December 30, 2018 Special Dispatch No. 7822

Putin's Annual End-Of-The-Year News Conference – Russian Commentators: 'The Questions Reeked Of Idiocy With A Dash Of Hopelessness'; Real Journalists Did Not Manage To Attend The Event

December 30, 2018
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 7822

On December 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered questions during the annual end-of-the-year news conference. Putin’s news conference was broadcast live by Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, Channel One and NTV, as well as Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio stations.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented that some of the questions were not questions but rather complaints. Peskov said: "Naturally, we were sorry to hear some question that had nothing to do with journalism, various complaints. As a matter of fact, they were rather petitions from citizens. These people were not journalists at all and, regrettably, they only used the time of those journalists who wanted to ask their questions." He then added: "As a matter of fact, it can be called slander."[1]

Boris Vishnevsky, a leading opposition legislator in St. Petersburg from the Yabloko party, mocked Kremlin spokesperson's remarks: "Dmitry Peskov complained that some fake journalists infiltrated into Putin’s press-conference. You get it the Federal Protective Service [FSO] was insufficiently vigilant. This is the same FSO that screens everything and everyone from top to bottom. If this is so, who can guarantee that there was a genuine President? Speaking seriously, the problem did not stem from the fact that fake journalists had infiltrated [the press-conference], but that – with rare exceptions–genuine journalists did not get in."[2]

Commenting on the news conference, columnist Igor Yakovenko wrote in the Russian liberal media outlet that the absence of real questions during the end-of-the-year presser proved that real journalism does not exist in the country. Yakovenko opined:

"It seems that Putin sincerely believes in the truth of his old joke, when he said that after Mahatma Gandhi death he was left with no worthy interlocutor on the entire planet. That’s why during his four-hour presser on December 12, 2018, the Russian president has said nothing to the mass media employees and via them to the population, he oversees.

"For the sake of fairness, it has to be admitted - both journalists and the population have fully merited such an attitude: it’s quite hard to perceive people who call themselves journalists as partners for a conversation, when they come for a presser of someone, considered to be a head of a state, dressed as a snow maiden or wearing boxing gloves, while the most pressing question they raise was Putin's intention about marriage."

Yakovenko classified Putin’s responses into three groups: "dismal lies", "furious lies" and "base lies". Dismal lies refer to Russian economy, that according to Putin, everything grows and flourishes. Furious lies refer to the "Russophobic approach" by Western countries, which are to blame for "attempting to contain Russia as a possible competitor internationally". The base lies, according to Yakovenko, reflect an attempt to blame the victim, while whitewashing and obscuring the Putin system's responsibility.[3]

Aleksandr Gorny, a blogger, who generally supports Russia's current foreign policy and Putin’s presidency, wrote: "Personally I figured out for myself: Putin is bored, very bored. He lacks both internal drive and energy. He is tired from the circus, surrounding him. Probably, he’ll get married in a near perspective, like a gentleman, yet the fuel prices will clearly rise. All the rest, as important as it might be, I missed.

"It was most embarrassing for many journalists, or more precisely people who call themselves journalists… This buzzing and jumping gathering didn't even look like a demonstration with handwritten signs, but a meeting of street walkers of low social responsibility who parade their charms by hiking up their skirts to their ass in order to hook a client… Their questions reeked of idiocy with a dash of hopelessness, whose essence boiled down to– Putin help us, otherwise we are dead."[4]

Below are excerpts from Putin's press conference:[5]

Putin: GDP Increased… Fixed Capital Investment Increased… Inflation Remains At An Acceptable Level

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: "Good afternoon, colleagues, friends.

"Let us begin our traditional end-of-year meeting that we call a news conference.

"As always, I will spend just a few brief seconds to sum up the results of the outgoing year. A lot has been said already, but I have the latest data reflecting the most recent results, some just a couple of days old.

"In the first nine months of 2018, GDP increased by 1.7 percent, while the Economic Development Ministry expects the annual increase to total 1.8 percent. Industrial output was growing at a faster pace, totaling 2.9 percent in the first ten months of 2018, with the annual results expected at 3 percent, up from a 2.1 percent growth in 2017. In addition, processing industries have been growing at a somewhat faster pace of 3.2 percent.

"In the first three quarters fixed capital investment increased by 4.1 percent. Cargo shipments and retail trade are on the rise, having increased by 2.6 percent. Consumer demand growth has been apparent. This is a positive factor. After a lengthy interval, the population’s real income has shown some, albeit very moderate, growth. According to the latest statistics, real incomes will increase by 0.5 percent. I hope that this momentum will be maintained, since real pay levels are on the rise, having grown by 7.4 percent in the first nine months, which is expected to give us 6.9 or 7 percent by the end of the year.

"Inflation remains at an acceptable level, although it has increased a little in the past week, by 0.5 percent, I think. Therefore, we will be able to reach the Central Bank’s reference rate of 4 percent and will have an inflation rate of 4.1 percent to 4.2 percent – somewhere just over 4 percent.

"The unemployment rate is going down, which is good news. If last year it hit a historical low of 5.2 percent, this year it will be even lower – 4.8 percent.

"The trade balance surplus is growing. In 2017, if you remember, it was around $115 billion. Over the three quarters of this year we already achieved $157 million. As of the end of the year, we expect it to reach $190 billion.

"Our finances are growing stronger. Our gold and foreign currency reserves have grown by over 7 percent. In the early 2018, they amounted to $432 billion while now they stand at almost $464 billion.

"For the first time since 2011, we will have a budget surplus. We are about to reach the federal budget surplus of 2.1 percent of the GDP. The National Welfare Fund has grown by around 22 percent.

"The average annual insurance component of the retirement pension stood at 13,677 rubles in 2017. By the end of this year, it will be 14,163 rubles.

"Life expectancy has also increased slightly compared to 2017, from 72.7 to 72.9 years.

"These are the general results that I wanted to mention in the beginning. Let’s not waste our time and proceed to your questions and my attempts to answer them."

Putin: Overall, I am Satisfied the Medvedev Team

Pavel Zarubin: "Rossiya TV channel.

"I would like to expand on a topic that has already been raised. Many economics experts, including Alexei Kudrin, assert that in reality, the Russian economy has been growing just by one percent on average over the past ten years, and if so, this is essentially marking time, or stagnation. You set the goal of making a breakthrough, a leap, but for this, even if we take the lowest estimate, the growth rate should be at least four to five times higher. The Government promises to achieve the goal, but that same Government acknowledges that in the next few years, GDP growth rates will not exceed even 2 percent. In this regard, here are my questions: what does the Government rely on in its forecasts, in the planning of its work? Is a breakthrough possible at all, in this context, or will the economy continue operating like this: we make some money on oil surplus, put it aside, then spend it when there is a need for it? In general, are you satisfied with the Medvedev team?"

Vladimir Putin: "Look, economic growth has been one percent per year for a certain period of time. But, first of all, it was while Mr Kudrin was Deputy Prime Minister, so you must not blame the mirror for showing a crooked face, as they say. This is the first point.

"The second is, one should not just count mechanically. I have great respect for Mr Kudrin, he is my friend and a good professional, and as a rule, I listen to his recommendations. He is a reliable specialist, a good one. But look, from 2008 to 2018, the economy grew by about 7.4 percent. In simple math – yes, it equals one percent, a little more. However, let us not forget how the economy developed. There were higher growth rates, alternating with recessions associated with the global crisis. In 2009, after the crisis in the global economy, not in ours – Russia was not the cause of the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, it came to us from the outside – the decline was about 7.8 percent. Then little by little, we were crawling out of it for many years.

Then, in 2014–2015, another meltdown occurred – a collapse in the oil prices, our main exports. That is why I am saying we should not simply count mechanically.

"However, of course, the country's GDP, the GDP growth rate is one of the main indicators. But we will not be able to achieve the GDP growth rates necessary for this breakthrough unless the structure of the economy is changed. This is what the national projects are aimed at, and why such enormous funds will be invested, which I have already said – to change the structure and build an innovation-based economy. The Government is counting on this, because if this happens, and we should all work towards this, then the growth rates will increase and there will be other opportunities for development.

"By the way, you mentioned the projected 2 percent growth for the next two years. Yes, in the next years, 2019–2020, two percent each, but from 2021, the Government is already planning 3 percent, and then more. Therefore, I strongly hope that we will manage to do all this. Some fluctuations are probably possible, but, I repeat, the most important thing is that we need… Do you see what we need to do? We need to join another league of economies, and not only in terms of volumes. I think that taking the fifth place in terms of volume is quite possible. We used to rank fifth in terms of the economy, in purchasing power parity, and we will do it again, I think. However, we need to ascend to another league in terms of the quality of the economy. This is what our national projects are aimed at.

Pavel Zarubin: "Are you satisfied with the Medvedev team?"

Vladimir Putin: "Overall, yes."

Putin: The Global Economic Crisis Forced Us To Use Our Oil Revenues To Meet Our Social Commitments And Finance The Armed Forces

Maria Balyuk: "Mr President, good afternoon. My name is Maria Balyuk, I represent the Prime news agency.

Mr President, the budget in the current year and the next year will have a surplus. However, starting January 1, a number of decisions are coming into effect that may cause a significant increase in prices of a wide range of goods and services.

"For example, the VAT will increase to 20 percent, which has already triggered a two-stage increase in the housing and utilities rates next year. There is also the new tax for self-employed persons in pilot regions. Please tell us how these measures agree with the state’s economic policy."

Vladimir Putin: Housing and utilities rates in two stages, and what else?

Maria Balyuk: "And, for example, a tax on self-employed people in pilot regions. Isn’t this amount of new measures too much of a burden on Russians and the economy?"

Vladimir Putin: "You said about the surplus.

"Yes, this is indeed a good indicator of the Government’s economic block performance. As I said in my opening remarks, for the first time since 2011 we will have a budget surplus of 2.1 percent. And this is good.

Let us not forget that as an oil producing country and a country that derives much of its revenue from selling oil and gas, we also have what is called a non-oil-and-gas deficit. This is what the country earns from selling products and services other than oil and gas.

"Let me remind you that this non-oil-and-gas deficit was 13 percent in 2009, which is a lot. In the early 2000s, it was at about 3 percent, but the global economic crisis forced us to use our oil revenues to meet our social commitments and finance the Armed Forces, so we had to tap into the oil revenues.

"In this situation, the non-oil-and-gas deficit surged into the double digits almost reaching13 percent, I believe. This was a very serious challenge for the Russian economy. We have now reduced it to 6.6 percent, and next year it is expected to decline to 6 percent and remain at this level for the next few years.

"This is a very important indicator of economic resilience for the Russian Federation. Therefore, the increase in the VAT rate, among other things, is due to the need to maintain the non-oil-and-gas deficit at a certain level.

"Second, in many countries VAT is 20 percent or even higher. It used to be higher in Russia as well, but we reduced it at a certain point. Now we have returned to a 20-percent tax rate.

"However, the effective VAT rate for the overall economy will be below 20 percent since almost all benefits remain in place: for pharmaceuticals, children’s goods, and so on, including for IT companies. Many benefits have been preserved. With this in mind, the effective rate will be actually lower.

"Finally, I do hope that the rate hike will be only a one-off measure with a possible slight increase in prices and inflation in the beginning of the year, after which the inflation will go down.

"The Central Bank also seeks to prevent inflation from picking up. Only recently, the interest rate was increased by 0.25 percentage points."

Putin Addresses Fear Of A Nuclear War: After The US Withdraws From The INF Treaty, What Will Happen? What If These Missiles Show Up In Europe? What Are We Supposed To Do Then?

Anton Vernitsky: "Mr President, as Soviet-era children, all of us feared a nuclear war very much. As you remember, various songs dealt with this issue. One of them had the following lyrics: 'Sunny world: Yes, yes, yes; nuclear explosion: No, no, no'."

Vladimir Putin: "Are you not afraid today?"

Anton Vernitsky: "Forty years have passed, and major media outlets on both sides of the ocean are beginning to publish a scenario for a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. The word 'war' is sounding more and more often at household level, in kitchens. Mr President, how can you calm down my little son who, just like me, also fears a nuclear war today? What words and actions can calm us all down?

Vladimir Putin: "You know, I think you are right. I just thought that all this, including the danger of such developments in the world, is now being hushed up and played down to some extent. It seems impossible or something that is not so important. At the same time, if, God forbid, something like this happens, it might destroy the whole of civilization or perhaps the entire planet.

"These issues are therefore serious, and it is a great pity that there is such a tendency to underestimate the problem, and that this tendency is probably becoming more pronounced. What are the current distinguishing features and dangers?

"First, all of us are now witnessing the disintegration of the international system for arms control and for deterring the arms race. This process is taking place after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that, as I have already noted a thousand times, was the cornerstone in the sphere of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and deterring the arms race.

"After that, we were forced to respond by developing new weapons systems that could breach these ABM systems. Now, we hear that Russia has gained an advantage. Yes, this is true. So far, the world has no such weapons systems. Leading powers will develop them, but, as yet they do not exist.

"In this sense, there are certain advantages. But, speaking of the entire strategic balance, this is just an element of deterrence and for equating parities. This is just the preservation of parity, and nothing more.

"They are now about to take another step and withdraw from the INF Treaty. What will happen? It is very difficult to imagine how the situation will unfold. What if these missiles show up in Europe? What are we supposed to do then?

"Of course, we will need to take some steps to ensure our safety. And they should not whine later that we are allegedly trying to gain certain advantages. We are not. We are simply trying to maintain the balance and ensure our security.

"The same goes for the START III Treaty, which expires in 2021. There are no talks on this issue. Is it because no one is interested, or believes it is necessary? Fine, we can live with that.

We will ensure our security. We know how to do it. But in general, for humanity, this is very bad, because this takes us to a very dangerous line.

"Finally, there is another circumstance I cannot ignore. There is a trend to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. There are plans to create low-impact nuclear charges, which translates to tactical rather than global use. Such ideas are coming from Western analysts who say it is okay to use such weapons. However, lowering the threshold can lead to a global nuclear disaster. This is one danger we are facing today.

"The second is the use of non-nuclear ballistic missiles. True, our US partners seem to have dropped this idea, but it still exists. What does it mean? Suppose, a ballistic missile is launched, nuclear or non-nuclear. The missile attack warning system identifies the launch and the launch site, and, seconds later, determines the flight path and the possible warhead landing area. This is all on the verge of a possible error. It is terrible, and we cannot take it that far. Nevertheless, such an idea of using non-nuclear ballistic missiles exists.

"Suppose, a submarine fired a ballistic missile from the World Ocean, but who the hell knows if it is nuclear or not, go figure. This is very dangerous. All of that is being widely discussed, which is dangerous.

"However, I believe humanity has enough common sense and enough of a sense of self-preservation not to take these things to the extreme."

Putin Comments On The Incident In The Kerch Strait: Our Ukrainian Partners Are In The Middle Of An Election Campaign Right Now, And They Want To Aggravate The Situation In Order To Raise The Ratings Of One Of The The Incumbent President And The Current Government

Dmitry Peskov: "Let us go to this sector. I see the Ukrainian flag in the second row."

Vladimir Putin: "You attend all our news conferences, correct? You are from Ukraine?"

Dmitry Peskov: "Yes, he is our colleague from Ukraine."

Vladimir Putin: "Right, my colleagues told me it was better not to let him speak, because he would cause a scandal. Are you going to cause a scandal now? Please go ahead."

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: "Yegor Sozayev-Guryev, Izvestia. My question is about the incident in the Kerch Strait."

Vladimir Putin: "But Izvestia is not from Ukraine, is it?"

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: "Well, my question is about Ukraine."

Vladimir Putin: "Well, go ahead."

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: "I have a question about the precedent in the Kerch Strait, I wonder about the future of the captured Ukrainian military. What will happen to them? Do you think this provocation was a success? I cannot help asking about the citizens of Russia imprisoned in the United States. I mean Butina and Yaroshenko. How can Russia protect their rights? Perhaps, we should look at our Chinese partners? A Chinese citizen representing Huawei was detained in Canada. In response, they detained several Canadian citizens. Perhaps, we could learn from that experience?"

Vladimir Putin: "With regard to your first question, you said: 'Do you think this provocation was a success?' First, let us state that it was a provocation, and you agree with that. This is already a good start.

"Now, whether it was a success or not, I believe provocations are a bad thing whatever way you look at them. Provocations seek to aggravate things. Why do our Ukrainian partners need things to go that way? Clearly, they are in the middle of an election campaign right now, and they want to aggravate the situation in order to raise the ratings of one of the contenders, I mean the incumbent president and the current government. Well, this is bad, it is ultimately bad for the interests of the Ukrainian people and state. However, it is possible to move forward without any provocations and do so calmly, as before.

"Whether it was a success or not, I mean in terms of improving popularity ratings, maybe it was, as Mr Poroshenko’s ratings seem to have increased a little and he has moved from the fifth position to the second or third, where the figure fluctuates around 12 percent. Ms Tymoshenko, I believe, has 20 percent or even more, whereas Zelinsky, Boyko and Poroshenko have around 12 percent each. In this sense, yes, he probably achieved the goal. At the expense of the country’s interests, I believe. This is a bad way to boost ratings.

"With regard to the future of the Ukrainian servicemen, they were sent on this mission and some of them were expected to die in the process. I can see that the leadership is very upset by the fact that no one died. They expected some of them to die. Thank God, this did not happen. An investigation is underway. Once it is over, we will know what to do with them.

"Still, I will ask you to give the microphone to our colleague from Ukraine."

Putin: 'Who Established The Blockade Between Donbass And The Rest Of Ukraine? Did Russia Do It? The Ukrainian Authorities Did It'

Roman Tsymbalyuk: "Thank you. There will be no scandal. There never was a scandal actually."

Vladimir Putin: "Thank God. That already is good news."

Roman Tsymbalyuk: "Mr President, I would like to ask you how much money you are spending on the occupied Donbass? Under your leadership, people there are living in poverty. Let us face it, they have become slaves to Russia. You are concerned about the threat of a nuclear war and at the same time, you are preparing for a war against NATO, and, in fact, you are shooting at Ukrainian citizens. It was you as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief who issued the order to open fire at seamen. My question is what are the terms of the exchange?

"And a question about the elections, if I may. You say that you analyze the approval ratings."

Vladimir Putin: "Just a second. Terms of exchange?"

Roman Tsymbalyuk: "The terms of exchange of Ukrainian political prisoners and Ukrainian servicemen. You do need your Russian citizens back, don’t you?

And about the elections, if I may. You constantly analyze the ratings and one gets the impression that…"

Vladimir Putin: "I do not analyze them, I look at them inasmuch as you print them."

Roman Tsymbalyuk: "… in this way you are meddling in the electoral process like you did in the United States. Doesn’t it seem to you that a direct dialogue between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia will never take place until you change your job?

Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "Regarding the suffering of the people who live in Donbass. You are a Ukrainian citizen, aren’t you? And you consider the people who live on this territory to be the citizens of your country. Can you tell me who established the blockade between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine? Did Russia do it? The Ukrainian authorities did it: they imposed a total economic blockade of the territory they consider to be their own. They shoot at the people they consider to be their own citizens. People are killed there almost every day, peaceful civilians, by the way.

"We do render humanitarian and other assistance and support to the people who live on that territory. But we do it only to prevent them from being finally crushed, devoured and torn to pieces, and we will continue doing it. Because attempts to solve these political issues by force – and we have seen this being done by the current Kiev authorities for several years – are doomed to failure. This has to be kept in mind.

"Now concerning how to settle these relations and who will and will not remain in power. It is not about personalities, it is about the attitude towards people. We want to see peace and prosperity on the entire territory of Ukraine, including Donbass. We are interested in it because Ukraine remains one of our biggest trade and economic partners.

"Trade between Ukraine and Russia, in spite of all the efforts of the current Kiev authorities, is growing, it has grown in the outgoing year, it has grown during the current year. Is it strange? No, it is not strange because these are natural ties. These natural ties will sooner or later make themselves felt. But as long as the Kiev corridors of power are peopled by Russophobes who do not understand the interests of their own people this abnormal situation will persist. Regardless of who is in power at the Kremlin.

"We have attended to the issue of exchange all along. Mr Medvedchuk, on instructions from Poroshenko, by the way, has been constantly engaged in this. He came to Moscow just recently and raised the issue of the release of Ukrainian servicemen detained in the Kerch Strait, in the Black Sea to be more precise. Yes, Medvedchuk raised this issue. However, as I have said, these issues could only be tackled after the criminal case is closed."

Putin On Russia-Japan Relations: We Are Concerned About US Plans to place ABM Systems In Japan

Hirofumi Sugizaki: "Good afternoon, Mr President. Hirofumi Sugizaki,Kyodo Tsushin, Japan.

"It is natural that my question is, unfortunately, about the peace treaty that, as I understand, our countries are seeking to sign. After your meeting with Mr Shinzo Abe in Singapore, where you agreed to push the negotiating process forward on the basis of the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of 1956, our public’s only concern is about how many islands we are going to get: nil, two, three or four – we do not know. On the other hand, as I understand, the Russians are also puzzled, as they mainly ask questions like, 'Why should we return them?' Some people even approach us with a threat: 'We will not yield an inch of our land.' And so on. The question is about the delimitation that we must carry out. But if our new treaty – a peace treaty – is confined to the delimitation of borders, this will not be enough and will not be interesting to our nations, and people will not understand this. What new idea do you think should be embedded in a treaty to bring our relations to a new level?

"There is another question that I cannot fail to ask in connection with the above. Russia – and you yourself – has brought up security issues recently, I mean the deployment of the US missile defense system in Japan and the possibility of deploying American troops and military infrastructure on the islands should they be transferred to Japan. We are holding negotiations at an expert level, but in military matters Japan almost fully depends on the US. Do you think these issues can be resolved on a bilateral basis, or will you have to deal directly with the US? Thank you very much."

Vladimir Putin: "Let us talk about the final part of your question so that we do not forget what you said. The issues of security are crucially important, including when signing a peace treaty. You spoke about the deployment of the US military infrastructure in Japan, but it is already there, the largest US base is in Okinawa, it has been there for decades, as we know.

"Now, about Japan’s ability to take part in this decision-making. To us, this is an unclear, closed issue. We do not understand the level of Japan’s sovereignty in making such decisions. You know better than all other colleagues, and I know too that the Okinawa Governor is opposed to some decisions related to improving and expanding the base. He is against it, but he cannot do anything about it. People who live there are also against it.

"There is a lot of evidence of that; there have been opinion polls and protests demanding the withdrawal of this base. And, in any case, they are opposed to strengthening the US Air Force part of the base that is there. There are plans to improve and expand it, and it is happening despite the fact that everybody is against it.

"We do not know what will happen after the peace treaty is concluded, but without an answer to this question it will be very difficult to make any crucial decisions. And, of course, we are concerned about the plans to place ABM systems there. I told the United States this many times and I will repeat again that we do not consider this to be defensive weapons; this is part of the US strategic nuclear potential placed outside. And these systems, they are synchronized with the missile strike systems.

"So there are no illusions and we understand everything. But nevertheless we are sincerely striving and will strive to sign a peace treaty with Japan. It is because I am confident, and Prime Minister Abe shares my confidence, that the current state of affairs is not normal. Both Japan and Russia are interested in a complete settlement of our relations, and it is not only because we need something from Japan in terms of the economy. Our economy is more or less developing.

"Just this morning, Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin reported on his trip to Japan. There is some progress, including an agreement on deliveries, on opening the Japanese market to Russian meat and poultry products. There are other improvements as well. Therefore, we are moving forward, and will continue to move forward, as it will be necessary. But the normalization is important to us, both for Russia and Japan. It is a difficult process, but we are ready to move forward together with our colleagues."

Putin: Khashoggi Was Murdered. Skripal Is Alive, Thank Heaven. Nevertheless, Russia Was Slapped With A Salvo Of Sanctions In This Connection; This Is A Politically-Driven, Rusophobic Approach

Dmitry Peskov: "Thank you. As you may know, British media regulator Ofcom has just found RT guilty of violating broadcasting regulations and is looking into the possibility of introducing sanctions against it. I saw an RT correspondent somewhere here. Let us give him the floor, as he is the main source of such information."

Vladimir Putin: "Yes, please."

Ilya Petrenko: "Thank you, Mr Peskov.

"Good afternoon. My name is Ilya Petrenko from the Russia Today television channel.

"But I have a different question. First, I would like to inquire about a recent decision to simplify procedures for the people of Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship. Our channel often dealt with this issue, as well as with bureaucracy. It goes without saying that this is an important step, but I would like to ask you to explain the logic of this from a purely political standpoint. If this is so essential, and if this is needed to help people in eastern Ukraine, why didn’t we do it earlier? Are you not afraid that bureaucracy will persist, and that papers will, from now on, be placed to the left, rather than the right?

"I would also like to come back to the question from my Izvestia colleague. There is the Skripal scandal and the Western response to it. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, was murdered, and this incident caused an entirely different response. Kirill Vyshinsky and Maria Butina, as well as Huawei Chief Financial Officer were arrested. And Donald Trump is saying openly that she is a bargaining chip in a trade war. My colleague wanted to know if we would ever see this happening in Russia, when foreign citizens would be arrested under far-fetched pretexts and exchanged for someone else. Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "Let us start with the last part of your question. I do not want to comment on US-Chinese relations, who arrested whom and for what actions, etc. This is a very sensitive area, and we will not act according to the laws of the Code of Hammurabi here. The law of retaliation states, “An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.” We need to act very cautiously here, and we need to be real. We will respond if certain people violate Russian legislation, regardless of their national and state affiliation. But we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.

"As for the fate of Russian nationals, we do care about them, including the fact that Butina is being forced to admit something over there. I cannot understand what she could possibly have admitted, since she was not following any instructions from the Russian Government or its agencies. I am saying this because I mean it, no matter what she says under the threat of being sentenced to 12 or 15 years in prison. It is understandable that together with her lawyer she is fighting to get out of prison. I do not quite understand why they put her there in the first place. There were simply no grounds for it. But now this is a question of saving face for them and finding a way out. I am primarily referring to the US justice system. We will see how it plays out. We do care, and we will keep an eye on this case and provide our support accordingly.

"As for the Skripals and Khashoggi, no comment is required. Khashoggi was obviously murdered, and everyone acknowledged it. Skripal is alive, thank Heaven. Nevertheless, Russia was slapped with a salvo of sanctions in this connection, with no end in sight, which contrasts with complete silence in the second case. This is a politically-driven, Rusophobic approach. It serves as a pretext for attacking Russia once more. Without the Skripal case, they would have come up with something else. This is quite obvious to me. Their only goal is to contain Russia and prevent it from emerging as a potential competitor. I do not see any other end to it.

"Regarding red tape on citizenship matters. You said 'red tape.' How so? Red tape is perennial. You cannot defeat it. At the same time, you cannot live without it either, and this has to be said as well. It is true that there must be rules for this bureaucracy and governance mechanisms, etc.

"Regarding naturalization, this does not have to do only with what is taking place in southeastern Ukraine. Our initiatives do not target exclusively people living in these territories. The Government is currently working on amendments to the relevant law on citizenship and naturalization. What for? These efforts are designed to show that we do not seek and will not support policies of division or the ones designed to alienate the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. What are the current [Ukrainian] authorities doing? What is their mission? What are they trying to achieve on the back of Russophobia they are promoting? They are practically admitting that they are pursuing a historic task of separating the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. This is what they are up to. And for that, they can get away with anything.

"Your colleague from the Ukrainian media talked about the challenges faced by people living in Donbass and the Lugansk Region, and their poor living standards. But is it any better in Ukraine? The situation is quite similar compared to Donbass, and it is getting worse all the time. Anything can be forgiven within the country, and even more so outside it against the backdrop of war, hostilities and tensions. And they are getting paid for this. They are about to receive another IMF tranche. We do understand what this is all about: just enough to pay out pensions and salaries to social sector employees, and the future generations will have to foot the bill. For this reason the overall situation is quite unfavourable. I believe this to be the case for the economy, society and domestic political processes. But our nations are very close and share the same history, so we will do everything to move in this direction. The law on citizenship is currently being amended, and it will be adopted in early 2019."

Putin: Our Economy Adapted To The Western Sanctions

Yelena Glushakova: "My name is Yelena Glushakova, and I am from RIA Novosti."

Vladimir Putin: "Good afternoon."

Yelena Glushakova: "I have also brought a picture, Masha and the Bear, that relates to the topic of my question. As my colleagues have said, Russia has been living under a huge amount of the most varied sanctions for the past few years. It can be hard to keep track at times, and, in some cases, they are vowing to introduce sanctions against cartoon characters. But this is beside the point. My question is more serious. They are planning to introduce even more serious sanctions; for example, US lawmakers are preparing for this. And is Russia prepared for a new round of sanctions escalation? Does the Government have any plan for minimizing their impact on the Russian economy? And what do you think the impact is, all the more so given the widely differing views expressed on it?"

Vladimir Putin: "Well, we have discussed sanctions many times. If you want to discuss this issue once again, that is okay with me. Throughout virtually its entire history, Russia has faced various restrictions and sanctions. Really its entire history.

"If you look at the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will see that the situation is always the same. You can read diplomatic correspondence dating to the 19th century and the early 20th century. Everything is the same. They urged Russian diplomats to quickly establish order in the Caucasus and to do many other things. Nothing changes.

"How can this be explained? I have already discussed this, and I hope that an overwhelming majority of today’s audience also realizes that it is related to Russia’s growing might and its greater competitiveness. A mighty and powerful player is emerging, one that has to be reckoned with, even if others would rather not.

"Quite recently, they believed that a country like that no longer existed, but it turns out it does and it must be reckoned with. Our country has a population of 160 million. This is not just some wishful thinking on the part of its leaders, it represents the interests of the people that we are defending. By the way, we are carefully defending these interests with calm and restraint, nothing boorish. But we are going about our business, and we will continue to move in this direction.

"Speaking of present-day sanctions, they have just mentioned the Skripals and Khashoggi incidents. So, is there any logic here? No, there is none. This is just a pretext for taking additional action to contain Russia.

"Our economy, as it has been said many times, has adapted to these external restrictions. Look, in the beginning of this meeting I mentioned that after the 2008−2009 global crisis, our GDP dropped by 7.8 percent. There were no sanctions at the time. After the sanctions were imposed in 2014, the drop was 2.5 percent.

"You asked how we assess this situation? We always assess it in our favour. But let us look at how our opponents see it – those who impose the sanctions. For example, the US Treasury Department believes that this 2.5-percent drop in 2015 was one-third due to the sanctions and two-thirds due to the collapsed prices on energy sources, mainly, oil. In fact, I think that one-third is too much. But all, right, they did affect our GDP.

"The sanctions also affect those who introduced them. According to the European Parliament, the European economy lost around 500 billion euros due to the sanctions against Russia because they lost our market, they under-export and they under-import certain goods from us. The number of jobs has dropped.

"It is significant for them because many EU countries suffer from a very high unemployment rate. In Spain, if I am not mistaken, it is still around 15 percent. We have 4.8 percent and they have 15 percent, you know. And the development of global trade, which lost over 400 billion, is also a result of such an unpredictable policy, including sanctions. This policy is harmful to everybody.

"I will repeat once again, our economy has adapted to this. Yes, there are some adverse effects but look, there are also positive sides to these sanctions. What are they? The sanctions made us switch on our brains in many areas and Western experts also acknowledge this. The share of Russian transport machine building was 98 percent in 2017. Automobile production accounted for 85 percent. Several other industries, also key areas, accounted for around 80 percent.

"This year, we spent 600 billion rubles on import substitution, including 125 to 128 billion from the federal budget. I will not even mention agriculture. We had to compensate for the imports in the market. Yes, unfortunately, this resulted in a short-term price increase in the domestic food market but right now, the prices have stabilized to a large extent in this sector of the economy and agriculture has made a breakthrough that we could not have ever imagined.

"Since 2000, the amount of exports has increased 16-fold, which is just unbelievable except it is actually happening. There are negative and positive sides but in any case, we would like the world economy to develop without any shocks, unlawful measures or external restrictions, to develop naturally, for its own benefit."

Putin: A Restoration Of Socialism Is Impossible

Vladimir Putin: "Wait a second. I see a poster saying ‘KGB and children.’ Today is December 20, the day of the Cheka. What do you mean, there are children in the KGB? What is it? Please, hand them a microphone."

Remark: "As my good friend said once, 'We all are the children of the KGB, but life has taught us different things'."

Vladimir Putin: "If you are the children of the KGB, why does life teach you? The KGB should do that."

Question: "Mr President, society strongly demands social justice. According to the Levada Centre, 66 percent of respondents feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union. And here is my question: do you think that a restoration of socialism is possible in Russia?"

Vladimir Putin: "I think this is impossible. I believe that the deep changes that have taken place in our society make restoring socialism in the sense you mean impossible.

"There can be social elements in the economy and the social sector, but expenses will always exceed profits, and as a result, the economy would be at a dead end.

"But the just distribution of resources, the fair treatment of people who live below the poverty line, and a state policy aimed to lower the number of people who have to live like that, to provide the majority of people with healthcare services and education in acceptable conditions, if this is the socialism we are talking about, we are holding to the very same policy. Our national programs that we talked about in the beginning of this meeting, are mostly aimed at all this."

Putin: Patriotism Has To Be The Foundation For Strengthening Our State

Sergei Lisovsky: "Mr President…

"On December 15, you chaired a meeting of the Council for Culture [and Art] at the Constantine Palace. All the questions asked there were very good and correct, including about drug addiction. But Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky asked one of the key questions, and I would like to follow up on this issue after thinking it over.

He said that Russia now lacks an ambitious national development idea. The Russian Empire had the following triad: Orthodox Christianity, autocracy and nationality. The Soviet Union had the moral code of the builder of communism. Today, it is unclear what kind of society we are building, but it looks more like the amoral code of the builder of capitalism.

"I came up with a triad of my own, and I would like to ask you to get our federal television channels, including Channel One, NTV and Rossiya, to hold a nationwide discussion of what kind of country and society we are building, after all. So, I suggest the following triad: nature, motherland and the people. Its three components – nature, motherland and the people – cannot exist without one another. And that is why we now watch shows about who left whom and who cheated on whom. That is, there is a kind of media lawlessness. And if we raise the issue of all television shows…"

Dmitry Peskov: "What is your question, please?"

Sergey Lisovsky: "Yes, is it possible to create a television show on strategically important issues related to Russia’s long-term development?"

Vladimir Putin: "It is always very interesting to speak with Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. He is very insightful. He has his own opinions, which he is not afraid to express, whether you agree or not. He is not a conformist, and he speaks his mind. He is an insightful person.

"I have repeatedly discussed whether we have an idea for building the state, the country – the foundation on which to build. I believe that patriotism in the best sense of the word, rather than the basest, simply has to be the foundation for strengthening our state in the broadest and noblest sense of this word.

"As for our many channels on television and online that probably are not worth the air time they take up, you know, Daniil Granin (I believe that I mentioned this some time ago) discussed the matter at our last meeting.

We had a long private conversation, and I never saw him again, he passed away some time later. He said: 'Look, you have to do something about this.' I asked: 'What are you talking about?' 'We are all tired of it,' he replied. 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'All the television channels are telling us about people who stole money, how much, how they did it. I am really sick and tired of it. Are there really no happy and positive events in life here?' I said: 'Well, that is their programming choice.'

"As I see it, things are actually gradually changing for the better, to some extent, the information is becoming more balanced perhaps, although I don’t go online or watch television very often just because I don’t have enough time.

"I try to keep an eye on the media environment, and I get the impression that there has been some improvement. But there would certainly be no harm in discussing what you have suggested. I will need to speak with my colleagues.

"They can hear you now, and I hope that they will respond."

Putin's Reaction To Trump's Syria Withdrawal Statement: The Presence Of The US Troops In Syria Is Illegitimate; Trump Has Made The Right Decision

Rachel Marsden: "President Putin, Rachel Marsden with the Tribune Publishing out of Chicago, United States. Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria. He also announced that, in his opinion, the United States defeated ISIS in Syria, he made that very clear.

"What is your position with respect to his statements, both on the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria and also with his statement regarding the defeat of ISIS by the United States?

"And, secondly, do you have concern that the American troops will remain in some form? There has been much discussion, for example, around the presence, potentially, of contractors in other jurisdictions where the United States is either out of militarily or might want to be out of militarily but in a more discreet way.

Thank you very much."

Vladimir Putin: "As concerns the defeat of ISIS, overall I agree with the President of the United States. I already said that we achieved significant progress in the fight against terrorism in that territory and delivered major strikes on ISIS in Syria.

"There is a risk of these and similar groups migrating to neighboring regions and Afghanistan, to other countries, to their home countries, and they are partly returning.

"It is a great danger for all of us, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Asian countries, including Central Asia. We know that, we understand the risk fully. Donald is right about that, and I agree with him.

"As concerns the withdrawal of American troops, I do not know what that is. The United States have been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years, and every year they talk about withdrawing the troops. But they are still there. This is my second point.

"Third. So far, we have not seen any evidence of their withdrawal but I suppose it is possible, the more so because we are progressing towards a political settlement. The current issue on the agenda is building a constitutional committee.

"By the way, when we met in Istanbul – I mean Russia, Turkey, France and Germany – we agreed to make every possible effort to create this constitutional committee and Russia, for its part, has done everything in its power for this to happen.

"As strange as it may seem, we fully agreed on the list of members with President al-Assad, who designated 50 people and was involved in selecting 50 more from civil society. Despite the fact that he is not happy with everything, he agreed with this.

"Turkey, which represents the interests of the opposition, also agreed. Iran agreed. We submitted the list to the UN and, as Minister Lavrov reported to me just yesterday, unexpectedly, prompted by our partners – Germany, France and the United States – UN representatives (Mr de Mistura) decided to wait and see.

"I do not understand what is going on there but at any rate, I want to believe that this work is in its final stage. Maybe not by the end of this year but in the beginning of the next the list will be agreed and this will open the next stage of the settlement, which will be political settlement.

"Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is. However, let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your troops, is illegitimate as it was not approved by a UN Security Council resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian Government. Russian troops were invited by the Syrian Government. The United States did not get either of these so if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.

"There is another very important component in this process. Despite all the disagreements, our specialists, our military personnel, security services and foreign ministries have established a rather constructive dialogue to address acute issues in combating terrorism in Syria. Overall, we are satisfied with our cooperation."

Putin: The West Says That Crimea Was Annexed Forcefully, Then Why The People Of Crimea Are Targeted By Sanctions?

Artyom Artemenko: "Good afternoon, Artyom Artemenko, Crimea 24 television network."

Vladimir Putin: "Good afternoon."

Artyom Artemenko: "Mr President, you recently said that the restrictions Russia is facing from some countries have a direct bearing on the people living in Crimea who voted for reunification with Russia in 2014. Can you explain what you meant? How do we deal with this? Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "I did say this, even though I can hardly recall where I was at the time, but I can explain it. This is an interesting situation. What we hear from the outside is that Russia annexed Crimea. But what does annexation mean? It means a forcible takeover. If this had been an annexation and a takeover by force, the people in Crimea would have had nothing to do with it and would not be to blame. But if they came out and voted, this was not an annexation. So what is going on? After all, sanctions were imposed against them, against you. What are these sanctions? Restriction on mobility, restrictions on border crossings, visas, financial transactions, insurance companies, marine infrastructure use and the use of other facilities. These measures affect almost everyone living there. They were the ones targeted by these sanctions, and this is not just about singling out specific individuals like the government leaders in the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, but about targeting everyone. If they had had nothing to do with it, if it had been annexation, why were the people sanctioned? But if you were sanctioned for taking part in a specific vote, then they would have to admit that it actually took place. This is what this is about, and this is what I meant."

Putin Answers A Question About When He Is Going To Get Married: I Will Probably Have To Do So At Some Point

Alexander Yunashev: "Good afternoon. Alexander Yunashev, Life online publication.

"Mr President, there is a state programme for supporting positive content in cinema and television, which is, in fact, funded with our taxes. Are such support measures possible and necessary for the Russian segment of the internet? And the state channels will not ask: when are you getting married? And to whom? (Laughter.)"

Vladimir Putin: "These are two completely different questions. Are you married?"

Alexander Yunashev: "Yes, I am, and I have no regrets about it. I can recommend it."

Vladimir Putin: "He is married, and wants me to be in the same boat. (Laughter.) Well, all right. Let us assume that I answered your second question, although as a gentleman I will probably have to do so at some point. (Laughter.)

"Now, with regard to supporting the Russian segment of the internet. Yes, it is the right thing to do, and we are already doing so. We have grants, I am not sure about the exact amounts, but they are measured in hundreds of millions of rubles. These grants are related to content, and we are allocating, I believe, 144 billion rubles to this end. Overall, we officially allocate about 400 million rubles for this type of activity, so we are doing this and will continue to do so."

Putin Discussed The Situation In Afghanistan: 'Talks Are Underway With The Taliban. This Is Probably Unavoidable'

Question: "On December 6, Russia refused to support a UN General Assembly resolution on Afghanistan because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries."

Vladimir Putin: "Because of what?"

Remark: "Because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries."

Vladimir Putin: "What was that resolution about? Can you remind me, please?"

Remark: "Western countries. They said the situation in Afghanistan was good, while Russia believed that…

Vladimir Putin: We believe that it is not good. What do you think about this?"

Remark: "I would like to know what you think."

Vladimir Putin: Do you want my opinion?

Question: "At the same time, the US is conducting separate talks with the Taliban. In light of this, what will be the future of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan, which were attended by delegates from 11 countries?"

Vladimir Putin: "The Moscow format?"

Remark: "Yes."

Vladimir Putin: "To be honest, I do not recall the details of that draft resolution. But I think you will agree with me, and I am sure that the majority of those who live in Afghanistan will agree with me.

"I do not know what our Western partners wanted to achieve with that resolution. If they wanted to declare that everything is fine there, this has little to do with reality.

"What part of the country does the Kabul government control officially? Not more than one third, to be perfectly frank; do you agree? When elections are held, it takes months to add up the results. Is this how it should be? So what is there to approve of?

"Talks are underway with the Taliban. This is probably unavoidable. But we must understand the subject of these talks and their possible outcome. If there is a force that controls the bulk of Afghanistan’s territory, its opinion must be taken into account, but this should be done openly and publicly, so it is clear what we are talking about.

"I believe that this is probably the essence of our Foreign Ministry’s position at the talks. We are not against a settlement. Overall, we believe that the problem can be settled exclusively through an agreement between all parties to the political process in Afghanistan.

"Until then, we will need to reinforce our military base in Tajikistan. We believe that the people of Afghanistan will eventually reach an agreement, and that all political forces and ethnic groups will reach a consensus.

"We will facilitate this process as much as we can, including by promoting economic cooperation with Afghanistan and by taking part in various international projects, such as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline [gas trunk line], TAPI."

Putin: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church Of The Moscow Patriarchy Was Completely Independent

Dmitry Peskov: "Mr President, let’s give the floor to Andrei Kolesnikov."

Vladimir Putin: "You have not been called on for four years in a row. How can this be? Go ahead. It is [Dmitry] Peskov’s fault. We will punish him.

"(Addressing Andrei Kolesnikov.) Andrei, please, let the young lady speak first. She has not been called on for four years in a row."

Remark: "It is seven years for us."

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal: "Thank you very much for sparing me having to wait another year. After the law on foreign agents was passed, there was an enormous uproar over human rights being violated and so on."

Vladimir Putin: "One of my colleagues – I will not give his name – was asked during talks: 'What is the situation with human rights in your country?' [Allusion to a Soviet-era joke.] He looked at his interlocutor and asked: 'Who is the human being you are talking about?' I would like to ask you: who is the human being you are referring to?"

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal: "In our country this primarily applies to legal entities, while Maria Butina was arrested in the United States as a private individual. This law [on foreign agents] has been in effect in the US since 1938. I would like to ask you if it makes sense to borrow from the experience of our Western partners here.

"I have another question that is very important to us. I represent Tsargrad TV channel and we want to know what you think about the situation developing around Orthodoxy globally, given recent sectarian activities by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Kiev. Perhaps, everyone is now beginning to realize that the United States is the main player here. So it turns out that religion is heavily dominated by geopolitics. Is that the case?"

Vladimir Putin: "Regarding the first part of your question, we have relied on international experience when we passed the law on foreign agents. This is not about bans. This law requires that any entity receiving funding from abroad to carry out its public political activities must be registered as a foreign agent. That is it. Incidentally, this type of activity is banned in the United States and here you have the result: under this law Butina was arrested and taken into custody and might be sentenced to 12 years in prison. We do nothing of the sort here. Our law only requires registration for entities receiving funding from abroad. There is nothing here to fear. Frankly speaking, I do not see any problems here, as far as law enforcement is concerned. However, we, of course, need to look into the matter.

"When I meet with human rights activists, they point out certain drawbacks in this law, aspects actually related to charity rather than politics. And I think they are right. We need to pay close attention to what is happening in life and make adjustments where necessary. This must not interfere with our normal life and must not hinder the activity of honest and decent people who want to solve problems, including with the support of like-minded people abroad. There is nothing wrong with this. But political activity must, of course, be prohibited. Well, not prohibited but at least subject to law.

"Second, the Orthodox church. The situation with the Orthodox church defies comprehension. This is direct interference of the state in religious life. This has not happened since the Soviet Union. But, unfortunately, it is happening in Ukraine now. They created this breakaway church of the Istanbul curacy. They did not like the Moscow curacy so let it be the Istanbul curacy.

"Note that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy was completely independent. Perhaps few people know this but it was actually a completely independent church. They did everything independently, including the election of bishops. The only connection was spiritual as they mentioned the name of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia during sermons. That was all. Now look at how dependent they are becoming on Turkey, on the Turkish Patriarchy. Many appointments and, most importantly, a lot of money. I think this is Bartholomew’s main impelling motive, to bring this territory into subjection and make money on it. I believe this is the main underlying motive – except for a tip from Washington, of course. The fact that the State Secretary called Kiev about this matter and discussed it is an outrage. Absolutely unacceptable. However, it is happening.

"Of course, this is another indication of the fact that the measure is also related to the election campaign and is meant to further widen the gap between Russian and Ukrainian people. The rationale behind it is, without doubt, political, and it is not good news for religious freedom in general. This is a clear and flagrant violation of the freedom of religion. I am mostly concerned about the likelihood that property redistribution will follow. This is already happening. This redistribution could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed, God forbid. I am sorry for the people who are defending their interests. They are usually helpless and unarmed. They are usually seniors and women. But there is, of course, the risk of property redistribution."

Putin Commented On The Yellow Vest Protests In France: People Have The Right To Express Their Point Of View And To Defend It, But Only Within The Limits Of The Law

Andrei Kolesnikov: "Good afternoon. Andrei Kolesnikov, Kommersant newspaper.

"Mr President, the French protests against the fuel hike have, as everyone knows, morphed into a general protest against everything. President Macron has had to impose emergency social and economic measures. What is your take on the events in France? Are there any plans to raise fuel prices in Russia? There has been much talk about it recently. How likely do you believe it is that Russians would take to the streets, and what should the Government prioritize in that case? Its responsibility to protect the rights of the protesters or the need to uphold the rule of law?

"Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "One does not exclude the other. Let’s begin with the final part of your question. We certainly must ensure our citizens’ freedom of expression, their right to voice their opinions including by holding public events. But such events, including public gatherings, must always remain legal. Activities that violate the law are unacceptable, and warrant the government’s response.

"Let’s now turn to the events in France and to how they are seen from our shores. I believe that of course they have to do with the rise in fuel prices. But the hike was a trigger that sparked the unrest involving a large part of French society, and generally native French people. Recent data suggest that a significant proportion of the French, over 7 percent, support this. However, I do not believe it would be right to judge the French authorities’ response to this.

"What is the difference between what we see in Russia and the situation in France with regard to fuel prices and the rest? The French Government was deliberate in its decision to increase the price of petrochemicals and fuel, which means that the Government did it. It was a policy move. This initiative was intended to redistribute resources, in this case, the resources of the population, and to use them to address other matters related to the energy policy. The funds that the Government expected to raise from gasoline, diesel fuel and motor oil sales were to go towards developing alternative energy sources such as solar energy, wind power, and so on. This was a deliberate move. The people did not like it, because they did not want to be the ones to pay for these changes.

"What is happening in Russia? Gasoline prices have been growing since mid-2018 as the price of oil went up on the global markets. However, the Russian Government was prompt to take action in order to contain and even lower prices, and an agreement to this effect was reached with the main oil companies and refineries. That is the difference: over there the price hike was a conscious move, they were the ones who did it, while the Russian Government is fighting to ensure that prices do not go up.

"Of course, no one likes it when prices go up, but the fact that the Government is acting this way is obvious. Whether it is for the better or for worse is another question, but this is what is going on. An agreement has been reached, and it covers a period until March 2019. Yes, an adjustment is possible when VAT goes up in early January, but I do not expect it to be substantial. This should be an adjustment in the order of 1–1.5 percent, not more, after which the Government will carefully monitor developments on the Russian and international markets.

"I can share more details on this subject later on, but generally speaking this worked, even if we had to micromanage the situation, and I hope that it will also work in the future, so that the Government will be able to prevent any sharp surges in fuel prices next year."

Remark: (From the audience)

Vladimir Putin: "What did you say? I cannot hear you."

Dmitry Peskov: "This is about the potential for protest in Russia."

Vladimir Putin: "I have already answered this question. I said that people have the right to express their point of view and to defend it, including in public, at rallies, but only within the limits of the law."

Putin: The Armenian People Are The Closest Ally Of The Russian People In Transcaucasia

Goar Botoyan: "My question is, how will Russia restore its policy towards Armenia after the elections?"

Vladimir Putin: "What do you mean, restore? We have nothing that collapsed to the point of needing to be restored. Russia and Armenia have smooth relations, this country is our strategic partner in the region and the world in general; it is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. What is there to restore? We only need to build on the foundation that has been created by the previous generations of leaders. The Armenian people are the closest ally of the Russian people in Transcaucasia; that is the way it has been historically, the way it is today and the way it, hopefully, always will be. We need to proceed from the realities of the current situation in the world and the region, proceed from the needs and our capabilities. We will discuss this soon with Mr Pashinyan, who is to pay us a visit next week.

"Everything is not smooth sailing with us, but things are more or less stable. Here is Novaya Gazeta, I am sure they will come up with something. Please go ahead."

Putin Commented On The PMC Wagner: Almost A Million People Are Employed There

Ilya Azar: "Good afternoon. My colleagues and friends Alexander Rastorguyev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko died in the Central African Republic this year."

Vladimir Putin: "This is a major tragedy, I agree."

Ilya Azar: "What do you know about the circumstances of their death and, in particular, the possible involvement of private military company Wagner in this?

"Secondly, do you think it is right that a businessman whom everyone calls your chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is believed to be involved in managing PMC Wagner?

"In general, what do you think about private military companies? One gets the impression that you are somewhat embarrassed by or deny their existence. Perhaps, we should be proud of them, because they operate in Syria, Donbass, Central Africa and other countries.

"And another short question. As you are aware, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a 77-year-old man, was arrested and jailed for 15 days for a post on Facebook. What do you as a human being think about this? Is that a normal thing to do?"

Vladimir Putin: "Let us start with Wagner and chefs. All my chefs are employed by the Federal Guard Service. They are servicemen holding different ranks. I have no other chefs.

"This matter should be made clear once and for all so that we do not have to return to it in the future. If someone wants to label someone, they are free to do so, and there is nothing wrong with that. This is part of politicking in our country. There is even such a thing as 'safe food.' For your information, we do not outsource this job, and the Federal Guard Service employees do all the work.

"Now, on to Wagner and what these people are doing. Everything must remain within the law, everything. We can ban private security firms altogether, but once we do so, I think you will be flooded with petitions demanding to protect this section of the labour market. Almost a million people are employed there. If this Wagner group breaks any laws, the General Prosecutor’s Office will go ahead and give it a legal assessment.

Now, about their presence in foreign countries. To reiterate, if they comply with Russian laws, they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world.

"Finally, the tragedy that you mentioned. It was certainly a tragedy. These people died and left behind families and friends. In general, unfortunately, a lot of tragedies are connected with journalists. I think we should never forget them, including the journalists who died in southeastern Ukraine under fire, or were killed in gun attacks, practically assassinated. Please do not forget about them, either.

"As far as I know, your colleagues travelled to Africa as tourists, not even as journalists, without notifying local authorities. According to the data available to date, some local groups are behind this attack.

"As far as I understand, an investigation is underway. Unfortunately, there is no reliable information yet, but we strongly hope that it will be eventually obtained. We are on top of this situation through our diplomatic channels. I hope that at least at some point we will find out what happened there. My heart goes out to you, to all members of the editorial board and the families of the people who died there."

Vladimir Putin: "… I apologize to Novaya Gazeta – you asked me about Lev Ponomaryov. We discussed this issue at a meeting with human rights activists at a Council meeting. It is not because I want to dodge the question, I just skipped over it inadvertently.

"With regard to Ponomaryov, the court ruled based on calls for an unauthorized rally. I do not want to question court decisions or the fairness of this particular ruling."

Putin: Although Russia-Turkey Interests Have Not Always Coincided On Some Matters, We Have Managed To Make Compromise Decisions On How To Resolve The Syria Crisis

Fuad Safarov: "Fuad Safarov, journalist and analyst on Turkey, RIA Vesti (Russia and Azerbaijan Vesti) news website.

"Mr President,

"Recently, Turkey marked the anniversary [of the death] of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. I would like to know what you think of Ataturk as a person and his historic role in global policy. Looking back at Ataturk, how will you assess today’s progress in relations between Russia and Turkey?"

Vladimir Putin: "Ataturk is certainly an outstanding figure in Turkish history. He made an extraordinary contribution to the efforts to preserve and restore Turkey as a state, he did quite a lot to achieve this.

"He was a great friend of Russia, we know this, and he cooperated with Russia, worked with it and we appreciate his input very much.

"Ataturk created modern Turkey, having laid the foundation for the state. This is what I think of him.

"As for the status of our relations today, I think we should be satisfied with the progress in the development of ties between Russia and Turkey in the economy and on security issues. Although our interests have not always coincided on some matters, we have managed to make compromise decisions on how to resolve the Syria crisis.

"We respect the national interests of the Turkish Republic and the Turkish people in this area, and we see that our Turkish partners are willing to compromise and so together we make these compromise decisions to secure the development of a favourable situation in Syria and for the sake of fighting terrorism and strengthening our relations.

"As for the economy, you can see yourself that our ties are growing stronger. Despite Turkey being a NATO member country, it delivers on its commitments, as far as we can see. At the same time, being a NATO member it is pursuing an independent foreign policy.

"We appreciate this, as it creates conditions for maintaining predictable and healthy relations. Of course, in this sense, the role of the incumbent Turkish President is great. Hopefully, this trend will continue under the leadership of Mr Erdogan."

Putin: Our Foreign Exchange Reserves In Dollars Are Declining; Payments In Yen And Pounds Have Slightly Grown In World Trade

Elina Dashkuyeva: "Hello, Mr President. Elina Dashkuyeva, MIR.

You said at the Russia Calling! Forum that the dollar is leaving Russia. First of all, what advantages and disadvantages can we expect from this? What currency will the Eurasian Economic Union countries now use to pay each other – will they adopt an interstate currency or use new digital technologies such as blockchain?"

Vladimir Putin: "A very important and interesting question. About dollarization and weaning the economy off the dollar, including the Russian economy.

"In general, according to the IMF, payments in dollars have slightly decreased around the world. The year before last, they were a little over 63 percent I think, and now slightly over 62. But for Russia, this figure is higher, 69 percent.

"This is due to the fact that our main export products, primarily oil, are listed on world exchanges in dollars, and this is a large amount.

"Our foreign exchange reserves in dollars are declining; only recently, we were holders of American securities quoted in dollars in the amount of $104 billion, now down to $14.4 billion. Payments in yen and pounds have slightly grown in world trade.

"As for weaning Russia off the dollar, it will exclusively concern settlements between economic entities, but will in no way affect citizens.

"When we were discussing today's news conference yesterday, Mr Peskov told me that they are removing exchange rate ads in some cities, including Moscow, and people are wondering about the reason behind this, whether this may be connected with some restrictions on using dollars.

"There is nothing of the kind, and it will not happen, I would like to reassure everyone. Advertising exchange rates on currency exchange offices is only connected with one thing: the fight against illegal money exchange businesses. This is about streamlining the sphere of finance, money circulation, and cracking down on grey businesses operating in this area, nothing more.

"Regarding the ruble. Yes, use of the ruble as a reserve currency in transactions is growing, maybe not a lot, but it is growing, primarily in transactions between the EAEU countries and in the post-Soviet space.

"For example, use of the ruble has grown significantly in transactions between Russia and Belarus, reaching, if I’m correct, over 60 percent, almost 70 percent in clearing transactions while the numbers in cash settlements are smaller. But the role of the ruble will certainly increase in this segment, that’s obvious.

"It’s more reliable and does not involve extra costs, especially the costs associated with dollar transactions. Because you and I know perfectly well: wherever clearing operations are made, they all go through US banks.

And if there are restrictions, it makes you want to sidestep these restrictions which is a natural reaction. This is happening around the world, by the way, in view of instability with these transactions.

"However, several issues must be resolved for the ruble to be used at least as a regional currency. First, cutting volatility. The exchange rate must be stable, and we have generally managed to maintain it recently.

This is related to the activities of the Central Bank and the Government of the Russian Federation. As you have seen, it is stable; it has somewhat lost its dependency on fuel and oil price fluctuations partly due to the introduction of a floating exchange rate for the ruble.

"This is the first goal. But we have to ensure further stability and keep inflation low. This is an extremely important condition.

"Then comes the next step – we have to develop the financial infrastructure for transactions in the ruble. It is clear what this means. We need to improve the settlement mechanisms between economic parties and financial institutions. We will be working on this."

Putin: With Regard To Ruling The World, We Know Where The HQ That Is Trying To Do So Is Located, And It Is Not In Moscow, But In Washington

Dmitry Peskov: "Mr Putin, perhaps you will take a question from foreign media. I can see The Wall Street Journal here."

Ann Maria Simmons: "Good afternoon, Mr President. Thank you very much for the opportunity to ask you a question.

"In the West, many politicians, experts and even ordinary people see Russia as a great threat. They even think that you, as the President of Russia, want to rule the world."

Vladimir Putin: "Well, of course."

Ann Maria Simmons: "I want to know if you really want this. Also, please, what is the real goal of your foreign policy? Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "With regard to ruling the world, we know where the headquarters that is trying to do so is located, and it is not in Moscow. However, this is related to the leading role of the United States in the global economy and defense spending: the United States is spending over $700 billion on defense, while we spend only $46 billion.

"Just think of it, we have 146 million people in Russia, whereas the NATO countries’ population is 600 million, and you think our goal is to rule the world? This is a cliché imposed on public opinion in Western countries in order to resolve intra-bloc and domestic political issues.

"When I say intra-bloc, I mean that in order for NATO to rally countries around itself, it needs an external threat. It does not work otherwise. You have to have someone to rally against. As a major nuclear power, Russia fits the bill perfectly.

"With regard to domestic political issues, unfortunately, Russophobia continues to flourish in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe. For what purpose? In order to use old historical fears to ensure their own domestic political well-being.

"This is also harmful, because, ultimately, it is about exploiting the phobias of the past, which prevent us from moving forward. It is harmful for the countries and peoples whose leaders are trying to pursue such a policy.

"In fact, the main goal of our foreign policy is to provide favorable conditions for the Russian Federation, its economy and social sphere, to ensure unfettered movement forward and to strengthen our country from the inside, above all, so that it can take its rightful place in the international arena as an equal among equals.

"We are in favor of consolidating the system of international law, ensuring unconditional compliance with the UN Charter, and using this platform to develop equal relations with all the participants of international affairs."

Putin Commented On The Sea Of Azov Crisis: We Do Not Create Any Obstacles To Vessels, Including Warships

Galina Polonskaya: "Hello, Mr President. Galina Polonskaya, Euronews TV channel. Thank you for the opportunity to ask you a question. I will put down the sign, I have already become one with it during these four hours.

"The UN adopted a resolution about Russia’s militarization of the Sea of Azov, Crimea, and part of the Black Sea. After what happened with the Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, there were reports that Russia was sending military equipment to Crimea. Why should Russia reinforce its military presence in Crimea? Is Russia ready to declare the entire water area of the Sea of Azov its territory? Thank you."

Vladimir Putin: "… Now about the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. We almost immediately announced that we intended to build a bridge to link up with Crimea, which we did. First we built an energy bridge, then a gas pipe, and now we are building two power plants there, in Sevastopol and in Simferopol, with a total capacity of 940 megawatts. We are building the Tavrida road, to be completed by the end of 2020. Next year, I think, the two-lane road will open, and by the end of 2020, a four-lane road.

"We will develop the local infrastructure. That is, it is not only about reinforcing the military component, but above all, the civilian, infrastructure component. All this will certainly be implemented. We have a federal targeted program for the development of Crimea. For the next two years, we have allocated 300 billion rubles for the development of the peninsula. All this will progress. Along with that, the military component will be strengthened, as far as we need it.

"As for the Kerch straits, the situation is difficult, in terms of nature. These straits are very narrow and rather shallow. Their depth is about 13 meters. Let me emphasize that pilotage has always been conducted there. The construction of the bridge does not interfere with anything. Pilots escort ships as they used to.

"Freight turnover is growing, in particular, in the ports of the Sea of Azov, this is true. But work there is organized and all participants in these economic activities know how this is being done. There is a queue there. Sometimes it is bigger and sometimes it is smaller. Just look at the number of vessels in front of the entrance to the port of Novorossiysk. There are quite a few of them.

"I will have to repeat this once again: On September 11 of the past year Ukrainian vessels, including warships, fulfilled all requirements of passage through these straits and under the bridge and were calmly led by our pilots into the Sea of Azov and further on to their destination in the Sea. Nobody interfered with them – just helped.

"This time everything was different. This is a deliberate provocation in the course of Mr Poroshenko’s election campaign. We have already shown in the media the logbook that contains the order to “enter secretly.” What does “secretly” mean? Nobody can say what might happen there without pilotage, all the more so when some politicians say in public that they are ready to blow up the bridge. Naturally, we cannot allow this to happen. This would be simply absurd for us, period. As for routine activities, nobody restricts them.

"Now a few words about the regime in the Sea of Azov. We have a treaty dating back to 2003, I think. What does it say? It reads that there is a coastal area of five kilometers, not the usual 12 sea miles in accordance with the international Law of the Sea, but five kilometers off the coast. These are the territorial waters of a state, in this case of Russia or Ukraine, and the rest is common sea. Incidentally, our fishermen were once captured although they did not enter the five km zone. Nonetheless, they were seized and their captain is still detained. And your Euronews channel does not even mention this as if this is how it should be. The same is true of other Russian seamen: there is a dry-cargo vessel with its crew out there somewhere, but nobody recalls anything. Therefore, we should observe these agreements and abstain from announcing any unilateral actions.

"As for warships, they should be in constant contact with our border guards. The border guards conduct their border mission. In conditions of martial law, I can hardly imagine warships going to and fro, but in general we would like to normalize the situation. We do not create any obstacles to vessels, including warships. Let me repeat that last September vessels were led by our pilot and nobody interfered with them, on the contrary we only helped.

"This is a complicated problem, which we will certainly keep working on. You are right about this, I agree.

"As far as the amendments to the Constitution are concerned, this is a matter for broad public discussion."

[1], December 23, 2018.

[2], December 23, 2018.

[3], December 21, 2018.

[4], December 24, 2018.

[5], December 20, 2018.

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