An interview with Vladimir Vasiliev, Duma security committee chairman

Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma security committee and former deputy interior minister, discusses anti-corruption efforts, Russia’s relations with Ukraine and NATO, and Russia’s national interests as the priority in foreign policy.

In the spring session, the Duma is due to pass quite a few laws concerning national security, internal as well as external – for example, restoring property confiscation as a penalty in criminal law. Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma security committee, discusses this and other key issues in ensuring peace of mind and well-being for ordinary citizens.

Question: The UN Anti-Corruption Convention has been submitted to the Duma for ratification by President Putin. It plainly states the need to bring national legislation into line with it, including restoring property confiscation as a penalty. Human rights groups are already claiming that confiscation is an element of Soviet punitive legislation. So who’s right – the West, or our human rights defenders?

Vladimir Vasiliev: There’s the Convention, which commits us to restoring confiscation. We’re living in a remarkably free society these days – even more free than in other developed nations. I’m talking about the extent to which ordinary citizens are burdened with abiding by the law. We frequently don’t observe the law – that’s our peculiarity. But since the traffic lights are in place, let’s cross the road at the green light.

During the first years of reforms, corruption became a powerful force within the system. When I worked at the Interior Ministry, I got the impression that the process of countering corruption had been put on hold. And President Putin’s actions in this area are evidence that Russia now has a state ideology and an understanding that we have national interests of our own. Corruption and all that stems from it are a major obstacle on Russia’s path of development. And corruption in Russia has its own peculiarities, too. After all, corruption is present in many countries – but elsewhere it is present while greater processes move ahead. Here, corruption blocks that movement, like a blood-clot. Smuggling and counterfeit goods promote corruption and obstruct legal business development in a number of sectors. Any law that regulates relations restricts the rights of citizens to some extent. Citizens experience fear, and certain forces take advantage of that: the fear that corrupt authorities can use any action to increase corruption. But if we base our actions on that, we’ll end up doing nothing at all!

Question: Many people in Russia earn their living in “under the counter” ways. Can confiscation help, as a preventive measure?

Vladimir Vasiliev: In part. My view is that our society only needs the laws it is prepared to observe. Doing too much, too soon is just as dangerous as lagging behind. Some international expert institutions recently showed Russia a “yellow card” regarding corruption. But corruption is unevenly distributed across Russia – concentrated in some areas, absent in others. So we need to start with something specific, develop our methods, and move on from there.

Question: Corruption is usually considered from the standpoint of social issues and the law. But what impact does it have on national security?

Vladimir Vasiliev: I can cite two examples from my own experience. As first deputy interior minister, I had to introduce changes in police operating methods once we started fighting corruption systematically (not just exposing isolated cases). Corruption was so strong in that period. The first case was when we focused systematically on Togliatti, where organized crime had penetrated the auto-making giant. The second case involved illegally-produced vodka.

The Russian economy is now suffering from the corruption it generated in the infancy stage of its development. We managed to localize the illegal alcohol trade on a national scale. Legal producers were unable to compete with illegally-produced vodka from the Moscow region, North Ossetia, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia: the retail price of the illegal products was less than the cost of the glass bottles. We were confiscating illegal vodka by the truckload, and we didn’t know what to do! Until we started cooperating with the legal producers who were unable to withstand illegal competition. We confiscated tens of billions from illicit turnover, and the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning was reduced by an order of magnitude.

Question: There’s the impression that Russia has its own system of security coordinates. One where we aren’t allowed to say openly that we have national interests. The United States, for example, openly declared its interests in Iraq and the methods it would use to defend them. But we even shy away from mentioning that Ukraine and Georgia owe us money for natural gas! Isn’t that a security issue?

Vladimir Vasiliev: Not too long ago, there was a period when some were annoyed and surprised at the idea that Russia might have interests of its own. It was a time when Russia had already been “defined”: its markets would be used, its natural resources would be traded in the world economy, but Russia itself, as a state, was of no further interest to anyone. I recall a few statements to the effect that once the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, NATO would stop growing! Well, we can see where that led. What kind of threat do we pose that requires a build-up of troops and bases on Russia’s borders?

In my view, Russia and Ukraine are two parts of the same whole: in terms of mindset, economy, language. But Ukraine is moving toward NATO. And that could have some consequences: NATO warships in the Sea of Azov, the Russian Navy losing its Sevastopol, and so on. Are we supposed to strengthen a potential opponent? After all, we’ll have to close the huge gap in our security system arising as a result of that. Ukraine is acquiring new friends; so let those friends pay for Ukraine’s economic projects. That’s our new approach to national security.

Question: So what does national security mean for Russia? How does it differ from national security for the United States or Europe?

Vladimir Vasiliev: We have yet to reach their level. We’re in a position of catching up. And we need to close the distance very rapidly. There is a solution: in the Tver region, for example, milk yields vary from 2,000 liters to 5,000 or 7,000. But all the dairy producers are on the same territory. What we need to do now is gather everything that’s been accumulated and support successful approaches in every possible way. All this, against the backdrop of contemporary challenges: confrontation persisting, new blocs being formed, environmental problems – and terrorism, of course, where we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Not a battle for markets or resources, but a battle for minds – that’s the main battle, and in my view it will determine the future of our civilization.

Question: Is it time we included national security on the list of national projects, perhaps?

Vladimir Vasiliev: I think the problem of personnel should be included on that list. I recently asked Herman Gref (who has spent six years as the minister responsible for the economy) how many times he’s met with regional leaders and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg to discuss economic development. No such meetings have ever been held. We do have some successful regions and outstanding regional leaders. Their experience should be used in implementing the national projects. We need to create an effective system of government, one that provides economic growth and security for each and every individual.

Question: Speaking of security, where does the chief danger for Russia lie?

Vladimir Vasiliev: We need to conduct our policy in a way that doesn’t set up an axis of confrontation with America and Europe. We need to understand that we’re only part of the world, and respect our neighbors. But we should also maintain a “respect us” stance. Recent regional elections across Russia provide objective evidence that the authorities are moving in the right direction on various issues, including countering terrorism. But we’re still losing the battle for people’s minds. We should not entrust other states with training clergy for mosques in Russia. And we need to realize that a great many young people, especially in the North Caucasus, can’t see any future for themselves – instead, they see corruption in government. And terrorists take advantage of that.