12 august, 2009 11:00  

“We said it many times to the present Georgian leadership. I personally called on them to have patience and to win respect, prestige and trust both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. And it is only in this way – I believe it now and said as much at that time – that their territorial integrity could be achieved.”

Vladimir Putin In an interview with Abkhazian media

Question: Mr Prime Minister, a year ago, Georgia launched an attack against South Ossetia. What feelings do you have as you recall this date and what changes have taken place in the region since Russia took measures to defend the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Vladimir Putin: When we recall tragedies, we, of course, primarily think about their victims; we think "How did this become possible?" And, of course, we analyse those events and draw conclusions. For me it is clear that the main thing that can prevent such tragedies from happening rests with the people in power who see it as their duty to consider the opinion of men and women who live in one territory or another. No single matter of state can be solved without the will of the people, or without a consideration of their will. But this is what the present-day Georgian leaders forgot.

Abkhazia knows well Russia's position regarding this conflict and how relations developed in preceding decades. There is no point in pretending otherwise. You know how many times South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in some or other form, approached Russia with pleas either to let them join the Russian Federation or to recognise their independence... But Russia behaved in a very even-handed and very correct manner. Because we always proceeded from one of the fundamental principles of international law, that of the territorial integrity of states. But I think, in order to preserve this territorial integrity after the disintegration of the USSR, it was necessary to treat the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with respect. It is necessary to know the realities and to reckon with those realities. These realities took shape over hundreds of years. After all, Georgia was accepted into the Russian Empire, if my memory doesn't betray me, way back in 1783, while Abkhazia joined Russia almost 30 years later, in 1810, as an independent state. And it became part of Georgia when it was already a component of a single country. The relations developed with difficulty, we know it well, during all those centuries and decades. Inter-ethnic differences, regrettably, occurred.

If the Georgian leadership wanted to maintain a single state, it was necessary to treat both the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians with respect. It was necessary to recognize the past mistakes and to work to correct them. We said it many times to the present Georgian leadership. I personally called on them to have patience and to win respect, prestige and trust both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. And it is only in this way - I believe it now and said as much at that time - that their territorial integrity could be achieved. What was the response? "Of course! We do understand! We'll do exactly as you say!" What did they do in practice? They did precisely the opposite: military pressure, withdrawal of the autonomous rights, and eventually an attack.

The crime caused many victims, both civilian and military. Undoubtedly, Russia simply could not leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia without support. And it took the only correct decision - to protect the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to recognise their independence. After this happened, I think the situation has stabilised, becoming very definite, clear and understandable. We have created a legal basis that allows the development of our relationships with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, without paying any attention to those who don't like it. On this basis, we can work together on development in the economic and the social spheres, develop intergovernmental ties, and ensure stability and security.

To that effect, we are going to work within existing treaties and agreements. The legal basis for our cooperation is strengthening; we have drafted about 40 agreements with Abkhazia on various spheres of our cooperation, and we are confident they are going to work efficiently towards the well-being of the people of Abkhazia and Russia.

Question: Does what you have said mean that the repetition of the August 2008 events is out of the question?

Vladimir Putin: With the current Georgian leadership, there is nothing we can rule out. However, a repetition is going to be much more difficult for them this time. If there is anything at all that they can draw lessons from, then the events of August 2008 should teach them that talking only from a position of power is pointless. Apart from that, within our treaty on friendship and cooperation, we have agreements on military assistance. Russia is going to deploy its armed forces in Abkhazia and take the necessary efforts to build a modern border guard system in cooperation with the relevant Abkhazian authorities. All these factors are serious guarantees of the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Question: Mr Putin, it is for the first time that such a high-ranking Russian official has visited Abkhazia. What do you expect from your visit?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I'd like to see things with my own eyes. I visited Abkhazia a couple of times, very long ago. I first came here when I was at university, as part of a student construction team. After that, I stayed for two weeks in a Leningrad University student camp in Gudauta. I also visited Sukhumi that time. That's why I'd like to see how Abkhazia has changed.

As for the business part, as I've said we are preparing a host of documents regarding the economy, social issues, security, border controls, and so on. All these issues will be in focus for our negotiations with the Abkhazian leadership.

Question: While the people of the Caucasus have praised Russia for what it did in August 2008, the West has been criticising Russia for saving the two small nations. How does this policy of double standards of the West affect Russia's actions in the region?

Vladimir Putin: Well, we have always stuck to a sort of standard: the West versus Russia. You know, the West is also not homogenous. Not at all. In the so-called West, there are indeed quite a few of our supporters. They all find themselves under certain pressure from the leading NATO member country, the United States. Frankly speaking, many of them refrain from expressing their positions publicly, although their positions are vastly different from that of the United States. You have mentioned double standards here. These are not double or even triple standards; this is the absence of any standards whatsoever.

After the end of the cold war some people in the United States believed the illusion that they can act without any rules in place at all, just as they want, as they like. They had only one criterion - that of personal interests, which are very often misinterpreted by the way.

But in our view, now people are coming to understand that everyone is interested in universal rules and standards stipulated by international law. Because not a single country in the world today is capable of - as resources are insufficient even if they would like to - acting as a world policeman, as a world empire, which imposes rules of behaviour on everyone. I think everyone has this understanding now. And therefore, I would like to see that this will, this opinion prevails on a political level, and not just on a level of private conversations. And in fact, now we see that this becomes the case more and more often.

As for criticising Russia, I would say that's just a way to maintain public opinion shaped under the pressure of one country. Nobody wants to lose face, and for this reason, the notion, once started, continues on and on, although the facts are becoming obvious. And in real life these facts are gaining traction.

In this connection I would like to draw your attention to a very important point. Do you remember how the situation evolved last year? It was practically impossible to hear the truth on international TV channels and in the mass media. Today almost everyone in the international community has admitted the truth. They've admitted that it was Georgia who was the aggressor, Ossetians and Abkhazians being the victims. By the way, Abkhazia has acted very soundly over recent years. 50,000 refugees have been able to return to the Gali District of Abkhazia. That was due to the good will of Abkhazian people and Abkhazian leadership.

But nobody paid any attention to that, though this was a very serious step to settle the conflict. But even such steps did not prevent Georgia from committing this crime a year ago. But anyway, the truth will out. It will gain ground.

Question: Recently Russia has been actively supporting Abkhazia. Over the last year a Russian school has been restored from ruins, a Philharmonic Hall has been opened. A maternity home has been opened in recent days and in addition, a hospital and both a Russian and an Abkhazian theatre are being renovated. Roads are being repaired. All these activities are financed by Russia. But emphasis is given to mutually beneficial co-operation at meetings on different levels. What is meant by this? What can Abkhazia do for Russia? What can Abkhazia give Russia?

Vladimir Putin: Maybe not so much today. But we understand that and we focus on the potential Abkhazia has. It has certain potential. We are all aware of the size of Abkhazia and of its population, etc. But I would like to say that in Europe and worldwide there are states which are much smaller than Abkhazia in terms of their total area and population as well. And they are flourishing. The citizens of these countries feel great, they enjoy all kinds of social benefits and high incomes, and they live in security. And I wish Abkhazia would reach this level.

Certainly, all these small European states have special relationships with their neighbours. Take San-Marino, Monaco etc. There are many such states in Europe. They have all developed special relationships with their neighbours - Monaco and France, for example. So, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the special relationship between Russia and Abkhazia. It is totally in line with international experience.

Well, why could Abkhazia be interesting for Russia in terms of economy? The first point, which is obvious, is tourism. I have just visited Turkey and met with Prime Minister Erdogan, a good friend of mine, and with President Gul as well. We discussed different fields of co-operation. Two-and-a-half million Russian tourists visit Turkey every year. Turkey is a big country and there are a lot of modern hotels there. And one million Russian tourists visit Abkhazia. The figure is comparable with that of Turkey. One million! That's what we have under current circumstances, when far from everything has been restored, neither in Gagra, nor in other resorts. Imagine what will happen if we restore everything, if we provide security, which will definitely be a cut above after we set up our military base, and most important is the border. The border is crucially important. So tourism alone means a lot.

Another opportunity, although this may be surprising, is high technology. That is entirely feasible for a small country.

We should always keep in mind environmental issues, but there are grounds to believe that there are mineral resources in Abkhazia. No doubt, we have to consult the experts and the Abkhazian Government in this regard. And if the Abkhazian Government thinks that such projects are possible and beneficial for their economy, we can do it together. There are also other areas providing opportunities for mutual equitable co-operation.

Question: Despite the economic crisis the Abkhazian economy has been actively developing. At any rate, that's what our experts say. Economic development depends directly on investment projects. As we know, the economic crisis has hit Russia as well. Can it lead to freezing of any investment projects?

Vladimir Putin: Naturally, all countries in the world have been affected by the crisis to a certain extent, to a great extent, I'd rather say. Russia has also been seriously affected by the crisis. We had to resort to a budget deficit and to budget cuts. As you know, we are complying with all our social obligations in Russia and we will continue to observe them.

As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, well, speaking of the Abkhazian budget, this year we allocated funds to the tune of 2.5 billion roubles to support the Abkhazian budget. And these are only the funds allocated to support the budget; there are funds allocated for other purposes as well. Next year the figure will be approximately the same, just a little bit smaller. But, next year we are going to allocate considerable funds for security purposes, specifically, for our military base in Abkhazia - about 15 billion roubles. This money will be used to reinforce the border and to create an up-to-date border - not the Maginot Line, but a border - to enable normal communication with both Georgia and Russia, to create modern infrastructure, to equip the border and to equip border troops, to upgrade the military base. All in all, it will take 15-16 billion roubles.

In addition, we will continue to pursue our social policy. Let's put it blankly, we will continue to pay retirement pensions, as we have done starting from 2003, based on my decision. More than 1 billion roubles have been allocated for these purposes this year. And next year payments will remain the same. No changes are expected.

There are some technical issues to address regarding the status of Abkhazia. The legal basis should be altered given Abkhazia is now an independent state. And we will have to do it. Anyway, we will act proceeding from the fact that nobody should lose anything. And we will do it together with the Abkhazian authorities. We will find a way to avoid any possible losses by the people.

And finally, there are infrastructure projects regarding transport, border crossings with Russia, as there are weak points there. To be frank, we have not found any specific financing sources so far, but still motorway and bridge construction, railroad restoration between Sochi and Sukhumi, marine transportation between Sochi and Sukhumi - all this will require another 4 billion roubles. This is a rough estimate. I would like to repeat that we have not yet found sources to finance infrastructure projects, but the expenses have not been calculated yet. The calculations are being done now by the experts. And we will continue to do it.

Question: Everyone in Abkhazia was nervous when the venue for the 2014 Olympics was being chosen. Today Abkhazia is ready to help Russia to get ready for this great event by providing ports and inert materials. Does Russia need such support?

Vladimir Putin: Let me be honest with you. We started our conversation today with the tragedy which happened a year ago. Abkhazians and South Ossetians saw a big historic event - the declaration of independence. This happened amid tense relations with Georgia. We understand that. I am confident that everything will work out fine. I find it inappropriate to rank the preparations for the Olympics together with these problems. We should not consider all these events together. Sports and the Olympics are beyond politics. But as for the technical issues associated with preparations for the Olympics, they should be tackled on the corporate and the commercial, rather than on the political level.

Tenders take place, contracts are concluded, and we have announced that everyone who has the best offer will have a chance to work. Both Russian and foreign investors have a chance to participate in investment projects without any limitation.

Question: The majority of the residents of Abkhazia are citizens of the Russian Federation. Recently, passports of tens of thousands of people have expired - I mean Russian international passports. This entails difficulties in crossing the Russian-Abkhazian border. At the same time passport replacement takes time. Is it possible to resolve this problem smoothly?

Vladimir Putin: Too much red tape, I agree. Generally, about 100,000 residents of Abkhazia have been issued Russian passports over the last few years. And it is true, many of them are expiring now. In 2009, at the turn of the years 2009 and 2010, around 70,000 application forms are to be exchanged.

This year some 10-12 thousand have been exchanged. A special office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been opened in Sochi and another one in Sukhumi, if I am not mistaken. Now the Foreign Ministry is addressing the issue, and I think a decision will be taken soon on opening a direct representative office in Sukhumi.

I think that these measures will speed up the resolution of this problem. But it consists of two parts. Some residents of Abkhazia need only an internal Russian passport. These are the retired people who need these documents to get their retirement pensions. This case is easier and it is dealt with by the Internal Ministry.

But as for those who want to have a Russian international passport, it's a bit more complicated, as the capacities of the Foreign Ministry are insufficient. There are not going to be any political limitations, and no measures will be taken to prevent the issuing of these documents. It's only an issue of building up the capabilities of the Foreign Ministry, and we will do it.

Question: What about your relationship with the Governments of the two new states - South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Vladimir Putin: Everything is fine. If it were not so, I would not have visited them. Dmitry Medvedev has also visited South Ossetia recently as you know. Both republics are undergoing a very difficult period - a formation stage, a statehood formation stage under very difficult conditions. A child is born in pain. And that's how Abkhazia and South Ossetia, independent states, are being born today.

I would like to say it again that these are small republics, these are small states. But there are many such examples in the world. And there is nothing unusual about that. As for the Governments of the republics, I think these people are professional, highly patriotic, and they are capable of establishing internal order and building the international relations of these republics so that they benefit the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia will be right by their side. We are ready to encourage and support these processes.

Question: You already mentioned the situation on the Russian-Abkhazian border in summertime. Could you be more specific? What specifically is going to be done to make border crossing by Russian citizens easier?

Vladimir Putin: Well, this is primarily a question of infrastructure development. We need to build another bridge across the Psou River - a motorway and pedestrian bridge. A railroad needs to be repaired and modern checkpoints are to be built. They should be modern to eliminate crime and to make people feel comfortable. That costs money.

I gave you the figure already - a rough estimate of 4 billion roubles. That's a lot of money, especially, in the middle of the economic downturn. But I already gave orders a couple of months ago. I think you know that the number of military personnel has increased. Now we are going to discuss additional measures with Abkhazian authorities. Both border troops and the Foreign Ministry will report on the ways to improve this situation without waiting for big infrastructure projects to be finished. We are aware of this problem and we will address it.

Question: One other question. The book about you "First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President Vladimir Putin" provides a picture of you in Gagra.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I just talked about that.

Question: Do you have any special memories about that holiday and what feelings do you have about visiting Abkhazia?

Vladimir Putin: I do have some memories. This would be my first visit after a student construction camp. I earned huge money there - about 800 roubles. I remember that I bought a coat, which I wore for some 15 years, and we spent all the other money in Gagra. So, I have a lot to remember. It was a good time! And I have many pleasant memories.

Question: You are not sorry about spending it?

Vladimir Putin: I am not sorry about anything. There was a very good atmosphere there, very friendly. It's a shame that Gagra was destroyed as a result of military action. That's a great shame. And I took it personally, because I like the city - it is so beautiful. There is something festive about it. These are my feelings towards it.

Abkhazia is a multinational country. There are Abkhazians, Russians, Armenians and Georgians living there. And it was very natural and harmonious. That was a big Abkhazian advantage. I hope things will be the same again.

Question: Abkhazia has always been proud of its resorts. Many people, especially before the war, came to Abkhazia for treatment and for holidays. Thank God this tradition is gaining ground again. I would like to ask you the following question. An official visit is an official visit. But would you like just to come to visit us to remember your younger years?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I would. But I do not know when it will become possible, because, as you see, here in Sochi I am also not exactly having a rest. I have to work here. But I have received an invitation from Abkhazia and I hope one day I will have a chance to accept it.

Question: Mr Prime Minister, Abkhazia respects your opinion and your judgment. What would you wish to our people? I mean everyone - Abkhazians, Russians, Armenians and Georgians in the current situation?

Vladimir Putin: I think it is very important to restore trust in Abkhazian society. Abkhazia is a small, but a multi-national country. The harmony we saw in the Soviet times between Abkhazians, Russians, Armenians, Georgians and other nationalities represented in Abkhazia is of the utmost importance and it is crucial to the well-being of the republic. This was the first point.

And secondly, today, unanimity of all the political forces is crucial. Because Abkhazia is just starting up as a state, it is starting to restore its economy. And it is very important to reach a unified position in all areas.