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Breakfast with Frost
BBC Breakfast with Frost interview with President Putin broadcast on 22 June, 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin
"Russia is a true partner of Britain and the United States"

DAVID FROST: President Putin has described himself as a friend of Britain and the United States, but he's a friend who has engaged in some pretty plain speaking - for instance over the conflict in Iraq and its consequences for international diplomacy - while at the same time maintaining strong personal relationships with Tony Blair - particularly Tony Blair - but with George Bush as well. When we met on Friday night at his private dacha I began by asking him what he hoped would be achieved by this week's historic state visit to Britain.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) As you know, we haven't had a visit of this kind for more than a 150 years and of course it's not just a matter of protocol. We think that it reflects the new quality of relations between Russia and Great Britain, over recent years our relations with the United Kingdom have really reached a new level. There has been more trust, relations have become more pragmatic. They are no longer about ideology, we have become true partners. Not only I but all the members of my delegation are looking forward to new breakthroughs in terms of political and economic cooperation.

DAVID FROST: Obviously the relationship with George Bush, after Iraq, survived and he has said we are closer because of dispute, and likewise with Tony Blair, but when you, when he was in Moscow a couple of months ago and you said that thing about, said to him about where's Saddam, where are your weapons of mass destruction and so on, that was printed in the British papers as very much that you were attacking him. Was it in fact an attack or a joke?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) (LAUGHS) No, it was simply part of the discussion. My relationship with the Prime Minister is very open and friendly. We believe it's possible to tell each other what we actually think, rather than what our diplomats sometimes advise us. Besides there were other and far more important things outside of what was seen by the journalists. We merely showed that there had been a discussion and a difference of opinion on some issues but we did not say what we had agreed on, and we agreed on the main parameters of the new United Nations resolution on Iraq. It was an extremely important development but it was too early to reveal it because it depended not only on us but on all the members of the UN Security Council. Looking back, I can say that his visit to Moscow was extremely useful, timely and fruitful.

DAVID FROST: The new administration in Iraq, do you expect them to honour the agreements you had for Russian firms to exploit oil reserves in Iraq? You had signed contracts that amounted to 20% of Iraq's oil supply, do you expect those to be honoured or do you accept that that is a cost of being on the wrong side in the war?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) We should be realistic and the reality is that the situation in Iraq is very difficult indeed and it will become even more difficult if we fail to understand that we need to work together to get the situation back to normal and in order to do that we need to recognise each other's interests. If I tell you that a large section of Iraq's industry and economy is based on Soviet and Russian technology - not the most advanced but nevertheless still functioning - that means the assets that are there and that need to be put back will need spare parts, technical support and so on. And the cheapest and the most efficient way to do all that is to involve Russian experts. As for major investment project, our position is based on the primacy of the law. We agree that the future Iraqi government must make its own decisions on some of those projects but the Iraqi side must fulfil its obligations in compliance with the law. Of course we will be insisting that some of those projects do go ahead.

DAVID FROST: You'll be insisting on that.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Yes of course. We think it's quite justified in terms of current international law. And let me tell you, we have every reason to count on the support of international legal bodies. I must add my partners, both the British Prime Minister and the US President, do not deny that Russian firms have the right to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq. What's more at my last meeting with President Bush, he clearly and openly said that the USA has no intention of squeezing Russian companies out of Iraq. I have no reason to doubt him.

DAVID FROST: Do you, do you think that President Bush and Tony Blair or the coalition - whatever we call them - do you think they will find Saddam Hussein? Catch him?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Perhaps you should ask the Prime Minister and the President.

DAVID FROST: But you know more about intelligence than they do.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) You may be right about that but you and everyone who follows developments in the Middle East know how complex these problems are. I don't believe it's simply a matter of killing or catching somebody and putting them in prison.

DAVID FROST: In terms of the whole area here that we're considering, we've said earlier that the relations between Russia and the US are very good and that indeed Condelica Rice said that thing about we're going to forgive Russia, we're going to ignore Germany and we're going to punish France. Now it's, it's great that your relations are so good again but do you think sometimes it's rather bad luck on France?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) The fundamental basis of Russia's relations with the United States and Great Britain has turned out to be more solid than the difficulties we came up against. We want to be partners with the United States and with any other country. Partnership implies recognising each other's interests but not being subservient to those interests. These are two different things and we say it directly, honestly and frankly to each other. At least I do.

DAVID FROST: There's one thing - we're talking here about - we ought to talk also about, in addition to Iraq, to talk about North Korea and, right now, Iran. The - obviously George Bush originally called those three countries the axis of evil. Now obviously Iraq is not on that list but do you agree with that sentiment, do you still think that North Korea and Iran are part of an axis of evil?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) I said just now that partnership does not mean absolute agreement on every point and we cannot accept such terminology. We agree about the threats we all face in the 21st century and this unites us. The question is how to achieve the common goal of eliminating those threats. As for the terminology involved, we are against compiling black lists. We think that one should fight problems but that problems are not focused exclusively in the countries that you mentioned. If I were to name the main threat of the 21st century I would think that would be the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And here of course, we should be talking not only about North Korea or the Middle East, we should mention south Asia, for instance.

DAVID FROST: In terms of the proliferation, just taking Iran first - and their development of nuclear weapons - as we know, G8 said we will not ignore the proliferation implications of Iran's advanced nuclear programme, we offer our strongest support and comprehensive IA, IAEA examination, and going on into additional protocols and so on, and so we urge Iran to sign, implement an IAEA protocol without delay or condition and so on and so forth. After your conversations with President Khatami do you really think Iran will do that?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Iran is our neighbour and traditional partner. We have a system of relations between our two countries and we do not intend to lose our positions in Iran, we intend to develop our relations with that country. But we have some important concerns and our Iranian partners are aware of those problems. We are against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Iran has signed an agreement on non-proliferation, it has undertaken certain obligations. In our latest conversation President Khatami confirmed that Iran was prepared to join all agreements and to place all its nuclear programmes under control. In that event, certain instruments and mechanisms of control come into operation. They do not depend on our telephone conversations and good personal relations, they depend on IAEA experts. We shall develop our relations on nuclear issues - not only with Iran but with other countries too - depending on how open they are to that established and respected international organisation whose experts we all trust.

DAVID FROST: John Bolton, who is Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, asked whether military action remained an option on Iran, he said "Well it's very, very much far from our minds but it has to be an option. Nuclear weapons are incredibly dangerous and when you couple the Iranian nuclear programme with their aggressive efforts to expand the range of their ballistic missiles, they're bringing more and more of our friends and allies within range." But you don't think the danger is like that?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) We are aware of certain data, some of it received from IAEA circles on the Iranian nuclear energy programme and of course we have certain questions as regards that data. We know that some western European countries closely cooperate with Iran in that sphere and supply it with equipment that is of dual use, to say the least. That is why we shall oppose the use of the nuclear non-proliferation issue as a means of squeezing Russian companies out of the Iranian market.

DAVID FROST: In terms of this situation of weapons of mass destruction, there's been a lot of debate all over the world about which country is the greatest danger between Iran and North Korea. Given what you've said about Iran, do I therefore gather you think of the two that North Korea is the greater worry?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) I have no grounds to believe it's harbouring any aggressive designs. At the same time the situation is very difficult indeed. We think that this problem can be resolved by political and diplomatic means. If North Korea has some concerns over its security, we should simply take those concerns into account and respond to them. It is my firm belief that North Korea needs to be included in the system of international relations. This is a very sensitive issue for Russia because it is developing right on our borders.

DAVID FROST: Tell me, would you - talking of borders - would you be prepared to join an international force to police the Israeli-Palestinian border dispute, if that seems the only way to make progress?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Your questions are getting more and more difficult.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Of course, everything that can contribute to a peaceful settlement must be put to use but it would require thorough consideration.

DAVID FROST: Israel, on occasions, Prime Minister Sharon and so on has talked at various times of expelling Arafat from his homeland or sending him packing from his homeland and so on, but you feel that in fact he's being wrongly ignored, perhaps.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Yes indeed that is what I think. We hear from the Israeli side calls for Arafat to go, I am not sure it will change things for the better. Moreover given that Chairman Arafat is a respected figure in Palestine, and many people are guided by his opinion, I think it would be wrong to ignore it.

DAVID FROST: And you were in the middle of Chechnya when we first met in the early days after the return to Chechnya, when do you think you will be able to withdraw all the Russian troops from Chechnya? That presumably must be your aim.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) As far as Chechnya is concerned the problems that we encountered there stem from a multitude of reasons, including the break up of the Soviet Union. I won't go into a detailed analysis now, though of course I could - it would be a subject for an interview in itself. I think the changes that have taken place in Chechnya recently are quite obvious. As you know, no military operations are being carried out there. It's true that we still come up against terrorist attacks and more and more of these attacks are aimed against the local civilian population. These attacks have been stepped up, especially after the Chechen people took part in the referendum, adopting the constitution of the Chechen Republic, which said that Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation. We do not intend to fully withdraw our troops from there, they will remain there as they do in other parts of the Russian Federation but all responsibility for maintaining peace in Chechnya, all responsibility for ensuring law and order will gradually but steadily and increasingly be handed over to the local law enforcement agencies, and our army will not be involved in any military operations there.

DAVID FROST: In terms of Russia itself, Mr President, there are three organisations that spring to mind. There is the European Union, there is the World Trade Organisation and there is Nato - which of those will you join first, or in what order? Which is closest to happening, joining the EU, joining Nato fully, joining the World Trade Organisation - you've joined the G8, of course?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) I must say we highly appreciate the decision that was taken, I mean the creation of the Russian Nato council and I would like to stress the special part Prime Minister Blair played in those developments. It was his idea that which he expressed right here at my home during one of his visits. He was one of the main driving forces behind putting this idea into practice. So we are happy with the way our relations with Nato are developing and we think they play a significant part in the modern system of international security. As for the European Union, it is our main trade and economic partner. In terms of its geography, history, culture, mentality, Russia is a European country, of course we are counting on and will seek to expand our cooperation with the EU. This aspiration is fully appreciated and supported by all the leading EU countries and the leadership of the European Commission. Of course there are some routine problems and disputes but on all the issues of principle our positions practically coincide. As for the World Trade Organisation, it is not only us that want Russia to join the WTO but our main trade and economic partners as well. I have no doubt whatsoever about that.

DAVID FROST: Back in March 2000, you said these words to me: "Victory is only possible when every citizen of this country feels that the values we offer yield positive changes in their day to day lives. That they are beginning to live better, eat better, feel safer and so on. But in this sense one can say we are still very far from our destination. I think we are still at the start of that road." Three years later, where do you think you are along that road?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Of course I think we are on the right track. I believe the main indicator of development is the rate of economic growth and recently, over the past three years, our economy has been growing by six per cent a year on average - that's not bad for Russia. Previously we had to deal with problems that could hardly be appreciated in western countries. People would not receive either salaries or pensions for six months running. This problem has been practically eliminated, there are some delays in the regions but they are not on the scale that existed before. The salaries and people's incomes have grown significantly, people's bank savings have considerably increased and so have pensions. However this is still not enough because the level of people's incomes remains very low but there is every reason to say the trend is positive.

DAVID FROST: You've got five years, if you win the next election, you've got five years in power, can you fulfil your dreams, your aims in five years, or do you need three terms, or whatever? Can you do it in those five years?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (TRANSLATED) Well, life is a complicated business but what I can be sure of is that by the end of this term in office I will have achieved as much as I promised. As far as the next term is concerned, starting in 2004, we'll have to wait and see. As people here say: a new day is a new dawn.

DAVID FROST: Mr President, thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

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