PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA DMITRY MEDVEDEV:
OK, let’s get down to work.
I will say just a few words. I have a feeling that there’s still lack of communication between us; that’s not very good because the information that should be made available to our citizens often reaches them through other, indirect sources. However, taking into account the close ties between our peoples and our countries as well as the existence of the Union State, I consider it extremely important that our leaders are in regular touch with media.
President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has already set an example of this. To my mind, he has acted in a sincere manner and is making success. I believe that we need to fill this gap, too. Considering, again, the closeness of our countries, the meetings of this kind should be as regular in terms of their frequency as they are thorough in their substance. Let’s get to work now, and I invite you to ask your questions.
Let’s do it the following way. We are democratically minded people, and we wish our meeting to be democratic too, so I will not call upon anybody specifically – we will rather move, say, clockwise from one person to another.
Let’s start, say, from this side. Please go ahead.
PAVEL TUHTO: Mr President, let me begin by expressing my gratitude, as it is actually the first time Russia’s President meets with Belarusian journalists. I think that everybody sitting at this table will agree with me.
I would like to make a little remark before asking my question. Our country’s name is Belarus. Exactly like this, eight letters, with fourth ‘a’ and a soft sign at the end. We are called this way in the United Nations, and this is the way the Moscow Institute of Russian Language recommends to name us. I hope you will join them too, and all Russian politicians and statesmen will call…
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Are you asking me to do this, or you are sending this message to other representatives of the Russian establishment? As for me, I call your country exactly the way it is called in the UN. I guess there are some cases…
PAVEL TUHTO: They call it Belorussia, which is not correct.
Here’s my question now, concerning politics. We will soon have elections in Belarus. The West hopes to see some politicians elected, the rumor has it that other candidates are being lobbied by Russia. Recently, the State Duma hosted some kind of a bride show, during which our opposition leaders came to meet with Russian policy-makers. What do you think of this kind of interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state, as I would call it? By the way, one of our opposition leaders told the Russian press that the Kremlin would host a reception for the Belarusian opposition leaders after this meeting with Belarusian journalists. Do you think make of this? Will you engage in such bride show?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, Belarus – and I insist on this spelling of Russia’s fraternal state – is indeed a self-standing and sovereign state with all the attributes of a self-standing state. Therefore, your entire political life is in keeping with your own scenario, and we have nothing to do with it. However, we are not indifferent to what is going on in your country, hence our close attention to the political processes taking place there; Belarus is our close neighbor, a country with which we have a Union treaty, a place where people who are our close relatives live, and our economies intertwine to a great degree. Thus, Belarus is in every respect a territory and a state that is connected with our country in a most integral way. I will stress again, however, that everything that is going on in your country is in conformity with Belarusian laws, regulations and Constitution.
Politicians talking to each other is a normal routine. When foreign leaders come to our country, they meet with our opposition parties. Whether we like it or not – some things may seem rather unpleasant to me personally – they call upon Russian opposition leaders from time to time in order to get a clearer understanding of our country’s public life. And I consider it absolutely normal for them to say some unflattering words about our authorities or me personally. I believe every country should follow the suit. It is by no means an act of interference in internal affairs, because a true interference is in fact a wish to put the political process under other state’s control. We have never had such an intention, and it is simply impossible to do that. Voters in Belarus are free to choose those whom they like, they vote for the corresponding candidate, and these elections result in a certain political configuration and a certain political leader assuming power.
As far as contacts with media are concerned, I consider it to be nothing but a positive development. As you’ve mentioned, this is the first time our meeting is taking place, and I hope this will not be the last time.
PAVEL TUHTO: Thank you.
ULYANA BOBOYED: Many people in our country believe that Russia is pushing Belarus towards recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Is it really so? And could you please explain why Russia wants Belarus to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Will it make any difference?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Your question is clear.
In fact, I have never asked either the Belarusian leader or any other Belarusian official to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia at any public or private encounters. I have never made these proposals, directly or indirectly, to the President of Belarus. In my view, all these allegations have been fabricated and resemble choosing those who will do or offer the most and thus receive support in return.
I have repeatedly stated the Russian Federation’s position regarding the recognition of these new entities of international law. That was our own decision. It was a hard, very hard choice for us, and we made it only after Georgia had committed an act of aggression against these two territories, two autonomous republics which at that time were not recognized. We did it in order to protect the citizens who live there, including Russian citizens, and to prevent similar conflicts in the future.
As for the rest of the international community, it is for them to decide whether to recognize these new territorial entities as subjects of international law or not. It fully refers to Belarus. Therefore, it is a domestic issue. We have never brought that up. Thus, any speculations about pressing Belarus, demanding that it should recognize these two entities as subjects of international law and establish diplomatic relations are, in my view, loose if not to say provocative, resulting, I repeat once again, from a desire to bargain some extra bonuses in other international contacts. I have never asked for it and I never will, because it is none of my business – it is for another state to decide whether to recognize or not.
I will be straight: Russia would probably benefit if these new subjects of international law gained wider international recognition just because in this case it would be easier for these states to develop themselves, to develop their economies, to improve living standards for their citizens. However, we never interfere in this process; we never make attempts to rule it as it would be against the principles of international law. Therefore, it is the domestic issue for Belarus, though Mr Lukashenko have told me several times that Belarus will certainly consider this matter and that it is likely to recognize these republics, but it needs to do it on its own, without any influence from the outside. I believe that this is a fair approach, a genuinely honest approach. Let Belarus decide, let its President decide whether he needs this or not. It’s like that.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: As you know, on November 27, in Minsk the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are supposed to sign a Customs Union document. Yet, on November 17, Alexander Lukashenko publicly questioned the advantages of this union for Belarus. In particular, our President is concerned about the export tariffs on Russian oil and common pricing for natural gas. What do you think about these comments Mr Lukashenko and has it influenced your plans to visit Minsk? Will there be any changes?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, we try to avoid changing plans, and I also try to avoid adjusting my plans depending on opportunistic statements. Moreover, I believe that sometimes excessive importance is attributed to certain statements in the context of our special relations.
I think that the idea of the Customs Union is quite obvious. We have come a long way to this idea, to this agreement and this road to the Customs Union was bumpy. At some point we speedup up this work and now everything is ready for operation of the Customs Union, all relevant documents have been signed. Yet, it does not mean that all the problems are solved. We need to synchronize our approaches. These approaches primarily concern duties in such sensitive segments as car industry, for instance, and some others. I know that it evokes rather serious response in Belarus. This is understandable.
On the other hand, the benefits of the Customs Union are also obvious. It gives us an almost unified customs and tariffs space without barriers and with absolutely identical rules. This is the first point.
The second point is that we intended to join the World Trade Organization as the Customs Union either simultaneously or at different moments. So, this is yet another reason for us to move towards joining international organizations allowing free trade.
Strictly speaking, the issues of oil and gas trade are not among the topics, which are being discussed in the framework of the Customs Union right now. However, if this issue causes concern, it needs to be clarified.
There are two things I can say.
As for natural gas, over recent years, Belarus has been buying Russian natural gas at reduced preferential prices and in fact at some point such prices were even equal to those at the Russian domestic market. Expert estimations show that the gains the economy of Belarus had from preferential prices on gas, oil and other commodities sold by Russia totaled about 50 billion dollars. To better comprehend the scope, it should be noted the gains from preferential commodities prices for Ukraine amounted to 75 to 100 billion dollars for the respective period. These are high figures, very high figures indeed and they confirm our special and close partnership relations.
Neither now nor before, have we considered it possible to fully unify tariffs, though even within our own country we are making efforts aimed to diversify gas prices so as to reach the so called equal profitability, and we intend to continue this way. It means that even our domestic prices will equal the world gas prices. This issue is closed.
As for our gas agreements with your country, they are based on a solid legal foundation. In the fourth quarter of this year Russian gas is supplied at the price of 122dollars per 1,000cubic meters subject to a 30percent discount for 2009 following a decision Gazprom and its contracting party reached. The price for the next year is being calculated at the moment and therefore I won’t announce it as it has to be calculated automatically based on the contract made. Still, I can assure you that this price will nevertheless be 30 to 40percent lower than the price of gas supply to the comparable territories or comparable countries, first of all, due to the mechanisms applied in our agreements and due to the fact that we participate in the Belarusian gas transit system and implement joint programs.
That is why, from what I can see, it is premature to allege there are some sort of problems in oil or gas trade between the two countries, although we will further discuss these issues. I do not think that this should anyhow affect the Customs Union.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: Could I specify some points?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Sure.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: Speaking of the 50 billion dollars, which period are you referring to?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: The period between establishment of the independent state of Belarus and now.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: And what are the comparable countries?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: These are the states with a so to speak similar haul distance, i.e. the length of a respective pipeline and, correspondingly, transportation tariff.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: Thank you.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You are welcome.
EDUARD PIVOVAR: Could we look at the gas topic from a slightly different perspective. It is obvious that the shortest route from Russia to Europe passes through Belarus. Nevertheless, Russia decided to construct the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which is clearly much more expensive than laying the second line of the Yamal- Europe gas pipeline via Belarus. Besides, the entire infrastructure needed for this additional line has already been created in Belarus. Is Russia planning to resume consideration of the Yamal – Europe-2 project?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I am honestly saying that the more opportunities for supplying Russian gas to Europe are offered, the better it will be for both Europe and the Russian Federation. Under the USSR a truly unique Yamal – Europe pipeline system was built in 1970s to address the gas needs of the Europeans. Much time has passed since then, gas consumption has significantly grown, confidence has arisen that gas should be supplied from more than one source, that gas supplies should be diversified. That is why a number of new projects have appeared. Particularly, taking into account that transit through the territory of one state is not always stable, let us be honest. The example of Ukraine is a vivid demonstration of the fact that in case of any political upheaval or national instability, energy security may be sacrificed for the sake of, say, scoring in the clashes that take place at the territory of this state. However, this is not the main reason, although we should take it into account, and I always mention it at meetings with my European Union partners.
The major reason is convenience for all European consumers. That is why other projects have been launched such as the Nord Stream and the South Stream. There are some other projects, in which we do not participate, but which are mentioned quite often, for example, Nabucco. So, the more projects, the better. As for their cost, you see, here we should be more precise. For instance, laying pipe on the bottom of the sea is definitely more expensive than on the land. On the other hand, it allows to reduce the risks which are actually hard to assess or which under certain circumstances could lead to grave repercussions and undermine energy security of consumers, which was the case earlier this year. So when weighing the cost of laying a pipe on the sea bed against guaranteed fulfillment of our obligations, I prefer the latter. But I do not imply that we should once and for all abandon other projects. We will see what happens next. In case there is a demand for such amount of gas, we are open to discuss other ideas, including the project Yamal-2, which you have mentioned. But it will happen only when we have made contracts on respective volumes of gas. You know that now Europeans have directives on obtaining energy resources, including gas, from various sources. In case it is not at odds with their approaches and corresponds to our perception of commercial expediency, various options can be considered, including the ones mentioned before.
IRINA LEVSHINA: Belarus and Russia call themselves strategic partners; however, some problems are still lingering in their relations. Don’t you think that it is time to give up the idea of a Union State as a mere declaration and switch to usual partnership relations between the neighboring countries?
DMITRY MEVEDEV: You know, I think that if we have achieved some level of integration, why should we withdraw from it? Europe has applied so much effort to turn the union of coal and steel into the modern European Union.
Yes, I agree that we have some difficulties, we have our bilateral disputes and topics of disagreement. But we also have high degree of the integration of our economies and high level of the harmonization of our actions.
You know, now I look back upon what happened on December 8, 1999, to be more precise, shortly before December 8. I would like to share it with you.
At the time, I had just moved to Moscow and taken up the post of Deputy Chief of Staff of the Government of the Russian Federation when the Prime Minister was – you won’t believe it – Vladimir Putin. I was instructed to review the text of the Union State Treaty, and so I did. I remember exactly how it happened: they brought it to me at 11 p.m. with a request to study it.
I thought to myself it was late and high time to go home, and the document was just delivered, but I realized it was a historic document which had been drafted and signed and we were witnessing a new Union State emerge.
I admit that the development of the Union is not progressing at the pace we might have hoped for. Yet again, I would like to stress, that, under this document, the set of institutions, the set of rules, the degree of integration of our economies, the degree of the harmonization of our political actions are better than those within the framework of ordinary partnership relations. So why shall we split up?
We should better give real substance to the document and adjust it in some way, if we do not need some of the institutions. In any case, we must not bring down the level of our integration. At the moment, we are preparing the launch of the Customs Union and make advances within EurAsEC which offers a closer integration than, say, the integration in the post-USSR space within the Commonwealth of Independent States. The integration within our Union State is even greater. That is why I am in support of continuing vigorous efforts to carry out the Union Treaty and create more favourable conditions for the follow-up integration of our economies. And here the Customs Treaty fits in perfectly.
MAYA SHENDRIK: Mr President, some politicians and analysts in Russia put it bluntly that Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership Programme is but a demonstration of hostility towards Russia. You also voiced a similar opinion at the European Union-Russia summit not long ago.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: What did I say?
MAYA SHENDRIK: Well, I won’t be able to quote…
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: That’s it, exactly.
MAYA SHENDRIK: You do remember your own words.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Well done! You’ve found the way out.
MAYA SHENDRIK: Do you really believe that Belarus’ participation in this project speaks of its hostile or unfriendly attitude towards Russia?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I did not say that. I have never said that it is hostility towards Russia. I hope you do not doubt that I still remain a man of sense. Firstly, how can I call upon some state not to take part in an association if it considers it advantageous? Remember, I have just spoken about our Union State.
Secondly, I see nothing miraculous about this Eastern Partnership and, frankly speaking, I do not see any advantage of it at all, and this is confirmed by all the participants of this project that I have spoken to. But I see nothing about it that is aimed directly against Russia. More so, I am repeatedly assured it is not the case, and offered various forms of association with the overall project. That is why I hope that this project will just provide a certain additional assistance to the participating countries. Of course as a President, I would not like it if any anti-Russian ideas are discussed there, but I hope that our partners will refrain from such things. As for the rest, let them discuss everything they like.
MAYA SHENDRIK: Thank you.
ANDREY SKURKO: Mr President, what steps will Russia take if Belarus still happens to refuse to join the Customs Union?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, here is what I can tell you. We need the Customs Union no more, and no less, than Belarus and Kazakhstan need it. What is this union about? It is just an opportunity for trade and development to be carried out in compliance with uniform rules. If we all consider those rules advantageous, including in terms of customs duties and other things, we agree upon them.
As soon as we reached agreement on the Customs Union, as you may have noticed, it caused much talk, particularly around Russia, because Belarus and Kazakhstan, say, have not yet gone the way Russia has towards entry to the WTO. I was simply bombarded with questions: how is that you have created the Customs Union, will you not enter the WTO now? The Customs Union will never be able to enter the WTO, and we have been looking forward to see you in the WTO. But I have always said one thing: I think that for our countries it is very useful to have the Customs Union, and we should agree upon its tariff policy ourselves, and enter the WTO with the tariff policy of our own, because it serves the interests of our countries.
But if some party thinks that it is not interested, I will be frank with you: in terms of Russia’s WTO membership, some tasks will be even easier for us to achieve, but the question is, whether the Belarusian people and the Belarusian State itself need that. I have always believed that unified trade regulations are much better than some ill-matched rules, particularly since Russia represents a very important market for Belarusian producers, for those who sell their goods here in our country.
In spite of certain disputes that have arisen in the course of the year, we still remain closest partners. Russia accounts for 40 to 50 percent – depending on calculation methods – of Belarus’ exports in goods, including foodstuffs. If we take foodstuffs, the figures speak for themselves: of the overall exports, virtually 99.9 percent of meat and meat products, 95 percent of sugar, 82 percent of milk and dairy products now and even more than that last year are sold from Belarus to the Russian Federation. I just say that the Russian market in this respect is very attractive to our Belarusian friends. But if we do not want common rules for this market, we can just pull out from the Customs Union. But I believe that this is not what we are interested in.
ANDREY SKURKO: Thank you.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You are welcome.
ANATOLY SLONEVSKY: Mr Medvedev, it might not be an easy question, but still I would like to hear…
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: As if you have asked easy ones before…
ANATOLY SLONEVSKY: A few years ago Belarus received a rather unequivocal proposal for all of its six regions to join Russia as constituent entities of the Federation. I understand that it was not coming from you but still. Belarus was perplexed with this proposal to put it mildly, I would even say shocked. And it still has not been disavowed by Russia. I ask this question because this subject appears quite often both in Belarusian government and private media. I would like to close this topic once and for all.
In general, how do you see the strategic development priorities for our countries and the possibilities for them to agree with each other?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know it is impossible to close this topic as it has not been started. Neither de-facto nor de-jure has Russia ever proposed Belarus to join the Russian Federation. You are probably referring to the joint news conference by Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, and it is quite understandable that they discussed gas prices. In one of his remarks my predecessor stated the following: anyone who wants special prices, who expects to enjoy Russian domestic prices, should understand that such prices are offered for the constituent entities of the Russian Federation only. But it does not follow from this that we have in some sort invited Belarus or some other country to join the Russian Federation. It is absolutely normal to discuss such a subject, but there has been no de-jure invitation here. Moreover, issues of that kind may only be determined subject to a referendum, therefore, to my mind, without a clearly pronounced public will, there is nothing to discuss whatsoever. These are not even presidents’ prerogatives, as it should be determined on even higher level. That is why I think that this topic does not exist.
If we speak about prospects, as I have just told, they basically consist in developing the Union State. We should indeed assign real authority to this Union State. We should aspire towards a higher integration of economies, equal trading rules, as well as towards avoiding some protection measures and respective conflicts. There is much to be done about that, this is true.
But if we follow this path, we have a very bright future.
ANATOLY SLONEVSKY: Thank you.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You are welcome.
ANATOLY GULIAEV: I would like to come back once again to the question of the Union State.
The point is that we have an ironic situation in Belarus today: the longer this Union State exists, the more sociologists say that the population is loosing trust in it. So today we have a question.
I mean, your point of view is clear. You say that we should add new substance to it and this is clear. But if we continue this way, when the contacts are kept at the level of officials and the population does not see an improvement, say, in the living standards, in contacts, then the lack of confidence will further grow. Is there a chance to offer some possibility of reform, of creating new formats?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Let me try to make this question more daring. Why do you ask me this question? Do you think there is a lack of understanding between the leaders of our countries, between the presidents, between the governments and this affects the Union State, as otherwise I don’t quite understand the point of your question?
ANATOLY GULIAEV: The point of my question, I repeat, is that according to sociological surveys, the support of this project as such in decreasing, and if integration efforts remain at this current level people will keep loosing their confidence.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know we should always remember where we come from and what direction we are heading to. We may keep loosing or gaining trust, the population may not be satisfied with how fast these or other issues are addressed. I would just like to draw your attention to the fact that if we hadn’t had the Union State, the level of our cooperation would have been different, and we would have been resolving a number of issues differently. And I think we should speak about it, including in mass media. Let’s take such a sensitive topic as countering crisis. We don’t have special financial relations with anybody except for Belarus. Belarus is our biggest debtor. For the last years, basically, for the last two and a half years we have lent more then 3 billion dollars. We have never granted such resources to any other country. Why do we do it for Belarus? Only because we are acting in the framework of the Union State, our economies are closely integrated and we have political responsibilities toward each other. If it were for some other state, our help would be more moderate. The situation in Russian economy is far from being brilliant. Moreover, by the industrial production drop our situation is even worse then yours. I have reviewed the recent data and it is likely that this year Belarusian economy will even demonstrate small growth, moderate but still growth, while Russia will have a recession. Yes, the Russian economy is bigger and stronger judging by many indicators, but our population is also bigger.
Why do I speak about loans? Because often when we discuss the advantages of that or other political institutions, we forget about their real content. But those loans actually are the real content. I want to remind you that in the framework of IMF, European credit institutions the overall volume of support to the economy of Belarus is barely approaching 3billion dollars, and not all the decisions have been made yet, while Russia has already allocated the money for the economy of Belarus. That is the real proof of our cooperation, the actual criteria of success- the way we help each other in certain situations.
We have had a rather broad discussion of this topic, including the one I had with President Lukashenko during the CIS summit in Chisinau. It was a straightforward and in fact sometimes emotional discussion of this issue. Then, I told in private and now repeat it publicly that our support of Belarus consists in our special relations. But besides such special relations which connect our countries we have institutes that we jointly promote, in particular the Anti-Crisis Fund that we have set in the framework of EurAsEC. The fact that Russia has agreed to create such a fund shows that we care about our economic relations with our closest partners and neighbors. I would like to remind you that we contribute 7.5billion dollars to this Anti-Crisis Fund, Kazakhstan makes some input, while contributions by other parties are rather small, but they can claim for much bigger amounts. If we launch this mechanism, we will secure additional support for them during crisis times.
That is why I think that our comradeship, our alliance should be tested with these economic mechanisms, with special economic relations. When I sometimes do hear our partners saying that we do not help each other enough, I am surprised because no country can compare with the Russian Federation in helping its partners. It absolutely applies to Belarus.
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: You know, we all here are journalists from government and private media but I think that we are all united by the fact that we are Belarusians, citizens of Belarus, patriots of our country. You know, sometimes it is very painful, offending and unpleasant to read in the national Russian press the allegations which, I do not know, I do not think that journalists can ever make. Do they hold such believes, do they have such a bad attitude toward Belarus? There are very emotional statements, for instance, that Belarus is the parasite of Russia, so to say, a weight standing in the way of its development.
We all know about freedom of opinion which is a sacred instrument of and a necessary environment for a professional journalist’s operation.
Still, what would you recommend to Russian journalists who write about Belarus in such a way? For instance, with a reference to an anonymous source in the Kremlin, it was said in an insulting manner that probably someone does not want to be the president of his country any longer. You probably remember that.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I remember everything. It is my job.
The only thing that I would recommend to journalists from Belarus or Russian journalists is to always tell the truth. It is a sacred duty of any journalist regardless of where he lives or what media outlet he works for, whether a tiny Internet-site which positions itself as opposition or a major government media. The duty is to always tell the truth.
As far as opinions are concerned, they will always be diverse. There is nothing to be offended about. Those who write economic essays and say that somebody is a weight or a facilitator they express their own opinions. One should keep a calm attitude about it, especially since the Belarusian media express alternative or diametrically opposite opinions on assistance and support of the Russian Federation. I do not see anything bad in it. It is no use getting offended at each other about it. But the duty to tell the truth is indeed a sacred duty of any media. As far as the tone of the discussion and our ethics are concerned, it is a separate point to address.
Maybe we are not perfect, here I mean the Russian Federation and its officials who make statements or some sources which send certain signals. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that our Belarusian partners and Belarusian President himself have recently made a significant number of emotional statements which often were well outside the diplomatic protocol. To put it openly, they were very specific and they were made about various officials of the Russian Federation, the members of the Government, and the Prime Minister of our country. I do not like it, in my opinion it is unacceptable. Furthermore, a demonstration of the possibilities for building cordial personal relations combined with voicing negative characteristics to the members of the government of the Russian Federation will lead us to dead end because this government was approved by the State Duma upon my nomination, therefore if some colleague of mine engages in critical debates with this government, he thus debates with me. No other option is possible here. The conclusion is that one should be more reserved.
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: Journalists should be reserved too.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Of course, they should.
IOSIF SEREDICH: Some analysts both in Russia and Belarus observe that Russia copies if not every step then almost every step of Lukashenko whom some people call the last dictator in Europe. We have never elected governors and mayors, they have always been appointed, and now you abolished direct elections. No opposition can get access to our television, radio, government press, and now I have not seen Nemtsov, Kasyanov or Kasparov on your TV screens for a long time, and one can continue drawing these parallels. Is it an expression of solidarity with President Lukashenko or is it a development of a specific Russian democracy?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, I have given my opinion on various emotional statements, as you probably noticed, and my opinion was quite short and I hope straightforward. As far as some useful experience is concerned, one can copy it, why not? In my view, it is not the worst thing to do.
But if we speak about the political structure, though we hold in high esteem our Belarusian friends, Belarusian political structure and Belarusian rules, your country is not the only one where governors are appointed to the post, or, as in our country, are vested with authority without elections. There are other countries, European countries, as it is customary to say, with developed democracy institutions. It is up to each state to decide which system to choose, I have spoken many times about it and can repeat it here. I do not think that the election of governors is a sign that certain state structure is a democratic one. Moreover, in some cases such technologies produce an opposite effect. That is why at some point we changed this situation.
As I have repeatedly stated, I do not think it is right to reinstate the election of governors, at any case, not in the historically foreseeable future. But this is my personal opinion and of course the person who will become next president of Russia can offer his differing opinion to the public. But it seems to me that it is the optimal governance system for Russia, because to govern Russia, I will be frank with you, is not a very easy task, it is a Federation with 83constituent entities which covers the territory of currently 11 time zones.
As far as media access is concerned, these assessments are very subjective and are based on personal opinions. I have had to answer these questions many times, and Iwill tell you: I do not think that our media, our media sphere are going backward. It is a different mater though that we ourselves are changing, and our media are distinct now from the media of the nineties. Maybe they offer fewer politically provocative topics but just because such topics are of no special interest to our people these days. In the nineties the lack of material well-being was compensated with endless political debate. By the way, this is an instrument of governance: if food is in shortage, an item for a dispute should be offered instead. But as our goal is constructive work, we should work then, as simple as that.
Nevertheless, the opposition figures have every possibility to share their views with our general public who is interested in it.
With reference to the people you mentioned, the question is what political forces they represent. Our opposition parties, wherever they have their seats in the Parliament or not, are being regularly covered by the media, including TV, and are always free to express their views.
On the other hand, the political figures who represent nobody are of no interest to the people, but even they can promote their views through modern technologies. We have up to 50 million regular Internet users in Russia, i.e. close to half of the adult population. Russia’s Internet is flooded with the enormous number of media resources, including opposition ones. Anybody including the people you mentioned can say whatever they wish, criticize authorities, suggest their remedies and take part in public events. In this sense nothing has changed, quite the contrary, we see the situation improved.
ALEXEY KOROL: Modernization and democracy, a so-called shift from the controlled democracy to a normal European-like democracy, are the cornerstones of your article Go, Russia! as well as your Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. What do you think will be the substance of the Go, Belarus! motto? How do you think Russia can help promoting democratic changes in Belarus?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I have been trying during these last 60 minutes to make clear to you and Belarus citizens through the Belarusian media that Russia has no intent to impose anything.
ALEXEY KOROL: Can it offer its moral support?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: It has no intent to support anything. There is no doubt that we are interested in the development of Belarusian society and state.
In fact in my article Go, Russia! and in my Presidential Address, I have underscored the need for updated political and economic institutions in our country. I think that the time has come for it. We have spared much time, almost ten years by now, to stabilize our state, to make it stronger and more capable to meet the challenges we are facing now. I believe we have achieved progress in this respect having worked hard and having reached certain results.
Still, the purpose of the evolution of a state is not merely ensuring stability of governmental institutions, but rather ensuring comfortable environment for its people. To accomplish the task, national economy and politics must always match realities of life. That is why modernization is essential. Modernization does not imply any negations, it is a development process based on our capacities, existing realities. For instance, in our country such realities include current crisis, commodity-dependent economy, weak social institutions, and imperfect political system.
I therefore think that all these problems are characteristic, to a great extent, of all other states, which emerged after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus. None of these countries can be considered an outright, fully developed and self-sufficient leader, neither Russia, nor Belarus, nor other states. We all are to follow ideas proposed by the neighboring countries. Russia always welcomes the experience of its neighbors, and I will be pleased if some of my ideas expressed in both my latest article and my Presidential Address can be of use to our Belarusian friends.
VICTOR EVTUKHOV: Mr President, when analyzing Russia’s foreign policy between 1990s and now, as I think, Russia seems to keep losing its friends from among the post-USSR countries. Some countries, as you have put it, cause gas transit problems, others dive in hardships of other sorts. It appears that the same is true for Belarus over the past few years. In Slovenia you described the situation as far from being simple. One may recall gas war, conflict over milk supply, some sugar problem, and unconditional demands from Russian authorities. Are you concerned that such policy could distance Russia away from its friend and ally, Belarus, and some other country could replace Russia?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Not at all. If I had any concerns, I would not work as President. It is essential for us to be mindful. We have lost no friends. Moreover, we want to develop partnerships and friendly relations with all countries. As for Belarus, Russia wants to form an alliance establishing very close relations with that country. We have never used peremptory language, as it would be ineffective and wrong. We want a due account of our interests though.
Russia is indeed a big country with its own economic interests. I have just cited to you the figures of our financial assistance. Now we consider offering additional loan instruments to Belarus. The purchase of a major Belarusian bank has been examined and virtually approved. That means economic projects progress and there is no ultimatum rhetoric of any kind.
Nevertheless, our cooperation should be based on market relationships. We cannot sell goods at a price well below the market one, as it is wrong and counterproductive.
We are to create a uniform and equitable trade environment and set fair and reasonable tariffs in order to avoid any conflicts, like those occurred earlier this year. I must stress though that we have not had any gas war with Belarus. Political difficulties that Ukraine endures, gave ground to the hard times that we had with Ukrainian consumers, but for Belarus it is another story. We always spend too much time to arrange terms and conditions, but ultimately we always come up to definitive and reasonable compromises.
Russia has lost nobody. We want to work in a consistent, up-to-date and civilized manner to fit our partners. If we cooperate in such a manner taking into account each others interests, we will have the most fruitful and friendly relations.
VIACHESLAV KHODOSOVSKY: Mr President, how could you comment an opinion that it was Russia’s generous assistance in terms of cheap energy resources and loans de-facto led economic reforms, as well as democratization process to a stall in Belarus? As for modernization, do you think it is now time to reform bilateral relations to avoid conflict situations in the future?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Thank you for your question. A statement “give less and the reform will proceed faster” is nothing more than an assumption. However, to my mind, Russian economy, rather than our bilateral relations, could really benefit from such an approach.
But this is only scholastic debates. Let’s speculate whether we would live better or worse if Russia had less gas and less oil. On the one hand, it would seem worse, because we would have smaller export capacity. On the other hand, in that case we should have diversified our economy more quickly and, consequently, would be better prepared for the crisis. This is also true for Belarus. We indeed helped – quite generously during a certain period – in order to promote development in our neighboring states, including Belarus. However, we did not put special emphasis on it, because we all have roots in the Soviet Union and we all had similar, fairly lop-sided economies. So if in the 1990s we had started supplying gas to our neighbors on the same conditions that Europe had, the economies of Belarus, Ukraine, and some other countries would have drowned. It was unacceptable for us, it was impossible, because these states, including your country, are very close to us.
However, a moment comes when we have to switch to modern relationship, usual market relations, and we found courage to do that. I mean both the Russian Federation and our Belarusian partners. We have a plan on how to bring the prices to up-to-date European levels based on equal profitability, and we will further seek this goal. All other things, like I said before, are only hypotheses and lapsed options, which could be discussed in analytical essays, but have no sense in the political practice.
The impact of economic situation on political institutions is even more complex. Therefore, it is a mistake to believe that without assistance a political regime would have already failed. Theoretically it is true, but practice may be different depending on a large variety of inputs, a huge variety. Money is not everything, although I am not eager to analyze situation in Belarus or any other post-Soviet country from this perspective. Political culture of population is crucial, attitude of elites is crucial, education is crucial, and – you won’t believe it – the media are crucial. Only in this case we could state whether a country is or is not ready for, say, a new step in its development, or whether economic situation did or did not influence. Hence, I believe we should look into the future, which should be modern, as I have already said, based on partnership and pragmatic and friendly approach. If we stick to these principles, we will have stable and close relationship.
VIACHESLAV KHODOSOVSKY: Is it easier and faster to do so bilaterally rather than within the Union State? Are there any political aspects?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I have already spoken on that, however I’ll say it again. I believe that the Union State – whatever complaints we might make now about certain elements of its evolution – had a key function: it made our countries closer and established cooperation mechanisms. Therefore, any setback would become a downgrade. We may need to furnish the Union State with some real authority or maybe modify it according to today’s situation. Anyway, it would not be wise to destroy it and talk about any new way of partnership, because we know where it could bring us. If partnership relations are terminated without new ones to replace them, problems emerge in economic relations, in relations between countries – which result in people’s suffering. This is the hardest thing about that.
ANATOLY GULIAEV: By the way, speaking about the media: what do you feel about the media calling you a blogger?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: It’s okay, because I am a blogger. I have my own blog and hence I am a blogger, though, perhaps, a special one due to my special situation. In general, I do not see anything wrong in being called a blogger – neither for an ordinary citizen, nor for a President of a large country. By the way, many of my colleagues are bloggers, they have their own blogs, which they keep as actively as I do. So, it’s okay.
ANATOLY GULIAEV: Great.
ANDREY SKURKO: May I pose a question to clarify?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Go ahead, colleagues.
ANDREY SKURKO: In response to Anatoly Guliaev’s question you mentioned the economic growth in Belarus next year, which will be small, but visible.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I said this year.
ANDREY SKURKO: This year, sorry. But there will be no growth in the Russian Federation? Why do you think it is so?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Reasons? There are several reasons for that. The size of Russian economy, on the one hand, and the problems our economy faced during the crisis year, excessive share of commodities export in our economy, on the other hand. I made quite straightforward comment on the subject a while ago. Such factors resulted in a substantial drop in many sectors of our economy, particularly in metallurgy, motor industry and some other manufacturing industries, especially in single-industry cities. That is Russia’s dive was deeper than we had expected.
Concerning the situation in Belarus, I believe it is due to several things. Firstly, your economy appeared to be better protected because of its greater industrial diversification and some right and timely decisions. I can say nothing bad about the decisions made by our Belarusian partners, I think, they were modern and timely. Another reason is the support the Belarusian economy received from abroad, from the Russian Federation among others. If Russia had been supported on a similar scale comparable to the size of its economy, the drop-down might have not been so huge.
IRINA LEVSHINA: Some political analysts believe that the relations between Moscow and Minsk are complicated by somewhat clouded relations between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin. I would like to ask you to comment on that. And what impact personal relations between politicians have on the cooperation between Belarus and Russia?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, I have partially answered the question when I was talking about some disputes that should be decently made, in my opinion. Self-control is something to be always adhered to.
Concerning personal relations, as far as I know, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin always had good partnership relations when my predecessor was President.
It doesn’t mean they had no disputes. Of course, they had disputes. It’s absolutely normal. I also have good partnership relations with Alexander Lukashenko and this does not mean that we never have disputes between us and that we always agree with each other.
At the same time, I think that it is extremely important not to barely pay respect to your partner but to listen to him. It is a passport to success. My own experience shows that personal relationships are most important in politics and there is no point to deny it. Nevertheless, such personal relationships are not a key factor.
I will refer to an example which I have mentioned many times already. We had very good relations, warm personal relations with the Administration of Mr George W. Bush, still at some moment they didn’t stop our interstate relations from deteriorating nearly to the Cold War level, which in my view is a very precise example of a combination of good relations between politicians and bad relations between countries.
The reverse may be also true when chilly relations between top officials have no impact whatsoever on interstate relations which remain on extremely high level. However, when personal relations between politicians as well as interstate relations are in perfect harmony, this is the foundation for the best possible development of overall relations between countries and between peoples.
ALEXEY KOROL: Do you plan a bilateral meeting with Mr Lukashenko during your visit to Minsk?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: In any case, during my visit to Minsk we will speak with Alexander Lukashenko, in any case we will speak, but for the moment we have not yet defined the final format. To be honest I don’t even know yet when I go as there are various options, but in any case it never happens that we fail to meet each other and to speak to each other. It may be a long or a brief talk, but we have no lack of communication, we meet regularly. Last time I visited Belarus to observe military exercises, we communicated a lot, and then we met in Chisinau where we had a public discussion of the global economy crisis. We have telephone communications as well, so during my visit to Minsk we will definitely meet.
VIACHESLAV KHODOSOVSKY: How important is the strategic military alliance of our two countries? It is not a secret that our neighbors from NATO were concerned about the latest military exercises, that is to say they saw threats for themselves posed by Belarusian and Russian military.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, the strategic military alliance is very essential, because we are a Union State and very close partners. I believe that it is a component of our cooperation which we should not abandon, which we should strengthen by all our means, especially keeping in mind that today’s Europe is not a monolith. In spite of the European Union creation, Europe still comprises different countries, and a big military block of NATO exists in Europe too.
We have no separate military block, however we have allied obligations, including obligations between Russia and Belarus, as well as between Russia and other CSTO members. CSTO cannot be considered a military block in the proper sense of the word, but still it is an Organization having a military component. Recently we have strengthened it and created Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF). We are glad that Belarus joined this Collective Force notwithstanding a certain delay in signature of documents. In my opinion, it is useful for CRRF as well as for Belarus itself.
That’s why I think we should develop this component because after all, our military and strategic alliance, as you mentioned, contributes to strengthening security on the European continent. Someone may not like our military exercises, but you see, if other countries organize their manoeuvres, if these manoeuvrings take place in the framework of NATO, we do not participate in this exercise, even though we have our own partnership relations with NATO, but we also have to practice our military skills, there is nothing unnatural in this situation. There is no doubt that our exercises are of defensive nature and are not targeted against any country. At the same time, we need to practice and it’s normal. I believe that we will continue this course, and the Belarusian President is of the same opinion. We have agreed on having such exercise biannually. I think it’s useful.
I suggest we let the ladies ask their brief questions and after some my answers end our meeting. Do you agree?
ULIANA BOBOYED: Mr President, what do you think of the import duties for cars within the Customs Union, should they be standard? That is the question which concerns the Belarusian people the most today. Should Belarus, in your opinion, increase import duties or maybe Russia will do that at a later stage, possibly on July 1 next year?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Look, as far as import duties on cars are concerned, it is no doubt a sensitive matter, especially for Belarus, taking into account that import duties there were tiny compared to those in our country. But if we are already on the way to establish our Customs Union and if we find it is generally beneficial for us all, which is would like to stress once again, we therefore should certainly apply identical import duties through mutual concession. On the one hand, Belarus is to increase duties on car imports, on the other hand, Russia is to increase duties on big vehicles, on those comparable to MAZ trucks, on trucks of a similar kind. I understand the process will be painful at first, but we will have to live through it.
Eventually, having created the Customs Union, at some moment we can come to an agreement about new common rules of the game including those for vehicle imports. The more so, as the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Belarus – all of us will join WTO, therefore some decisions we make now will have to be adjusted to our WTO membership. Nothing lasts forever, and duties are not set forever, but at this particular stage, we should make this step for harmonization of our financial and customs relations.
MAYA SHENDRIK: Mr President, answering our questions you just mentioned that our friendship should be tested by our economic relations. It’s absolutely true, but this year economic and trade relations between our countries have been rather complicated.
Early this year Russian Ministry of Economic Development and the Belarusian Ministry of Economy reached certain agreement specifying that in the current situation of a global crisis the terms and conditions for supply of goods to each others markets should not be allowed to deteriorate. Do think that those agreements have been fulfilled? If not, why? Are they still relevant now?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, it was not a simple year indeed, I don’t see any point to argue on the subject. The year has been hard for everyone, including Russia and Belarus. We tried our best to meet our agreements, but we have not always been successful because some formats of our trade are substantially based on subsidies and government assistance. In some cases such government assistance was abandoned both in our and in your country. The reason for that was a difficult but conscious decision by the governments to help national producers, this is true.
Nevertheless, nothing serious happened apart from some defaults in practical implementation accompanied by indeed quite emotional reaction. Ultimately, we attained a normal level of cooperation. Today ten plants that assemble Belarusian vehicles and equipment are operating in nine regions of our country. But did we close anything, did we cancel anything? No, everything continues to function. This year is not an easy one, but I cannot agree our cooperation was stalled or we saw a considerable regress in it.
True lessons should be learned from the past and we should be prepared for future potential crises to protect our cooperation. We should probably have more banking institutions ready to extend facilities not to national producers only but to partner producers as well, to those we closely cooperate with.
This is really an issue requiring consideration and a reason to develop cooperation in banking sector. As I have mentioned, Sberbank of Russia is now acquiring a Belarusian bank.
MAYA SHENDRIK: Belpromstroybank.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Belpromstroybank. This is great. This will allow improving our financial cooperation.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: The issue related to the CRRF was already touched upon to a certain extent.
Alexander Lukashenko signed documents for setting the CRRF. However, the information about the essence of these documents is not abounding. It would be interesting to know what exactly Russia is expecting from Belarus in the framework of the CRRF? For example, whether Belarusian troops are supposed to be engaged in military activities on the territory of the CIS countries?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: As you know, President Lukashenko, like all other presidents, did not sign any secret protocols to these arrangements, all of us signed one and the same document for setting up the Collective Rapid Reaction Force. The force was established to respond to the most complicated challenges of a terrorist and extremist nature, to drug trafficking. These are operational units that we can use to solve relevant problems including by armed forces, by military force.
I would like to remind you though that our Collective Security Treaty contains the same provision as the one effective for the states of the North Atlantic Alliance, according to which an aggression against one of the member-countries is regarded an aggression against the entire alliance, against all its member-countries. This is a very serious provision. At times we somehow forget about it but in fact here lies the essence of partnership obligations, including military ones.
That is why nothing new has emerged, we merely established an additional instrument to rapidly respond to complexities of our life. Certainly, in large part they are concentrated beyond the territories of our countries although we too have problems of our own in Russia, and Belarus, hopefully has them to a lesser extend. The challenges to our security mainly originate in the East, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in some other neighboring states to eventually become either a terrorist or a criminal threat. The new document represents a response exactly to these threats.
MARINA ZOLOTOVA: Will Belarusian troops be engaged in any military actions, for example, on the territory of some member-state to the Treaty?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, this issue should be addressed in accordance with two documents. I’ll reply to you as a lawyer to a lawyer: a decision is to be made, on the one hand, in accordance with the Constitution of Belarus and its domestic legislation and, on the other hand, in accordance with international law which is of the supranational nature and is supposed to have prevalence over domestic legislation. The Collective Rapid Reaction Force Treaty is a supranational instrument. So make your own conclusions.
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: Mr President, in Belarus, just as in Russia, Belarusians, just as Russian voters, like very much that Russia has such an energetic and modern president. Yes, modern.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Thank you.
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: In your latest speeches, in your article Go, Russia!, at the United Russia party congress and in the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly you spoke about modernization of Russia, of its economy and political institutions. What would you recommend for or how do you see in this respect a possible modernization of Belarus in the framework of the Union State, in the framework of our cooperation?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Do you mean the modernization of political institutions or something else?
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: You spoke about modernization of both political and economic institutions. But you can refer to such singled out elements that wouldn’t amount to interference into internal affairs.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: As a matter of fact this is the main question as I have already told your colleague.
LARISA RAKOVSKAYA: I have no intention to catch you out.
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Yes, of course. I answered your colleague who had put this question. You see, we really should use each others experience, and I’m saying this absolutely sincerely and with no irony at all. But such experience should be used creatively.
What I wrote in my article Go, Russia! cannot be fully implemented in Belarus or any nation as with all the affinity of our economies, with special relations among people, taking into account that we are now speaking the same language and a lot of other things, Belarus is still Belarus, and Russia is Russia. But if something from what I suggested will look interesting to you I will be very happy.
It is true that in some cases some political institutions can function rather well in other countries too. For example, our colleague spoke about a special procedure of delegating authorities to governors. This is not a Belarusian invention, it was done much earlier. But you are using this experience and we too began using it at some moment. It exists in other countries. When taking this decision – which was taken by Vladimir Putin, and as at that time I was holding the position of the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office this was to some extent our common decision because he was taking it and I was analyzing it as his senior adviser – we studied the experience of other countries and then took this decision.
As far as modernization is concerned, I sincerely wish you to accomplish much from what we wish ourselves to accomplish, that is to restructure the economy along the innovation lines, because you manufacture a great deal of good machinery, a lot of appliances and equipment.
By the way, when I last visited your country, I was shown military technology and civilian technology was also to some extent present there. It is really of good quality as a whole but for all that it is a quality of past times. And our technology is the same, we are not doing any better.
But we have to make our agricultural machinery, our armaments, our automobiles competitive with the best ones in the world. The five areas of technological modernization of Russia that I outlined in my Presidential Address and, before that, in my article if you take any steps in these five areas I will be very glad. I am sure this will be certainly good both for Belarus and Russia.
IOSIF SEREDICH: A different matter. More than 10 years passed after the kidnapping of well-known Belarusian politicians Victor Gonchar and Yuri Zakharenko, businessman Krassovsky, television reporter Dmitry Zavadsky. Have Belarusian authorities asked Russia to help them in investigating these abominable crimes?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: All crimes committed within the territory of Belarus or Russia should be investigated to the end, until those guilty of these crimes are found or until it is established what actually happened if offenders are no more alive or cannot be brought to criminal justice. These crimes too should be fully investigated. I don’t know whether there were such requests before, but during my presidency such addresses have not been made.
Now your last question.
VIACHESLAV KHODOSOVSKY: We indeed followed with tremendous interests your Address to the Federal Assembly, this is a truly grandiose programme and we should only wish Russia its successful accomplishment. But we paid attention to the fact that not all the faces of those present in the audience were radiant with enthusiasm. Do you think that you can encounter an obvious or hidden resistance to your plans? Whom will you basically rely on in this certainly grandiose work?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Thank you, this is a good question for the last bit. You know, your publication has a good name, Belarusians and Market. There may be other combination’s such as Russians and Market, Russians and Modernization.
There are no such reforms that would please everyone, otherwise it would not be reforms but just empty talk. What I have been talking about may seem right to some people, while others would say it should never be done. This is my first point.
The second one is, modernization and reforms require an internal challenge, an additional activity, but by no means everybody is ready for it. There are people who do not want any activity. It should be admitted that in this sense bureaucrats do not belong to the most progressive class, that is why they are bureaucrats, their work is very important and respected, but they represent a certain type of thinking. To a certain degree, a bureaucrat must have a sort of protective emotions, he should be a reasonable conservative, but it does not mean that he should not change. Businesspeople change much faster though, and for this reason they are businesspeople.
No doubt, there will be difficulties. There will be people who will imitate modernization, doing nothing. There will be reports of successful modernisation of various industries accompanied by requests for rewards. But the Government and the Presidential Executive Office will keep an eye on it.
In any case, it is necessary to go ahead. And if you keep thinking about those obstacles and impediments that you will be facing during the implementation of some or other reforms or transformations, it is better to do nothing at all. Once the decision was made, it must be implemented and progress must be made. Only then the success will be achieved.
In this regard, I would wish successes to you all present here, to the citizens of Belarus, to the leadership and the President of Belarus, in improving your economy, implementing the necessary reforms, and improving your political system. In this case, I am sure, you and we will have a very bright future.
Thank you for this conversation.
Windows to Russia!
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