving the United States the right to take steps, within the limits of Article 51, to counter the aggression it was subjected to as a result of the terrorist attack. This means that we also have such a right. Our position assumes that this right also extends to us.

Furthermore, we are not violating any of our criminal law provisions or the provisions of any of our other laws. We will act in strict accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. This is not application of the death penalty. This is a response to aggression using the means that our country judges possible to use in order to protect its own interests and the interests of our citizens.

B. KENDALL: Next question.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, thank you for reminding me. That was a very timely reminder. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in London. I would like to remember those events and once again express my condolences to the victims, to the families who lost loved ones, and I hope that we will certainly address the common fight against terrorism at the G8 summit in St Petersburg.

B. KENDALL: Thank you.

Many of our readers registered specially on our site in order to be able to ask you a question. A lot of people are asking about visas and why it is so difficult to obtain a Russian visa.

Here is letter from Michael Hatley, for example, who writes: “I have twice applied for a tourist visa to Russia but had to abandon it because of all the red tape involved. I already wrote to you about my problems. Once you promised that it would be easier for foreigners to get visas. Why can’t I just fly to Moscow and ask the border guard to put the necessary stamp in my passport?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: First of all, I would like to thank Michael for raising this issue, as it gives me the chance to set out the Russian Federation’s position regarding this question. In reward for giving me this opportunity, I promise that his visa problem will be sorted out as soon as possible. We just need to get his details and we will definitely help him. Hello, Michael.

Visa issues are resolved on a reciprocal basis in today’s world. The Russian Federation is ready right now to introduce visa-free travel with the European Union and other countries. We would do this immediately. But this does not depend on us. You need to send such letters to Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin and other western capitals. We think that after the Berlin Wall came down no other walls should be erected, including virtual walls that restrict people’s freedom of movement in our continent, in our continent at the least.

It is not my intention to put our partners in a tight spot, and I want to say straight away that the Russian Federation itself also has a lot of work to do in order to reassure European citizens that undesirable elements, including terrorists and drugs and so on, will not enter their countries via our territory.

We therefore have a lot of work to do in strengthening our southern borders and we will do this. We have already reached agreement in principle with the European Union that our ultimate goal is visa-free travel (I say that we have managed this because we insisted on it and our European partners have agreed. I will say now what we did to achieve this). We have already agreed on a simplified visa procedure for some categories of people. This will apply above all to students, journalists, sportspeople and politicians, and not just top-level politicians but people involved in politics at, say, regional level. These groups of people will all benefit from simplified visa procedures. We would like to introduce visa-free travel as soon as possible and we are also taking steps towards this. For example, we signed a readmission agreement with the European Union. This is an agreement under which people who have ended up in European countries without the according permission will be returned to our territory.

B. KENDALL: All the official agreements aside, do you realise how difficult and bureaucratic a process this is?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I realise it also because I know about the difficulties our citizens have in getting visas for western countries. For some of our citizens it is simply a humiliating process. Is it not humiliating when a young woman is told, for example, that she can’t get a visa for the United States simply because she is young and attractive and they suspect that she might get involved in prostitution there? So long as we continue to encounter this kind of treatment, we will plan our own visa policy accordingly. We have to come to agreements with each other.

A. GURNOV: Vladimir Vladimirovich, another question that has many people in Russia concerned, especially on the eve of the G8 summit, about the World Trade Organisation. The press reports that perhaps the summit will announce that the USA is lifting its final obstacles to Russia’s accession to the WTO, but many Russians are nonetheless not convinced that this is the right step for the country. Here is a typical question from Pavel in Lithuania: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, Russia is striding confidently towards WTO accession, but many experts think that the WTO won’t benefit Russia. Are you not afraid that WTO membership will spell disaster for our agriculture sector and other sectors other than natural resources extraction?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, I have no such fears. Certainly, there are many problems with the WTO and there are many problems within the WTO. Many of the agreements between the member countries are not being fulfilled. Agreements are made that no one has any intention of carrying out. We are well aware of this. I don’t know to what extent the WTO actually helps develop world trade. It is a kind of symbol, a quality certificate, and it creates favourable conditions for investment and raises the level of confidence in a country. This is obviously an advantage. Our experts think that this will have an overall positive impact on our economic development in the sense that it will give our consumers a greater number of better quality goods at lower prices. Of course, it will create difficulties for some of our producers. Supporters of Russian membership in the WTO say that this will force our producers to use better technology and improve the quality of their products, and our consumers only stand to gain from this. Such is the logic of the supporters of WTO membership.

Regarding agriculture, I do not think that any great difficulties will arise in this area because the main issue being discussed in the WTO at the moment is the level of export subsidies for agriculture. In this respect we are in a better position than other countries. I say we are in a better position in the sense that we don’t provide any export subsidies in the first place, and so we don’t have anything to defend here.

As for subsidies to individual sectors, including agriculture within the country, through negotiations with our partners we have agreed on figures that are considerably higher than the support we currently provide to agriculture and are higher than the support we will be able to provide for many years to come, so this is not an issue that worries us.

But at the same time, I want to stress that we will not agree to conditions we consider unacceptable. For example, we think that banks should not be able to open their branches freely in Russia at the moment, given the movement of capital and the fight against money laundering. There are also some other issues, including in agriculture, the use of genetically modified products, for example. European countries have established rules in this area, but some of our negotiating partners are trying to impose conditions on us that would commit us to not informing our public about products manufactured using genetic engineering. This kind of approach is unacceptable in our view and we will insist on finding solutions that are acceptable to us and to our partners.

A. GURNOV: Genetically modified products also worry people. For example, Gayane, 20, writes: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, I wanted to draw your attention to the problem of genetically modified products. Should we not prohibit their use at least in the manufacture of baby food, because this is what is happening at the moment”.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I don’t remember exactly when now, but a law was passed that obliges producers to inform consumers that a product was made using genetic engineering if there is a component in the product in which more than one percent was produced using such technology.

I think that in this case consumers can decide for themselves whether to use these products or not. This is practically the same system that is applied now in the European Union countries.

B. KENDALL: The next question. A lot of people from around the world, especially in Africa, are writing about racism. Noel in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, writes: “What are you doing to combat this problem? I studied in Russia and I was beaten up twice just for the colour of my skin. I even still have a scar on my arm”.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: These kinds of incidents are extremely dangerous for Russia because our country is a state with many different ethnic groups and religions. If we don’t take proper steps to fight these problems they will undermine the foundations upon which the very existence of modern Russia is built. Of course we will fight these problems. I already said why this is happening. I think it arises from a number of factors, including the large inflow of immigrants and the local people’s reaction to the fact that, as some of them see it, the government is not doing enough to look after their own interests.

Russia is working consistently to address these problems through legislation and through the law enforcement agencies and it will continue to do so. This is not enough, however. We realise that educational work is also required. We need to work with young people. But any extreme manifestations of this kind, any breaches of the law, will be dealt with under our criminal law.

B. KENDALL: But are you not worried by the increase in these sorts of incidents?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, it does worry me and I already explained why. It worries me not only because it undermines Russia’s authority on the international stage but also because it undermines the government’s efforts to create good conditions for our internal development.

B. KENDALL: Judging by the letters we are getting from Africans, especially from African students in Russia, they feel like they have no protection at all.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I understand them and I sympathise with them. I repeat, we will do everything we can to change this situation. At the same time, I want to appeal to all foreigners who live in Russia or plan to visit our country and remind them that they must also abide by the laws of the country. Not everyone respects the law.

GURNOV: Judging by the questions we are receiving, many Internet users want to take this opportunity to try to get to know you better as a person, because there are a great number of personal questions coming in.

One such question was sent in by Snezhana, for example, who writes: “Does the President have the right to make mistakes, and if so, what are they?” How would you respond to that?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think that all people have the right to make mistakes, and the head of government or the head of state is also, above all else, a person and only secondly a politician, boss or however else you choose to call it.

But we all understand, of course, that a great deal depends on the decisions taken by people at this top level. Sometimes the security and welfare of millions of people depend on their decisions. I would say then that one of the main elements in the work of the President, the head of state or government, is the sense of responsibility that has to be present at all times. The head of state must never lose this sense of responsibility.

B. KENDALL.: The next question concerns democracy in Russia. Many people are worried by the situation with democracy in Russia. Vitaly from Ulyanovsk sent this letter to the BBC site, for example: “I voted for you, but the country is moving further and further away from democracy. There is no strong opposition, almost no elections, and no independent TV and radio. When do you plan a return to democracy?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: To be honest – and this is an honest discussion we are having – I doubt that Vitaly voted for me. But then again, perhaps he did. I don’t rule it out, but I have my doubts. Getting to the question itself, I can say that as far as democracy and media freedom are concerned, I am certain that Russia has no future unless we develop democracy, media freedom and civil society. If we do not do this, Russia will not succeed in resolving the problems such as corruption that we have mentioned and will not be able to maintain high economic growth rates because there will not be a sufficient level of economic freedom. We chose this road ourselves, not because we were forced to do so, but because we decided that this is the best way forward for our country’s development, and we will remain on this road.

I do not think that we had a fully free press in previous years because when you look at the previous situation, the national TV channels were entirely controlled by different oligarchic groups that not only provided official and behind the scenes financing to representatives of this or that TV but also maintained forces of armed guards ready to make good their menaces if need be. We know that there were even some tragic cases.

If I recall correctly, there are more than 3,000 TV and radio companies in Russia today, (between 3,500-3,700, I think). We could not control them all even if we wanted to. It is obvious that this would not be possible.

Moreover, cable TV is developing actively now and there is a move over to digital technology. Not only will we not hinder this process, we will support it in every way. This provides the technological base for developing democracy in the mass media.

As for the press, the number of publications runs into the tens of thousands. I think there are around 40,000, though I can’t give an exact figure. Many of these publications are owned by western investors. I am pleased that there are people who criticise what is happening in this area nonetheless. This shows that there are people here who have their own views and do not share the state authorities’ point of view, but I think that the fact that we can listen to Vitaly’s point of view today suggests that democracy is in good hands and is developing in the right direction.

B. KENDALL: But all the same, the national TV channels are now under effective state control. And would you not agree that the impression abroad is that Russia has become more authoritarian?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, I don’t agree, of course. We have a state channel, a purely state channel – the VGTRK state TV and radio company and the RTR TV channel. This is a purely state channel that represents the state’s point of view. There is a joint stock company, Channel One, which includes foreign investors among its stakeholders. There is another national channel, NTV, which is owned by Gazprom, a company in which the state owns a 51-percent stake (incidentally it only recently came into state hands). But I know that in Western Europe, too, there are companies that are considered absolutely independent but whose main shareholders and investors are companies in which the state has a controlling stake. There is nothing surprising here. The issue is not about state participation in one way or another in two or three companies, but about what we are doing to develop an independent network. As I said, we have 3,500 independent TV and radio companies. We couldn’t control them all even if we wanted to. And this goes all the more so for newspapers, where we have 40,000 publications.

B. KENDALL: And the political opposition in Russia?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Of course a political opposition is very important for any country and is a necessary thing. We will always support this political opposition. I already said this several times, including at the meeting with United Russia, the majority party in the current parliament. But the success of the opposition does not depend on how much it opposes, but on to what extent its political platform reflects the interests of the majority of the public.

A. GURNOV: One of the characteristic signs of the questions today, as reflected in the voting and the issues raised on Yandex, is that people are equally interested in political and economic issues. One question from Yandex comes from Irina Podsekina, 45, and she writes: “Mr President, what can Russians expect from a fully convertible rouble? It would seem to be a good thing, but what if the rouble suddenly strengthens and the exchange rate rises to, say, 17 roubles for the dollar?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I don’t think that a fully convertible rouble poses any dangers for our people. On the contrary, it will make our national currency more convenient to use and will make it more attractive for our trade and economic partners. It could make it a universal currency, at least in settlements with our traditional partners in the former Soviet area. This is entirely realistic and is what is already happening.

As for the possibility of the rouble growing stronger, we know all about the problems that other countries, including in Europe, have encountered in this respect. There is this concept of the Dutch disease. Some dozen years ago, when the Netherlands discovered gas deposits and began supplying large quantities of gas abroad, it began receiving large amounts of gas and oil revenue.

But these goods were traded in dollars, which were not the currency in use in the Netherlands, just as dollars are not the currency in use within the Russian economy. So what happened? The Central Bank prints national currency and withdraws the dollars from circulation. The more dollars, the more national currency gets printed. In this case it was Dutch guldens. The amount of national currency in circulation increases and this triggers inflation. This happens because yesterday with the same sum of money you could buy, say, five computers, but if production of computers, the number of computers on the market, does not increase, but you have more money, then the prices go up and inflation rises. What happens next? The Central Bank takes an administrative decision and changes the national currency’s exchange rate, makes the national currency stronger.

A. GURNOV: That’s what people are afraid of...

VLADIMIR PUTIN: And rightly so. These are justified fears. If the real exchange rate strengthens, it makes it hard for local producers to compete because in an open economy the same computer manufactured, say, by our friends and partners in Ukraine would cost the same in dollar terms as before, but would become more expensive here. And our manufacturers would no longer be as competitive. But we are aware of all these risks and have taken them into account. I just spoke today with the chairman of the Central Bank. The Central Bank is carrying out a number of measures to keep the rouble’s exchange rate from rising. It has already strengthened considerably over the last 18 months. Over the first half of this year it strengthened a little less than over the same period last year. The Central Bank will continue its efforts to hold this rise in check.

S. MIRONYUK: President of Russia Vladimir Putin’s Internet conference has been going on for two hours now at the Kremlin. It’s time now to conclude. Please be ready to put your final questions now. I propose, Vladimir Vladimirovich, that you could perhaps answer some of the last questions coming up now on our screens, perhaps a question each from Yandex and the BBC?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, of course.

S. MIRONYUK: Here is one now on the screen. It comes from Artyom, 18, from Voronezh.

A. GURNOV: It’s a question about soccer. He asks: Who are you going to support in the World Cup final?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Since our team is not playing, I will support whoever puts on the finest performance and plays the best soccer. The match will speak for itself. But I think that both the Italian and French teams deserve to be in the final. Both teams have played brilliantly. The French team came across as a very well-oiled machine that works well and has clear leaders and outstanding players. And the Italians’ determination also speaks of their team’s potential. I think that both teams have real chances of becoming the world champions.

S. MIRONYUK: Bridget, maybe you would like to ask one of the last questions from the BBC?

B. KENDALL: Two final questions, if possible, from London.

Mark, from London, asks: “No one would doubt that Russians are very proud of their country. But as a Russian, what are you most proud of, and also, what are most ashamed of?”

And there’s another question, from Greg Davis, also from London: “What was it like working in the KGB during the Cold War, and is there anything you learned then that you use now in your work as President?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think that all citizens of Russia have the right to feel proud of their country. Russia is an integral part of the world’s leading nations because Russian culture, and I will start with this, is an integral part of world culture. The Russian people have made an immense and invaluable contribution to world culture. I am sure that everyone taking part in today’s discussion knows the names of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Lobachevsky, knows that our country launched the first satellite and that the first man in space, Yury Gagarin, was a citizen of our country. We have a lot to be proud of. We made a decisive contribution to the victory over Nazism in World War II. We suffered huge losses, but it was on the eastern front that the backbone of the Nazi war machine was broken.

But I think that our country’s future will be assured only if we see ourselves as full and equal partners in the world community, and not least, as part of the European family. This is the direction in which we are working. I can feel if not proud then at least satisfied with my work as President of the Russian Federation over recent years. We have changed significantly the economic and social situation in the country.

In the mid-1990s, people went for months and even years without getting paid. Pensions and military wages were not paid. This is all a thing of the past now. Yes, material levels are still low and people are unhappy about this, but we do now have a completely different economy. We lived for years with our hand outstretched, and we are grateful to our partners for giving us support and assistance during Russia’s very difficult years of social and economic transformation. But today the Russian economy is able not only to repay these debts but to do so ahead of schedule. We are pleased that we have reached an agreement on this with the Paris Club. Now that our own economy is growing we are able to help the developing countries, and we will do so.

At the same time, to give a frank and honest answer to the other part of the question regarding what makes me ashamed, Russia is a very wealthy country, but we still have a lot of poor people, and this is a great source of shame. We will do everything we can to raise living standards and improve the quality of life for our people from year to year. I think that we will succeed in achieving this goal not in some distant future but over the coming decades.

B. KENDALL: And the question about working in the KGB?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Regarding my work in the KGB, I have always been up front about questions of this kind. We lived in a different country and a different world at that time. The people who worked for the law enforcement agencies and the special services, including foreign intelligence, where I had the pleasure of working, did necessary work to protect the interests of their state and their people. If we leave the ideological component aside, this work was aimed at protecting the interests I just mentioned. What’s more, our counterparts in other countries were doing exactly the same thing and with the same determination. This was an era of confrontation between two mutually exclusive systems. Thanks God, it is now a thing of the past and I think that the past should not stop us from moving forward.

As for whether there is anything that I learned then that helps me now, yes, of course there is. Intelligence work requires wide-ranging and in-depth information on internal and international problems. That is one aspect. Another aspect is the importance of being able to work with people, to show respect for your partners and be attentive to their interests.

A. GURNOV: Before asking the final question, I would like to apologise to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Internet users who did not get answers to their questions today. It simply is not physically possible to answer all the questions, even though we did not ask some very popular questions such as: “Is it true that our borders will be guarded by huge humanoid battle robots” (20,000 questions on this subject); “What is your view of the magazine ‘Medved?’” (also 20,000 votes) and “Why are there such big traffic jams in St Petersburg and what can we do about them?”. Once again, I apologise, but we are running out of time now. I think it will come as no surprise for our colleagues, who know Russia well, that we have decided to end on a philosophical note. Mikhail, 55, writes: “I read on the Internet about what kinds of questions people are asking you and I was amazed by their content. Trivial questions are much more popular than serious questions. The Internet is the territory of young and relatively successful people. Can a country have a future if its young people are so superficial?”

And following on from that, we have a similar question from Vyacheslav, 30: “Mr President, what conclusions do you draw looking at the questions of most interest to Russians?”

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I’ll start with the last question. The analysis of the questions that have come in is a good help in our practical work because it gives an overview of our public’s interests and concerns and shows in very direct fashion what kinds of issues should be getting priority attention at state and regional level. I would like to thank everyone who took part today for their interest in this event. Furthermore, I want to assure you that despite not being able to answer all the questions today, which would have been simply impossible, I will answer some of these questions on the Internet a little later.

A. GURNOV: On your site?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, I will definitely do this. I won’t be able to answer all the questions, but I will answer those that come up most often.

As for the quality of the questions, well, what can you do? The Internet is indeed dominated by young people, and young people’s concerns and interests don’t always correspond to those of other age groups.

But what makes me happy, and I what I particularly want to note, is the freedom of the mass media. The Internet is one of the growing forms of the mass media and it is becoming increasingly influential. In Russia, unlike in some other countries, there are no restrictions on the Internet, no restrictions of any kind. This is a separate issue and a matter for discussion, including among the political groups in the parliament at the moment. I know that many of our citizens think that some kind of order should be brought to the Internet, but I do not want to get involved in this discussion.

A. GURNOV: Incidentally, that was also one the questions sent in.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Yes, I saw it, but I do not want to get involved in this debate because society has to make up its own mind through direct discussion of the issue. Personally, I think the fewer restrictions there are, the better, despite the negative moments that are part and parcel of this process.

As for today’s audience, the people taking part, I don’t think they are any worse than young people were in previous decades. On the contrary, I think they are better informed, have broader horizons and better prospects for realising their goals, and this means that their generation will be able to make its contribution to Russia’s development.

A. GURNOV: Thank you very much, Mr President.

B. KENDALL: Thank you.

S. MIRONYUK: Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and thank you, colleagues.

I would like to thank the Internet users for their interesting questions and the President of Russia for his no less interesting answers. Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you very much.

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