Vladimir Putin will not become a "ruling prime minister" after 2008

Quote of the day: “They say a word is not a bird – once it’s flown out, you can’t catch it. But here in Russia it will be overtaken, caught, and jailed.” (President Putin, commenting on xenophobic statements in the media.)

"We’re killing two birds with one stone"

President Putin’s press conference yesterday set a new record: by some miracle, a thousand people were packed into the conference hall in the Kremlin’s 14th wing, meant to seat 900. Our correspondent, Natalia Galimova, found herself in the front rows and managed to ask a question. (Before she set out for the Kremlin, colleagues joked that she ought to wear something red and carry a torch, to stand out from the crowd.)

As we went to print at 2 p.m., the press conference was still going on – but President Putin had already made several interesting statements.

On the system of appointing regional leaders: “I’m satisfied with how the system is functioning… In some regions, the candidates we nominated met with evident rejection, and Moscow had to take the mood of regional parliaments into account. And I’m very glad of that… We won’t have any more regional leaders with three criminal convictions in their past, as we’ve had before.”

Our comments: In mentioning “rejection” of candidates, President Putin was apparently referring to two of his proteges: Governor Chernogorov of the Stavropol territory, confirmed in office for another term, and newly-appointed Governor Tishanin of the Irkutsk region. Chernogorov encountered opposition from the United Russia party’s Stavropol branch and the Communist Party. Tishanin faced disapproval from United Russia’s Irkutsk branch. In both cases, United Russia had to bow to the Kremlin’s will. So who listened to whom? That remains an open question.

Moreover, there have never been any regional leaders with three criminal convictions.

The Russian economy, according to Putin

Indicator: 2004 – 2005

GDP growth: 7.2% – 6.4%

Gold and currency reserves: $120 billion – $182 billion

Average wage growth: 10-12% – 9.8%

Pension growth: 5% – 13%

Real incomes growth: 9% – 8.7%

Imports growth: 25% – 28%

Inflation: 11.7% – 10.8%

At the start of the event, just like at his last press conference, President Putin quoted some figures about our achievements. Actually, by no means all the indicators for 2005 show an improvement over 2004.

On nationalization: “No one intends to nationalize private companies…”

Our comments: At a previous press conference, President Putin said: “As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, we need to gradually withdraw the state from those areas of the economy where there is no justification for its presence.” Since then, the state’s stake in Gazprom has been increased to the level of a controlling interest; the state has bought Sibneft, acquired AvtoVAZ, and is sizing up the metals sector. Oddly enough, however, the reasoning behind all these actions fits in perfectly with what Putin said in December 2004. The only question is how we define a “justified” state presence.

Yesterday Putin added that the climate in the world energy sphere is determined by major multinational companies, and Russia is going to develop in this line. Rosneft will soon follow the example of Gazprom. That is, the state is going to further take an active part in economy, especially in the export-oriented sector. It won’t just formulate the rules of the game, but will be the chief member of this market. This will be accompanied by liberalization of the market for private traders, but only within the strictly fixed limits. LUKoil, Surgutneftegaz, and others like TNK-BP will remain. With the permission of the master of the house…

On the emergency incident with the soldier in Chelyabinsk: “It’s not just tragic, it is terrible. (…) The defense minister has prepared and given to me his proposals regarding changes to legislation, including the potential establishment of military police.”

Our comments: The idea of establishing military police in the Russian Armed Forces is not a new one. For instance, Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin persistently moots it at the annual enlarged sessions of the Defense Ministry. There are such departments in the United States, France, Germany, Britain… In the West, military police officers are the same army ranks dealing with registration of crimes (in our country, this function is a prerogative of military prosecutors). Lukin’s suggestion means complete independence of the military police from the Defense Ministry and its financing on a separate budget line.

On Russia’s role in the G8: “None of the leaders of the G8 is against Russia’s joining to them. Since nobody wants the G8 to turn into a club of fat cats. (…) So, all those speaking about it – should we joint (the G8. – MK) or not, – let them speak. It’s their job. The dog barks, but the caravan passes by.”

On gas supplies to Ukraine: “We aren’t just pulling prices out of our nose, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

On relations with Georgia: “We suffered a great misfortune, supplies (of energy products. – MK) were suspended, our specialists day and night worked in the mountains, with the frost of 30 degrees below zero, to restore the energy supplying. What did we get from the Georgian leadership? Nothing but spitting in our direction.”

On Petersburg: Our correspondent asked the president if it might happen that following the Constitutional Court, other government agencies might relocate to St. Petersburg.

“For the Constitutional Court and St. Petersburg it’s more or less natural, I mean that the largest complex in the center of the city – the buildings of the Senate and the Synod – are getting vacant because of the move of the state achieves into a new building specially prepared for the purpose. The move won’t entail much groundless expenses, as the building needs to be restored, anyway. That’s why, deciding the problem of restoration and the move of the Constitutional Court, we kill two hares at one stroke. For St. Petersburg it means formal expansion of its status. However, it’s one of the branches of the judicial power – the Constitutional Court, and it will be a bit detached from the decision making center – not a nostrum from corruption, but still it’ll be detached. It won’t be any worse. As for possible moving of other institutes of power, today it’s still early to announce, it might have been fine, but it is a too expensive treat, demanding many expenses, so today I do not consider it to be expedient.”

Our comments: According to the government’s preliminary estimations, the Constitutional Court’s move into St. Petersburg will cost 221 million roubles. Besides, the building of the court in Moscow has recently been facelift recently…

On evaluating Boris Yeltsin as a person, and the Yeltsin era: “There’s a wonderful story about how Deng Xiaoping was visiting France, I think, and he was asked his opinion of the French Revolution. He replied that not enough time had yet passed to make such assessments possible. So how can we evaluate the actions of the first president of Russia? (…) We can only guess what each of us – including myself – might have done in those circumstances. (…) One point is undeniable: Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin’s time as the leader of Russia was when the people of our country, the citizens of Russia, gained the most important thing, the reason for all those transformations: freedom.”

On the successor question: “When I’m talking to Chechen friends, in the course of the preliminary discussion of possible candidates for the president of Chechnya, ask any person in the street: Who should be the president? And the answer will be one and the same: Me! In Russia we have many people who would be capable of leading the country. And only the voter can give the definitive answer.”

On his leisure pursuits: “Certainly, now and then I have some time to watch a movie or read a book. Audio-books are very good – you can listen to a recording in the car, on your way to the work and back home. At the moment I’m listening to Klyuchevskoy’s lectures on history of Russia.”

Our comments: Indeed, Putin fell into the line – the market of audio books has grown tenfold. It is especially characteristic of big cities with long traffic jams. The “raw material” for audio books are either “inviolable values” – the Bible, Schopenhauer’s philosophical treatises (!), the same Klyuchevskoy’s lectures, or up-to-date, but exclusively bestsellers – such as Akunin, for example.

A setback for United Russia

The United Russia party received a biff on the nose from the president. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin essentially put an end to United Russia’s idee fixe – a party-based government in Russia. This can be considered to be the main news of the grandiose press conference that took place yesterday.

“We need strong presidential rule. I’m against introduction of the party government practice in Russia today,” said Vladimir Putin, thus closing the discussion about the large-scale political reform in Russia. At that, the sense of this news is not only that the United Russia’s leaders can definitely forget about their plans of sharp rise of their personal influence. One of the much-discussed forecasts of post-2008 developments said that the authorities may pass from the president to the leader of the ruling party or to the prime minister. In such a situation, Putin could easily remain the most powerful politician in Russia even after his term in office was over. But yesterday Putin put it clear, he observes the principle “if you’re leaving, go!”

Apart from this, Putin made two more exceedingly interesting foreign policy statements. Speaking about “gas friendship” with Ukraine, he actually admitted our incapability of influencing on the neighbors. One could easily gather from Putin’s words that only having built the gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea we would make Kiev stop stealing our gas.

Another important foreign-policy statement concerned the Hamas movement’s rise to power in Palestine. For the Russian public it’s evidently a minor issue. The thing is that dwelling on it Putin revealed his true estimation of the USA’s policy. As everyone knows, the West now wants the Kremlin to accept the function of a mediator between the new Palestine leaders and the rest of the world. Putin’s reaction was the following, “The events in Palestine are a heavy blow at the American efforts in the Middle East… From the very beginning we must do everything together. One cannot invite partners to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.” An offence was apparently heard in the words of the president. This offence could hardly concern exclusively the Palestine issue.

As for the rest, the interaction of Putin and the journalists resembled a fencing-match. As one former western leader joked, “You have a right to ask me any question, and I have a right not to answer.” For instance, Putin factually refused to appraise the latest scandal in the government. Prime Minister Fradkov categorically insists on decreasing of the VAT. Ministers Kudrin and Gref, not caring about subordination, state that this step would kill Russia’s economy. It was absolutely impossible to gather from the president’s response whom he supported.

Putin didn’t get into argument in the respect of the approaching ideological split with the West and hardening of the political regime in the country, either. Questions asked by journalists from the USA, England and France let the president directly express his stance on the issue. He chose to do with a rather convincing defense of the Kremlin’s policy in the Uzbek and Belarusian lines.

Putin also avoided discussion of his potential successors, only noting that in Russia “there are many people who would be capable of leading the nation.”