Putin Defends His 'Democracy'

Criticism Of Bush, Iraq War In Exclusive Interview With <B>Mike Wallace</B>

As president of Russia, Vladimir Putin was the proud and gracious host to more than 50 world leaders who are gathered in Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Putin has twice been elected president of Russia, but is he a dictator or a democrat? Controversy has swirled about him since he became president five years ago.

At the beginning, he was a slum kid from Leningrad who had a dream. He wanted to be an agent of the sinister KGB, and improbably, he did it. He was smart, ambitious, self-disciplined and lucky. Boris Yeltsin plucked him out of virtual anonymity from a local post in Leningrad, and eventually astonished Russia by anointing Putin president.

Last spring, Putin invited to come to Moscow for a rare, unrestricted interview. This report, first broadcast in May, resulted from the interview.
Wallace met with Putin for two hours at his guest house near his home outside Moscow. The Russian leader spends 40 minutes a day driving to and from the Kremlin. A helicopter would be much faster, but his security people will not permit him to fly.

The president has been studying English for five years now, but he preferred to do the seated interview in Russian. Putin remains something of an enigma, so Wallace showed him some old pictures, hoping he would open up about them. He did.

"You were a very serious, young man," says Wallace, showing Putin a photo of when he was around 14.

"Not always," says Putin.

"Oh," says Wallace. "A bad boy from time to time?"

"We lived in a small room, all three of us, in a communal apartment in Leningrad with no private facilities," says Putin. "We didn't even have our own bath or shower. My parents worked a lot, so I spent lots of time in the streets with other teenagers."

Putin and his wife, Ludmilla, have been married for 21 years. They have two daughters, Katya and Masha, who are 19 and 20 now, but the Kremlin does not release current pictures of them for security reasons.

"You didn't want a boy?" asks Wallace.

"I believe that everything is right which God has given us," says Putin.

Is he religious?

"I believe that every person must have some faith within his heart, and this is what is especially important -- your inner world, the condition of your soul," says Putin.

"Is that what brought you and George W. Bush together at the beginning," asks Wallace. "Your feeling about some spirit?"

"Probably so," says Putin.

Unlike Mr. Bush, Putin was reluctant to become president. His reluctance to accept it is apparent in a picture of Yeltsin handing him the reins of power.

"You look as though you're overwhelmed or unhappy or worried," says Wallace, of the picture.

"Definitely, all the thoughts you have mentioned," says Putin. "I had told Yeltsin that I was not prepared, because this, in my view, was a very difficult, very complex fate. And I had never thought about becoming president."

But, in fact, he is a leader who takes charge. "You definitely have to be tough," he says. "Probably, it is more difficult to be patient and to be able to forgive."

"I am told that there are three major TV news channels and that they are controlled by you," says Wallace. "Your people run these news channels and the opposition has no news channels, if there is indeed opposition to you."

"There is opposition to me. It's normal," says Putin. "The opposition has an opportunity to openly express its views and that's what they are doing."

Where?

"Everywhere," says Putin. "Including in the streets, and on radio and television and in newspapers."

This is true, but Putin did not deny that the Kremlin controls the most powerful news broadcasts on the three main television networks. But Putin is a counter-puncher who then pointed to problems between journalists and the government in the United States: "Haven't we seen resignations of leading American journalists from the national media due to their positions on Iraq?"

"What are you saying, Mr. President?" asks Wallace. "Journalists resigning because what?"

"Don't you know that some of the American journalists were fired because of their positions on Iraq or the presidential election campaign?" says Putin.

"Were you talking about Dan Rather, at CBS News?" asks Wallace.

"Yes, exactly," says Putin, who apparently believed that Rather's resignation as anchor of the CBS Evening News meant that he had been fired from CBS.

"On our TV screens, we saw him resigning," says Putin. "We understood that he was forced to resign by his bosses at CBS. This is a problem of your democracy, not ours."

"He has not resigned," says Wallace. "He continues to work as a matter of fact on 60 Minutes."
  • Rebecca Leung

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